On Jan. 26, 1880, Douglas MacArthur was born in the barracks at Little Rock, Ark. to an Army Captain and his wife. MacArthur is one of the finest men the republic has ever produced. Aside from being a general during World War II, in which he led American forces to overwhelming victory while minimizing losses, MacArthur was also a presidential candidate, a father, an educational reformer, and, perhaps most interestingly from a historical standpoint, a benevolent conqueror (which will be the subject of this short Historiat post).
After the United States and the rest of the Allies conquered Japan, General MacArthur was tasked with helping the Japanese implement a new political order based on individual rights, democracy, and the rule of law. This was no small task, given that Japan had an autocratic constitution called the Meiji Constitution. Under the Meiji Constitution, the emperor was the supreme leader of the Empire of Japan (at least in theory) and the parliament of Japan, called the Diet, was led by a prime minister. The Japanese had copied elements of both the Prussian and the British constitutional models after the Meiji Revolution of 1868.
There was also the issue of implementing a constitution from the top down for the purpose of self-governing from the bottom up. To tackle this problem, MacArthur appointed a team of American lawyers, economists, and translators to draft up a constitution. The bottom-up/top-down conundrum is probably MacArthur’s best defense for why he didn’t simply introduce a constitution that mimicked the American one. At the time of the drafting of the Japanese constitution, MacArthur’s political enemies (of which he had many) on both the left and the right bludgeoned him on the constitutional conundrum he faced in Japan.
MacArthur was also faced with the unpleasant prospect of a communist resurrection in Japan (China succumbed, and there was a fear that the same might happen in Japan), and he had to find a way to curb communist violence while protecting individual rights.
MacArthur and his constitutional team also faced resistance from Japanese attorneys and legal theorists. The 1889 Meiji Constitution had helped usher Japan into the modern era and made it a veritable world power. The emperor himself, the one MacArthur had allowed to live after conquering Japan, along with most members of the Japanese parliament, were reluctant to liberalize their entire political order, even if said liberalization took place under the boot of the people who had just conquered their country.
However, when all was said and done, only five members of the Diet opposed the new constitution when it was presented to the parliament for ratification. MacArthur’s ability to take the long-run sociological view in Japan not only saved Japan from communist atrocity, it also marked one of the few times in history that a conquering people gave so much leeway to their conquered enemy. MacArthur convinced several allies in Washington and London that Japan’s emperor must live, and that executing him would not demoralize the Japanese but anger them, and maybe even start an armed insurrection.
The relative graciousness of the American occupation of Japan led to the most peaceful and prosperous era in Japanese history. MacArthur’s governing strategy for a conquered people was so successful that it was aped by Washington in 2001 and 2003 when the United States invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. What went wrong? You could write a dissertation trying to answer that question, but the most straightforward answer is that Iraq and Afghanistan were not conquered. The governments of Kabul and Baghdad never officially surrendered to Washington, and they never really had the capacity to wage war the way that Japan was able to wage war on the United States.
When Tokyo fell, the entire country of Japan fell. When Kabul and Baghdad fell, the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban fell. If MacArthur were around in 2001 and 2003, there is little doubt that he would have pointed out that elementary fact.
The best book written on the general, by the way, and there are many, is American Caesar by William Manchester, originally published in 1978.