“Our Relations to Japan,” by Reinhold Niebuhr

It was inevitable that the final surrender of Japan, ending the costliest war of human history, should be greeted with a delirium of joy all over the world, and in America particularly. It was the Japanese attack upon us which brought us into the war; and for many portions of our population Japan was a more natural enemy than Germany. Yet among the more sober and thoughtful sections of our nation the victory over Japan leaves a strange disquiet and lack of satisfaction.

There are many reasons for this. The most obvious one is that the victory was secured, or at least hastened, by the use of the atomic bomb. There is naturally a very great apprehension about the introduction of this frightful instrument into the science of warfare, and an uneasiness of conscience about its immediate use in this war, in order to hasten its end. But the use of this bomb was only the climax of the use of methods of warfare, including obliteration and incendiary bombing, which exceeded anything we used against Germany. The difference was not by design, but was caused by the fact that certain types of incendiary bombs were perfected too late to be used against Germany, but not too late for Japan. Yet one is left uneasy by the difference; because we used more terrible instruments against the Japanese than they used against us; which would not have been the case in regard to Germany.

But we must go even further in analyzing the sense of disquiet in our relation to this fallen enemy. We not only used the most terrible weapons to encompass the defeat but we also proceeded against Japan with political warfare, which had gained its momentum from our conflict with Germany but which had little justification in our relations to Japan. We demanded unconditional surrender. The slogan of “unconditional surrender,” falsely transferred from the realm of purely military relations to that of political relations, was unwise enough in our approach to Germany, and undoubtedly helped to arm our foe with the strength of a final desperation. But in our dealings with Germany we could at least quiet our uneasiness about the use of this slogan by the thought that Germany was in the clutches of a tyranny which had a slogan of its own, which matched our slogan. It was: “All or nothing.” The Nazis were determined to leave the nations in ruins, if they should fail to gain victory. They probably had the power in any case to hold a defeated and destroyed nation in the struggle until its cities were completely reduced to rubble; and the tyranny had operated with such efficiency that there was no possibility of establishing an alternate German government. We would have had to take over in Germany in any case, and try to rebuild the nation from the ground up.

The situation was different in Japan. Japanese militarists were probably as fanatic as the German Nazis. But many Americans have maintained (and subsequent events have proved their analysis to be correct) that Japan had various resources of sanity which Germany did not have. The imperial house could become a rallying point against the militarists. Furthermore there were industrialists and capitalists in Japan who would have been called “liberal” in another day. We do not vouch for their perfect virtue; but they were quite obviously opposed to the adventures of the military crowd from the beginning, and they most certainly contributed something to the political situation which made final capitulation possible. No doubt they were prompted primarily by motives of survival as a class. Despite the fact that there are no completely pure motives in politics (and possibly not in life), American liberalism recently allowed itself an orgy of the most nauseous self-righteousness; for liberal journals were almost unanimous in warning against any possible peace which might emanate from Japanese capitalists. This type of liberalism would rather annihilate a foe completely than enlist the aid of any elements in an enemy country which are not absolutely “pure.” The policy is usually accompanied by the foolish hope that if we can completely destroy we will also be able to build a more ideal social structure out of these complete ruins. There is no vainer hope in human history; and it is prompted by a peculiarly dangerous type of “liberalism” in which the imperial power impulse has become strangely mixed with moral idealism. We will destroy nations in order to make “democracies״ out of them.

As it happened Japan did finally sue for peace; and proved thereby that it did have resources, which Germany lacked. It made only one condition. It desired to retain the imperial house. The motive behind this request was quite obviously that Japan wanted to avoid complete social chaos; for the imperial house is, of course, the apex of a whole hereditary and organic social structure, the destruction of which would mean decades of chaos and foreign intervention in its affairs. The governments of the world wisely decided to amend their “unconditional surrender” policy to allow for this condition. But not so all our liberal journalists and commentators. Almost with open voice they advised the government against this offer. Even Raymond Swing seemed certain that the emperor must go. “Americans United,” an organization which includes almost all internationalist organizations of the nation, committed the absurdity of asking the president not only to reject the Japanese offer, but to hale the emperor before a war criminals court. Mayor LaGuardia solemnly advised the Japanese people to murder the emperor and thus ensure peace.

We can hardly be proud of the sentiments expressed by Americans in general, and by “liberals” in particular, in the fateful days during which the surrender was negotiated. The wine of success is a very heady wine. No nation has ever embarked upon the hazardous business of ruling the world, in company with two partners, with a more blithe ignorance of the meaning of customs and continuities, of sentiments and unique loyalties among the people to be “ruled” than we. We have arrived at an ignorant idealism according to which the world is divided into two classes: American democrats and all the other “lesser breed without the law” who do not share our democratic creed and must therefore be fascists. If a man, such as Undersecretary Grew, with his long experience in Japan, expresses the conviction that the emperor ought not to be deposed of, there are liberal journalists who request his removal by the president on the ground that he is an appeaser of fascists. Thus the passions of war have introduced poison into the sentiments of liberalism; and the pride of a powerful nation has blinded the eyes of large elements in our populations, whose clear sight is necessary, if American power is to be used responsibly.

Instead of glorifying in the fact that now the Japanese emperor will take orders “from an American General,” a popular theme upon the radio in recent weeks, we might more profitably make a sober analysis of our assets and liabilities in the task which confronts us as we seek to govern an Asiatic people. If we make that analysis honestly we will have to admit that our racial pride contributed to the tension which finally resulted in war with Japan; and that there are great perils that the incidents of the occupation of Japan will increase the racial animosity between the East and the West.

We must admit moreover that if Japan had not been quite so stupid and fanatic in its militaristic ventures, it might well have become the spearpoint of an Asiatic revolt against the white man’s dominance. It may be a good thing for the peace of the world that Japan was not creative enough to be the leader of such a venture. But this still does not prove that it is a good thing for the white man to seek to govern an Asiatic people from the ground up. We must destroy the war-making powers of Japan. Will we also have the wisdom to make our total occupation of the Islands as brief as possible and be content with more remote and less obvious control of the life of an alien people?

The pride of victors is always a great hazard to justice. When it is mixed with ethnic and color pride it may produce an intolerable arrogance.

All this does not mean that our cause against either Germany or Japan was not “just.” We were indeed the executors of God’s judgment yesterday. But we might remember the prophetic warnings to the nations of old, that nations which become proud because they were divine instruments must in turn stand under the divine judgment and be destroyed. The virtues of men have only a short-range efficacy. We may be virtuous in this context; and just in that relationship; and the instruments of divine judgment in performing such and such a peculiar responsibility. But this does not guarantee our virtue tomorrow. The same power which encompassed the defeat of tyranny may become the foundation of a new injustice. If ever a nation needed to be reminded of the perils of vainglory, we are that nation in the pride of our power and our victory. The Pauline warning fits us exactly: “Be not therefore high-minded, but fear.”