Douglas MacArthur on Democracy
Authoritarian Sclerosis in Imperial Japan
There is an interesting exchange in William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur is talking with his Chief of Staff Richard Sutherland. They are discussing the merits of democracy. Sutherland says that Congress only ties the hands of the army, and argues that a strong dictatorship is needed to prosecute the war.
General MacArthur listened for a while and then told Sutherland he was wrong; that democracy works and will always work, because the people are allowed to think, to talk, and keep their minds free, open, and supple. He said that while the dictator state may plan a war, get everything worked out down to the last detail, launch the attack, and do pretty well at the beginning, eventually something else goes wrong with the plan. Something interrupts the schedule. Now, the regimented minds of the dictator command are not flexible enough to handle quickly the changed situation. They have tried to make war a science when it is actually an art. He went on to say that a democracy, on the other hand, produces hundreds and thousands of flexible-minded, free-thinking leaders who will take advantage of the dictator’s troubles and mistakes and think of a dozen ways to outthink and defeat him. As long as a democracy can withstand the initial onslaught, it will always find ways of striking back and eventually it will win.
Note the metaphors MacArthur employs: a democracy is open, supple, flexible-minded, and free-thinking, while a dictatorship is rigid, inflexible, perhaps even sclerotic, its inability to adapt dooming it during times of crisis. This contrast is noteworthy if only because it echoes similar critiques of liberal democracy: that it has fallen off, that it is impotent in the face of technological change, that its institutions are irreformable and dysfunctional. MacArthur makes the same points in reverse to argue that liberal democracy is the most effective system.
His opposite was Imperial Japan. This was a thoroughly organised and militarised society, led by people who were seemingly the most qualified in matters of war and industry: businessmen, tycoons, admirals, generals. Yet in certain ways—the ones which mattered most—they were curiously blind. For all the preparations they made for a total war in the Pacific, the nature of warfare wound up changing in totally unforeseen ways; by the time they had realised it, they had already lost the war.
On assuming the supreme command of occupied Japan, MacArthur took it upon himself to reconstruct and democratise society. One of his actions was to dismantle the zaibatsu. These were family-run business conglomerates that had effective monopolies on large swathes of economic activity as well as a degree of political influence. He reversed compulsory membership in the national unions—long captured by corporate interests—and sold zaibatsu assets to the public, hoping to broaden the arena of economic activity and develop a thriving middle-class.
The story of zaibatsu domination goes back to 1868. Japan, having been in a long period of self-imposed isolation, was forced to open up to the outside world. The old rice-and-samurai system gave way to a cash economy; commerce, once seen as lowly and dishonourable, grew immensely. Early movers, riding the wave, colluded with businessmen and politicians to entrench their corporations—the zaibatsu—in the fabric of the new society. These were later nationalised during the Great Depression.
At that time the military was beginning to act on its own prerogatives, independent of the civilian government and the imperial court. With the integration of the zaibatsu, it had completed the transformation into a military-industrial complex with effective control over the levers of power. Its authority was—in theory—second only to that of the figure-head emperor’s. Its growth and survival became so inextricably bound to the nation’s continued existence that Japan had few other prospects than a gloomy cycle of vicious war: industrial growth was needed to supply the military, whose foreign adventures in turn secured the fresh resources necessary for the production of more armaments.
The end of free civil society went hand-in-hand with the solidification of military thinking. Admiral Hori Teikichi, writing after the war, described how “this kind of creeping formalism spread until it became a kind of strategic orthodoxy and [the navy] ended up as a smug little society which insisted that all ideas on strategy should conform to this orthodoxy.” Japanese military doctrine had stagnated in the decades before World War II, with the navy in particular having become obsessed with the idea of the “decisive battle”. This was a hypothetical engagement involving the bulk of the Japanese and American navies, victory in which would determine the course of the whole war. Key to winning this was the construction of a huge battle fleet armed with the biggest guns possible; its baroque centre-piece, the Yamato class battleship, was the largest ever constructed.
Only as the war unfolded did Japan realise that it had pursued the wrong strategy. She had perfected her navy for a form of warfare that was becoming increasingly obsolete. Steel behemoths no longer lumbered into position, seeking extended lines to maximise surface area for their big guns. America was now using the carrier to initiate devastating air-strikes at distance. Japan’s carriers, on the other hand, were relegated to supporting the main fleet, much like the rest of her other naval craft. Her submarines were tasked with harassing enemy battleships in order to gain the upper-hand in the decisive battle, but they were neutralised by innovations in radar technology. Aircraft were designed to be swift, so as to seize the initiative; their lightness meant they were easily shot down. New pilots could not be trained fast enough and their hapless replacements were thrown away in kamikaze attacks.
The Japanese war-plan had been predicated on a clean, conventional war. New technology changed everything. The Americans gave them a messy, sprawling affair; because they had not elevated the army to the level of a sacred institution, it was less taken by dogma, and better able to fit her means to the situation, utilising new armaments in creative ways. MacArthur exemplified this in New Guinea. Rather than fight a prolonged island-hopping campaign, he used aircraft to bypass the enemy, cut off their positions, and render them irrelevant. No decisive battle ever presented itself to the Japanese. Its regime, too brittle to adjust to this fact, were several decades too late in realising their strategic misjudgements.
When a society becomes too entrenched in its ways, it undermines the ability of its members to form and navigate new associations to solve relevant problems. The preservation of old values may be at odds with the affirmation of new ones. Political institutions may cease to serve the common good and become mere instruments by which partisan interests enrich and empower themselves. All of this happened with Imperial Japan.
With the gleefulness of hindsight, we may say that history has vindicated MacArthur’s words. But they came with two important qualifications, neither of which should be taken for granted:
that the democracy can produce flexible-minded, free-thinking leaders;
that the democracy can withstand the initial onslaught
The discussion between MacArthur and Sutherland was recorded by George Kenney in General Kenney Reports (1949, pp. 151-2) and The MacArthur I Know (1951, pp. 112-3). William Manchester quotes it in his biography of MacArthur, American Caesar (1978), republished by Dell Books (1979), p. 203.
The first chapter of The Modern History of Japan by W. G. Beasley (1963) describes Japan’s transition to a cash economy, and the circumstances into which the zaibatsu emerged. The writing is dry and old-fashioned, but absolutely stuffed with detailed.
The Rise and Fall of the Zaibatsu by David A. C. Addicott (2017) is a succinct overview of the zaibatsu.
Imperial Japanese Navy & Doctrine in the Pacific War by Mark Stille, published by Osprey (2014) lists Japan’s naval armaments in World War II. It also helpfully summarises the doctrines regarding each. (pp. 11-23).
Hori Teikichi’s remarks are quoted in Kaigun by David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, published by The US Naval institute Press (2012). The quotation is from pp. 196-7 of Hiroyuki Agawa’s biography of Isoroku Yamamoto, translated into English by John Bester for Kōdansha International (1979). Kaigun has all sorts of detail about every aspect of the Imperial Japanese Navy; Evans & Peattie’s reflections on why it lost the war (pp. 487-519) are especially relevant.