Column No. 30 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH - September 16, 2004

As I noted at the beginning of my recent column about “Lessons from Japan,” I recently was fortunate enough to spend a three-week vacation in that country.  Even more fortunately for me, it was my second visit.  My first was in 1971, in the company of my father who, among many other things, taught Asian history with a special interest in Japan.  While my Dad’s focus was more on the cultural history of the country, mine was always on the political, about which I have read on and off over the years.  For this trip, I renewed my acquaintance with Japanese history by reading Traveller’s History of Japan, 3rd edition, by Richard Tames, who among other things is the former head of External Services at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (New York: Interlink Books, 2002).

Bush’s War on Iraq, the reasons he gave for entering into it and the experience to date of the American occupation of that country brought to my mind some lessons of history that may be of interest and use.  They are found in a series of events that eventually lead to Japan’s involvement in World War II and then followed upon her defeat and subsequent occupation by the United Sates. These lessons might be called “When the Given Reasons for Going to War are Not the Real Ones” and “How to Run a Successful Occupation.” The previous column (9/2/04) dealt with the first; this one deals with the second.

As is well known, the War in the Pacific was brought to a sudden end in August 1945.  The “official” U.S. view of the suddenness with which it occurred is that the outcome was the result of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Many authorities disagree with this interpretation, however.  I happen to hold a contrary view, too. On my recent visit, much to my amazement I discovered, at the Nagasaki Peace Museum, that no less an authority on war than Dwight D. Eisenhower also took this position.

Why would one think that even without the atomic bombings the war would have ended very shortly?  The answers to that question can help us to understand why the U.S. occupation of Japan was successful (and that of Iraq is unlikely to be). In the summer of 1945, Japan had no more than six months of petroleum reserves on hand.  There was no way to import more.  As well, imports both of the raw materials necessary for the production of weapons and of food had virtually come to a halt.  For the American submarine campaign against Japanese surface shipping in the Western Pacific had been far more ferocious and far more successful than the best that the German U-boats had been able to throw at the British and American convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic. Getting through the U.S. naval blockade was only the occasional Japanese submarine.

The Okinawa campaign had ended in disaster for the Japanese defenders (to say nothing of the civilian population of Okinawa).  Most of Japan’s major cities had been flattened before the atomic bombings.  Curtis LeMay’s three-day firebomb raid of Tokyo in March, 1945, has been estimated to have killed more Japanese civilians than did the combined atomic bombings, and it virtually been burned to the ground a city in which most dwellings were constructed of wood and paper.  A peace faction was active in both in the Imperial Palace and in the Japanese government.  Negotiations were being sought with the U.S. to end the war, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration demanding unconditional surrender, with one exception asked for by the Japanese: that the institution of the Emperor be allowed to remain in existence and the person of the then-present Emperor be allowed to remain in place.

This column is not about whether the atomic bombings were justified or what Truman’s real reasons were for approving them.  The point is that, with or without them, Japan was already thoroughly defeated. On August 15, 1945, the Head of State, the Emperor, over the radio, announced that fact to the population (which had never before heard the voice of any Emperor), there was a formal surrender on the after deck of the battleship Missouri in the Tokyo Bay, on September 2, 1945, and the Japanese war government was immediately disbanded.  In its place was substituted the person of General Douglas MacArthur, who with his staff entered Tokyo entirely peacefully.

MacArthur’s principal political task, after making sure that the peace was secure, was not to institute a needed democracy in Japan for the first time; Japan had had something of a democratic tradition going back to the Constitution of 1889, which established a constitutional monarchy. MacArthur’s political task was, rather, to restore, strengthen and broaden democracy in Japan.  His principal economic task was to get the Japanese economy, already well industrialized before the war, back on its feet.  His principal diplomatic task was to make sure that Japan would be part, even if not militarily, of the Western alliance against the Soviet Union.  These were all clear, and achievable, tasks.

On all of these fronts, MacArthur had nothing but cooperation from the Japanese.  There was no armed resistance to the American occupation.  The formal surrender, the pronouncements of the Emperor, and the immediate arrests of the top military leaders made sure of that.  Japan had a well-developed government bureaucracy.  Many of its members were delighted that the military was out of the way and that they could get back to doing what they knew how to do: run a country that had undergone remarkable economic development following the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

As long as the office of the Emperor was secure, and the Americans announced that while the Emperor was no longer to be considered divine as he had been ever since the office had been established in the mists of time 2500 years before, both the office and his person were to remain intact and in place as at the end the Japanese side had requested, the Emperor was on MacArthur’s side.  In fact, on New Year’s Day, 1946, the Emperor issued a “rescript” denying his own divinity, denying that the Japanese were superior people fated to rule the world (which had been the mantra of militarists), and setting forth as the national goals the maintenance of peace, the further development of the rich cultural history of Japan, and the achievement of economic advancement.

There were three main elements of the “Japanese miracle” that followed.  First, was the new Constitution, written by the Americans and accepted by the Japanese, which, among other things, established a long list of personal rights, equal rights for women, a reasonably democratic electoral system, and a guarantee of no military establishment.  Second was the fact that, while the Japanese industrialists had had much of their productive capacity destroyed and had lost their cheap labor pools and access to raw materials in China and Southeast Asia, they still had ample capital and an ample supply of labor in Japan.

The mystery of where this capital came from has never been fully revealed.  There was no American Marshall Plan for Japan.  It has long been rumored that in the process of repatriating the 6,000,000 Japanese nationals then living in the Japanese colonial empire, large amounts of looted gold were brought with them.  But wherever it came from, the Japanese industrialists had it.  Third was the onset of the Korean War, for which Japan became the main staging area and main supplier of non-military goods and services, which gave an enormous boost to the recovering Japanese economy.  And the rest, as they say, is history: a most successful occupation, as least for the country that was occupied.

Now, compare and contrast that with the Iraqi Occupation. In Iraq, there was an apparent military victory, but there was no formal surrender by the formerly sitting government.  The former Head of State was not only not left in place with a moderate change of status, but was arrested as a war criminal, as were almost all of his top officials and associates.  His sons were killed.  Both the army and the civilian bureaucracy were disbanded. There was clearly no advance planning for how to set up a new civilian government, and there was certainly no model within the country of what the Americans wanted to see instituted.

While to this day Japan has one of the most homogeneous populations of any country on Earth, Iraq, an artificial creation of early 20th-century British colonial policy, has major religious and ethnic divides.  The four Main Islands Japan had been under a unified government since the beginning of the 17th century.  The only experience the territories that comprise Iraq have had with unified government was under the British, an imported king, and a brutal dictator.

In the case of Japan, defeat came first, democratization second, on a clear and open agenda.  There were no hidden American plans for Japan.  In the case of Iraq, of course, the reasons given for going to war in the first place, WMD and connections with al-Qaeda, were quickly shown to be entirely spurious.  The substitute reason, democratization, was from the beginning considered by many Iraqis, even anti-Husseinites, to be spurious.

From the beginning, the real American reasons were thought to be, by many both within and outside of Iraq, oil, power, permanent military bases, and the protection of the Right-Wing Sharonist government in Israel. On top of that, there was the Bremer Plan for the complete economic subjugation of Iraq.  Except for the establishment of military bases, which the demilitarized Japanese were perfectly happy to have on their soil, there were no parallels from this list in the case of Japan.  Like Japan’s was, the Iraqi infrastructure is a mess, but an abundant supply of domestic capital for its reconstruction or for building/rebuilding anything else is nonexistent.  Furthermore, there is constant sabotage aimed at what infrastructure reconstruction is going on, something never in the Japanese experience.  For these reasons and others, there has been an increasing level of armed resistance to the American occupation of Iraq since it began, not at all the case in Japan.

There are many other factors that one could discuss; none of them similarities.  The point here is that the American occupation of Japan worked, both for the U.S. and for Japan.  Although in historical terms we are much too close to the day of “Mission [Not] Accomplished” to be certain of ultimate failure in Iraq, when one looks at the contrasts with how the occupation of Japan was achieved and carried out and what is happening under the American occupation of Iraq, it is highly unlikely that the current American strategy has even the slightest hope for success, either for ourselves or for the Iraqi people.

Junkie:  Dr. Jonas’ article was authored on September 9, 2004 for publication today.  Yesterday, this article, Arab League condemns terrorism in Iraq, pledges to support Baghdad.

The Arab League makes a number of points that support Dr. Jonas’ conclusions:

The Arab League condemned terrorism in Iraq and called on member states to restore full diplomatic relations with the interim government in Baghdad and do all they can to support it, after warning that the "gates of hell" had been opened there. . . .

The ministers also censured the US-led multinational force in Iraq for carrying out operations that endanger innocent lives. . . .

They also "strongly condemned the inhuman and immoral crimes and practices committed by occupation soldiers against Iraqis, especially in prisons and detention centers," saying they represented "a flagrant violation of human rights and international charters and treaties."  . . .

It "reaffirmed the importance of Arab presence in Iraq, including restoring diplomatic relations with Iraq at its normal level in support of efforts being exerted by the interim Iraqi government in this field."  . . .

It urged "the Arab League, in cooperation and coordination with the United Nations, to provide all forms of assistance to Iraq in the different fields, especially in the political process and reconstruction in Iraq." – Yahoo (emphasis added).

Had only Bush read his history!