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The American Experience

People & Events
MacArthur and the Japanese Occupation (1945-1951)


On the morning of September 8, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur made his way by automobile toward the American Embassy in the heart of Tokyo. One American observer described it as a city "completely flat with destruction," where even "the rubble did not look like much." As he presided over a ceremony at the Embassy -- his home for the next five and a half years -- MacArthur ordered General Eichelberger to "have our country's flag unfurled, and in Tokyo's sun let it wave in its full glory as a symbol of hope for the oppressed and as a harbinger of victory for the right." This moment was not broadcast throughout the world as the surrender ceremony aboard the U.S.S. Missouri had been six days earlier. Yet in hindsight, it was just as symbolic of the occupation period to follow: optimistic, thoroughly American, and unmistakably MacArthur.

Although the occupation was nominally an allied enterprise -- MacArthur's title was Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, or SCAP -- it was very much an American show, and there was no doubt who was in charge. As historian Michael Schaller has noted, "From its inception, the occupation became synonymous with its supreme commander. Although few Americans could name the man in charge of the German occupation (General Lucius Clay and, later, John J. McCloy) most could readily identify the top man in Tokyo." In fact, most of the basic principles and policies for the occupation were drawn up by planners in Washington in the last two years of the war (and are contained in a document known as SWNCC 228). While the impression that MacArthur was behind everything that happened in Japan far exceeds the reality, he deserves a great deal of credit for what most people agree was a highly successful occupation. Initiating some policies and skillfully implementing many others, MacArthur helped a defeated and destroyed nation transform itself with remarkable speed.

Students of the occupation period are stunned by how readily the Japanese remade their country along an American model. Although this is often ascribed to the particular Japanese talent for adapting foreign concepts for their own use, many of the changes wrought during the occupation had roots in pre-war Japanese reform movements. Still, MacArthur's prestige was such that his support could make or break almost any single cause. Among those encouraged by MacArthur and his staff were democratic elections ("This is democracy!" he exclaimed after the elections of 1947); basic civil liberties, including steps toward equality for women; the unionization of labor, despite his banning of a General Strike in January, 1947; land reform, which sought to "eliminate the feudal system of land tenure and remove obstacles to the redistribution of land"; and the Japanese Constitution itself, particularly Article 9 outlawing war and guarding against remilitarization. Even with all of these accomplishments, MacArthur's greatest disappointment may have been his failure to convert the Japanese masses to Christianity, despite his conviction that "true democracy can exist only on a spiritual foundation," and will "endure when it rests firmly on the Christian conception of the individual and society."

Appropriately, MacArthur established his General Headquarters, or GHQ, in the Dai Ichi Insurance Building in central Tokyo, the higher floors of which overlooked the Imperial Palace. MacArthur's steadfast resolution to protect Emperor Hirohito -- "through him it will be possible to maintain a completely orderly government" -- probably ranks as the single most important decision of the occupation. Considering how well things went, MacArthur's decision seems vindicated; yet many historians argue that once the occupation had begun to run smoothly, MacArthur should have allowed the Emperor to abdicate the throne, thereby acknowledging his and the country's responsibility for the war. As historian John Dower says, "From the Japanese perspective, you have a man who becomes America's symbol of democracy, who is totally sanitized by the Americans and by MacArthur, in particular.... I think that that poisoned the thinking about responsibility in general, in Japan, to the present day."

Nonetheless, it is remarkable that a man best known as one of the greatest soldiers in American history may have made his greatest contribution during a time of peace. Significantly, MacArthur biographer D. Clayton James once wrote that he decided to undertake his three volume study "with the conviction that a century hence MacArthur will be most appreciated for his role as an administrator, rather than as a warrior."
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