August 30, 2007
The speech George Bush delivered to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo., last week was surely the most intriguing one of his presidency. It is actually thought-provoking - something extremely rare from any contemporary politician - though I’m not sure he intended it to be. In it, he turns to history to buttress his position on terrorism in general and Iraq and Afghanistan in particular — this from a man who, aside from the tired Munich/appeasement cliché applied by everyone to any confrontation deemed non-negotiable, has demonstrated no prior regard for history other than the history he is making for himself.
The speech is so uncharacteristic that you have to wonder who got his ear, who wrote it for him. Whoever it was, we should be grateful. It is still pure, unnuanced Bush, but with consciousness expanded. His understanding of the American dynamic in post-war Japan, in Korea, and even in Vietnam — a subject he’s heretofore denied as an analogy to his own adventures in Iraq — now provide us with a broader perspective on his worldview, self-image, and sense of destiny.
After his introductory remarks, in which he proudly declares that "I stand before you as a wartime President" engaged in "a struggle for civilization," he initiates his thesis with "a story that begins on a sunny morning, when thousands of Americans were murdered in a surprise attack" by an enemy that "despises freedom" and "turns to a strategy of surprise attacks destined to create so much carnage that the American people will tire of the violence and give up the fight.
"If this story sounds familiar," he continues, "it is — except for one thing": The enemy he means is not Al Qaeda (or Saddam Hussein, whom he neglects to mention) but Imperial Japan. The attack is not 9/11 but Pearl Harbor, and the ultimate result of the American response to it was a Japan transformed from a totalitarian state into a Western-style democracy that "has brought peace and prosperity to its people" and "helped jump-start the economies of others in the region."
How did this transformation occur? Bush does not say. What he does say, with copious citations, is that critics both inside and outside the Truman administration believed "Japanese culture was inherently incompatible with democracy," and that "Americans were imposing their ideals on the Japanese," especially in regard to women’s suffrage and freedom of religion.
"You know," he wryly concludes with one eye to the Congress and the other to the academy, "the experts sometimes get it wrong."
Typically, he lets his implicit comparison between the American occupation of Japan and the American occupation of Iraq dangle in the air, presuming them self-evident, without need for further thought. But such allusions should send every citizen to the history books or their on-line equivalents, seeking either to confirm his assertions or call his bluff.
My own brief research into post-war Japan brought up the following. Check it against U.S. policy in post-war (i.e., after the toppling of the Hussein regime in May, 2003) Iraq.
When the United States occupied Japan in the fall of 1945, complete control over the society was placed under General of the Army Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. Immediately, what was left of the Japanese military was demobilized and all war equipment was seized and destroyed. Conspicuous war criminals were tried by military tribunals, but all governmental structures and most of their personnel were left in place. Then the reconstruction began.
Bush is right that the prevailing strategy of the Truman administration for the rebuilding of defeated Japan was to actively shape it into a Western-style democracy. The plan was headily ambitious: The entire culture was targeted for transformation, from top to bottom.
From the start, political parties cooperative with the occupation’s goals were allowed to emerge, and the first free elections were held in April of 1946, eight months after the surrender. Later that year, an American-drafted constitution was adopted by the interim Japanese government. It relegated the Emperor’s once all-powerful role to a "symbol of the unity of the state," disestablished Shinto as the state religion and guaranteed the other freedoms and legal safeguards of the U.S. Bill of Rights, decentralized the government, and officially abolished the military, making Japan a pacifist state.
In addition, social programs modeled on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were set in place: The huge landed estates were redistributed among the tenant farmers, the largest corporations and financial institutions were broken up, laws regulating labor practices were enacted, and a social security system was established. Further, rigid traditional family structures were tempered by laws guaranteeing the rights of wives and grown children. Most especially, the educational system was completely "de-ideologized" to encourage historical objectivity and a respect for human rights and democratic government.
The American command implemented these goals indirectly. On every level of government, American advisors, both military and civilian, communicated the command’s directives as "suggestions" to the Japanese officials with whom they closely worked, and who through fear or deference eagerly carried them out.
Despite the reach of this enterprise, there was little opposition. Perhaps the Japanese people, after centuries of imperial rule, were culturally conditioned to respect and accept authority. Perhaps, as Bush believes, they responded to "the universal appeal of liberty." In any case, they seemed to see something in the Americans and their policies that they liked.
In September of 1951, six years after the surrender, the United States relinquished control and returned full sovereignty to a Japan that was adjusting to its new identity and poised for prosperity.
Bush, we see from his speech, takes Japan’s revitalization as one of his models for the future Iraq and Afghanistan, if only he were allowed to "finish the job."
But what job is that? There may have been parallels to Japan when the totalitarian regimes of the Taliban and Saddam were overthrown, but Truman and MacArthur did not allow Japan to dissolve into chaos in the name of self-determination. Now there may be no parallels at all.