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Remember – Lest We Forget

The story of the Japanese sack of China and Southeast Asia, its treatment of Western prisoners of war, its hegemonic ideology, cries out for retelling. Not to do so–to dwell extravagantly on the dropping of the atomic bombs and to all but ignore the character of the Japanese regime that brought war in the Pacific–would be the equivalent of discussing the end of the European war by dwelling on the bombing of Dresden while saying little about the Nazi regime.

Yet that is what happened. Public and commercial television all but ignored the end of the Pacific war. Neither the editorial nor the op-ed columns of The New York Times marked what was, for the hundreds of millions of people of East Asia, a far more momentous event than the dropping of the atomic bombs. True, aging American vets staged lackluster marches and ceremonials. And a few of their more verbal comrades–James McGregor Burns, Paul Fussell–introduced a note of realism by discussing what a military invasion of Japan might have entailed. But these were minor voices when set against the pervasive silence.

It was more than simple anniversary burnout; the roots of this non-observance may be located in the ideological divide over America’s Pacific war. From Pearl Harbor on, the war against Japan found particular support among former isolationists and Republican conservatives; the war against Nazi Germany among New Dealers, liberals and the Left. Revenge for Pearl Harbor (possibly, the Right came to believe, itself brought on by FDR’s machinations), a hatred of the Japanese fueled not only by their perfidy but by their skin color, an ideal right-wing military hero in the person of Douglas MacArthur: all of this made the war against the Japanese the top priority for anti-New Deal Republicans. The war against Nazism, waged in alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union (transmuted by the alchemy of wartime propaganda into a land of agrarian-industrial reformers), offered comparable satisfactions to New Dealers and the American Left.

These predilections continued in the postwar years. Conservatives raised an eyebrow over the legality of the Nuremberg trials. Liberals had few such doubts–although they had many more when it came to the trials of Japanese war criminals. The cold war only reinforced these inclinations. It produced, on the right, Joseph McCarthy defending the SS perpetrators of the Malmedy massacre of American POWs and, on the left, a Communist-led peace offensive that focused on the primal evil of the atomic bomb.

So, when anniversary season rolled around last year, it wasn’t surprising that the Left stressed the war in Europe and the dropping of the bomb. But why didn’t the Right make more of its ideological patrimony? After all, the anniversary provided an important opportunity to remind Americans that today’s realities of a democratic and pacific Japan, peace between Japan and China, and fifty years of real (not ersatz) co-prosperity in East Asia are not the result of some ancient Confucian ethic, or of the inexorable laws of free trade, but of an American political and military presence now imperiled by post-cold war isolationism.

Of course some of that isolationism comes from the Right. And the silence may also result from an unwillingness, shared by the Right, to offend commercially powerful Japan.

But more important is the fact that over the past half-century the meaning of the victory over Nazism has, if anything, become clearer, more unalloyed. The West’s victory in the cold war reinforced the wartime theme of democracy v. totalitarianism (even if it eroded the illusions of the alliance with Stalin). So has Germany’s confrontation with and repentance for the crimes of Nazism.

Remembrance of the Pacific war has been more complicated. Liberal guilt over the bomb and more general regret at the internment of Japanese-Americans has marred, for some, America’s victory. And there is a continuing ambiguity, a lack of closure, in our relationship to East Asia that prevents a full-throated commemoration. Our cold war with the Soviet Union is over, while our relations with China grow frostier by the month. Nor have the Japanese yet confronted their wartime crimes in any way comparable to the Germans. If the German case is any indication, only when Japan does so will its erstwhile enemies, and present-day allies, join them in serious inquiry into that ugly past. Until then, amnesia will remain a malady in both countries.

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