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Debunking America’s “Good” Occupation

At what point do egregious factual errors undermine the credibility of an otherwise carefully researched and thoughtful book? I can’t say with precision, but The Good Occupation by Susan Carruthers, a professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark, comes precariously close to that line.

The subject at hand is a cherished myth: that after World War II, U.S. occupation forces handily converted enemies into friends, inculcating into peoples with a prior affinity for militarism and totalitarianism a deep devotion to liberal values. In fascist Italy, the western precincts of the former Third Reich, and emperor-worshipping Japan, the United States military demonstrated a unique capacity to export democracy. In a mere handful of years, tutored by helpful GIs, the “other” thereby became a reasonable facsimile of “us.” So the story goes.

In the ensuing decades, liberal interventionists and neoconservatives have taken turns insisting that the United States military can (and should) replicate these putative successes elsewhere. Rarely have the results proved favorable. In Vietnam during the 1960s, the outcome was plain awful. During more recent endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has hardly fared any better. Yet even today, as Carruthers notes, “the virtuous aura around the post-1945 occupations remains undimmed.”

Take a closer look at what actually occurred when U.S. forces were calling the shots in former Axis countries, Carruthers insists, and such subsequent disappointments should come as no surprise. As with the “Good War” so too with the “Good Occupation”: between what actually happened then and what Americans have since chosen to remember, there yawns a very wide gap.

Decrees issued from on high purportedly determined occupation policy. In fact, the urges and appetites of American troops shaped on-the-ground reality, with those in authority grudgingly obliged to strike some form of accommodation or left to fuss and fume. The upshot, writes Carruthers with considerable understatement, was “messy.”

The issue of “fraternization”—a War Department euphemism for sex—offers a case in point. A booklet issued in 1944 to prescribe how GIs were to behave upon entering Germany contained this directive: “There must be no fraternization. This is absolute!” (Italics in the original.)

At the time, Washington was intent on holding the entire German population accountable for crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime. All were presumed guilty. Young American men, far from home—and therefore far from the disapproving eyes of mothers, wives, and girlfriends—were intent on something quite different. As a consequence, they were less inclined to subject German women to blanket condemnation.

Soon enough, Carruthers writes, non-fraternization became “the most widely disregarded policy since Prohibition.” Its rapid collapse and abandonment exposed the limits of the authority exercised by the chain of command now that combat had ended. Almost overnight, fighting armies had become “after-armies.” As demobilized warriors went home, the “postwarriors” replacing them tended to be indifferently trained and poorly motivated. Commanders struggled to adjust to this new circumstance and maintain some semblance of discipline and order.

For “the avaricious and the amorous,” occupation duty in Germany and Japan was rife with opportunity. The high command offered soldiers sports, sightseeing tours, and wholesome entertainment. Enterprising troops opted for sex, alcohol, and profiteering. The overall atmosphere, Carruthers writes, was one of “sozzled degeneracy.”

“Material overindulgence, fed by a boundless sense of entitlement, had a morally corrupting effect on the victors.” Subsidized goods purchased at the PX (post exchange) and resold at a markup fueled a flourishing black market, providing enterprising GIs with wads of cash. Some sent the dollars home. Others used them to amass china, tableware, artwork, military paraphernalia, or other souvenirs at bargain-basement prices.

Senior officers were by no means immune to such temptations. Indeed, generals wasted no time in laying claim to their share of the spoils—even as they took umbrage at the uncouth behavior of lowly enlisted soldiers. “From an enlisted man’s perspective,” Carruthers writes, “the brass’s wholesale requisitioning of palatial residences and fancy limousines readily appeared as theft by any other name.” In Tokyo, for example, 60 high-ranking Americans billeted in the cushy Imperial Hotel could call on a staff of 432 locals to meet their every need.

The transactional relationship between the conquerors and the conquered allowed little room for the dispossessed with nothing to sell. In both Europe and Asia, U.S. forces inherited masses of destitute refugees, ex-POWs, and former slave laborers and concentration-camp inmates. American occupation authorities wanted to get these people—lumped together as displaced persons or DPs—off their books and off their hands as soon as possible. The preferred solution was to pack people off to where they ostensibly belonged whether they wished to go there or not. For Russian soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht, that was back to the Soviet Union. Koreans forced by their colonial masters to work in Japan were shipped back to nominally liberated Korea.

Jewish survivors of the Holocaust posed a particular problem. Prior to the creation of Israel in 1948, there was no obvious place to resettle them. The British government adamantly opposed any further admission of Jews to Palestine. Despite pious rhetoric from the Truman administration, existing U.S. immigration policy limited the number of European Jews eligible for entry into the United States. A further complicating factor was the anti-Semitism then prevalent in the upper ranks of the American officer corps, which translated into something less than full-throated sympathy for the plight of Jewish DPs. In the eyes of senior officers such as George Patton, Jews were “abstractly deserving but personally repellent.” Patton and other senior officers found neat and orderly Germans more to their liking.

Something of the same phenomenon was occurring simultaneously in Asia. In the eyes of American officers, Koreans seemed “shiftless and lazy,” whereas the Japanese came across as “thrifty and austere” (not to mention obliging). Out of such perceived cultural and aesthetic affinities emerged the image of “good” Germans and Japanese, expediting the recategorization of despised enemies as valued allies in the ensuing Cold War.

Carruthers spends little time reflecting on how it was that Germany and Japan each did in remarkably short order make the transition from inveterate troublemaker to well-behaved partner. If sozzled GIs don’t deserve the credit, then who or what does? The most likely answer is the USSR. After 1945, West Germans and Japanese could either play by American rules or take their chances with Josef Stalin. External circumstance more than enlightened occupiers determined their choice, which was not a terribly difficult one.

Marring this otherwise very fine book, however, are large numbers of careless errors. So, for example, Carruthers describes the Chicago Daily Tribune as part of the Hearst chain, which would come as news to the ghost of Col. Robert McCormick. She refers to George Marshall as secretary of war, a civilian post; during World War II, General Marshall served as army chief of staff. “Until 1945,” she writes, “officers were not permitted to vote.” That is simply not true. She identifies Woodrow Wilson as “an alumnus of the University of Virginia.” Wilson had diplomas from Princeton and Johns Hopkins, but none from UVA. She characterizes Eisenhower’s controversial agreement with French Admiral Jean Darlan, a representative of the puppet Vichy regime, as “Washington’s first retreat from ‘unconditional surrender.’” But the so-called Darlan Deal dates from November 1942; President Roosevelt did not announce the policy of unconditional surrender until the Casablanca Conference of January 1943. The USS Missouri, site of the final Japanese surrender, does not have “massive twin sixteen-inch guns.” Mighty Mo’s main battery consists of three cannons in each turret. The Marine Corps does not have “cadets.” Why the family and friends of a GI convicted of murdering two Japanese civilians would have “joined forces with the Foreign Legion to mobilize support” is, to put it mildly, unclear. Is Carruthers referring to the American Legion? Finally, and perhaps more egregiously, among American military decorations there is no such thing as a “Purple Cross.”

Some may be inclined to overlook these as merely annoying. They are more than that, and readers have every right to expect better in a book issued by a distinguished scholarly press.

Andrew J. Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large and the author most recently of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

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