The Power of Propaganda and the Japanese Empire

Economist Kurt Schuler has a fascinating post on the various currencies that were used in mainland East Asia during World War II over at the Free Banking group blog.

Unfortunately, there are three paragraphs in the post that attempt to take libertarians to task for daring to challenge both the narrative of the state and the narrative of the nation regarding that horrific reminder of humanity’s shortcomings. He is writing of the certainty of the US’s moral clarity when it came to fighting Japan (the post was published around Pearl Harbor remembrance day):

The 1940 U.S embargo of certain materials frequently used for military purposes was intended to pressure Japan to stop its campaign of invasion and murder in China. The embargo was a peaceful response to violent actions. Japan could have stopped; it would have been the libertarian thing to do. For libertarians to claim that the embargo was a provocation is like saying that it is a provocation to refuse to sell bullets to a killer.

Then, in December 1941, came not just the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but an attack on the whole of Southeast Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, what is now Malaysia (British colonies), Indonesia (a Dutch colony), the Philippines (scheduled under American law to become independent in 1945), Thailand (independent). In 1942 there followed the invasion of Burma, a bit of India, and a few of the Aleutian Islands, plus the bombing of Darwin, Australia.

With that history in mind, how can anybody think that the United States could have made a durable peace with Japan? It would have lasted as long as would have been to Japan’s military advantage, no longer. Japan was hell-bent on conquest. Nothing since its emergence as a major international power suggested a limit to its ambitions. It only ceded in the face of superior force. Even as Allied forces retook territory, Japanese fanaticism was such that the government did not surrender until after the U.S. military dropped two atomic bombs. To ignore the long pattern of Japanese aggression as quite a few libertarians are wont to do is not just historically ignorant but dangerous, because it closes its eyes to the hard truth that some enemies are so implacable that the only choice is between fighting them and being subjugated by them. It took a prolonged U.S. military occupation to turn Japan from the aggressor it was to the peaceful country it has become. (source)

This is an unfortunate mischaracterization of what went on in World War 2, but it also does a fairly good job of demolishing some of the arguments that libertarians have come up with in regards to this debate. You see, the issue of World War 2 is one that is usually foisted upon libertarians as an example of the benevolence of the State: Washington crushed two powerful, evil war machines in one fell swoop and then stood up to a third evil empire for forty years.

Libertarians often get confronted with this interpretation of history and they get bothered by it. This argument gets under their skin. They often make up excuses for Japan’s actions, or they avoid dealing with what actually happened in the time period. This response is also unfortunate because the general principles of libertarianism – individual freedom, strong property rights, internationalism – explain the events of World War 2 well, but only once the facts are looked at clearly and thoroughly. The power of propaganda is immense. The fact that so many people believe that the United States was the good guy in the war against Japan is astounding, and I think the heavy weight that is placed upon the shoulders of those who dare to defy the standard account of the US’s war with Japan flusters the seeker of truth.

Even though libertarians get hot-headed on this issue and stumble, thus making Schuler right in a sense, his argument is absolutely wrong. What follows is an attempt to calm things down, and to explain why Schuler is wrong and what libertarians need to get right.

Tokyo did not want to expand beyond a certain point, due to the ideological consensus of the governing party at the time. The narrative of the governing party was that great civilizations had natural territories over which they naturally lorded. For the Japanese, this natural territory (which was, of course, entirely arbitrary and ahistorical) was called, amongst other things, the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It included the Korean peninsula, Manchuria, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, coastal China, Mongolia, Malaysia (including Singapore and Brunei), and a separatist region in India known as Azad Hind. Any territory beyond these lands were inhabited by – again according to the ideology of the dominant political party at the time – peoples who did not conform to the standards set by the Japanese people (and those ranked directly beneath them; the ones I just mentioned). These foreign peoples were treated accordingly, especially in Melanesia.

What this suggests is that, contra Schuler, the Japanese were not “hell-bent on conquest.” Rather they simply wanted to carve out a territorial space that has obvious parallels with the German conception of Lebensraum. This is not a coincidence, by the way, for the ideologies of the dominant parties in Germany and Japan were cut from the same racist cloth.

Hawaii might have been a target for the Japanese military eventually, due to the large number of people living there with Japanese ancestry, but even this is stretching the limits of generosity. Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry considered themselves to be Hawaiians, or Americans, before Japanese (this probably due to the fact that the Japanese government sent some of its citizens over to Hawaii by force, but that is another story for another day; hopefully you can see why loyalty to Hawaii and the US was a given to people of Japanese ancestry on the islands). A Japanese invasion of the US mainland is simply an incredibly silly notion, which is why I think Dr Schuler relies upon the irrefutable fact of Japanese lust for conquest. Can you not see where propaganda is at work here?

Now, obviously the Japanese were warmongering at the time. There is no doubt about this. However, it hardly follows that the Japanese were a threat to the American republic.

For instance, look at what the Japanese military ended up attacking:

  • European and American colonies (which were burdens rather than boons for both the colonized and the colonizing)
  • Thailand, a kingdom with a long history of playing foreign powers off on each other
  • and parts of China (which could hardly lay claim to much of its territory anyway)

If I’m not mistaken, Europe and the United States are thousands of miles away from Japan, and yet they had militaries occupying foreign lands in East Asia. Again, Japan was certainly an aggressive state in the early 20th century, but it seems extremely unfair to ignore the military occupation – by Western states – of Asian lands and the Jim Crow-esque political regimes that they enacted and enforced. Notice, too, that the military incursions of the Japanese Empire do not stray too far from the official ideology of the governing political party. This is also true of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was also true of Soviet Russia, but for different reasons. The Soviets engaged in worldwide imperial ambitions (“spreading the revolution”) after solidifying their rule at home, and this imperialism was part and parcel of the dominant ideology of Leninism. I am digressing.

Japan did declare war on the US, so I think Washington’s war was just, but it hardly follows that Japan was “hell-bent on conquest,” or that its military would have invaded the United States, or that Tokyo’s decision not to curl up in the fetus position and simply accept US economic warfare was “unlibertarian.” Suppose Japan had conquered the US. What would its armies have uncovered?

Think of it this way: What incentive would Japan have to conquer the United States? Where were the plans to do so? Doesn’t it make more sense to look at Japan’s war on the US as part of its broader effort at creating and maintaining its hold over the territory it deemed to be the natural lord over? Why waste so many resources invading and occupying a territory dominated by people who were part of another race (as per the prevailing ideology of Tokyo at the time)? Oh, that’s right: Because Japan was “hell-bent on conquest.”

Propaganda is very powerful, but it’s also important not to label everything you disagree with as propaganda. That makes you sound like a crackpot. For instance, I don’t think anything Dr Schuler argues is driven by pure propaganda. Such an insinuation on my part would simply be garbage, and (rightly) treated as such in the public sphere. However, the notion that the US military stopped a war machine “hell-bent on conquest” is a product of propaganda. This notion is strengthened by personal and cultural narratives, and in time it takes on a life form of its own.

One last thing: Dr Schuler argues that the embargo Washington placed on Tokyo “was a peaceful response to violent actions,” but surely you can see how that policy was actually a violent response to violent actions. Whether that violence to counter other violence was a good thing or not is a question that cannot be answered in this already-too-long post.

(One more last thing: Here is an excellent essay on ideology in developing states that might be worth checking out; it doesn’t deal directly with the Japanese Empire but does deal with some of the concepts [especially nationalisms] that confront us when thinking about the rise of the Japanese Empire.)