People for Peace, Justice, and Healing

     Home     Resources     Local Events     Meeting Notes     News Sources      Iraq

The Lessons of History:
What the Japanese Occupation Really Teaches Us

by Lloyd Jansen

October 16, 2002

The new Bush plan to administer a post-war Iraq with a U.S. occupation force is based on a bad reading of history and is bound to result in disaster. The Administration points to the success of our six-and-a-half year occupation of post WWII Japan under General Douglas McArthur. Let's review history and make some comparisons. Ironically, the Japanese occupation, rather than justifying an occupation of Iraq, offers us a very good model for how to avoid a war with Iraq altogether.

When we occupied Japan, it was universally accepted as just. Japan had aggressively attacked Korea, China, the Soviet Union, the United States, and the Philippines. The Soviet Union was the only state that objected to our occupation, but only because it argued that it should have been entitled to half the conquest. (We and Japan can both be grateful that we held our ground and denied the Soviet's this prize.)

If we occupy Iraq, we will be opposed by most of the world, and most strongly so by those in the Islamic states. Our occupation will fuel resentment against the United States. While this may make relations with other states difficult, it will also endanger us all as it will serve as an excellent recruitment tool for Al Qaida.

When we defeated Japan, there were loud cries to try the hated Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal and have him hung, as we did with General Tojo. McArthur counseled instead that Hirohito would be most useful alive. McArthur prevailed. Hirohito, the revered symbolic leader of a nearly homogenous nation, told the Japanese that they had fought honorably but had lost. As such, they were duty bound to follow the orders of the victors. Using this fealty to the Emperor, McArthur could send a handful of soldiers to a town and they could command it -- safely and effectively.

In Iraq, there will be no such unifying leader to employ. Our occupation will be resented by great numbers who believe we only have designs on Iraqi oil and domination of Muslims. American troops will be targets of snipers and bombers and a phenomenally large and tough occupation force will be necessary for security. There are competing religious sects, competing ethnic groups, competing tribal groups, and some 100 opposition groups. Many will want revenge against surviving supporters of the currently ruling Ba'ath Party. We will be fighting chaos. Other states will likely argue that we dug the hole and can dig ourselves out of it. International help will be very limited. We may win the war, but we will surely lose the peace. We are already losing it in Afghanistan where the Taliban essentially rule much of the Pashtun area again.

Our treatment of defeated Japan, and of Germany and Italy as well, does offer a good model to follow regarding Iraq, but not the way Bush thinks it does. To understand this, we must first look at how WWI was settled. The Treaty of Versailles was designed to humiliate, punish, and immiserate the Germans. It succeeded on all counts and the Germans eventually turned to Hitler. At the end of WWII, the former Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall, reminded us that the victors of WWI had pursued "a negative course." As Secretary of State, he oversaw the Marshall Plan in which some $22 billion in reconstruction aid was sent to Europe, including to the hated Germans and Italians. McArthur supervised a similar rebuilding of Japan. All three states are now solid democratic citizens of the world and our allies.

What have we done with Iraq? We have sought to humiliate, punish, and immiserate the Iraqi people. Our leaders always speak of punishment of Hussein. But it is the innocent Iraqi people whom we have savaged. After we attacked civilian water plants in the Gulf War, we have refused to allow the import of reconstruction materials. Chlorine and water filtration equipment could be used for military purposes, we argue. And so at least 500,000 Iraqis, mostly children, have died from water borne diseases. We have done this in the hope that immiserated Iraqis would blame Hussein and topple him. Marshall once said that the real enemies of freedom and democracy were "hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos" -- exactly what sanctions have given the Iraqi people.

When asked on "60 Minutes" in 1996 about the hundreds of thousands of deaths, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright replied that "the price is worth it." When this is quoted in Mosques throughout the Islamic world, need we wonder why so many hate us? Importantly, the military leaders of our WWII foes were all removed from power. Hussein continues to rule. It is wise to contain him and to destroy his weapons. But instead of punishing the innocent Iraqi population, what if we sent in blue helmeted American construction workers to rebuild the water treatment plants? How would we be seen in Iraq and the rest of the Islamic world? I am proud of the Marshall and McArthur reconstruction programs. We have reaped great rewards, including both peace and much international respect. I am intensely ashamed of our Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. plans for Iraq. We have reaped hatred, pain, and loss. It may be late, but it is not too late. We could still change course if we had leadership wise enough. Hussein should be indicted for his war crimes. Offer large rewards for any who turn him over. Find and destroy any weapons he may have. But let us pursue a positive course for the Iraqi people -- and for us. I fear, instead, that our government is about to make things much worse.

Lloyd Jansen holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a faculty member at Green River Community College in Auburn WA. He also gives public lectures on the ideological roots of Al Qaida and the U.S. response.

Suggestions? Click here to write the webmaster.

To subscribe to our mailing list, please email

Last updated: November 8, 2002