This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 2, No. 4.
Author’s note: This is the third of three articles for The Objective Standard dealing with the role of ideas in military history. The first two dealt with General William T. Sherman’s march through the South in the American Civil War and the British appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s. The material in these articles will appear in my forthcoming book, Nothing Less than Victory: Military Offense and the Lessons of History from the Greco-Persian Wars to World War II (Princeton University Press).
This essay is dedicated to General Paul Tibbets (February 23, 1915–November 1, 2007). Colonel Tibbets, commander of the B-29 “Enola Gay,” dropped the first atomic bomb and brought a speedy end to the war.
Between 1889 and 1931, a cancerous tumor took root in the western Pacific Ocean. A nation of seventy million people systematically implanted, into their minds and their culture, an ideology of sacrifice to an Emperor-god. The cancer soon metastasized into a continental war, launched first against Manchuria in 1931, then against China in 1937. In 1941, a coordinated campaign of attacks was launched against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, as well as the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaya, Indonesia, and the islands of Guam, Wake, and Midway. By 1942, the cancer had reached the Aleutian Islands, New Guinea, and Burma—and it threatened Australia, India, and the west coast of America. The seemingly invincible Japanese Empire of the Rising Sun controlled one-seventh of the earth’s surface.
By the end of 1945, however, the Japanese had lost it all. Surrounded by an impregnable armada, they lay prostrate before merciless American bombers. The best of their youth had killed themselves in suicide attacks. Their fleet was sunk. More than sixty cities had been firebombed. Two cities had been atom-bombed. They were militarily defeated and psychologically shattered, and they faced the possibility of a famine that could kill millions.
Rather than starvation, however, something entirely different followed. Over the next five years, under stern American guidance, and with zeal as great as that with which they had once armed for battle, the Japanese reformed their nation. They adopted a new constitution, purged their schools of religious and military indoctrination, and abandoned aggressive warfare. Imperial subjects became citizens; “divine” decrees were replaced with rights-respecting laws; rulers became administrators; feudal cartels became corporations; propaganda organs became newspapers; women achieved suffrage; and students learned the principles of self-reliance and self-government. Hiroshima, formerly the headquarters of a fanatical military force, became a world center for nonviolence. Those who had once marched feverishly for war now marched passionately for peace.
What stood between the attacks of 1941 and the rebirth of Japan as a civilized nation were five years of merciless warfare, the incineration by napalm and nuclear attack of nearly 400,000 Japanese civilians, an intransigent demand for unconditional surrender, and six years of postwar military occupation by the United States. The result was the most benevolent turnaround of an entire nation in history.
The victory over Japan remains America’s greatest foreign policy success. Today, we take for granted a peaceful, productive, mutually beneficial relationship with the Japanese people. But this friendship was earned with blood, struggle, and an unrepentant drive to victory. The beneficent occupation of Japan—during which not one American was killed in hostile military action—and the corresponding billions in American aid were entirely post-surrender phenomena. Prior to their surrender, the Japanese could expect nothing but death from the Americans.
If there is one historical event that every American should study, beyond the American Revolution and the Civil War, it is America’s victory over Japan in World War II. Even more than the victory in Europe in the same war—in which we divided Germany with the Soviets—the victory over Japan remains the cardinal example of a complete, unambiguous, and fundamentally unshared American military victory.
The story begins with the cultural background to the Japanese attacks, and the intransigent American drive to victory. . . .