We recently returned from a 12 day speaking tour in Japan that took us to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Okinawa. Before we joined forces in Hiroshima prior to the August 6 commemorative events, Oliver lent support to the activists protesting the South Korean naval base under construction on Jeju, South Korea, less than 500 kilometers from Shanghai. Peter was in Kyoto with participants in American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute’s annual study-abroad class. Being in Hiroshima and Nagasaki around the anniversaries of the atomic bombings was a powerful experience for both of us and a vivid reminder of why whitewashing the past is so critical to perpetuating empire in the present — a project in which the U.S. and Japan have collaborated for the past 68 years.
Both nations’ elites have undoubtedly benefited from this symbiotic relationship. Until Japan was recently displaced by China, the U.S. and Japan were the world’s two biggest economies. They are among the top five spenders on their militaries. Japan has been the fulcrum of U.S. policy in Asia since the end of World War II and remains so today.
Prior to our visit, our Untold History of the United States 10-part documentary film series had aired to widespread acclaim on NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting network. The book, recently published in Japan, had already sold almost 50,000 copies there. We didn’t appreciate how much interest our critique of the American empire and global security state had aroused until we arrived for a special private tour of the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima and were swarmed by well over 100 reporters and TV cameras.
It was fitting that we began in Hiroshima. Peter has been bringing students there every summer since 1995 in partnership with his colleagues at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University. It was Oliver’s first visit. Peter has been studying and writing about the atomic bombings for two decades. Oliver had immersed himself in the scholarly literature and visual images as part of the five years of research that went into creation of Untold History. No matter how well prepared one is though, visiting Hiroshima delivers an enormous emotional jolt.
We placed the August 1945 atomic bombings at the center of our analysis of the postwar U.S. empire. The atomic monopoly gave the U.S. the confidence to impose its will on the rest of the world. Following the bombings, U.S. officials moved to quickly propound a narrative that justified these barbaric acts — a narrative that bore little resemblance to the truth. So the public was told that the bombs were mercifully dropped on the fanatic Japanese to end the war as rapidly as possible, avoiding an invasion that would have, according to Truman, cost a half million American lives. The U.S. had no choice. The act was not only justified, it was humane. Just think of all those Japanese who would have also died in an invasion.
This version of history left out a few inconvenient facts. Japan was already on its last legs and had been searching for an acceptable surrender formula since May. General Douglas MacArthur, who joined Generals Eisenhower and Arnold and Admirals Leahy King, and Nimitz in disavowing the bombings, later insisted that the Japanese would have surrendered in May if the U.S. had offered guarantees about preserving the emperor. Intercepted Japanese cables affirmed this fact. Truman described the July 18 cable as “the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace.” Truman also knew that the Soviet Union was about to come into the war and that the Soviet invasion was what the Japanese most dreaded. In May, Japan’s Supreme War Council declared, “Soviet entry into the war will deal a death blow to the Empire.” At Potsdam, Truman got confirmation that the Soviets were about to enter the Pacific War and wrote, “Fini Japs when that comes about.” He told his wife that the war would end a year sooner now. On July 6, 1945, the Combined Intelligence Committee reported, “An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat.”
The August 9 Soviet invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria spelled the beginning of a very rapid end to the war. Later that day, the U.S. destroyed Nagasaki. To the Japanese leaders, this callous and terrifying act did not represent something fundamentally new. The U.S. had been firebombing and destroying Japanese cities since March — over 100 in total. Hiroshima and Nagasaki added two more to the list. But it was the Soviet invasion that convinced Prime Minister Suzuki and others that they had better surrender to the Americans while they still had the chance rather than to the Soviets. The atomic bombings were an attempt by the U.S. to get the war over with before the Soviets invaded and received the spoils the Allies had promised them at Yalta and, even more consequential to human history, they were an attempt to demonstrate to the Soviets, who were well aware of Japanese desperation to end the war, that the U.S. could be completely ruthless in defending its “interests.”
It took extraordinary dexterity, a lapdog media, and an unquestioning educational establishment to turn this tale of viciousness into one of American benevolence, but Truman and his defenders managed to pull it off, leaving untrammeled the sanctification of WWII as a “good” war (it was certainly a necessary one) and the myth of American exceptionalism — the story of freedom-loving America’s unique goodness and altruistic willingness to sacrifice for others.
The second fundamental myth about WWII is that the U.S. gallantly won the war in Europe when, in reality, it was, as Churchill acknowledged, the Soviets who “tore the guts out of the German military machine.” The Soviets faced 200 German divisions throughout most of the war, while the U.S. and Britain together faced 10. In fact, Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were furious that the U.S. was “periphery pecking” and shoring up British imperial interests in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and later Burma instead of confronting the Germans head on until Normandy, when the U.S. narrative typically and misleadingly begins, long after the Soviets had turned the tide of the war.
And the third myth about the war was that the Cold War was a product of Soviet territorial aggrandizement and hostility toward the capitalist West. Actually, it took Truman less than two weeks in office before he had fundamentally undermined Roosevelt’s vision of a multipolar world of collaboration and shared leadership between the U.S. and Soviet Union and initiated a policy of mistrust and hostility.
So we argue that almost everything Americans learn about the war is just the opposite of what actually occurred. Amazingly, the version of WWII history taught to Japanese students is equally mendacious and dishonest. In Japan today, there is some knowledge about and debate over the Nanjing massacre and the sexual enslavement Korean women, but there is almost no discussion of the brutality and wanton killing associated with Japan’s wartime imperial onslaught in the rest of Asia. Few know that well over one million Vietnamese perished during Japan’s brief rule or the atrocities committed in Indonesia, Malaya, the Philippines, Taiwan, Burma, and elsewhere throughout the region to men and women alike. And the surrender itself has been cloaked in nonsense about a compassionate emperor’s willingness to sacrifice himself in order to limit his people’s suffering.
The subterfuge continued after the war. At the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, no charges were brought against Japanese leaders for the aerial slaughter of Chinese and other civilians in order to ensure that no parallels were drawn to U.S. firebombing of Japanese civilians or the even deeper war crime of the atomic bombings. Referring to the former, Secretary of War Stimson confessed to Truman that he didn’t want the United States to get “the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities.” And referring to the latter, Truman’s personal chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, declared, “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender,” and told Truman biographer Jonathan Daniels in 1949 that U.S. leaders claimed they were going to hit military targets but “went ahead and killed as many women and children as they could which was just what they wanted all the time.” The U.S. actually pardoned or simply released dozens of class A war criminals, many of whom went on to do America’s postwar bidding. Among them were Matsutaro Shoriki, founder of Nippon TV and president of the Yomiuri Shimbun, now Japan’s largest newspaper, who worked closely with the CIA and USIA to bring nuclear power to Japan as part of Eisenhower’s effort to sell the benefits of the peaceful atom in order to justify use of nuclear weapons. It was Eisenhower whose massive nuclear buildup — from approximately 1,000 nuclear weapons when he took office to 30,000 when his budgeting cycle was completed — turned Truman’s threat of potential omnicide into a reality that has plagued mankind ever since.
Another of the pardoned war criminals was Nobusuke Kishi, who went on to become Japan’s prime minister in 1957 and helped spawn a family dynasty of historical prevaricators. Kishi forced passage of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, widely known as AMPO, which sanctioned retention of U.S. military bases in Japan. Popular opposition was so fierce that Kishi was forced to resign. Kishi had already angered the public by insisting that Japan’s Constitution did not ban the development of nuclear weapons. This was heresy to a nation that overwhelmingly embraced the antimilitarist Article 9 of its U.S.-authored Peace Constitution, which stated, “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Since the Korean War, U.S. leaders had been pressuring Japan to revoke Article 9 and play a larger role in regional defense. Kishi’s government had deceived the public by concluding a “secret agreement” giving U.S. military vessels carrying nuclear weapons carte blanche to enter Japanese ports.
Kishi’s younger brother Eisaku Sato became prime minister in 1964 and privately supported Japan starting its own nuclear weapons program. In 1967, he endorsed the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” renouncing Japan’s manufacture, possession, or introduction of nuclear weapons, a commitment that Sato later described to the U.S. ambassador as “nonsense” and persisted in violating. In 1971, his government concluded the treaty that allowed Okinawa to revert to Japan, but stipulated that the U.S. would retain its military bases on the island. In 1969, he had signed a secret protocol allowing the U.S. to reintroduce nuclear weapons into Okinawa, under emergency circumstances, following Okinawa’s 1972 reversion to Japan. His receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, coming on the heels of Henry Kissinger’s receiving the award the previous year, made further mockery of efforts to find peaceful solutions to global crises.
The lies and deceptions came full circle with the election of rightwinger Shinzo Abe, Kishi’s grandson, in December 2012. Abe had previously served for one year before resigning in disgrace. He is a notorious denier of history, having questioned the veracity of Japanese atrocities toward China and threatened to rescind Japan’s apology to women forced into prostitution to service Japanese troops.
Abe’s LDP returned to power following three years of failed Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) rule. The defeat of the DPJ was a tragic blow to the reform hopes of the Japanese people. The DPJ’s Yukio Hatoyama had been elected prime minister in September 2009, ending decades of almost uninterrupted LDP rule. He had promised to block the planned relocation of the large U.S. marine base within Okinawa from Futenma to Henoko and move it entirely outside Japan. Futenma and the other U.S. bases, which have been so important to American imperial efforts, are profoundly unpopular with the people of Okinawa, the small prefecture that houses 74 percent of the U.S. bases in Japan. Hatoyama’s resistance was crushed by Nobel Laureate Barack Obama, precipitating the collapse of his government. When we met with Hatoyama, who has written enthusiastically about Untold History, we encountered a man who had tried to resist the ever-encroaching U.S. empire of bases and had been destroyed in the process. Obama, like all of his postwar predecessors, with the exception of John Kennedy, and, all-too-briefly, Jimmy Carter, made clear that maintaining the American empire took precedence over human decency and social justice and the will of the Okinawan people, who have struggled mightily against construction of a new marine base and the use of their island as a launching pad for all U.S Asia wars, beginning with Korea. Okinawa is now being readied to play a similar role in Obama’s Asia “pivot,” the U.S. plan to “contain” China in what is gearing up to be, if not a new cold war, an excuse for continued bloated levels of “defense” spending by the U.S. and its allies.
As the U.S. prepares for an attack on Syria, seizing the Assad government’s alleged use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that cannot be crossed, it strikes some as odd that the U.S. takes such issue with the use of WMD at the same time its National Air and Space Museum proudly displays the Enola Gay, the plane that inaugurated the modern era of WMD with its atomic bombing of Hiroshima. There is an irony here that could only get lost on a nation whose history is unlearned — a nation that self-righteously arrogates unto itself the role of global policeman despite having long been, in the words of Martin Luther King, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” So long as American leaders believe, as Woodrow Wilson put it almost a century ago, that “America [is] the savior of the world,” they will continue to substitute force for diplomacy and cling to the conviction, driven home by the fact that the U.S. has avoided universal condemnation for the atomic bombings of 1945, that might makes right. As former Secretary of State Madeline Albright so audaciously declared, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation.”
To understand how the rest of the world looks at military action in Syria by the United States, one would be better served to turn to an unlikely source — Samuel Huntington — who wrote, “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas, values or religion… but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES will be released on DVD (Warner Brothers) and in paperback (Simon & Schuster) on October 15th