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Hirohito in dress uniform, c. 1935 (Library of Congress).Q: Had the Allies captured Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini alive, they would certainly have been tried as war criminals. In Japan’s case, Emperor Hirohito was not. There is no possible way he did not know what his soldiers were doing to captured Allied military personnel and civilians in occupied territories, biological experiments on prisoners, etc. Also, he had to be aware of the order to kill all Allied POWs on the Japanese mainland if an actual invasion took place. Plus, if I am correct, the emperor’s generals had to seek his permission to attack Pearl Harbor. Why did the Allied powers let him off the hook?
James A. Goodwin II
Woodbridge, Virginia

Max Hastings is the author of 15 books, including Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944–1945 and Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45.

A: American policy toward Japan from August 1945 was dominated by fears of the communist strategic threat to Asia. It is sometimes suggested that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, as the Allies’ supreme commander, imposed his personal will to spare Hirohito. MacArthur certainly acted autocratically, but the contemporary documentation shows that Washington’s view marched with his own in rating the stabilization of Japan above all other considerations.

If every man guilty of war crimes had been punished in strict accordance with law—in Germany as well as Japan—hundreds of thousands of executions would have been carried out. Nobody had the stomach for these. With the Red Army in Manchuria and America’s protégé, Chiang Kai-shek, struggling for control of China, the United States was concerned about the overall volatility of the region and opted for a light-touch occupation of Japan.

The Japanese showed themselves almost slavishly eager to conform to their conqueror’s wishes, and indeed displayed an amazing enthusiasm for all things American. The emperor and the nation’s political leaders swiftly accepted a draft for a new Japanese democratic constitution produced by MacArthur’s staff. On January 1, 1946, Hirohito issued a proclamation denying his own divinity and denouncing “radical tendencies” among his people.

MacArthur publicly applauded, commending the emperor’s brave decision to take a “stand for the future along liberal lines.” After that, it became implausible for the emperor to face war crimes charges. Only a few hundred Japanese were tried, to satisfy American public opinion. Most notably Gen. Hideki Tojo, prime minister when the Pearl Harbor attack was launched, was hanged, along with Tomoyuki Yamashita, who commanded in Malaya and later in the Philippines. Gen. Masaharu Homma was shot by firing squad, after being convicted of responsibility for the 1942 Bataan Death March.

That Hirohito was left in possession of his throne went far to convince many Japanese that their nation had nothing heinous to be ashamed of. They also considered that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than paid their dues to the West.

American cynicism about war crimes was not confined to Hirohito. Those responsible for the appalling deeds of the biological warfare Unit 731 in China were spared because the United States wanted their expertise, just as it exploited Nazi intelligence chiefs and rocket scientists. Hirohito’s guilt is hard to dispute. But politically, the Truman administration and MacArthur probably made the right call.

Max Hastings is the author of 15 books, including Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944–1945 and Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45.


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