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Comparisons of Iraq to post-war Japan fail, historian asserts

Those who forget the past may be doomed to repeat it, but those who try to rebuild Iraq based on past models are doomed to frustration, according to historians specializing in conditions in Japan and in Europe following the Second World War.

The two historians, John Dower, Ford International Professor of History, and Charles Maier, professor of history at Harvard University, presented "Comparative Insights: Marshall Plan, Japan and Iraq," in an event sponsored by the Center for International Studies (CIS) and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and held on March 7 in Building 3-270.

Dower is the author of "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II," which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, and "War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War," which won the 1986 National Critics' Circle Award. Dower showed the stark contrast between conditions during the U.S. occupation of post-war Japan (1945-1952) and conditions in contemporary Iraq in his 45-minute talk.

Dower emphasized the human suffering in all wars and characterized Iraq as a "place of terrible tragedy and heartbreak." But otherwise there is "no viable comparison," he said, between the two years following Japan's defeat and the two years since President Bush declared his Iraq mission "accomplished."

The occupation and eventual reconstruction of post-war Japan were successful thanks to 10 significant conditions not present in Iraq, Dower said. These were:

1) Legitimacy of occupation. A formal war was followed by a decisive defeat and unconditional surrender. U.S. allies also saw the occupation as legitimate. Serious planning for the occupation of Japan began in 1942.

2) Consistency. Japan had an intact government. Emperor Hirohito declared war, surrendered and continued as head of state until 1971.

3) Cohesion. While politically diverse, Japan was socially cohesive, without Iraq's religious, ethnic and cultural conflicts.

4) Security. Japan, an island, faced no domestic security issues. "The hardships were staggering," Dower said. "But there was no terror."

5) Civil institutions. Japan had a "deep tradition of democracy and civil society," Dower said. All the structures essential for reform were in place. Not so in Iraq, he noted.

6) Exhaustion. Japan was at war from 1931 to 1945, leaving 3 million dead, 10-15 million people homeless, rampant unemployment, malnutrition and disease. Defeat brought "liberation from death. Suddenly, the air raids stopped. They could start over," Dower said. "It was a psychological relief."

7) Clear goals for the occupation. "The Americans wanted demilitarization and democratization. They were clear about what this would involve--changing the civil code, land reform, etc.," he said.

8) Privacy. "Japan fell out of the public eye in 1945, as attention turned to the Cold War in Europe. They got breathing space. General MacArthur and his staff did not get involved in U.S. electoral politics."

9) External enemies. After 1947, the United States used the threat of Communism to persuade the Japanese government to support an extended occupation. Today, even after the end of the Cold War, 40,000 troops remain stationed there.

10) Economic conditions and policies. The Japanese economy was crushed after the war. Economic sabotage by Japanese took some toll, but there was no profiteering by Americans. Liberal economic policies inspired by the New Deal gave the Japanese government a larger role in the economy. This is not the "sweeping privatization" expected in Iraq.

Dower also noted the positive effect of the war for Japan in producing high numbers of engineers and skilled workers. "Post-war Japan possessed extraordinary human resources, people who would now work in a nonmilitary direction. Aircraft builders now built rapid railways; battleship builders made supertankers; tank-builders made heavy construction equipment; and electronics experts went to work for SONY," Dower said.

The March 7 panel was the third in the series "The Politics of Reconstructing Iraq," sponsored by CIS and DUSP. Yosef Jabareen, lecturer in DUSP, and Bish Sanyal, professor of urban planning, served as moderator and respondent.

Upcoming sessions include "Constructing a New Liberal Iraq" (April 4); "Consolidating Iraqi Democracy" (April 11), "The Arab Discourse" (April 25) and "Constructing a 'New Middle East'" (May 2).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 16, 2005 (download PDF).

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