Monday, October 16, 2006

Munichs and MacArthur Occupations

In any discussion of war and peace, two fables will inevitably be brought up: Munich and the MacArthur occupation.

Munich was the time when in the face of clear and present danger and evil, the leaders of the free world refused to resist aggression, caved into to specious (in the original sense: fair-seeming) arguments, made concessions to the bad guys that seemed reasonable, and thus invited a disastrous world war and coddled a dictatorship that led to the deaths of millions both on and off the battlefield. The lesson is: non-resistance to dictatorships, even when the dictatorship brandish demands that seem fair on the face of it, is irresponsible and makes one complicit in that dictatorship's evil acts.

The MacArthur occupation is a time when, as the result of an overwhelming US (and allied) force, the bad guys were converted by the application of tough but fair US administration and abundant US largesse. Former enemies thoroughly and completed abjured their former evil ways and were turned into fast friends. While first stated with reference to Gen. MacArthur in Japan, this same narrative is of course also applicable to the utter discrediting of Nazism and the rebuilding of (West) Germany as a genuinely democratic and humane society.

I said these are fables not because they are entirely false, but because they have been stripped of context and can be applied in a word or sentence and suddenly conjure up the whole picture with its supporting documentation. What these fables have in common is their picture of rapid moral transformation: a government becomes evil at a clear point in time (say in 1933) and then should be opposed with all means at our disposal, until it is abjectly defeated (say in 1945) and will then become good.

Paradoxically, the two are connected, however. Only after a "Munich," I would argue, can you have a "MacArthur occupation." Remember, had France and Britain attacked Germany, rather than consent to the partition of Czechoslovakia according to ethnic zones (which was the issue in Munich), they would not have "stopped the Holocaust" -- because the Holocaust in the strict sense did not begin until the Wannsee Conference in 1941. Nor would they have "stopped Hitler's insane plans of world conquest," because up until the German march into Prague a year or so after Munich, Hitler's foreign policy was simply one of reuniting with the motherland ethnic German districts that clearly and indisputably wished to be so united.

Joachim Fest in his brilliant biography, Hitler, posed the counter-factual question: what if Hitler had been assassinated some time after Munich, but before the invasion of Poland? What would his place in history have been? Fest shows us the disturbing possibility: that he would go down in history, at home and abroad, as one of the greatest Germans ever, with only an occasional muckracker reminding an irritated nation of the incipient brutality and Jew-baiting. Make no mistake, he cautions: had Hitler stayed alive, he would certainly have aimed for the world conquest and monstrous crimes he is known for today. But this is clear only in hindsight. In bulk, people don't take it literally when would-be politicians write about revenge, world conquest, and crushing this or that hated minority -- some people will only believe it when they see it. And why? Because history really does offer too many examples of fire-breathers who go moderate in power. (That's another fable too.)

Despite the example of Munich, the Roosevelt administration did not operate on the "Munich fable" set of assumptions in dealing with Japan. Instead they believed that given the situation of domestic political opinion in the US, militarist Japan (which they knew/believed to be the same kind of inevitable danger that Hitler was), had to be maneuvered into attacking the US first. Countries like China would just have sit tight and endure Rapes of Nanjing and poison gas attacks until the Japanese felt so boxed in by Anglo-American embargoes that they finally lashed out and attacked the US. This is, by the way, the origin of the far-right critique of Roosevelt: that his pressure forced Japan to attack us (a bad thing), not the Soviet Union (a good thing), and that he knew all about Pearl Harbor, but didn't do anything about it because he wanted a war with Japan. Well, of course, Roosevelt knew about the surprise attack in advance; everybody knew Japan was cooking up some kind of surprise attack on the US navy at -- Subic Bay in the Philippines.

But again, as a result of the endless stream of Munichs from 1931 to 1941, we ended up with the MacArthur occupation in 1945. Could anyone by 1945 deny the Japanese had been interested in vast conquests and brutal rule over fellow Asians? Was America just trying to defend imperialist privileges in Southeast Asia? Letting Germany and Japan run rampant for a few years was an integral part of their complete discrediting by 1945.

Another part was the undeniably full military mobilization and success of the German and Japanese nations in that period. The average German clerk could not deny that his nation's military was not being held back by any pusillanimous fear of international opinion. The average Japanese worker could not deny that his whole country was working day and night for victory. And both Germans and Japanese had the European and East Asian traditions of statehood behind them when they knew, as they dug out of the rubble in 1945, that if a state with one ideology failed, a state with some other ideology had to take its place, because the people cannot exist without a state. But had they not been assured that the old state had indeed done its best to win victory, and been given a free hand, such that conquered China or Poland was a pretty fair representation of what their side in the war was fighting for, they might well have decided that Fascist-style nationalism had not been given a fair chance, and tried for another go.

Your assignment: discuss with reference to US policy 1991-2006.