What exactly did General Douglas MacArthur, the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, or SCAP, mean when he likened the Japanese nation to a twelve-year-old child? He made the notorious comparison on May 5, 1951, to a joint committee of the Senate, after being fired by President Truman for wanting to “roll back” China from Korea (with nuclear bombs if required). He had left Japan some weeks before, where he received a hero’s farewell: hundreds of thousands of weeping Japanese lined his route to the airport, the public radio station played “Auld Lang Syne,” the Mainichi newspaper cried, “Oh, General MacArthur—General, General, who saved Japan from confusion and starvation,” and the liberal Asahi paper gushed that
it was General MacArthur who taught us the merits of democracy and pacifism and guided us with kindness along this bright path. As if pleased with his own children growing up, he took pleasure in the Japanese people, yesterday’s enemy, walking step by step toward democracy.
Is that what the old soldier had meant?
Here is what he actually said:
If the Anglo-Saxon was say 45 years of age in his development, in the sciences, the arts, divinity, culture, the Germans were quite as mature. The Japanese, however, in spite of their antiquity measured by time, were in a very tuitionary condition. Measured by the standards of modern civilization, they would be like a boy of twelve as compared with our development of 45 years.
From today’s perspective this suggests an objectionable racial, or at least cultural, bias. Some, particularly in Japan, saw it that way already in 1951. There is no doubt that MacArthur, like most people of his age, thought the “Christian West” was superior and therefore duty-bound to educate the unenlightened East.
But MacArthur’s remark was not meant to be hostile. On the contrary, as John Dower, who is never slow to spot racism among his fellow Americans,1 observes in his superb history of Japan’s occupation, it had been “MacArthur’s intention to argue that the Japanese could be trusted more than the Germans.” The Germans had committed their crimes as adults, so to speak; they already knew right from wrong, but had willfully disregarded the distinction. The Japanese had to be taught, and MacArthur, the supreme teacher, was proud to point out what keen, loyal, diligent pupils they had turned out to be.
SCAP believed in the White Man’s Burden. Before turning his mind to Japan, MacArthur had taken a paternal interest in the Filipinos, whom his father, General Arthur MacArthur, had ruled as military governor earlier in the century. MacArthur père, too, had testified to a Senate committee, in 1902. He remarked that America’s “wonderful” thrust into Asia was the destiny of the “magnificent Aryan people,” whose duty it was to initiate a “stage of progressive social evolution that may be reasonably expected to result in the unity of the race and the brotherhood of man.”2 SCAP would not have expressed himself quite…
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