For my generation, clickbait. For the younglings, it’s “Who’s MacArthur”?
Douglas MacArthur was, in the words of an admiring biographer, “the American Caesar”, the brilliant military commander who won the Pacific War (the Japanese end of World War II), ruled postwar Japan with a sure imperial hand from 1945 to 1951, and orchestrated the 1950 Inchon landing master-stroke that turned the tide in the Korean War.
MacArthur was also notoriously vain, vainglorious, manipulative, insubordinate, and ambitious. Truman relieved him of his command in Korea in 1951 for coloring outside the lines and wanting to take the war up to the PRC border and possibly beyond. Back home, MacArthur had ambitions of becoming president of the United States but found the road cut off by another triumphant general, Dwight Eisenhower and, in his own words, MacArthur “never died; he just faded away”.
So, that’s MacArthur.
My thoughts turned to MacArthur because of two books. While prepping for a clutch of pieces I wrote on Charles Pellegrino’s account of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, To Hell and Back, I spent some time slogging through the Japan atomic bombs denialist/revisionist fever swamp. At the same time, I was also rereading Sterling and Peggy Seagrave’s 2003 classic of Asian conspiracy theory, paranoia, and fact, Gold Warriors.
“Denialists” is my personal terminology for people who deny that the atomic bombings were in any way unjustified or unnecessary; “revisionists” is a widely accepted term for people who assert the opposite. To further complicate matters, “revisionists” come in lefty anti-US imperialist and righty anti-Communist flavors.
I don’t know how to classify my position in the denialist/revisionist debate. Put me down as “humanitarian”, I guess: the bombings were inhumane, disproportionate, and useful but not indispensable in ending the war. In the pure, legal sense, they skate pretty close to acts of terrorism as the U.S. Code defines them today: assaults on soft, primarily civilian targets with minor military value (the US Army Air Force had refrained from bombing Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and two other locations at the direction of the Manhattan Project Target Committee so the power of the atomic weapon could be demonstrated on relatively undamaged cities) with the primary objective of terrifying and demoralizing the target population and government as much as possible.
Or as the Code puts it, “terrorism” involves crimes that:
Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.
A major preoccupation of denialists is parsing and dismissing the indications that the Japanese government was seriously attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting as early as 1944 when it was clear that the Japanese imperial project was going nowhere, indeed going backwards at an accelerating rate.
This state of affairs was brought to my attention by a civil yet heated dustup on my Twitter timeline concerning the relative merits of analyses of the role of the atomic bomb in the Japanese surrender offered by denialist Richard Frank in his 1999 book Downfall (hadda drop ‘em!) and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s 2005 neo-revisionist Racing the Enemy (Colonel Mustard with a candlestick in the library!, I mean, Soviet declaration of war against Japan and advance toward Manchuria).
By 1945, Japan was getting its ass kicked, the overseas empire was disintegrating, the home islands were going to get bombed to flinders to soften them up for invasion, occupation and a round of war crimes trials & executions by the bloodied and vengeful U.S. conqueror.
Plenty of incentive for the Japanese elite to cut a deal, in other words.
One of many flash points for contesting the sincerity and capacity of the Japanese “peace faction” in negotiating a surrender with the United States (and justifying the use of the atomic bombs) for denialists is questioning the authenticity and value of what one might call the “MacArthur memo”, allegedly a 40-page summary of as many as five seemingly viable Japanese peace initiatives transmitted through various third-party channels, prepared by MacArthur and presented to Roosevelt in January 1945, just before the president left for Yalta.
The existence of this memo was reported almost immediately after the surrender in 1945 by Arthur Trohan, who covered Washington during the FDR years in an adversarial way for the isolationist, anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune.
The text is preserved and enthusiastically glossed on a revisionist/holocaust denial website, IHR. Apologies! Trohan, under the headline Japs asked for peace in Jan. Envoys on way – Tokyo; Roosevelt Ignored M’Arthur Reports on Nip Proposals wrote in August 1945:
President Roosevelt dismissed the general’s communication, which was studded with solemn references to the deity, after a casual reading with the remark, “MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician.”
The MacArthur report was not even taken to Yalta. However, it was carefully preserved in the files of the high command and subsequently became the basis of the Truman-Attlee Potsdam declaration calling for surrender of Japan.
Now that peace has been concluded on the basis of the terms MacArthur reported, high administration officials prepared to meet expected congressional demands for explanation of the delay. It was considered certain that from various quarters of Congress charges would be hurled that the delay cost thousands of American lives and casualties, particularly in such costly offensives as Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
According to Trohan, “The Terms [outlined in the MacArthur memo] were identical with those subsequently concluded by Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman” i.e. we could have already gotten the same deal in January 1945 that we eventually got in August 1945 after kayaking the four final cataracts of corpses: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.
In Trohan’s twenty-year anniversary retrospective, he advanced the argument that responding to the Japanese overtures would not only have averted the butchery of the final island battles and the atomic bombings; it would have kept the Soviet Union in its place, both by pre-empting the Soviet declaration of war against Japan that triggered the Red Army advance in Manchuria, and by enabling a transfer of U.S. troops into the ETO so the U.S. could have made a better show of it in the struggle to control post-war Europe.
Or, as the subhead in Trohan’s 1965 piece put it, Earlier V-J Day Might Have Kept Russians Out of Berlin and Averted Cold War.
That’s probably what MacArthur felt, and members of his large and influential military and political coterie. Reading Trohan’s pieces, you get the clear picture that the story was leaked to him by people in tune with MacArthur’s views. It should be said that MacArthur’s disdain for the significance of the atomic bombings is legendary; in fact, he is the grandpappy of the right-wing revisionists.
On one level, MacArthur’s grumbling is part of the right-wing revisionist narrative: that Roosevelt was a tool of USSR-adoring comsymps who obsessed about defeating Japan and unnecessarily prolonging the war so Uncle Joe could glom onto more of Europe and Asia, instead of winding down the Pacific struggle quick, clean, and early on in anticipation of utilizing Japan as an asset in the real war–the upcoming Cold War with the Soviet Union and world communism.
On a second, more disturbing level, one gets a hint that MacArthur felt that Roosevelt and his strategists brought about seven months of unnecessary slaughter by persisting in the military campaign instead of negotiating an end to the war in early 1945.
So when Truman’s team was hyping the indispensable, unavoidable A-bomb, MacArthur’s team leaked the story to Trohan that the bombs were totally unnecessary.
There you have the right-wing revisionist case in a nutshell.
Too bad, the existence of the MacArthur memo can’t be confirmed.
Trohan describes in 1965 how in 1953 Herbert Hoover “asked MacArthur for a copy of the original. MacArthur verified the story” i.e. the existence of the memo…but to the delight of conspiracy theorists everywhere, MacArthur said he didn’t have a copy since he had sent his papers to the DoD where, per Trohan, the memo “was lost or removed from the files.”
Understandably, interest in the purported MacArthur memo drives the denialists crazybananas.
I will now provide an extra helping of crazybananas as part of my effort to make the Internet more interesting: the suggestion that MacArthur’s inclinations in favor of a negotiated peace that found expression in the 40-page memo were colored by Japanese gold as well as more world-historical concerns like nobbling the Soviets, saving Americans lives, and keeping the atomic genie in its bottle.
That’s what comes of reading the Seagraves’ Gold Warriors. Gold Warriors is an absolutely gonzo tale of thousands of tons of gold and treasure systematically looted by the Japanese imperial family in parallel with the Japanese military advance into East Asia, shipped to imperial vaults in Japan and, when transport to the home islands became too risky, hidden in 175 underground caverns in the Philippines. It’s sensational popular history, but with a couple CD’s worth of documentation; to provide some scholarly cred, Chalmers Johnson reviewed the book favorably with some caveats over at the LRB.
According to the Seagraves, MacArthur became aware of the existence of these troves in late 1945, while interrogating the erstwhile commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, General Yamashita, and seized the gold on behalf of the United States. The Philippine stash, combined with hidden treasure acquired after the fall of Japan, served as a massive off-the-books slush fund exploited by MacArthur and U.S. strategists for decades afterwards to secure the rule of pro-US/anti-Communist conservatives in Japan and engage in skullduggery worldwide.
Here’s my serving of alternate history:
The reliance of MacArthur and, particularly, his intelligence czar, Charles Willoughby, during the occupation of Japan after World War II on Japanese right-wing military and civilian officials, spooks, and gangsters, well, the total, obscene symbiosis between parasite and host, is notorious and pretty well documented.
What if the cooperation with MacArthur began before the surrender, when the Japanese East Asia project was clearly foundering, rats were preparing to leave the ship, and the imperial family had to secure its future?
In my alternate universe, Japanese agents reach out to MacArthur clandestinely in 1944 to negotiate an early, more favorable conclusion to the war and an easy, low-friction occupation, more like a trusteeship. They increase the attractiveness of the initiative by offering a game-changer: the prospect that MacArthur might have unrestricted and unaccountable access to enormous financial resources– the wealth plundered from East Asia– for the use of the American Caesar as his discretion to properly order the peace in Asia…and keep the Soviet Union in check, a joint obsession of Japanese conservatives and MacArthur.
It’s not an issue of bribing MacArthur, in other words; it’s offering him a throne of pure gold as imperator reigning over Asia (discretely assisted by a grateful Japanese elite), as an alternative to ruling Japan from a palace of corpses built by an apocalyptic battle for the home islands and endlessly enlarged by a bitter, region-wide insurgency driven by Japanese military dead-enders and local anti-colonialists.
Wouldn’t be easy to resist, would it?
In my legend, MacArthur finds the offer attractive. And he supports the peace path by writing his 40-page memo to Roosevelt.
Roosevelt summarily dismisses the memo. Maybe Roosevelt is in thrall to his advisors and a strategy of conquest and unconditional surrender premised on total military victory. Maybe he knows about the peace proposals already, resents MacArthur’s presumption, and wants him to butt out of diplomacy and stick to soldiering.
Or maybe Roosevelt knows, through Magic intercepts or some other intel, that MacArthur is playing footsie with the Japanese. And he finds the idea of MacArthur conducting an independent foreign policy with the enemy intolerable and borderline treasonous.
So Roosevelt goes to Yalta and pre-empts the MacArthur route by publicly demanding unconditional surrender with no allowance for retention of the emperor, pushes the maximalist military strategy leading up to invasion of the home islands and, as insurance against footdragging by MacArthur, solicits the USSR’s entry into the Pacific War.
When the end comes, it’s not through a peace negotiated by MacArthur; it’s through a post-bomb public capitulation by the Emperor delivered via radio as the Soviets are poised to sweep into Asia.
In the end, Japan gets half a loaf. Or maybe 90%. Okinawa, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki are devastated, half a million Japanese citizens die, and the USSR occupies the northern islands. But the ruling Japanese elite gets MacArthur, retention of the imperial family, and a seamless restoration of conservative Japanese rule facilitated by the captured gold MacArthur is willing to place at its service.
Outrageous? Yes. But impossible?
That’s a real Time Magazine cover, by the way. May 9, 1949. The caption reads “MacArthur of Japan: A decision for the next 1000 years”.