December 7, 1941: A survivor of the attack on the battleship West Virginia is pulled aboard a rescue craft. Amazingly, West Virgina was raised, refitted and would later take part in operations against Japan.
Seventy years ago today, Captain Fuchida Mitsuo of the Imperial Japanese Navy uttered the immortal phrase that dragged the United States, the world's most powerful nation then not at war, into the global conflict now known simply as "World War II". "Tora, Tora Tora," Fuchida signaled, indicating that total surprise had been achieved. Over the course of the next two hours Fuchida and his subordinates would realize one of the greatest and most successful coups de main in the history of warfare.
The event, like perhaps nothing before in our history, captured the collective imagination of the American people. Like all such events it would in turn become captive to that imagination.
It would become a symbol of as many different causes as could be imagined and the champions of all of those causes would exhort us to "Remember Pearl Harbor."
Conspiracy nuts, John Birchers, anti-Japanese racists, advocates of military preparedness, internationalists, and anti-New Dealers, all exhorted us to "Remember Pearl Harbor," all supremely confident that others would project onto the event the same obvious significance they did.
However, it's most enduring legacy was as a battle cry to seek revenge against a treacherous foe.
World War II era propaganda poster
Remembering (and Avenging) Pearl Harbor
From that point on, Americans would ever more be admonished to "Remember Pearl Harbor."
When news of the attack's success reached Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, principal architect of the attack, he did not share in his subordinates' euphoria. Instead, he soberly reflected that he feared that all they had succeeded in doing was to wake a sleeping giant. A month after the attack, he admonished a friend:
A military man can scarcely pride himself on having 'smitten a sleeping enemy'; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.The counterattack (save one raid, perhaps most charitably described as "the harebrained scheme of an inveterate thrill seeker") would not begin in earnest for almost another eight months, but when it came it was furious, overwhelming, relentless, merciless and filled with a spirit of bloodthirsty vengeance. By the time America got its economy running and dedicated to the unholy science of warfare, the science of premeditated violence, of using diabolical cunning with malice aforethought to snuff out the sacred and divine gift of human life in order to achieve profane political objectives, it would carry out that violence on an industrial scale and with wanton promiscuity.
A spirit of vengeance, of "Remembering Pearl Harbor" would guide them all the way.
At least part of the reason for this was the way in which the attack was prosecuted. At the time Captain Fuchida's planes began their runs the United States and Japan were not only technically still at peace, they were technically still involved in negotiations to resolve their differences. This was, partly, an oversight. Admiral Yamamoto had insisted that the talks be formally broken off before the attack began, and the Foreign Ministry had given its agents in Washington a deadline that would have barely accomplished this. However, due to a lack of competent secretarial staff at Japan's embassy in the United States, that declaration was not prepared. This objection, however is somewhat superfluous. At the time the message was due to be delivered, Japanese planes had already sortied and could not be recalled. Hostile operations had already commenced. Moreover, Japanese forces in Southeast Asia had begun their operations hours earlier. Finally, the message that Ambassadors Kurusu and Nomura had been instructed to deliver was not a declaration of war. It was simply a notification that the Japanese government did not intend to continue negotiation. The formal declaration of war would not be delivered until the following day, when it was presented unceremoniously to Joseph Grew, the American ambassador to Tokyo. The other powers Japan attacked were never officially notified. Japan's attack was intended to be, and in effect was, a surprise attack.
The long and short of this is that President Roosevelt was substantially correct in all the particulars when he declared in his famous "Day of Infamy" address:
The United States was at peace with that [Japan], and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
In this famous photograph from Life Magazine, Japanese Ambassadors Kurusu Saburo (left) and Nomura Kichisaburo wait outside Secretary of State Cordell Hull's office, preparing to deliver the message that Japan was breaking off negotiations. The Pearl Harbor attack had already commenced though neither man knew it. For many Americans Kurusu and Nomura would thenceforth symbolize the sneering faces of Japanese militarism. The impression was unfair. Both men were genuinely pro-American. Kurusu, who would lose a son in the war, was married to an American. Both he and Nomura had both performed their duties in good faith. The same could not be said of the Tokyo government.
Diplomatic niceties, however, could only go so far toward explaining the rage that would guide America in its prosecution of the war. Another reason that simply can't be overlooked was the fact that the stunning success of the attack overthrew cherished conceits of racial superiority that many Americans had long held toward Japanese. The country had been gearing up for war, but most considered the principal foe to be Germany. Japanese weren't considered to be any real threat. From top to bottom Americans and their allies were filled with racist contempt.
Political Cartoon By Dr. Seuss expressing the contempt most Americans felt toward Japan's military capacity. The Japanese fleet had sortied two days before this cartoon appeared. As Americans were to discover, they were packing a good deal more than pie when they did.
Three days before the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox declared "We're all ready for them . . . It won't take too long. Say about a six months war." When asked years later about why he had not taken more preventative steps given the signs of tension Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who commanded the Naval forces responded with some exasperation, "I never thought those little yellow sons-of-bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan." The Japanese, whatever their martial bent, were viewed as pedestrian and incompetent. Many Americans shared the view of the unidentified British naval officer of the warship Repulse, who commented the day before that ship met its fate at the hands of Japanese naval aviators, that "[t]hose Japs can't fly."
Photo from the 1941 Army-Navy Game Program: It wasn't just Kimmel that regarded not only Japanese, but all naval aviation as, at best secondary. The caption reads "A bow view of the USS Arizona as she plows into a huge swell. It is significant that despite the claims of air enthusiasts, no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs." Eight days later Japanese naval aviators would make this claim obsolete, sinking the Arizona with a bomb that struck her ammunition magazine at 8:06 am local time on Dec. 7, 1941.
To make matters worse for American and their wounded pride, the armed forces of Imperial Japan soon proved that Pearl Harbor was no fluke. In the following months Japan scored victories at Wake Island, Singapore, Burma, Bataan, Corregidor and elsewhere. Whole Allied armies were captured, sometimes by forces inferior in number, and there seemed no let up from the onslaught.
French writer Pierre Boulle, who grew up in Southeast Asia and was caught up in the Japanese juggernaut captured the sick feelings of those who see their presumed superiority overthrown in his novel, Planet of the Apes, when he described Ulysse, his protagonist, fleeing with a group of humans before an ape hunting party:
There I was, overwhelmed by a ridiculous scruple. Should I, a man, really resort to such tricks to get the better of an ape? Surely the only behavior worthy of my condition was to rise to my feet, advance on the animal and give it a good beating. The ever-increasing hullabaloo behind me reduced this mad inclination to nought.In the opening months of the war many Westerners, like Ulysse, found themselves shamed at their incapacity to assert themselves and their superiority. Through the months of humiliation their resentment grew until, finally, the tide of war turned against their tormentors. When it did, racial resentment was all the stronger.
That resentment and far less subtle forms of racism permeated the war effort from the privates right up to their commander-in-chief, in ways that it did not in other theaters (though there was plenty of it there as well). Marines, soldiers and sailors rarely took prisoners. Often they shot unarmed soldiers who were beyond resistance and occasionally did so even to civilians. They cut the gold fillings from battlefield casualties, collected their ears as trophies attesting to their martial prowess and carved ornaments from their bones. Racial stereotypes were a staple of propaganda. Even the lovable Dr. Seuss, whose other cartoons championed liberal values and attacked specific figures in other fascist regimes presented both Japanese and Japanese-Americans as despicable, traitorous subhumans, all of a kind with no personal distinctions between them.
Dr. Seuss cartoon urging the purchase of war bonds
Many Americans seemed not to see the Japanese as human at all. Admiral William "Bull" Halsey once described his understanding of his job as "Kill Japs, Kill Japs, and Kill more Japs." He also once boasted, "When this war is over, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell." While Halsey was extreme in the degree to which he gave voice to such sentiments, they were widely shared--even by those from upright and supposedly liberal backgrounds. One advisor to the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (the precursor to today's NSC) suggested the annihilation of the Japanese as a race. Elliot Roosevelt, the President's son once asserted, in all apparent earnest that he would like to see the war prosecuted until the US had destroyed about half the Japanese civilian population. Even his father, liberal icon that he is now, corresponded with a scholar in the Smithsonian about the possibility of starting a program of eugenics in which Japanese would be bred with the supposedly more docile people of the Pacific islands in order to prevent them from exercising their war-like tendencies.
Dr. Seuss cartoon urging Americans to put aside prejudice and work together to end the war
Dr. Seuss cartoon urging that Japanese-Americans be treated as foreign hostiles. This cartoon appeared on February 13, 1942. Six days later President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 authorizing the forcible removal of Japanese Americans and resident aliens from the West Coast.
Nor could there be any doubt that the animosity was racial. The clearest example of this was the treatment of Japanese-Americans and resident aliens. The United States was at war with a number of countries and it detained and watched American citizens who had hailed from a number of them, but only with regard to Japan was suspicion toward the enemy so great that it spurred the country to engage in what amounted to a program of ethnic cleansing in which heredity was judged sufficient grounds to remove people from their homes and force them to relocate or to be interned in concentration camps inland, hundreds of miles from their homes.
The United States Remembered Pearl Harbor all right and it was not in a forgiving mood. When it finally got the chance to extract a measure of revenge, that revenge would be terrible indeed.
In the combat zone, that circle of the hell where, as the saying goes,
'the metal hits the meat" the United States relied much more on metal and far less on meat than any other belligerent in history. Firepower, technology and force multiplication was the American way of warfare. This had the undeniable advantage of saving American lives, but it was done at the cost of lowering the moral threshold to the taking of another human life just that much more. For those on the other end of this American way of war, it seemed to be something from an altogether different reality.
One Japanese veteran of the China War recalled going into battle against the Americans for the first time. When they first encountered a group of them, the Americans immediately broke off contact and retreated. He recalled being astonished to find them so cowardly. The Chinese, he recalled, had at least stood and fought. Soon thereafter he and his comrades pursued the Americans across an open field. Only then did he realize that the Chinese stood and fought because they had no other options. They Americans were not so disadvantaged. Suddenly the ground around them shook as explosions from ship-based artillery pitted the ground like the surface of the moon. After that, the planes came looking for survivors.
Time and again Japanese facing the Americans in the latter part of the war faced the same terrible realization: their propaganda notwithstanding, a warrior's spirit was no match for a soldier's ordnance. They were outgunned and there was nothing they could do about it.
One medic serving in the South Pacific recalled:
We were shocked when the Americans built an airstrip overnight. We had never seen bulldozers before. Then we saw all their warships, a fleet of transports and cruisers lined up so thick they blotted out the horizon.Another defending Saipan remembered:
I was eating a large rice ball when I heard a voice call out, "The American battle fleet is here!" I looked up and saw the sea completely black with them. What looked like a large city had suddenly appeared offshore. When I saw that, I didn't even have the strength to stand up.Okinawan survivors of the invasion of their island recall the campaign as a "Typhoon of Steel" because the American bombardment was so thick intense and unrelenting that no other word would suffice to describe their experience. The first encounter that many Japanese had with Americans was with the American way of war and that encounter consisted of a baptism of fire in which they were exposed to sudden incomprehensible violence so intense their first reaction was simple disbelief, a reaction that cost many of their lives as they stood for crucial moments quite simply paralyzed by terror and shock.
Of course in the most spectacular demonstrations of American industrial rage the strategic campaign of firebombing, and ultimately using nuclear weapons against Japanese cities, there was little hope that a quick reaction time could save anyone. And so, before the war reached its appalling climax the United States had, with its bombing campaign killed between half a million and eight hundred thousand people, not even counting the servicemen it killed and it did all of this while Remembering Pearl Harbor.
Industrial rage: From The Fog of War
Forgetting Pearl Harbor
After the Bombs of August leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Americans moved into Japan, both they and their unwilling hosts found to their great surprise that there was quite a lot that they liked about one another. In part, no doubt, this process was accelerated by their joint fear of a Communist menace, but in large part the reconciliation was genuine.
After the heat of battle had ended, the passions and hatreds that were its products faded from the scene and Americans began to regain their own humanity as they recognized that of the former foes.
Jacob DeShazer, who had spent almost the entire war as a POW and suffered terrible torture (including water-boarding) found the only way he could survive was to open his soul to God. Becoming a born-again Christian, he found his life's purpose in missionary work. He eventually returned to Japan where he began a mission and converted one of the guards who had routinely beat him during his activity.
His activities soon caught the attention of an unlikely prospect, Fuchida Mitsuo, the pilot who had led the first wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite his initial suspicions, Fuchida, impressed by what he regarded as DeShazer's remarkable personal qualities, converted. With the fervor of a convert he himself became a missionary and sought to learn more about the country he had been the first Japanese to attack. There he sought reconciliation and began a career of preaching to the Japanese American community. In one of those historical ironies from which novelists would shy for fear it would be branded an improbable fiction, a quarter century after he led the first attack of the sneak attack, he naturalized as an American citizen.
Dr. Seuss, trying to deal with his wartime animosity toward Japan penned a story about a civilization of people just like you and I, who were about to be destroyed because others did not understand them. His book, Horton Hears a Who, was in part a call for his countrymen to understand that the people in Japan, just like people everywhere, were, at the end of the day, people.
Near the end of his life, Robert MacNamara, who played an instrumental role in industrializing the war machine that would devastate Japan reflected on his role in designing the tactics used in the fire-bombings of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, concluding those involved in the campaign were "behaving as war criminals".
For more than 66 years now there has been a general spirit of reconciliation that recently seems to be overcoming even the most stubborn pride and prejudice. The Japanese government has at long last, after decades of stalling, apologized American and Allied prisoners of war they had treated so horribly during the war. Recently some of these men even traveled to Japan to discuss their ordeals and did so at Japanese expense.
When one considers this and sees Japan today, when one walks its mountain trails to its tucked-away temples, when one walks the streets in the poorest areas of its largest cities and never fears for one's safety, when one enjoys conversations and friendships with old and young alike, the tendency to look back on the war, especially when considering the undeniable racism and savagery that permeated its conduct on both sides and wonder what it was, after all, that we fought about.
Indeed aside from vengeance and hatred many of the men who fought in the war didn't really understand why. There seemed to be no higher principle at stake. The idea that the war wasn't about anything except three-and-a-half years of mostly pointless slaughter began to take root in some circles soon after the fighting stopped.
Norman Mailer, who himself had fought in the Pacific theater, summed up the feelings of many in his book The Naked and the Dead published in 1948. In the book, which depicts American atrocities and ghoulish souvenir hunting, his hero Lieutenant Hearn is asked why he thinks it is that they are fighting. Hearn responds,
I don't know, I'm not sure. With all the contradictions, I suppose there's an objective right on our side. That is, in Europe. Over here, as far as I'm concerned, it's an imperialist toss up. Either we louse up Asia or Japan does. And I imagine our methods will be less drastic.As time goes by that is how many have come to see the war. Is there really anything about Pearl Harbor that should make it more memorable to the rising generation than say, the sinking of the Maine was to my own?
Isn't it about time that we considered forgetting Pearl Harbor ourselves?
Isn't it time that we considered the possibility that Mother Nature, in her majesty, may have been wise in helping us to set aside the traumas of past generations and look instead to the future?
Well, in a word, no.
The war between Japan and the United States was far more than an "imperialist toss up".
It was, to borrow a phrase, an irrepressible conflict. It could not have been avoided. It was a war that would have been forced on the United States no matter what she chose to do. It was not merely a question of perspective or failure to negotiate in good faith. It was not an avoidable diplomatic blunder. There were two sides in the war.
On the one side was America. That side committed egregious acts of overkill. It allowed, even encouraged its fighting men to forget their humanity. It indulged in racist hatred. It did, in short, many of the things that countries at war ought not, but often do.
The other side was Imperial Japan.
It was the very heart of darkness.
By the time Imperial Japan began the Second World War in July of 1937 (1939 is a completely Euro-centric date) it had become a country that did not merely indulge in cruelty, but regarded it as a way of life. In eight short years of rampage and excess it managed to kill more East Asians than all the Western powers had done in nearly a century of exploitation. It was a country which sent agents into its occupied territories to enslave girls as young as twelve to serve the sexual needs of its soldiers. It was a country whose soldier conspired with gangsters to control organized crime and vice in China and elsewhere. It was a state that rounded up people, thousands of people, from those same China and elsewhere to use in medical experiments, and then "euthanized" the survivors. It was a country that would allow its doctors to vivisect a pregnant woman and report coldly on the operation in its journals. It was a country whose stated policy in the territories it conquered was "burn all, loot all, kill all." It was a country that trained its soldiers in the use of the bayonet on civilians it rounded up from the neighboring territories. It was a country that killed its own wounded and sick rather than let them be a burden to those who could still fight. It was a country that abandoned large numbers of men to starvation, a fate many the survivors escaped only by eating the fallen, while forbidding them, on pain of death, to surrender to an enemy that was well-provisioned to take care of them. It was a country that treated its captives with gut-wrenching cruelty. During their time in captivity, they were subjected to hideous and inhuman treatment. They were starved, beaten, denied medical treatment, marched to death, beheaded, hunted for sport, used for bayonet practice, castrated, rolled in barbed wire, vivisected, eaten, cramped in ships holds of transport vessels without adequate food or water for weeks or months at a time, herded into bunkers doused with gasoline and set ablaze, forced to work in inhuman conditions for the benefit of Japan's war efforts, and generally made to endure every kind of cruelty the twisted human psyche can devise.
Australian POW Leonard G Siffleet moments before he is executed by a Japanese soldier.
Imperial Japan was, in short, a manifest evil that could not have been appeased and had to be destroyed.
But that alone does not provide much of a lesson to be learned. The real lessons can only be appreciated when we look at the apparent paradox of the pleasant, civilized, peaceful people that we see in Japan today and regard what their grandfathers did seventy years ago.
How did Imperial Japan become the heart of darkness? How did a country that had essentially minded its own business for centuries, whose modern armed forces had been known for their restraint and even their humane treatment of prisoners, a country that immediately after the war would once again essentially mind its own business, a country that was just as full of decent, good-hearted people during the war as it was before and after, how could a country like that have become a manifest evil?
Most curiously, how could a state that had weathered the assault of Western imperialism better than any other and still managed to give its citizens a relatively comfortable and happy existence, have embraced savagery so completely and in such an apparently short period of time?
The Birth of Modern Japan: Turbulent Politics in a Dangerous Time
The most important thing to understand about Imperial Japan is that it was created by military men in response to the existential threat posed by the encroachment of a technologically superior civilization.
The threat they faced was real. Japan's national existence was in danger.
As Marius Jansen, one of the premiere scholars of Japan noted, “The outstanding intellectual and political experience in the formative years of Japan’s Restoration activists was the discovery that their society was incapable of successful resistance to the Western threat.”
Moreover, that experience was hard-won. Most of the members of the new government had not taken Western power seriously at first. Many of them were very young men, in their late teens and early twenties. They were also unduly influenced by charismatic scholars and samizdat popular (and entirely fanciful) accounts of the Opium War, were essentially an East Asian version of the dolchstosslegende. These accounts insisted that the British had been no match for the Han Chinese militias that had mustered to face them, but had prevailed only because of treacherous and corrupt Manchu officials of the Qing dynasty.
So when the bakufu (the old feudal government) acquiesced in US Commodore Matthew Perry’s to open relations in 1854, they saw unpleasant echoes of what they regarded as, in the hackneyed phrase so often uttered by those who are entirely innocent of historical knowledge, “the lessons of history”. Five years later American Consul Townshend Harris got the bakufu to agree to an unequal treaty with some of the same obnoxious provisions as the treaty that had been forced on China after its ignominious defeat in the Opium War. Harris did this with shrewd diplomacy and had no credible agent of coercion. (The treaty was concluded in 1858, the year of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and America would soon have more pressing problems than its prestige in an East-Asian backwater.)
The young men at the center of the movement regarded this as a supine capitulation and when other Western powers concluded similar treaties with Japan, all without firing a shot, they grew incensed. They set out on a campaign of direct action to overthrow the old feudal government and attack the foreigners wherever they were. Anyone foreign, or perceived as sympathetic to foreigners, was a target for immediate assassination. Some of these actions were planned and some were not. Ii Naosuke, the central figure in the bakufu government was killed in a well-coordinated attack at the gates of the Shogun’s castle. Sakuma Shozan, a noted scholar of both the Confucian tradition and Western learning was cut down in the streets of Kyoto because he was astride a horse with a Western saddle. The shishi, or “men of spirit” were by and large hotheaded young men who spent their nights in the company of liquor and women and their days stalking scholars, interpreters, diplomats and officials--essentially anyone that met their definition of a traitor. In one well-coordinated attack a group of shishi stormed the British legation and were repulsed only after engaging members of the legation in direct combat.
Kido Takayoshi (left) and Ito Hirobumi (right) from their days as shishi, essentially fanatic xenophobic terrorists. Both men would become part of the new government and play a role in westernizing and modernizing their country. Kido would eventually advocate a strict separation of civil and military power. Ito, Kido's one-time underling and the man who would be the principal drafter of Japan's new constitution, ensured that the military would answer to no civil authority.
Their activities succeeded in destabilizing the bakufu but in their campaign to “revere the emperor and expel the barbarians” they had discovered that, to borrow a phrase from a different cultural idiom, they had been totally lied to by their album covers. After a number of encounters in which they dealt with the full power of modern Western warships, firearms, and massed infantry tactics some of the brighter among this bunch began realizing that the barbarians were actually quite effective at their barbarism.
Rather than give up their struggle altogether, they continued to agitate against the bakufu and made strategic alliances with certain foreign nations and firms. Now that America’s internecine bloodbath had finally ended, arms dealers suddenly found that they could purchase large numbers of only slightly obsolete firearms at firesale prices and re-sell them at quite a handsome profit. One such deal was made and by the time the smoke had cleared Japan’s formerly anti-foreign zealots had overthrow the two-and-a-half century old Tokugawa shogunate and ensconced themselves in the center of power.
Their problem was that they still had to deal with the foreign threat and that in removing the bakufu they had set a grave and ominous precedent, namely that violence against insufficiently chauvinistic officials was nothing more or less than the will of heaven. It was a precedent that would haunt the new state for the duration of its existence. “Patriotic” violence became an everyday reality for officials of the new Meiji state and quite a few of them paid with life or limb for the services they tried to render their country.
By itself, this would likely not have been enough to lead Japan down the fateful road to Pearl Harbor, but the state of insecurity in which the new state found itself led some of its more influential leaders to make fatal mistakes. These mistakes would, in time, lead to a situation in which no fewer than six of Japan’s interwar or wartime prime ministers would fall to assassins’ blades and bullets (though one became prime minister only after he survived the attempt on his life).
The largest and most fateful of these mistakes is known as the Right of Supreme Command and its institutionalization in the constitution of the new state was one of the greatest tragedies Japan, and the world at large ever suffered.
Kido Takayoshi and Yamagata Aritomo: The Indispensable Man and The Father of Japanese Militarism
James Thomas Flexner once called George Washington the indispensable man for the success of the American Revolution and it is a judgment with which I have come to concur. However, it wasn't his actions on the battlefield that made him truly indispensable. There were other commanders that were arguably as gifted if not more so. The Yorktown campaign was essentially the brainchild of the French general le Comte de Rochambeau and Washington initially opposed it. No it was not battlefield brilliance that made Washington indispensable, rather it was his integrity and his commitment to the idea that the civil and military authorities must be separate and the civil ultimately superior. George Washington's greatest act was the resignation of his commission as commander-in-chief on Dec. 23, 1783.
John Trumball: George Washington Resigns His Command
That act was so extraordinary that no less a personage than Great Britain's King George III, upon hearing that was his intention, declared "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." Washington did do it, just as through the course of the war, he remained resolutely committed to the principle of civil supremacy, regardless of how militarily inexpedient it might be. Intriguingly, Washington was almost universally admired among Japan's imperial extremists, but this had more to do with his personal qualities and the fact that prior to the opening to the West, Japan got most of its news about the wider world from Dutch traders, who may have colored history in Washington's favors.
The one man among Japan's founders that did seem to appreciate the importance of Washington's principles was Kido Takayoshi. Kido, at first glance would have seemed an unlikely exponent of any Western idea, let alone that of civilian supremacy. He was the leading figure in the extremist faction of the most extreme of Japan's feudal domains. As a youth and young man he had been at the forefront of the shishi and he was responsible for unleashing a reign of anti-foreign terror in the feudal capital of Edo.
Moreover, he was initially an advocate of aggressive expansion, at one point demanding of his comrades, why they had worked to overthrow the bakufu if they did not intend to remedy its weak-kneed foreign policy: "If we do not aim at making Imperial prestige shine across the seas and at standing pre-eminent in the universe, how do we differ from the bakufu?"
However, like many of his peers Kido came of age rather quickly after he was put into a position of real responsibility. Just thirty-four when the shogunate was overthrown, Kido was a member of an extraordinary mission to the West undertaken just three years after the establishment of the new government. The embassy, whose initial purpose was to win the revision of Japan's semi-colonial status by revising the unequal treaties that had been forced on the old feudal government, soon adopted a more immediate purpose: studying the West and identifying the sources of its strength.
While all of the members of that mission proved their mental acuity by their determination to learn from the West, Kido alone came to appreciate the true source of Washington's greatness:
If I were to single out for praise the fundamental virtue in the governments of the enlightened countries it would be the established distinction between the duties of the civil and the military.This realization led Kido to exercise his considerable prestige to quash a plan concocted by the more belligerent members of the new government. His prestige may well have enabled him to enshrine this principle as one of the pillars of the new Japanese state had fate not intervened. Unfortunately for Japan, and the world more generally, Japan's indispensable man grew ill and died in 1877 at the age of forty-three, well before the foundations of the new state had been established, and before he was able to convince others of the need for civil supremacy.
Kido Takayoshi and Ito Hirobumi as statesmen. It seems of no small significance that Kido is dressed in a suit and Ito in military regalia.
After Kido's passing, the job of constructing the new state fell upon a new generation of leaders. The one most responsible for shaping its new constitution would be Kido's former underling, Ito Hirobumi. By the time Ito was assigned the task of heading up a team to draft a new constitution, Kido was fondly remembered as a friend and comrade-in-arms, but his ideas died with him. Ito did not share Kido's commitment to civilian control. (In fact, almost no one in Japan did. When, after the Second World War, the Far Eastern Commission insisted on a provision that all ministers of state be civilians, a special committee had to be established to translate the word "civilian" because the concept was so alien to Japan's experience. To this day, aside from a few scholars, civilian control is not generally understood in Japan and when it is discussed, most people use the English loan word "civilian control".) Moreover, the general enthusiasm for Western liberalism that had dominated public affairs in the 1870s was fading fast. Ito would use a Western model for the new state, but it would be that of Germany, where civilian control was not firmly established and where the lack of that principle would help to lead Germany into the disaster of the First World War.
Ito was no militarist, but neither was he a committed liberal. When it came time to write the new constitution he would, partly on the insistence of his long-time comrade and rival, Yamagata Aritomo, work to insure that the new state was not subject to the whims of corrupt politicians. The Army, Yamagata insisted, must be above politics. The unfortunate result of this was two articles in the new constitution that effectively guaranteed that both the Army and the Navy would be beyond the control of politicians, but, alas, very far from apolitical.
Yamagata Aritomo, chief architect of Japan's modern army and bureaucracy
These articles, which collectively comprise the Right of Supreme Command, read as follows:
Article 11. The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.Taken together, what these articles guaranteed was that Japan's Prime Minister had no direct control over the military. Although, in theory the emperor would retain control over his military, in practice the Japanese emperor, though not the total figurehead portrayed in postwar propaganda, rarely involved himself directly in military affairs. In practice what this meant was that the military answered to no one but itself.
Article 12. The Emperor determines the organization and peace standing of the Army and Navy.
Yamagata, still not satisfied that meddling politicians would not gum up the works later insisted on the establishment of a particularly pernicious law that required both the Army and Navy Ministers to be active duty members of the services they represented. As the power to appoint and dismiss ministers was reserved to the emperor, the Prime Minister could not dismiss a service minister obnoxious to his purposes nor could he appoint a replacement in the event that one resigned. Thus, because the ministers were active duty members of the military and under military discipline, either service could topple a cabinet by ordering the minister to resign and refusing to appoint a replacement.
The military thus had an effective veto over the selection of prime minister and could topple any cabinet whenever it chose.
Yamagata had established military supremacy in Japan.
Taisho Democracy or Government By Assassination?
The period immediately following the First World War is seen by many scholars as one of increasing liberalization and cultural efflorescence. This view has much to recommend it. It ushered in some of the most enduring literature Japan has to offer. It was driven with the energy of a traditional society trying to come to terms with modernity. It was a period of extraordinary openness to the outside world. In addition it was marked by a spirit of cooperation on the international stage. Moreover, for the first time popularly elected politicians were appointed to lead the government. Indeed if it had not been for some unfortunate developments, economic downturn and rural immiseration most salient among them, Japan may well have embarked on a gradual development into something very much like it is today.
However, it was also the period in which the inherent defects of the young state began coming prominently to the fore.
Despite the shaky foundations on which the new state was built, in practice it functioned rather well for the first few decades of its existence. This was in large part due to the fact that modern Japan's founding fathers, despite being hothead in their youths, matured into sober, reflective and insightful statesmen. Moreover, despite sometimes rancorous disagreement, they managed to identify areas of agreement and to work reasonably well together. They had, in fact, pulled off one of the most remarkable feats in recorded history, taking a semi-feudal and tradition-bound backwater and remaking it as one of the world's great powers in the span of their lives.
Their principal failure was that they had do so by constructing a state that relied on their personal supervision. They had failed to create a system which could outlast them.
The inherent defects of the system would not become clear until they had passed from the scene. When they did it gradually became clear that the next generation of Japanese leaders lacked both the prestige and capacity to govern an increasingly complex society with the same efficacy as their mentors.
The Imperial Japanese government had come to power through patriotic violence which was dedicated to preserving the prerogatives and dignity of the manifest deity that led their country. As such, it was impossible for them to completely delegitimize violence committed in the name of the Emperor. Political violence had been a plague on the new system from its inception, but in the exuberant chaos of the Taisho Democracy its severity and impact grew apace.
While many of Japan's common people may have been enjoying a renewed love affair with internationalism, many in Japan's military were not. They remained steadfastly committed to a vigorous and expansionist foreign policy. As such, they, or those acting in the name of their interests undermined much of the liberal spirit of the new age almost from the moment of its inception.
The Right of Supreme Command came back with a vengeance as hard-liners in the military developed a pernicious doctrine, namely that the civilian authorities in Japan's government not only had no right to interfere in any military decisions, but that doing so represented an affront to the prerogatives of the august sovereign. Put simply, any substantive attempt to control the military was nothing less than an act of lese-majeste, of treason.
Radical officers and ultra-nationalist activists began to see it as their patriotic duty to eliminate those who would so offend the honor of their monarch and nation.
As a result, during this period of "democracy" no fewer than three of the men who served as Prime Minister would fall to "patriotic" assassins. Both the first ministry and the last would end violently. Assassination would end this brief flirtation of liberalism and it would continue to be a factor until the end of the war. In all five men who had served as Premier would die in this fashion. A sixth, who was shot and left for dead, would recover to lead his country into peace.
Prime Ministers who were victims of militarist violence: From top left, Hara Takashi, assassinated in office 1921; Hamaguchi Osamu, shot in office 1928, died after a six month struggle; Inukai Tsuyoshi assassinated in office 1932; Bottom Row, from left: Takahashi Korekiyo, assassinated while later serving as Finance Minister 1936; Saito Makoto, assassinated while serving as the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, the Emperor’s chief advisor; Suzuki Kantaro, shot and left for dead in 1936 while serving as Grand Chamberlain, he would later become Prime Minister in 1945 and oversee Japan’s surrender.
In short every man in public life in Japan understood in a visceral manner that he was putting his life in jeopardy every time he urged conciliation or moderation.
Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro, the man who served as Prime Minister at the time Japan began the Second World War, made specific reference to the need to appease radical elements in explaining his decision to take a hard line with China.
Even Yamamoto Isoroku, the chief architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and, for a time, the biggest villain in America, was once the object of a plot of such young patriots. There was no one with whom America could deal in Japan, because no one had the power to enforce his decisions and moderation might well cost him his life. As a result, a policy of continuing aggression became inevitable. That simple fact would not change until Douglas MacArthur debarked at Atsugi air base at the conclusion of the most destructive war the world has ever known.
Yamamoto Isoroku as he appeared in an American propaganda poster that inaccurately portrays him as a mindless jingoist. Yamamoto was the most reviled of all Axis military commanders and the only one the United States assassinated during the war.
The insecurities of Japan's founders ultimately caused them to create an inherently aggressive state that could not control the nationalist passions of its most radical elements. That failure was the principal reason that Imperial Japan became a manifest evil that could not be appeased. That failure was the principal reason that war between Japan and the United States became inevitable.
So what are the lessons of Pearl Harbor? Why should we remember Pearl Harbor?
While one should always be wary of over-simplifying complex historical occurrences, no matter how iconic they have become, these are the lessons that I take away.
First, the lessons of Pearl Harbor are inseparable from the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the long run Pearl Harbor was a much bigger disaster for Japan than it was for America.
Second, though the causes of that disaster were manifold we can identify some which were necessary and fundamental, rather than merely contributing.
Third the greatest single cause of that disaster was the failure to establish firm civilian control over the military.
Forth, was the widespread acceptance of patriotic violence and the feeling that spurred it, namely that it is more important that foreign policy be muscular than that it be wise.
When you think of the disaster of Pearl Harbor, recall the neglected wisdom of Kido Takayoshi:
If I were to single out for praise the fundamental virtue in the governments of the enlightened countries it would be the established distinction between the duties of the civil and the military.Reflect on the true reasons for Washington's greatness.
Know that any nation that fails to keep sacrosanct the principle of civil supremacy has already sown the seeds of its own destruction and will inevitably come to ruin.
So, the next time someone says to you that it is a good thing that the military be given authority over civilians of a certain class, the next time someone suggests that military strength must always take precedent over the creation of a strong civil society with a robust education system and effective social safety net, the next time someone urges the need to increase the government’s powers of surveillance or the military’s ability to act without constraint, the next time someone disparages targeted foreign aid as foolish idealistic charity, the next time some idiotic politician or pundit refers to the President of the United States as “our commander-in-chief” rather than the commander in chief of our armed forces, look them straight in the eye reply with three simple words:
“Remember Pearl Harbor.”