A young person accepts as true or plausible whatever the teacher or a leader says or does. Critical thinking requires maturity.
In pondering my recollections of World War II in 1945, I reconsidered a familiar piece of history; and after some reflection, it puzzles me why I wasn’t outraged at that time.
Students of history probably are familiar with the remarkable picture of Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur and Japanese emperor Hirohito standing side by side in September 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese the month before. It still is etched in my mind that the emperor was to MacArthur’s left. The casually dressed open collared MacArthur towered over the pint-sized formally attired Hirohito, who stood stiffly by his side.
During the war I always was drawing fighter planes and snarly looking Japanese and helmeted German soldiers with venomous spittle coming out of their mouths and armed with bayonets. We all had heard the stories of Japanese brutality, and then there was the countless number of gold stars in our neighborhood. In my mind the Japanese were barbarians. All of us teenagers knew of both the emperor and General Hideki Tojo, the latter being the face of Japan who already was infamous for his atrocities after the invasion of China in 1937. Everyone thought they both quickly would be executed after the war. (Tojo was hanged in 1948.)
MacArthur was a brilliant military politician and strategist who knew he needed Hirohito to run a smooth occupation of Japan. After all, the emperor still was considered a god by his people. Only he – not MacArthur – could keep Japan unified.
If the Japanese saw a photograph of their emperor standing next to his conqueror, they would get the picture. Hirohito already had broadcast to his people that, in essence, Japan had surrendered. (If for no other reason it was a stunning moment for the Japanese who never before had heard his voice.)
The implicit deal MacArthur made with the emperor was that if he helped him make a peaceful transition, he would make sure Hirohito wasn’t tried as a war criminal.
We didn’t understand the politics behind this. The alternative would have been an occupation force of a million troops in a country that would have had countless numbers of resistance fighters and social unrest not unlike what the world is witnessing now in the Middle East. The Japanese willingly would die for their emperor. They practically invented combat suicide – only they didn’t use a suicide vest. It could have been brutal.
This snippet of history should be a teaching moment for our president. MacArthur benefitted from a united Japan; just as we Americans today could benefit from a “united states.” The occupation would have been a disaster with a radicalized defeated Japan. MacArthur amazingly did not even need to install a military government. The Japanese government functioned right down to the local level.
Rather than being imperial and dictating by “executive” orders, MacArthur and his staff stayed in the background, allowing the Japanese government to function as usual. He did not criticize; he enabled – a message for our president.
It seemed strange at first. To say the Americans and Japanese had been bitter enemies during WW II would be an understatement. MacArthur and the emperor transitioned from being bitter enemies with a common mission to kill, to a common goal of cooperation. MacArthur managed to do with former enemies what our government cannot do today in the United States. A day doesn’t go by without President Obama chastising conservative groups or Republicans.
One of the few advantages of aging is having lived through history. Let’s not kid ourselves; politics always has been a blood sport. (The big city bosses come to mind.) But at a certain level of government the public face of any leader has to be that of a unifier. Even MacArthur knew that; so he used Hirohito as his surrogate to unify the country.
This president never has accepted that role. Those Americans who lived through much of the 20th century haven’t quite seen anything like this. His ideology compels him to campaign nonstop, playing to his far left base, even though he is a lame duck. His dismissive rhetoric – “So sue me” – hardly could be said to be an invitation to frustrated lawmakers – even some Democrats – to sit down and reason together. Early in his presidency, through quiet personal negotiations – or back door efforts through surrogates – he could have tried some diplomacy. Instead he has said that he intends to rule by executive order.
MacArthur didn’t make that mistake, and Japan was our enemy!
Go back in more recent history. Dwight Eisenhower governed as a gentleman. Adlai Stevenson – form whom I voted – campaigned on the issues – no invectives. Hubert Humphrey’s nickname, the “Happy Warrior,” speaks volumes about the man and the character of the Democratic Party back then. Historians suggest he lost the election because of the Chicago riots in 1968 during the Democratic Chicago convention.
This was at the apex of the counterculture revolution, an anti-establishment movement that is still alive and well today on the left. It is difficult to sort through all the facts of the 1960s because the counterculture revolution with its hippies, the sexual revolution, drugs and feminism was coupled with social tension over the Vietnam War which escalated in the 1960s, and with America coming of age with the long overdue Civil rights movement.
Until 2008, no president governed as a populist bent on fomenting internecine warfare and disunity among Americans.
MacArthur fortunately had, and wisely used, Hirohito as a front man to keep Japan pacified and unified.
In America that responsibility rests with our president.
John Reiniers is a retired attorney and regular contributor who lives in Spring Hill. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.