The incomplete legacy of Pearl Harbor.
Emperor Hirohito was never held responsible for the attack
After 75 years, there are still so many stories about the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, including the tragic loss of more than 2,300 American servicemen, the destruction of 18 ships, the loss of over 150 aircraft and even the element of surprise on that Sunday morning. As revealed years later by Adm. Gene Larocque:
“At first I thought the U.S. Army Air Corps was accidentally bombing us. We were so proud, so vain, and so ignorant of Japanese capability ... . It took a long time to realize how good these fellows were.”
Even more surprising, in retrospect, is the tempered treatment the bad men of the Japanese theater received in terms of official American characterization and propaganda after that area of World War II emerged. Rather quickly, after Germany declared war on the United States shortly after the Japanese attack, the demonization of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini became widespread in posters — and even in song, as illustrated by bandleader Spike Jones’ 1942 popular ditty, “Der Fuehrer’s Face.”
But Japan’s villains, especially Emperor Hirohito, got the soft touch, induced by the widespread view in American government circles that the top leader was really only a figurehead who needed to be supported so that at war’s end, he could lead his people to accept their fate. The real enemy, in this thinking, was the military, led by Minister of War and Prime Minister Hidecki Tojo.
Even shortly after Pearl Harbor, high-level American officials knew that Hirohito not only accepted, even encouraged, the military initiatives of Tojo but had long been a warmonger, especially in his confrontations with China, replete with the use of chemical weaponry. Of course, every fighting American soldier in the Pacific theater viewed Tojo with the utmost hate, beginning with Tojo’s oft-quoted statement: “When reflecting on it today, that the Pearl Harbor attack should have succeeded in achieving surprise is a blessing from Heaven.”
The torture that the Japanese visited on Allied soldiers is sui generis in the annals of modern warfare, and the TV programs on the American Heroes Channel devoted to comparing the inhumane treatment by Germany, Italy and Japan are shocking reminders of the unbelievable depths of Japanese cruelty, too horrid — including cannibalism — to delineate.
To be sure, there was a counterpart in Japan to the Nuremberg trials dealing with the Nazis that captured world attention, even a movie starring Spencer Tracy, but the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was a major retreat from a reasonable concept of justice, no matter that Hirohito’s words in surrendering put the blame on the Allies:
“Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to insure Japan’s self-preservation and the stability of East Asia,” said Hirohito in his unapologetic nationwide speech on Aug. 14, 1945. “Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculably, taking the toll of many innocent lives.”
Only seven Japanese generals, including Tojo, according to the tribunal, were sentenced to be hanged. The many complicit in the decisions close to the emperor were not charged, and not a few historians credit Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the proceedings, as Hirohito’s best defense strategist. Only Australia was insistent on prosecuting the emperor.
The only attribute that Hirohito had to give up was his divinity. He was treated as head of state until his death in 1989 and was royally received by Queen Elizabeth II, Gerald Ford — even Ronald Reagan.
Worse, Hirohito never had to acknowledge war guilt. In fact, the opposite interpretation was unabashedly touted: If the emperor didn’t take blame for starting and prosecuting the war, then his people were likewise exonerated. And it would be the United States that would carry the burden of war guilt, through its employment of two atomic bombs.
Try explaining this tortured logic to the families that lost their loved ones in the wake of Dec. 7, 1941.
If the emperor didn’t take blame for starting and prosecuting the war, then his people were likewise exonerated.