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Was MacArthur a Japanese Agent?
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Was MacArthur a Japanese agent?

For my generation, clickbait. For the younglings, it’s “Who’s MacArthur”?

Douglas MacArthur was, in the words of an admiring biographer, “the American Caesar”, the brilliant military commander who won the Pacific War (the Japanese end of World War II), ruled postwar Japan with a sure imperial hand from 1945 to 1951, and orchestrated the 1950 Inchon landing master-stroke that turned the tide in the Korean War.

MacArthur was also notoriously vain, vainglorious, manipulative, insubordinate, and ambitious. Truman relieved him of his command in Korea in 1951 for coloring outside the lines and wanting to take the war up to the PRC border and possibly beyond. Back home, MacArthur had ambitions of becoming president of the United States but found the road cut off by another triumphant general, Dwight Eisenhower and, in his own words, MacArthur “never died; he just faded away”.

So, that’s MacArthur.

My thoughts turned to MacArthur because of two books. While prepping for a clutch of pieces I wrote on Charles Pellegrino’s account of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, To Hell and Back, I spent some time slogging through the Japan atomic bombs denialist/revisionist fever swamp. At the same time, I was also rereading Sterling and Peggy Seagrave’s 2003 classic of Asian conspiracy theory, paranoia, and fact, Gold Warriors.

“Denialists” is my personal terminology for people who deny that the atomic bombings were in any way unjustified or unnecessary; “revisionists” is a widely accepted term for people who assert the opposite. To further complicate matters, “revisionists” come in lefty anti-US imperialist and righty anti-Communist flavors.

I don’t know how to classify my position in the denialist/revisionist debate. Put me down as “humanitarian”, I guess: the bombings were inhumane, disproportionate, and useful but not indispensable in ending the war. In the pure, legal sense, they skate pretty close to acts of terrorism as the U.S. Code defines them today: assaults on soft, primarily civilian targets with minor military value (the US Army Air Force had refrained from bombing Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and two other locations at the direction of the Manhattan Project Target Committee so the power of the atomic weapon could be demonstrated on relatively undamaged cities) with the primary objective of terrifying and demoralizing the target population and government as much as possible.

Or as the Code puts it, “terrorism” involves crimes that:

Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

A major preoccupation of denialists is parsing and dismissing the indications that the Japanese government was seriously attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting as early as 1944 when it was clear that the Japanese imperial project was going nowhere, indeed going backwards at an accelerating rate.

This state of affairs was brought to my attention by a civil yet heated dustup on my Twitter timeline concerning the relative merits of analyses of the role of the atomic bomb in the Japanese surrender offered by denialist Richard Frank in his 1999 book Downfall (hadda drop ‘em!) and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s 2005 neo-revisionist Racing the Enemy (Colonel Mustard with a candlestick in the library!, I mean, Soviet declaration of war against Japan and advance toward Manchuria).

By 1945, Japan was getting its ass kicked, the overseas empire was disintegrating, the home islands were going to get bombed to flinders to soften them up for invasion, occupation and a round of war crimes trials & executions by the bloodied and vengeful U.S. conqueror.

Plenty of incentive for the Japanese elite to cut a deal, in other words.

One of many flash points for contesting the sincerity and capacity of the Japanese “peace faction” in negotiating a surrender with the United States (and justifying the use of the atomic bombs) for denialists is questioning the authenticity and value of what one might call the “MacArthur memo”, allegedly a 40-page summary of as many as five seemingly viable Japanese peace initiatives transmitted through various third-party channels, prepared by MacArthur and presented to Roosevelt in January 1945, just before the president left for Yalta.

The existence of this memo was reported almost immediately after the surrender in 1945 by Arthur Trohan, who covered Washington during the FDR years in an adversarial way for the isolationist, anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune.

The text is preserved and enthusiastically glossed on a revisionist/holocaust denial website, IHR. Apologies! Trohan, under the headline Japs asked for peace in Jan. Envoys on way – Tokyo; Roosevelt Ignored M’Arthur Reports on Nip Proposals wrote in August 1945:

President Roosevelt dismissed the general’s communication, which was studded with solemn references to the deity, after a casual reading with the remark, “MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician.”

The MacArthur report was not even taken to Yalta. However, it was carefully preserved in the files of the high command and subsequently became the basis of the Truman-Attlee Potsdam declaration calling for surrender of Japan.

Now that peace has been concluded on the basis of the terms MacArthur reported, high administration officials prepared to meet expected congressional demands for explanation of the delay. It was considered certain that from various quarters of Congress charges would be hurled that the delay cost thousands of American lives and casualties, particularly in such costly offensives as Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

According to Trohan, “The Terms [outlined in the MacArthur memo] were identical with those subsequently concluded by Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman” i.e. we could have already gotten the same deal in January 1945 that we eventually got in August 1945 after kayaking the four final cataracts of corpses: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

In Trohan’s twenty-year anniversary retrospective, he advanced the argument that responding to the Japanese overtures would not only have averted the butchery of the final island battles and the atomic bombings; it would have kept the Soviet Union in its place, both by pre-empting the Soviet declaration of war against Japan that triggered the Red Army advance in Manchuria, and by enabling a transfer of U.S. troops into the ETO so the U.S. could have made a better show of it in the struggle to control post-war Europe.

Or, as the subhead in Trohan’s 1965 piece put it, Earlier V-J Day Might Have Kept Russians Out of Berlin and Averted Cold War.

That’s probably what MacArthur felt, and members of his large and influential military and political coterie. Reading Trohan’s pieces, you get the clear picture that the story was leaked to him by people in tune with MacArthur’s views. It should be said that MacArthur’s disdain for the significance of the atomic bombings is legendary; in fact, he is the grandpappy of the right-wing revisionists.

On one level, MacArthur’s grumbling is part of the right-wing revisionist narrative: that Roosevelt was a tool of USSR-adoring comsymps who obsessed about defeating Japan and unnecessarily prolonging the war so Uncle Joe could glom onto more of Europe and Asia, instead of winding down the Pacific struggle quick, clean, and early on in anticipation of utilizing Japan as an asset in the real war–the upcoming Cold War with the Soviet Union and world communism.

On a second, more disturbing level, one gets a hint that MacArthur felt that Roosevelt and his strategists brought about seven months of unnecessary slaughter by persisting in the military campaign instead of negotiating an end to the war in early 1945.

So when Truman’s team was hyping the indispensable, unavoidable A-bomb, MacArthur’s team leaked the story to Trohan that the bombs were totally unnecessary.

There you have the right-wing revisionist case in a nutshell.

Too bad, the existence of the MacArthur memo can’t be confirmed.

Trohan describes in 1965 how in 1953 Herbert Hoover “asked MacArthur for a copy of the original. MacArthur verified the story” i.e. the existence of the memo…but to the delight of conspiracy theorists everywhere, MacArthur said he didn’t have a copy since he had sent his papers to the DoD where, per Trohan, the memo “was lost or removed from the files.”

Understandably, interest in the purported MacArthur memo drives the denialists crazybananas.

I will now provide an extra helping of crazybananas as part of my effort to make the Internet more interesting: the suggestion that MacArthur’s inclinations in favor of a negotiated peace that found expression in the 40-page memo were colored by Japanese gold as well as more world-historical concerns like nobbling the Soviets, saving Americans lives, and keeping the atomic genie in its bottle.

That’s what comes of reading the Seagraves’ Gold Warriors. Gold Warriors is an absolutely gonzo tale of thousands of tons of gold and treasure systematically looted by the Japanese imperial family in parallel with the Japanese military advance into East Asia, shipped to imperial vaults in Japan and, when transport to the home islands became too risky, hidden in 175 underground caverns in the Philippines. It’s sensational popular history, but with a couple CD’s worth of documentation; to provide some scholarly cred, Chalmers Johnson reviewed the book favorably with some caveats over at the LRB.

According to the Seagraves, MacArthur became aware of the existence of these troves in late 1945, while interrogating the erstwhile commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, General Yamashita, and seized the gold on behalf of the United States. The Philippine stash, combined with hidden treasure acquired after the fall of Japan, served as a massive off-the-books slush fund exploited by MacArthur and U.S. strategists for decades afterwards to secure the rule of pro-US/anti-Communist conservatives in Japan and engage in skullduggery worldwide.

Here’s my serving of alternate history:

The reliance of MacArthur and, particularly, his intelligence czar, Charles Willoughby, during the occupation of Japan after World War II on Japanese right-wing military and civilian officials, spooks, and gangsters, well, the total, obscene symbiosis between parasite and host, is notorious and pretty well documented.

What if the cooperation with MacArthur began before the surrender, when the Japanese East Asia project was clearly foundering, rats were preparing to leave the ship, and the imperial family had to secure its future?

In my alternate universe, Japanese agents reach out to MacArthur clandestinely in 1944 to negotiate an early, more favorable conclusion to the war and an easy, low-friction occupation, more like a trusteeship. They increase the attractiveness of the initiative by offering a game-changer: the prospect that MacArthur might have unrestricted and unaccountable access to enormous financial resources– the wealth plundered from East Asia– for the use of the American Caesar as his discretion to properly order the peace in Asia…and keep the Soviet Union in check, a joint obsession of Japanese conservatives and MacArthur.

It’s not an issue of bribing MacArthur, in other words; it’s offering him a throne of pure gold as imperator reigning over Asia (discretely assisted by a grateful Japanese elite), as an alternative to ruling Japan from a palace of corpses built by an apocalyptic battle for the home islands and endlessly enlarged by a bitter, region-wide insurgency driven by Japanese military dead-enders and local anti-colonialists.

Wouldn’t be easy to resist, would it?

In my legend, MacArthur finds the offer attractive. And he supports the peace path by writing his 40-page memo to Roosevelt.

Roosevelt summarily dismisses the memo. Maybe Roosevelt is in thrall to his advisors and a strategy of conquest and unconditional surrender premised on total military victory. Maybe he knows about the peace proposals already, resents MacArthur’s presumption, and wants him to butt out of diplomacy and stick to soldiering.

Or maybe Roosevelt knows, through Magic intercepts or some other intel, that MacArthur is playing footsie with the Japanese. And he finds the idea of MacArthur conducting an independent foreign policy with the enemy intolerable and borderline treasonous.

So Roosevelt goes to Yalta and pre-empts the MacArthur route by publicly demanding unconditional surrender with no allowance for retention of the emperor, pushes the maximalist military strategy leading up to invasion of the home islands and, as insurance against footdragging by MacArthur, solicits the USSR’s entry into the Pacific War.

When the end comes, it’s not through a peace negotiated by MacArthur; it’s through a post-bomb public capitulation by the Emperor delivered via radio as the Soviets are poised to sweep into Asia.

In the end, Japan gets half a loaf. Or maybe 90%. Okinawa, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki are devastated, half a million Japanese citizens die, and the USSR occupies the northern islands. But the ruling Japanese elite gets MacArthur, retention of the imperial family, and a seamless restoration of conservative Japanese rule facilitated by the captured gold MacArthur is willing to place at its service.

Outrageous? Yes. But impossible?

That’s a real Time Magazine cover, by the way. May 9, 1949. The caption reads “MacArthur of Japan: A decision for the next 1000 years”.

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Mac’s efforts to prevent any prosecution of ” the Sire” for war crimes are mind boggling. They are detailed in John Bower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan In The Wake Of World War II. He basically obstructed any investigation then told Truman his thorough investigation of the Emporer uncovered no evidence against him!! I thought this was because Mac liked the fact that the Japanese “God” needed to make appointments to see “Ceasar.” The book reports that no record exists of the 10 or so meetings they held. All discusions were attended only by the Royal Interpreter. Hmmmm.

  2. Drakejax says:

    All sorts of facets to the decision to drop the bombs. Roosevelt wanted Soviet participation in the war against Japan from the beginning, and probably didn’t want Japan weasiling out of the war before that happened. So plenty of “FDR was a commy agent” room for theorizing, especially given the importance of the August ’45 Soviet invasion of Manchuria in the ultimate triumph of Chinese Communism.

    The other thing to remember is that Truman was simple guy. We had an invasion plan moving inexorably forward, and nobody could answer this question “if we made the atom bomb and kept it secret from everyone [except the Soviets] then how do we know for absolute certainty that Japan isn’t about to do the same?” In other words, once we had the bomb, it pretty much had to be dropped absent an immediate Japanese surrender. Not to mention the threat of Japanese biological warfare possibly someday amounting to something – why wait to find out when you can end the war right now?

    • Replies: @Faust
  3. Kiza says:

    It has always been a big mystery to me why the US leadership demanded unconditional surrender from Japan when this condition was costing lives of many a US soldier and the lives of 1/2 million Japanese civilians (fire-bombings and nuclear explosions). Forget about revenge, it is not an important motivator at the top of the dung heap. I believe that the US really wanted to crush Japan militarily and mentally so that it never becomes a competitor again, to plow over its Carthage. The dropping of nuclear bombs was for several reasons, showing them to the Russians probably the main one.

    Peter’s version is, although a bit far-fetched, potentially a good explanation of what may have transpired. Peter also weaves in the most exotic story of WW2, the Yamashita’s gold (stolen Chinese gold), into his version, although MacArthur did not fulfill his part of the bargain with the Japanese to stop the US advancement. I personally believe that MacArthur got a part of Yamashita’s gold but by torturing the Japanese having any knowledge of it, rather than through a deal with its holders, that is voluntarily.

    Overall, Peter’s version is an excellent one just for offering a new angle, for the benefit of breaking the mold and freeing up the minds of the readers from the bland and dumb established historical orthodoxies.

    Finally, let me summarize the silly official history: the US imposed an oil embargo on Japan (a clear declaration of war) for mistreating the Chinese; then Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, then the US dropped nuclear bombs and firebombed the Japanese civilians to shorten the war and save US lives; whilst today the US is encouraging Japan’s re-militarization to counter the bad Chinese. Therefore, the only constant is divide et impera and innocents dying.

    • Replies: @iffen
    , @random observer
  4. iffen says:

    It has always been a big mystery to me

    Just one of many?

  5. A naval blockade of a country’s ports or direct interdiction of its shipping at sea is an act of war. It involves actual or implied violence, as well as interdiction of a country’s waters and violation of the freedom of the seas.

    An oil embargo or any other kind of trade embargo is, however, not an act or war or a “clear declaration of war” and appears to be nowhere so regarded outside of Pearl Harbour circles. The US was not under any obligation to sell oil or anything else to Japan. It was a clearly aggressive diplomatic move but such moves have never, before or since, been regarded as a casus belli.

    Arguably, the freezing of Japanese assets in the US in the summer of 1941 was a much more aggressive diplomatic move, but freezing of foreign assets in one’s country has never been regarded as a casus belli either, and still is not.

    Also, the oil embargo was imposed after Japan invaded French Indochina, a violation of French sovereignty, in order to enforce its own embargo on imports entering China. Japan’s embargo move involve actual invasion of a third country, with casualties and everything. Not a casus belli for the United States in any way. But a perfectly valid reason for America’s own embargo.

    • Replies: @Diversity Heretic
    , @Faust
  6. @Kiza

    There may be some silliness in the official history, but you seem to be implying that the fact that the US’ main ally has changed since the 1940s is part of it. I don’t see why. That’s how history, geopolitics, and the human condition in general have always worked. There are few long-term alliances, and none forever. When the alliances are based solely on common interests and nothing else, they will be as long as those interests in common and no longer.

  7. @random observer

    I dispute none of your legal points. But from a geostrategic standpoint, how important was it to the United States that Indochina be governed by French colonialists rather than Japanese imperalists. How many American mothers and fathers would have risked their sons to achieve that goal?

    • Replies: @anon
  8. Faust says:

    I hope someone else can supply the names, as thy now escape me. It seems to me that it is no longer disputed that Roosevelt was surrounded by communist sympathizers.

  9. Faust says:
    @random observer

    Aside from French Indo China, it seems to me that the Japanese had long since invaded Manchuria and participated in the “Rape of Nanking”, how much of that could we be expected to susidize?

  10. Truth says:

    He and Cybil Sheppard had great chemistry in “Moonlighting.”

  11. Drakejax says:

    Some of the more commonly named-names are Alger Hiss, Harry Hopkins, and Harry Dexter White.

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    You mean the infamous and bizarre Harry Hopkins, as well as the extensive coterie of more-or-less known Ivy League commies such as Alger Hiss.

    Being a commie made life much more interesting for a bored scion of East Coast wealth: the frisson of crime, free access to gay and straight sex, money, fame, in a word: EXCITEMENT.

    Roosevelt was no fool and must have known that Hopkins and many others were Soviet agents, but he let them be because they helped him stay in power and kept distractions (such as democratic controls) away from him. In other words, wheelchair-bound Roosevelt turned traitor (probably as early as the mid-1930s) to enjoy a few more moments of glory and power. Then as now, wide sections of the media and government elite would have had at least some inkling of what was going on, but found it more comfortable to keep mum.

    A similar constellation occured later in West Germany: “social democrat” Chancellor Willy Brandt surrounded himself with suspected communist agents and sympathizers under a tacit deal: the entourage (and the complicit and/or “discreet” media) shielded Brandt’s womanizing and drinking from public view. In return, Brandt went along with their pro-communist initiatives. Brandt was ultimately toppled by another faction in his own party when his office manager was unmasked as an East German spy.

  13. anon • Disclaimer says:
    @Diversity Heretic

    But for American possessions like Guam and the Philippines, taken after the senseless Spanish-American war, it seems to me like war with Japan could have been easily avoided. I never understood why Dutch control of Indonesia, French control of Indo-China or British control of Burma, Hong Kong, etc., was considered to be more desirable to Americans then Japanese control.

    • Replies: @Diversity Heretic
  14. It’s interesting that Mr. Lee chose Memorial Day to libel one of America’s premier generals with “alternate history”. I’m ambiguous about Mr. Lee’s contribution to the dialogue. He’s an obviously learned and intelligent writer, but a clear advocate of “conspiracy theory” as history.
    Macarthur’s humane administration of Japan as the American proconsul there had its source in his travels in Japan prior to the war and his respect for the Japanese people. Had Patton been the proconsul, the occupation would have been a different thing entirely.

  15. @anon

    I totally agree, and would even go so far as to say that Japanese control of at least portions of China (complete Japanese occupation was out of the question), rather than communist, corrupt nationalist, or warlord control, ought to have been a matter of strategic indifference to the United States.

    Your point about the Spanish-American War is also excellent. While some commentators have said that the Iraq invasion was the greatest U.S. strategic blunder, I’m inclined to give the Spanish-American War that dubious distinction. Spain posed no conceivable threat to the U.S. and our “victory” put us on a collision course with Japan in the Pacific and saddled us with Puerto Rico, a burden tht we continue to bear. Not to mention the brutal suppression of a Phillipine “insurrection,” which looks a whole lot like an independence movement in retrospect. But once a nation reaches a particular size, the temptation of its elites to seek to establish an empire is nearly irresistible. The American people pay the price.

  16. @Faust

    For names, Whittaker Chambers’ testimony is a good start. McCarthy has been smeared by the usual suspects but that’s because he was mostly correct. Otherwise they probably would have ignored him.

    “It is in fact no exaggeration to say that we live in terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some irreparable blunder that will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come.”

    – Whittaker Chambers, Odyssey of a Friend (1969), (p. 52)

    Reading about the House Un-American Activities Committee will probably supply many names as well.

  17. Chuck says:

    I’ll go one deranged step further. The Anglo ruling class was deliberately setting up the Cold War. Why did the Soviets stop at the 38th parallel? In August of 1945, absolutely nothing could have stopped them from taking the entire peninsula. If you’re going to take half, why not the whole thing or just stay out entirely? Korea was rather neatly divided for the next stage.

    Also, why did the Western Allies get half of Berlin when the entire city of well within the Soviet zone of control? It made absolutely no sense to have that Western island in East Germany except for dramatic purposes.

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