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Douglas MacArthur, America’s Emperor of Japan

He was a general’s general, tough, unrelenting, a man who embraced the role history thrust on him. He was also haughty and controversial, traits that would lead to his eventual downfall. General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), arrived in Japan on August 30, 1945 to oversee  the ceremony formally marking its surrender. His mission was to organize a postwar Japanese government, with two primary goals: eliminating Japan’s war potential, and turning it into a Western-style nation with a pro-American orientation.

MacArthur had full authority, almost unlimited power, to accomplish these tasks. As interim leader of Japan from Japan from 1945-48, he was responsible for confirming and enforcing sentences for Japan’s war criminals and oversaw the rebuilding of the country, including drafting the country’s new constitution and implementing a major land reform initiative.

In separate interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Ulrich A. Straus (interviewed beginning in November 1992), Christopher H. Phillips (May 1993), Richard B. Finn (April 1991), and Abraham M. Sirkin (May 1997) recall their times in Japan during the occupation and discuss the trial of Japanese war criminals, as well as general feelings about General MacArthur’s tenure as Emperor of Japan,” including how many Japanese seemed to regard him as an “Imperial Being,” and the tensions between MacArthur and the State Department.

At the time, Ulrich A. Straus was a G-2 military intelligence officer stationed in Japan, while Phillips worked on MacArthur’s staff. Richard B. Finn was a political officer in Tokyo, and Abraham Sirkin was the Chief of the News Division for MacArthur’s Headquarters.

Read about implementation of the Marshall Plan and other Moments in WWII.


Rebuilding Japan from the Rubble 


kyo was smashed. I think something like 60 percent of Tokyo just didn’t exist anymore. Other cities were burned even more to the ground. Seeing old friends, of course, came with a sense of relief that they were still alive but depressing the way they had to live in those days. I, along with everybody else, would take some rations to them and help them out the best I could.

The people I knew generally were the lucky ones who had a place to live. But, what was impressive, I guess, was that discipline didn’t totally break down. People had to go into the countryside to get food and bargain with the farmers. They would go out with large rucksacks containing what little possessions they had been able to save to bargain for food from the farmers.

The farmers, in those days, were the kingpins. They did very well. Train windows were smashed in because that was the only way people could get in and out of the jam-packed cars. But there was very little crime, even though people were literally starving to death.

But there was a lot of sadness, too. The Japanese at that time were very grateful to us because they had feared the worse. The government had told them all the terrible things we were going to do…rape, pillage and burn. And, of course, none of that happened.

War Crimes Trials — “If one word about the indictment appears anywhere in the world, I will declare a mistrial”

Q: What was the general feeling about the trial of Japanese war criminals? 

SIRKIN: I was there for the beginning of the War Crimes Trials and played a tiny but interesting role in one little side-light of it. The indictment for the War Crimes Trials was drawn up by another section of MacArthur’s staff. It was actually a New York political lawyer type producing the indictment. The indictment was not just for Tojo and his people, but it was for generals involved in Chinese atrocities and the Philippines and everywhere. So it was a big tome they had been working on, collecting material….

Close to the first day of the trial the question was, “How do we publicize the indictment?”

This related to the crimes of Yamamoto and Tojo, and all the diplomats and military and Navy people, etc. As the date approached, I was still puzzling about how to deal with it. I think it was my boss who told me that Sir William Weir wanted to see me in his quarters.

Sir William Weir was the Chief Justice of Australia and he was the Chief Justice of the War Crimes Trial, so I don’t know why he didn’t talk to my boss. I guess he apparently found out who ran the press show and he wanted to see me.

He asked me how I planned to handle the issuance of the indictment, so I said, “The usual procedure is as we go through the indictment, they put a release date on it, hold for release, so the press of the world can read it and be aware of what’s in it ahead of time. Then the indictment comes to them. They’ll be prepared and maybe even write their stories in advance.”

So he said, “Yes, I know that’s the way the press works and that is why I am calling. I’m trying to tell you…if one word about what’s in the indictment appears anywhere in the world in any newspaper or on any radio (there wasn’t any TV then), anywhere in the world and I find out about it, I will declare a mistrial.”

So I knew it was up to me to decide. I told him, “If I don’t put something out in advance, reporters from all over the world will be coming in with photographers and they will be in your courtroom, and they will not have heard a single word about the trial. When the indictment is handed up to your desk, there won’t be any copies, there won’t be anything.”…

So my solution was not to put out anything in advance. I got hold of the indictment just the day before it was to be presented. I sat up a good part of the night reading it and then sitting up at the typewriter. We didn’t have Xerox then, so we mimeographed.

I mobilized all the stenographers from my staff and borrowed some others. I had the guards, the soldiers who generally guarded outdoors, come in to be around my office while this operation was going on the night before so that nobody could give out this information to anybody before the indictment was issued.

But in order to avoid the mad scramble in the courtroom, I just announced that the indictment would be delivered to the press outside my office in the Radio Tokyo Building, about two miles away from where the trial was.

A couple of the press people showed up there; the AP had three or four guys to cover the procedures. All the press was in the pressroom.

I had all these things ready with complete copies of the indictment and a press release that I wrote summarizing it. It was three or four pages. I instructed Captain Smith to be in the courtroom and see when the indictment was handed to Chief Justice Sir William Weir, and to get immediately to a phone and tell me that the indictment was on his desk.

As soon as I got that call, I distributed the indictment to all the press. In those days right after the war there was a lot of press competition. Editors and publishers used to run ads saying for instance, “UP beat AP by 5 ½ minutes in announcing the end of the war.”

So a day later I had the satisfaction of Russ Grimes coming to tell me he beat everybody: UP, INS, Reuters and the French press, only because he just took my press  release and handed it to the copy boy to put it on the wire “as is”. Then he sat down and wrote his own version.

So at least my press release was good enough to win him his five or six-minute advantage over UP, INS and Reuters for covering the trial the first day of the indictment.

The 28 Class A war criminals…I used to see them on the bench…were beaten men. They were totally disgraced men. I think there was none of the haughtiness that was demonstrated by some of the German war criminals.

One comment on the trial…I was a member of the prosecution, and I dealt with the lawyers. The prosecution was very much aware of the fact that the law they were applying was largely ex post facto law. This is a charge that has been made subsequently.

But I think there was a feeling that we had very little choice in the matter. We could not really do what the Russians probably would have preferred to do, and possibly the Chinese, too:…stand the designated war criminals against the wall and shoot them. We could not just let them go.

We didn’t feel we could just turn them over to a weak and untested Japanese government. That might not have been acceptable to the American public at all. So, I think the Western public putting them on trial was perhaps the only reasonable political alternative.

And we hoped it would have two results:  that it might provide a deterrent for future leaders and that it might provide education for the Japanese public, who, of course, learned a great deal about their then-recent history for the first time.

Heading Up the News Division for the “Emperor of Japan”

[In] ’46 I had been doing the news work for the Southern Command, General Krueger. I offered to go up to Tokyo to fill in when Colonel Reid was leaving and they said, “Sure, come on up.” This was the News Division of the Public Information…Office of General MacArthur’s Headquarters run by a former National Guard General from one of the Dakotas.

He had been with MacArthur all the way up from Australia and knew his entire group of Generals. All the time I was there I myself never exchanged a word with MacArthur.

I saw him numerous times because one of my jobs was to be the person representing the press, in a sense, at the meetings of the Allied Council for Japan, where the press was not permitted, usually. I was there to write any press releases.

Most of the time, MacArthur himself was not in the chair [of the Allied Council.] The other three were a Russian General, a Chinese General and an Australian political science professor, who represented the whole British Commonwealth, a four-power group representing all nine Allied powers….

Q: Did you get any feel for the dissemination to the Japanese people of what was happening?

STRAUS: Yes, it was disseminated through the radio and newspapers. We controlled everything, so we could force the Japanese to do almost anything we wished.

I don’t think, to be very truthful, that the Japanese had a great deal of interest in it because they were interested in survival at that time. They didn’t care very much about anything that was going on in the rest of the world. You are just interested in survival and getting back on your feet somehow.

Q: Can you describe a bit the atmosphere in the News Division particularly? The MacArthur rule was almost imperial, wasn’t it?

SIRKIN: He was the Emperor of Japan.

STRAUS: MacArthur never had the adoration of the troops as, let’s say, Eisenhower did. He was an aloof figure and a showman. My own feeling was that perhaps he was a better administrator of Japan than he was a general.

There was a good deal of dissension below MacArthur. There were two most prominent political wings:  one, conservative, under Major General Willoughby, who was in charge of G-2 (Intelligence), and the other, under General Whitney, who handled the Government Section, the more liberally inspired section.

Things got so bad between the two sections that we were ordered not to talk to each other.

PHILLIPS: I was down in the bowels of SCAP, although by that time I had been promoted to the lofty rank of First Lieutenant! This didn’t exactly give me day-to-day access to General MacArthur, but I was able to gain some impressions of his impact on that quite remarkable first year of the occupation.

Although, ostensibly guided by directions from Washington, MacArthur exercised a great deal of independent authority. In theory, it was the Far Eastern Advisory Commission, which comprised representatives of all the allied countries, that established general policies for the occupation.

In fact, the real authority for issuing policies and directives to SCAP resided in Washington. But MacArthur took a rather imperial view of his role and was not unduly influenced by instructions from Washington or guidance from the Far Eastern Advisory Commission….

A small group of senior colonels and generals who had been through the war with him exercised the greatest influence — officers such as General Marquette, in charge of the Economic and Scientific Staff Section, and General Whitney, who headed up the Government Section.

But there were many more junior officers down the line, who from the standpoint of day to day operations played key roles in implementing SCAP policies.

“The General Officer level tended to be suspicious of the State Department”

During that first year the staff was almost entirely drawn from our military and naval forces, most of whom had been through the same training programs as had I. We had all participated, to some extent, in the planning operations leading up to the occupation, and were therefore well prepared for the tasks that confronted us on our arrival.

On the whole it was a smoothly run operation, due in large part to clearly defined policies and MacArthur’s extraordinary influence and leadership. We all marveled at how ordinary Japanese seemed to venerate the General. It made one wonder if perhaps they saw in him a new Imperial Being, temporarily replacing the Emperor himself….

In my opinion, MacArthur was an excellent Supreme Commander. He was not an excellent representative of the United States, because he thought he was on his own. He liked to act as if he were the Allied Commander responsible not to the United States only but to the ten other allies as well. He occasionally made that point very clear to the State Department, which did not like it, but which was not in a position to fire him or even argue with him.

[Chief of Intelligence Charles A.] Willoughby was in many ways a brilliant man. He was a remarkable diplomat, a remarkable linguist. A reactionary man politically, but he foresaw the Cold War before many people foresaw it. He probably had foreseen it all of his life being German born and bred, a military man.

I rather admired Willoughby, but he was thoroughly military. He kept close tabs on the CIA, for example, which I think is not the way the US government should operate.

And of the other people, they were all terribly loyal to MacArthur. MacArthur came first. We all got along with our own level people quite well.

The General Officer level tended to be suspicious of the State Department. Several of the Chiefs of Staff looked upon our section almost as if we were the enemy.

Q: When you got to Tokyo in 1947, what were you doing then?

FINN: Our office had two titles. One was the Political Adviser’s Office (POLAD) — as such we were a State Department Office — and the State Department representative in Japan to MacArthur’s Headquarters.

MacArthur would accept the State Department’s office only on condition that it be an SCAP military headquarters office under his control and it was called in that capacity the Diplomatic Section. So the office and the man in charge really had two hats — the State Department hat and the MacArthur Headquarter’s hat. (Pictured: MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo)

MacArthur dealt with it only as part of his headquarters. No telegraphic messages were allowed back and forth to State in Washington. You could send airmail reports back and forth but it was very much under MacArthur’s control.

It wasn’t oppressive, but almost everything you did was known to headquarters, and every now and then there was some unpleasantness, because State Department views that the State Department thought were going directly to its representatives, were in fact being read by MacArthur and his staff.

Q: What were your observations being down in an element which was still of interest because, if nothing else, General MacArthur’s staff and all had a pretty good eye about public relations and publicity, particularly for the General.

SIRKIN: They were concerned about getting favorable publicity. Officially my job was to write press releases and respond to press inquiries about the activities of the Headquarters.

The Headquarters was SCAP, Supreme Command of the Allied Powers, in Japan. The press office was in the Radio Tokyo Building. It was the building where Radio Tokyo used to operate and was taken over by the occupation and run by the military for a while, before it was turned back to the Japanese civilians.

On the second floor of the Radio Tokyo Building was this fairly big newsroom of desks with typewriters, and correspondents from all over the world, mainly the news agencies, AP, UP, INS, Agence France Presse, and Tass. All these people had desks there, plus, of course, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Daily News and outfits that had foreign correspondents.

I had an office of six or seven reporters who covered the different departments of the occupation, such as agriculture, industry, education, religion, and labor. The official dealing with the Japanese press, I think it was called CI and E, Information and Education.

I forget what the C stood for, but it was about the domestic situation, because they were determined to change the mentality that led to the war, including getting involved in religion, the Shinto religion, to demilitarize it to a certain extent, and in education, school and women’s affairs. Presumably women’s roles were not as equal as they were in the western countries.

My office became a factory of press releases. Reporters who worked for me would come and tell me what was going on and anything that they considered newsworthy in their section. Depending on what the story was, I would have to check the press release for both content and style and policy.

Limits to Media’s “Emperor Worship”

Q: Was there an effort to make sure that every story that came out of Japan had a “General MacArthur” in the first sentence?

SIRKIN: No. I don’t think “Emperor worship” reached that far. There was concern with some of the officers around MacArthur about anything that might turn out to be derogatory.

One of the Bureau Chiefs was Miles Vaughn of UP, who had come up with MacArthur from way back in the war. He was an extreme admirer of MacArthur. As a matter of fact, I guess it was ’47 or ’48, he had written a whole series in UP about the achievements of MacArthur.

That was just before the election year in the U.S. when MacArthur was put forth as a candidate. It was something of an amusement to some of the other UP people including the Bureau Chief in Washington, Lyle Wilson.

One of Miles’ assistants told me at one point, after MacArthur had been trounced in the Wisconsin primary, about a one-sentence cable, I guess it was from Lyle Wilson in the Washington Bureau of UP, to Miles Vaughn: “UNPACK”.

There was a lot of interesting by-play, especially political, in the international sense. I frequently had a lot of problems with the grumbles from The Chicago Tribune correspondent about the too-liberal behavior of MacArthur’s occupation. I know he came in once and pounded the desk complaining, “What is MacArthur doing, letting all these Communist labor leaders out of jail?” Some had been in jail since the Japanese imperial time.

Q: I was wondering, at the time you were there, if one could not have discerned two rather different currents of thinking about occupation policies. On the one hand, New Deal views, though more pragmatic than the earlier days of the Roosevelt presidency, still influenced Washington thinking. At the same time you had a general and his senior officers who generally reflected more conservative views. I would have thought, even in this first year, there would have been some sort of conflict?

PHILLIPS: You raise a good point. Given these circumstances, one might well have concluded that policy conflicts between Washington and SCAP were inevitable. But in fact things did sort of click together.

Of course there were occasional differences of opinion between Washington and SCAP, but overall there were remarkably few. We tend to forget that, under MacArthur during the first year of the occupation, some truly radical reforms were introduced into Japan which changed the whole nature of Japanese society.

An example of this was the highly successful land reform program. For many years land tenancy had stood at close to 50 % of the land. As a result of these reforms, absentee ownership of agricultural land was abolished and former tenants were able to buy their land on very favorable terms. At the same time landlords were reimbursed for the property they lost.

Writing Japan’s Constitution

FINN: The Constitution was written by MacArthur’s staff without telling the State Department. It came as a considerable surprise to the State Department and to the Allied members of the Commission when the papers announced on March 6, 1946 that Japan had drafted a new constitution.

General MacArthur later told Washington that this was a Japanese initiative and that his staff only helped them. That was, shall we say, an elaboration of what really happened.

We then took part in consideration of some of the amendments. A number of changes and amendments were made and they went through the Commission. They were made over the rather heated opposition of the General, who continued to insist that this was a Japanese initiative and we would spoil it by our intervention — by the “threat of Allied bayonets” — if we kept it up. But I think people in Washington sensed that it wasn’t quite that simple a situation.

Q: Did you have any contact while you were doing this? I mean here you are writing the constitution supposedly under the initiative of the Japanese but obviously MacArthur’s headquarters was heavily into it, if not predominantly into it.

FINN: The Government section of SCAP Headquarters wrote it. MacArthur’s headquarters [spoke to the Japanese] after they had written it. They took one week to write it in secrecy. It was then handed to the Japanese.

The Japanese were working on a draft of their own and had given some preliminary thoughts to MacArthur’s headquarters, which found the Japanese ideas very reactionary. The Government section said that if we don’t tell the Japanese what to do, they won’t ever do a decent job, and in addition this new Allied Commission would have Russians, British and everybody else telling us, the United States, what to do.

So MacArthur thought that was a pretty good argument for doing it himself. He didn’t even tell Washington what he was going to do.

“He envisioned that he might have a good shot at the White House”

The Japanese, early in the occupation, a few months after it started, realized that there was going to be a peace treaty someday. They wanted it as soon as they could get it.

They set up study groups in late 1945, studying issues like reparations, territory, overseas assets, everything that goes into a peace treaty. For several years they gave us their memoranda on these matters. We would say thank you very much and send them to Washington.

Washington said that while all this was very interesting there was not going to be a peace treaty for a long time and when the time did get nearer the U.S. was going to decide the territory or the reparations issue and not the Japanese. So the Japanese views did not count for much.

But the Japanese were realists about it and continued to send us drafted treaty proposals before [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles came along and did two or three quite miserable drafts calling for such things as a 25-year Allied Commission, or a Council of Ambassadors, to oversee implementation.

MacArthur, to his credit, thought that these Washington drafts were poor stuff. MacArthur knew his place in history was going to depend in good part on his work in Japan.

I would say he was the first person to believe in a short, non-punitive treaty, not cluttered with all these restrictions. This was very much to his credit.  He was not a diplomat. He had some funny ideas about diplomacy, but he wanted a fairly liberal peace treaty.

He envisioned, soon after the occupation started, that he might have a good shot at the White House. He knew that what he did in Japan would be quite important in selling himself to the American people.

He had a time table: there was going to be an election in 1948. He would have to get things pretty well wrapped up by 1947, have a peace treaty, and then return to the U.S. in time to campaign and cash in on his glory. So he wanted about a two-year occupation, get it all done and out of the way.

I think MacArthur secretly — and maybe not so secretly — thought highly of the Japanese. He had only been to Japan a couple of times, but in his eyes the Japanese were disciplined people, and they were good fighters. The Japanese GI did what his officer told him to do, didn’t ask questions, and did it to the death. That is an appealing kind of psychology for a military leader.

So, he wanted a peace treaty quickly, a non-punitive one. The bureaucrats in the State Department could not really come up with one. By the time it got through everybody in the State Department — the lawyers, the reparations people, the Pentagon — everyone wanted something from the peace treaty with Japan.

But MacArthur’s views were something to conjure with. When he said we should do this and not do that, the chances were this would carry the day.

When Dulles came aboard, he and MacArthur saw eye to eye. It was a happy marriage from the point of view of liberal Americans who wanted a quick and non-punitive treaty with Japan.

Dulles’ Expanding Role in the Peace Treaty

I came back from home leave in early 1951. Dulles by that time was in charge. So I worked on the peace treaty from about April 1950 until April 1952 when it came into effect, and for many months after on problems related to the peace and security treaties.

This story about Dulles is I think probably true. In 1950, the Democrats and Republicans in Washington were having problems with a Democratic President and strong Republican representation in both Houses of Congress….Somebody said that more bipartisanship was needed.

So [Senator from Kentucky] John Sherman Cooper and John Foster Dulles were prevailed upon to take high positions in the State Department. Dulles didn’t have to be prevailed upon really.

So Dulles came in and did odd jobs in the Department for a few months and finally went to [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson one day and said, “You know, you are getting nowhere with the Japanese peace treaty. What you ought to do is give one man responsibility, tell him you will give him one year to get it done, and if he doesn’t get it done in one year, you fire him and pick somebody else.”

In effect, Acheson said, “Okay, you are it.”

[President Harry] Truman wasn’t happy. Cooper was more of a gentleman and liberal scholar, while Dulles had a real strong partisan strain in his makeup. But they gave the Japan job to Dulles. There was very little partisanship in what he did.

And even when MacArthur got fired a year later and it looked as if this might spoil the whole treaty arrangement, Dulles was a good soldier. He stuck with Truman and Acheson and finished it off.