One of the iconic images of the American occupation of Japan (1945-1952) is the photograph of General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito taken at MacArthur’s headquarters. The photograph is a striking symbol of American dominance and Japanese submission, a brilliant propaganda move by MacArthur. The 44-year-old emperor, previously rarely photographed or seen by the public, appears nervous and awkward next to the 65-year-old MacArthur, who seems to tower above him and deliberately strikes a casual pose in his open-necked khaki shirt. Further, it was the emperor who paid audience to MacArthur, and not vice versa. Hirohito did have reason to be nervous: the Occupation authorities were in the midst of deciding whether to retain the imperial institution, or whether to have Hirohito tried as a war criminal and quite possibly executed, something that much of the American public and many of Japan’s other enemies were quite in favor of.
Historian John Dower writes in Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1), that “Rigid royalists like the [Japanese] Home Ministry’s censors immediately saw the photo as an appalling sort of lese majesty” (p.293). Nevertheless, it was published, serving as a demonstration of American-style freedom of the press as well as as a reminder of the Japanese defeat.
And yet, the photograph was not as injurious to the emperor as it might seem. Writes Dower: “The photograph is often said to mark the moment when it really came home to most Japanese that they had been vanquished and the Americans were in charge. At the same time – and this is what the censors and the more overwrought superpatriots missed – it also made it plain that SCAP [Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers] was hospitable to the emperor, and would stand by him” (293). MacArthur’s audience with the Emperor was followed by a campaign, engineered by General Bonner Fellers and strongly supported by MacArthur, to prevent the criminal prosecution of the emperor. The preservation of the imperial household of Japan as a national symbol of a democratic nation came to be accepted by the Americans and by most Japanese.
I couldn’t help seeing the ironic resemblance of a recent photo containing similar elements, but taken and published under very different circumstances:
While the height difference between the white man and the Asian man is the same, the other important elements have been reversed, and the American – a former president, no less – is the subordinate and the one being made a fool of. Of course, the photos differ completely in their particulars. The first shows a moment in history when America, having decisively defeated Japan in a total war that culminated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, commenced an occupation with a firm sense of her own rightness. The second incident is infinitely trivial by comparison: Asian-American female journalists put themselves in harm’s way and were nabbed by the enemy; the Obama administration decided to allow Kim his desired PR coup by providing him with a real U.S. president (and, Charles Krauthammer thinks, other forms of aid) in exchange for the release of the hostages. It is just one of the sharper illustrations of the results of a fifty-year breakdown of the American sense of identity and national interest.
It is easy, from a position of safety, to make fun of Kim Jong-Il, (yes, I think the linked video is funny) and Clinton’s own history has inevitably led to to jokes about the incident. However, the reality is not funny. I have no solution to propose for our relationship with the Koreas, but the permanent posting of 28,000 troops in the South to protect it from the North, even as the South becomes increasingly anti-American, is unacceptable. As is any policy, whether regarding North Korea or Iran or the admission of Muslims as graduate students in the sciences, that does not put as its highest priority, and minimum acceptable outcome, the prevention of a nuclear attack against the United States.
There are other intriguing threads between the two pictures. In both cases the possession of nuclear weapons is the source of the victor’s power. Another link is the figure of MacArthur himself, who became the commander of UN forces during the Korean War, and was dismissed by Truman for insubordinate behavior. He seems to have been both more aggressive and more idealistic than his administration in his Korea policy. And the occupation of Japan that he headed, while by any standard a historically unique and massive success, set the precedent for the U.S. policy of trying to help and democratize other countries, including our defeated enemies. The liberal universalist rationale of the American occupation has become standard in all our foreign military activities, and continues to distort our understanding of the Korean situation. Finally, the contrast between America’s wartime propaganda against the emperor and the eager fraternization of occupation authorities with Japanese court circles (described by Dower) gives pause for thought.
MacArthur’s America was strong, though flawed. Today, America “no longer exists,” as Lawrence Auster put it in his commentary on the reason for our tepid response to the Chinese capture of the personnel of a U.S. spy plane in 2001. That is, we have lost a sense of being part of a larger national entity whose identity transcends that of the individuals who belong to it. As a result, when a hostile nation like North Korea commits an act of aggression against us as a nation, we respond solely in terms of the welfare of individuals. From this point of view, Clinton’s mission to North Korea was a resounding success, praised even by Republicans like Douglas Paal, who in an opinion piece for the New York Times, supports the Clinton visit. His approval is based on the simple belief that Clinton’s visit was the only way to free the journalists, mixed with some wishful thinking that Kim “may be ready now to turn a more cooperative face to the outside world.” Lee and Ling themselves have expressed emotional thanks to the U.S. government and the individuals who supported them, but don’t appear to be conscious of the considerable burden they placed upon their nation.
Meanwhile, the palpable humiliation of America, in the person of our former president, is recorded on film for posterity, quite visible to the rest of the world and to the North Koreans, though suppressed from the consciousness of most Americans. There is no way to escape the daily humiliations and increasing threats to our physical safety until we recover a historically rooted sense of who we are as Americans.
(1) John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.