Hirohito, MacArthur and other villains

Francis Pike’s magnificent Hirohito’s War argues that misguided American policy in 1941 continues to reshape the Pacific theatre today

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

Hirohito’s War: The Pacific War, 1941–1945 Francis Pike

Bloomsbury, pp.1110, £30, ISBN: 9781472596703

The history of ‘great events’, Voltaire wrote, is ‘hardly more than the history of crimes’. Physically, the war in Asia was the second world war’s greatest event. The Asian theatre, much of it water, was seven times larger than the European theatre. America’s mobilisation was the most complex in history, Japan’s crimes among the most sadistic. Metaphysically, the atomic consummation altered our relationship to our habitat.

Yet only three comprehensive, single-volume accounts of the war in Asia have appeared — until now the most recent being Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun in 1985. Hirohito’s War by Francis Pike sets a new standard: oceanic in scope, comprehensive in detail, subtle in dissection, magisterial in organisation and consistently readable. Pike re-balances our view of the war — it emerges as Hirohito’s crime as much as Hitler’s — and transforms our understanding of its origins and outcomes.

Europe’s catastrophe derived from the failure to manage the expansion of Germany; Asia’s from the failure to manage the implosion of China in the early 1800s. With Asia destabilised, America, Russia, the European empires and Japan contended for dominance. The Treaty of Versailles created a Pacific security system, but the western powers failed to enforce their ‘Pax Anglo-Saxon’. Japan, empowered by imported technology and Darwinian doctrines, converted this power vacuum into the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

For Pike, the war began not in Poland, but in China in July 1937, with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, a Japanese provocation against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang republic. For the next four years, the Kuomintang sapped Japan’s military capacity, and Japanese soldiers perpetrated terrible atrocities: shootings, rape, torture, sexual slavery, beheading and forced labour. Meanwhile, FDR struggled against domestic isolationists and feared that Germany and Japan would exclude America from the world’s markets. The American oil embargo of June 1941 was ‘arguably an act of war itself’. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a direct attempt to dominate the Pacific. Its failure, Pike suggests, did not guarantee Japan’s defeat.

Pike is not a gratuitous controversialist. Rather, his method demonstrates the limits of determinism, even in industrial warfare. It took time to convert America’s auto industry to military production, and to retrain workers as uniformed specialists; it took ceaseless courage to root out Japanese garrisons in the Pacific islands. The firebombing of Japan’s cities and the nuclear bombings reflected a surge in technological capacity: the transition to the ‘electro-mechanical’ age of the Bomb and the Superfortress. Yet the decision to use incendiaries and atom bombs reflected strategic desperation. Precision bombing had failed to destroy Japan’s military industries. America’s leaders, being democratically accountable, could not afford the casualties of a land invasion of Japan.

Pike’s judgment of the generals and admirals accords with much recent historiography, but his focus on China pays dividends. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the conqueror of Malaya, was the ‘exceptional’ talent among the Japanese generals who won the Pacific on a shoestring. The inept self-publicist Douglas MacArthur and the hard-drinking sailor ‘Bull’ Halsey are demoted. Ernest King, who steered the US Navy from Washington DC, and MacArthur’s subordinates Robert Eichelberger and Walter Krueger are promoted. ‘Bill’ Slim’s Burma campaign, usually reduced to a British sideshow, becomes crucial to the support of the Kuomintang. ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell is faulted for the Allied ‘debacle’ in China, which cleared the path for Mao’s Red Army.

This was Hirohito’s war, fought in his divine name, and with his approval. Hirohito was a ‘timid and cautious’ living god: a marine biologist with a shrimp’s physique and a coward’s heart. As supreme commander, he sanctioned every war cabinet decision, built a war room under his palace, and advised his generals on troop movements in China, where 4 million died.

Was Hirohito a Class A war criminal? Pike, who has worked in the Far East as a financier, points out that, while Japanese culture prefers ‘opaque’ and ‘collective’ decision-making, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials were ‘Anglo-Saxon’ exercises in individual responsibility and ‘empirical logic’. It is ‘difficult’ and ‘sometimes pointless’ to identify Hirohito with specific decisions; it is easy to identify him with every decision. Had Hirohito been tried, he would ‘almost certainly’ have been convicted and executed. Yet MacArthur believed that Hirohito would be essential to Japan’s post-war stability. Spared by this ‘arbitrary and misguided’ decision, the war criminal returned to his molluscs.

Hirohito’s War is a magnificent account, and timely. China lost twice over. First as Japan’s ‘principal victim’, and again in the ‘national calamity’ that followed the war, when the Kuomintang, poorly supplied by America, lost to Mao’s Communists. After 1949, America and Japan allied against China. Today, while America struggles to enforce its Pacific system, Chinese dredgers prepare for a new round of island-hopping. The Chinese defeat at the heart of America’s victory continues to reshape the Pacific theatre.

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  • Willie

    Ultra Income source by spectator < Find Here

  • Abie Vee

    Gosh so many counter-factual arguments it’s hard to know where to start.

    Perhaps this is the easiest of all: “America’s leaders, being democratically accountable, could not afford the casualties of a land invasion of Japan.”

    Presumably mainland Japan? Well, yes they could indeed “afford” to, they had plenty of currency left, men, materials and goodwill; there was no sense at the time that either public opinion or the US Armed Forces were in principle against the idea. Be that as it may, by the time of the atomic bomb-drops, August 1945, they didn’t have to invade; behind the scenes, Japan was desperately trying to sue for peace through Soviet intermediaries… their sole condition being that the life of The Emperor was spared.

    “Japan was already defeated… dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.” Dwight Eisenhower.

    “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace.” Admiral Nimitz. Pacific Fleet Commander.

    “The Japanese were ready to surrender… [the atomic bombs] were of no significant material assistance in our war against Japan.” Admiral Leahy. Chief of Staff.

    “When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.” Norman Cousins interviews General Douglas MacArthur.

    Also, they had the option of sitting off-shore and destroying Japan from the air: one incendiary bombing raid on Tokyo, May 1945, killed 88,000 people and injured 41,000 in one night .

    An ‘”arbitrary and misguided’ decision” (boldly asserted without offering a single shred of supporting evidence) to spare the life of The Emperor fully misunderstands the role of The Emperor in Japanese culture. There is no sense of Emperors running the country in the same way we Westerners were used to regarding Kings of old. For over a thousand years the role of the Emperor was always symbolic: power rested with the Daimyo ( feudal leaders) and the Shogun, drawn from their ranks, to whom they were subordinate. Laws were made by the Bakufu , the system of government of a feudal military dictatorship, exercised in the name of the shogun. The role of the Emperor was always symbolic and quasi-religious, rather like that of our own dear Queen today… an ornate rubber stamp.

    This thousand-year old tradition did not change essentially with the end of the shogunate and the advent of Japanese democracy in 1868, the so-called Meiji restoration. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s, during which military leaders became increasingly influential.

    As with everything that followed… all is traceable back to The Great Depression.

    • Jay Igaboo

      Like you, I am extremely sceptical of some of the author’s opinions which are presented as facts.
      I concur with your post in quite a few points, particularly “. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s, during which military leaders became increasingly influential.”

      Decades ago, I read a book(I forget the name, sorry) that traced the number of coups d’état, obstructionism and plain common murder that brought down about 30 Japanese goverments who dared to cross the Bushido militarists.
      However, I make a parallel with The Queen and the EU treaties and your notion of an innocent Emperor with no power.
      I admit that I am no royalist, and never have been, but I think I am objective enough about how they perform their duties:
      Lizzie, I fear, despite performing her duties superbly well for a huge length of time, let her British subjects down when it mattered most when she gave Royal Assent to the various acts binding us to losing out sovereignty to Brussels.
      Despite my small “r” republicanism, I accuse her with a heavy heart.
      Hirohito betrayed the Japanese people by not standing up to the military.
      To dismiss either as having little direct power is on a parallel with “How many battalions has the Pope.”
      All three above have immense power to influence the common people, and the elites know this.
      If the Queen resisted the likes of Heath, Bliar, Broon and Cameron, her defenders say it would have caused a constitutional crisis– so what?
      Britain’s unwritten constitution, and the future of its native people have been hugely changed, and not for the good, and endangered, not least by mass immigration, especially from Muslim lands.
      Like my father and uncles before me, I took the Queens shilling to defend the British people. We, and many millions more, realised that this could have involved paying the ultimate price- our attestations were literally to defend the monarch( and the officers and generals appointed by her, etc, so sacrifice must go two ways, and Her Majesty failed to deliver.
      The same goes for Hirohito, all he more so considering the many young men who volunteered as kamikaze.
      Another small point:

      “When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb.”
      My dad, and my pregnant mother, who were blitzed out of Clydebank carrying my them 18-month oldest brother, saw a lot of justification for dropping the bomb. I meant my dad, who was with the RAF in the years following the blitz, would be coming home alive, earlier and in one piece, rather than being sent to the East..

      • Abie Vee

        But you ignore the fact that for a thousand years the Emperors had no say at all in the running of the country. Power rested with the Shogun and the Daimyo, enforced by the Samurai.

        Nothing prepared Hirohito for the role of command. And he may well not have stood up against the military for other reasons… for one thousand years his family had been kept safe in splendid luxury by them. However, he finally did instigate the surrender process (see above).

        And don’t get me wrong… I have never suggested that there was significant public opposition to the atomic attacks at the time. I imagine that most people were delighted. My point is, it was unnecessary by the time of August 1945… Japan was already defeated and desperately trying to surrender. The notion that it was not, was a fiction spread by the Americans to cover the enormity of what they had just done.

        • Jay Igaboo

          But you ignore the fact that, as I stated, any figurehead that has a great deal of public veneration DOES have real power if they choose to exert it. The (our) Queen’s power is considerable, enough, I think, to have made it morally imperative to have exerted it in an attempt to prevent such a massive surrender of power (without a shot being fired, far less an atomic bomb attack) over the EU.
          She is held in affection and respected by most in Britain, but unlike Hirohito, not given the status of a direct descendant of the deity- that is REAL power.
          Yes, perhaps Japan was desperately trying to surrender– on ITS terms, which were totally unacceptable to the millions of British, Chinese, Americans, Dutch, Indonesian, etc who had borne the brunt of Shinto brutality.
          Like I implied, armchair strategy is a lot different from that of the poor grunt grasping his rifle as he spews up in a landing craft wondering if he will live until the sun sets.
          It’s also far removed from the wishes and needs of their loved ones praying for their return.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            I take it you’ve read, “Defeat Into Victory”, Field Marshal William Slim. A good read.

          • Jay Igaboo

            I can’t recall reading Slim’s book, but as a young man I worked , served and knew with many men who were then in their 40s and 50s, who had been under his command.

            The opinion of Slim I would respect most is that of the hilariously funny novelist and terrific historian of the lawless Afghan -l ike Pre- Union of The Crowns Scots/English Borders region, George McDonald Fraser.

            GMF, the son of a Borders doctor, had served as a Private in The Border Regiment during the Burma Campaign, and who was a Regular officer in a Highland regiment at the tail end of the war and for some years after.

            For Slim he had the ultimate praise a ranker 9or an officer with much front-line experience could bestow upon an officer.

            He described Slim as “A soldier’s soldier.

            As you are Japanese, you might like to read General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s biography, He was a very interesting and, from a Westerner’s point of view, a decent and honourable enemy.

            I posted this opon him years ago, when a Japanese search team went out to recover bodies from Iwo Jima:-

            “I read the biography of Kuribayashi, a few months ago- he was a very unusual Japanese General Officer.
            After graduating from Military College he toured America, and, like Admiral Yamamoto, he liked them. He formed a much higher opinion of Americans and their character, than did most of the ininformed General Staff,- and he always thought that Japan shouldn’t tangle with them.
            His letters home showed a loving, humourous father and husband- but he was bound in duty to fight to the death.
            I read another book about 30 years ago ” See You in Yasakuni”, a dairy written by a Japanese Christian in The Imperial Japanese Army.
            The title is from his last letter to his family, Yasikuni being the shrine to the Japanese war dead. He loathed the brutality committed by the Jap Army that was so at odds with his Christian faith- – but he died in a Banzaii charge none the less.
            It is tragic that men like Kuribayashi are not listened to by politicians – if he had been listened to, much bloodshed cand misery could have been averted on both sides.
            I used to hate the Japs- as most of my parents generation did, Listening in my youth to those who had fought the Jap, I thought that Japanese brutality and rigid conformity was a racial trait.
            Watching the brutality and hysteria of the Chinese during The Cultural Revolution, I thought that hysteriria, cruelty and sheep-like conformity was a Chinese racial trait
            Over the years, the more I read about social and political conditions and the systems in Imperial Japan, China,The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the more I realised that it is totalitarianism that creates a monstrous people. The sheer weight of peer pressure forces most to conform, and those who do not are done away with.
            In later years I came know lot of Hong Kong Chinese people, men women and children. I like most of them and I came love one like a sister – and to love one not at all like a sister.

            By virtue of being a British possession, Hong Kongers were endured the terror of Japanese occupation but spared (but feared and detested ) the brutality and oppression their brethren suffered in the People’s Republic across the border endured under Mao’s thuggery.
            I have gotten to know some modern Japanese as well as Kong Kongers- – my HK Chinese friends are nothing like the brutal, brain-washed and hysterical Red Guard.
            My Japanese friends are nothing the Japanese soldiers who were brainwashed and brutalised, by Bushido – just as wider Japanese society was brain-washed and brutalised.
            The difference in these people I know, who were not subjected to the same brutalising totalitarianism, enforces my destestation of totalitarianism, and my detestion of it’s sly cousin Cultural Marxism, a sneaky, less obviously brutal manifestation of the same desire to steal our liberty and the very ability not just to speak freely, but to think freely, and thus steal our very souls from us.”

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            “As you are Japanese, you might like to read General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s biography”
            No, No, No, Jay Igaboo. I’m not Japanese, but I do reside in Japan. Do try and get this simple and obvious fact straight in your head, and don’t be a gullible Muppet. “Too stupid to join UKIP” (Jonathan D. MacDonald, unemployed linguist of Rochdale) has been posting his “You are Japanese” babble for over a decade, literally hundreds of times. But all this proves is that he has serious mental health issues.

            And we could manage without the racial slurs.
            Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

          • Jay Igaboo


            I have no knowledge of JD McDonald, I had picked up the impression that you were Japanese- what’s the problem or offence in that?

            Racial slurs? Any particular one? I make comments on racial groups (including my own) which mention negative traits that I believe to be true, ergo not a slur unless proven to be untrue.
            “Were I Japanese with this level of English skills, I would be interpreting at international conferences and getting well paid for it,”….. there must be plenty of Japanese, plenty of any nationality, with writing skills that are the equivalent of native speakers- in fact, as you must know, learning a different lingo from scratch involves learning the grammar properly, and often someone who has really studied the language is more grammatically correct than one who learned it growing up….. “and not wasting my precious time chit-chatting with the likes of you.”…………Jeez, take a chill pill, Jack, and take a day off from being a dick, FFS!

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Anyone that uses the “J” word is a racist in my book.
            “brutality committed by the Jap Army that was so at odds…”
            Talk your way out of that.
            What you fail to grasp is that wrongly assigning anyone that disagrees with you a different and entirely fictious race and nationality is a form of hate speech. Referring here to “Too old and stupid …”
            “there must be plenty of Japanese, plenty of any nationality, with writing skills that are the equivalent of native speakers”

            Name one.
            I appreciate you are more sinned against …. But your assumption that I’m Japanese puts you in the thickest of the thick category. So so don’t be a gullible Muppet all your life. Take a day off, and make it today.
            Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

          • Too Old To Actually Join UKIP

            Which British political party did you last vote for, and why?! Don’t answer that, ‘cos we all know you can really answer that question!

          • Jay Igaboo

            You confuse me with someone who would be embarrassed to by described as a wacist when wacism is defined by modern libtard standards, i.e. speak exactly as we dictate you shall speak, with the words we nominate and without using any of the words we don’t want you to even think of, far less utter.
            To me, racism is hanging negroes from the nearest cottonwood without the benefit of due process,slavery, regardless of whether massa or slave be Black, White or anyways inbetwixt.
            It’s Hutu women cutting up Tutsi women with machetes ( as seen in the evening news) just for being Hutu, or Japs hacking of the heads of Chinese civilians on the Nanking bund.
            It ain’t a word, unless it is applied gratuitously to someone or persons of the race who deserves a pejorative because of their actions.
            E.G. those of dusky hue rioting and thieving in London were n*ggers, w*gs and a sprinkling of White Trash.
            Others with a high melanin count who act decently I do not describe using a pejorative.
            Further to racism, I regard a small measure of racism( and “homophobia” sexism and all the other isms) to be sensible social constructs, just as your Japanese hosts and their elites do– the way they reacted with dignity, community spirit and a lack of pillage after the tsunami illustrates how right the were in that respect.
            As I wrote, I presumed you were Japanese from my vague recollections of your and other’s posts, I didn’t do a forensic examination, I just assumed it was so, neither was it calculated to offend.
            Extract broom handle from fundament, it will alleviate your hyper-sensitivity.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Well, I hope you finally have it straight in your head now: Namely, that I’m British (not Japanese or indeed any other nationality). I was born British, in Britain, of British parents, hold a British passport. And anyone who has spent time in a hardship posting will realise that HMG make voting virtually impossible. Always been British, am British now, but I’m open to offers. However, to accept unquestioned the assertion of a serial fantasist and proven liar (Too old to actually join UKIP) does make you something of a gullible Muppet.
            For the last decade and more, this deranged lunatic has been posting from Rochdale that I’m Japanese. To what point and purpose you may well ask, when writing skills, relevant experience and exposure would seem to be criteria. But there no way you can convince a lunatic. Less frequently and even more libellous, he’s asserted I was guard at a WWII Japanese PoW camp, paedophile, caused death by dangerous … Any publication with a semblance of moral or ethical responsibility would have been this extremely unpleasant person long, but presumably the Spectator believes in keep the looney around for laughs.
            If you require proof of “Too old …” illogical rambling, check his Disqus record.
            Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

          • Too Old To Actually Join UKIP

            Many people in Mirpur or Sylhet can equally boast these credentials.

          • Too Old To Actually Join UKIP

            The lady doth protest too much, methinkieth.

    • carl jacobs

      Japan was defeated. Japan was not beaten. The only power in Japan in August 1945 was the Army, and the Army was not subject to the Government according to the Meiji Constitution. It had no intention of surrendering. Instead in true Samurai fashion it would fight to the end,. The Gov’t officials who were talking about surrender were doing so in abject secrecy for fear of assassination. There was zero chance that Japan would have surrendered without some face-saving mechanism being provided to its militaristic leadership. That was the purpose of unconditional surrender – to humiliate and discredit that Gov ‘t.

      The Japanese plan was to bleed the Americans into suing for peace – toward which outcome the Japanese were prepared to sacrifice millions. But the plan depended upon the Americans closing for a fight. The atomic bombings invalidated the Japanese plan. They convinced the Emperor that the Americans could destroy Japan without invasion. That reality is what caused the Hirohito to order the Army to surrender. And only Hirohito had that power.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        “It had no intention of surrendering. Instead in true Samurai fashion it would fight to the end. The Gov’t officials who were talking about surrender were doing so in abject secrecy for fear of assassination.”
        This is absolutely correct. I recently transcribed a note book/diary of the period clearly written by an insider (in English, presumably as a precaution against casual detection) which showed up in a local antiquarian bookshop. The written English of highly educated Japanese at that time was far better than that of the same social class today.
        Jack, Japan Alps

        • Abie Vee

          You are utterly incorrect. Even if the Army had no intention (highly debatable assumption on your part), powerful as it was, Japan was not a military dictatorship. When, and only when, Hoover agreed to protect Hirohito did Japan surrender.

        • Jay Igaboo

          Interesting, Jack.
          Why not post it, or as much as you can be bothered to?

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            This (below) will give you a flavour. The entire text runs to some 27 pages (depending how you count pages). Also, this is Notebook 3, which presupposed books 1 and 2, and probably 4 … Sadly not available at this time.

            “Thirteen hours after Boch’s Car dropped the Fat Man over Nagasaki, the officials sat tensely, waiting for their
            Ruler to enter the room and listen to them debate ending the war. As Captain Ellis Zacharias’ Plan I-45 predicted months before, they were divided by doubt, debate, difference of opinion, and the fear of being held responsible for such an awful decision.
            The Air-Raid Shelter
            Eleven men sat in extraordinary session around the long, cloth-covered battle. The room they had gathered in
            was small, only 18 by 30 feet. Its ceiling was steel beamed, its walls panelled in a dark wood. Its most striking characteristic tat particular evening, however, was a complete lack of ventilation. In the August humidity, the
            assembled conferee, all dressed formally in morning attire or high-collared uniforms perspired heavily as they talked.
            Four of the men were aides or secretaries. One man was
            a guest. The others were the Big Six, Japan’s “inner cabinet”, formally named the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War. To these six men – four cabinet
            ministers and two military chiefs of staff – was entrusted the formulation of policies, subject to full cabinet approval, which influenced the destinies of eighty million citizens of the Japanese …”

          • Jay Igaboo

            Jack, for some reason my reply thanking you for this and suggesting that you have it checked for provenance( if possible) because it is n historically significant document has been removed??!

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            That’s inept, heavy-handed, ignorant Mods for you. Wouldn’t recognise genius if it came up and kicked them in the balls.

        • Too Old To Actually Join UKIP

          You should just stick to your latest conspiracy-theories about Jean Charles da Silva e de Menezes!

      • Abie Vee

        You are utterly wrong with your time-line, and thus your assumptions. And the Army was certainly not the only power in Japan.

        On June 22, (that is to say, before the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima August 6, and Nagasaki August 9) the Emperor summoned the inner cabinet (officially: The Supreme Council for the Conduct of The War) and said , “This is not an imperial command, but merely a discussion. At the last meeting of the Supreme Council it was decided to adopt a new policy and prepare the homeland for defense. But now I have deemed it necessary to consider a move toward peace, an unprecedented one, and I ask you to take steps at once to realize my wish.”

        From that “discussion” peace flowed… there were certainly enough members of the peace party in the Japanese Diet, the diplomatic corps, and the armed services to procede with Hirohito’s suggestion.

  • SackTheJuggler

    I’ve always rather liked Stilwell, which is more than he seems to have managed for anyone else.