n the Sunday before US troops seized the city of Baghdad, Paul Wolfowitz went on television to sell his vision for a future Middle East. A free Iraq, he said, would serve as a democratic beacon for the region just as Japan was the model for Asia. “The example of Japan, even in countries that had bitter memories of the Japanese, inspired many countries in East Asia to realize that they could master a free-market economy, that they could master democracy,” he told Fox News Sunday.
Wolfowitz, who was President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is turning history on its head. Japan was not the inspiration for the democratic upsurge that swept through East Asia in the 1980s. Instead, it was the junior partner to the United States during the cold war, when Washington created an alliance of anticommunist dictators who supported American foreign policy while repressing their own people. Those policies didn’t inspire democracy in Asia; if anything, they helped to stifle it.
The symbiotic relationship between Washington and Tokyo was forged in 1948, when the United States “reversed course” in its occupation of Japan to focus on the containment of communism. Almost overnight, US policy shifted from punishing Japanese bureaucrats and industrialists responsible for World War II to enlisting them in a global war against the Soviet Union and China. The shift was symbolized by Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister from 1957 to 1960. Kishi was minister of commerce and industry in the wartime Tojo Cabinet and labeled a “Class A” war criminal for helping run Japan’s colonial empire in Manchuria.
“The part of Japanese imperialism which was made powerless after the defeat in the war wanted, of course, to revive itself,” Muto Ichiyo, a Japanese writer who worked closely with the US antiwar movement in the 1960s, once explained to me. “But they knew perfectly well that the situation had changed. They knew also that fighting against America again would be both impossible and purposeless. So they adopted a very clear-cut strategy: Japan will concentrate on the buildup of the economic base structure of imperialism, while America will practically rule Asia through its military forces.”
Japanese industry profited handsomely by supplying the Pentagon with steel, munitions and even napalm when the United States fought wars in Korea and Vietnam. Then, as Washington propped up South Korea’s Park Chung Hee, the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Indonesia’s Suharto with vast quantities of military aid, Japan kept their economies alive with financial aid and investments from Mitsui, Sumitomo and other big corporations. Japan’s collaboration with Washington was carefully hidden from the Japanese public but greatly appreciated by American leaders, as shown from newly declassified documents stored in the National Archives.
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In 1972, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser, met with Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to discuss Japan’s role in post-Vietnam Asia. Nixon, according to a White House transcript, told Tanaka that he “realized that Japan has a special problem with respect to playing a military role in the Pacific and Asia.” But “Japanese economic influence could be decisive in many areas,” he added. “It is in our interest that there be a strong, vigorous Japanese economy, so that Japan could play a vital role in Southeast Asia.”
Tanaka was happy to oblige, telling Nixon that Japan “should cooperate with the Southeast Asian nations and the ROK [Republic of Korea] in providing both aid and investment.” In South Korea, which Nixon and Tanaka agreed was “essential” to Japan’s security, he said Japanese aid would “create a situation in which disaffected South Korean elements are not tempted to serve North Korean interests.” Tanaka’s promises pleased Nixon, who “hoped to see not just a United States policy, but a US-Japan policy for Asia.”
In Wolfowitz’s rosy view of history, the millions of Koreans, Filipinos and Indonesians who rebelled against their authoritarian governments were following in Japan’s footsteps. That is false. In reality, democratic activists in those countries endured torture, imprisonment and military repression imposed by governments backed by the Pentagon, financed by Japan and tolerated by Wolfowitz and other American officials in the name of US national security.
On April 7, Wolfowitz told the Washington Post that he “met quite a few dictators up close and personal in my life.” Indeed he has. It was under Wolfowitz’s watch at the State Department that Reagan invited South Korean military dictator Chun Doo Hwan to the White House in February 1981, nine months after Chun murdered hundreds of demonstrators in Kwangju. And it was Wolfowitz, who was US ambassador to Indonesia during the 1980s, who urged Congress to look beyond the “important and sensitive issue of human rights” to acknowledge “the strong and remarkable leadership of President Suharto.”
A more accurate analogy between postwar Asia and US policy today would be the United States installing friendly leaders in Baghdad willing to do US bidding in the Middle East, and subservient, pro-US governments providing the economic underpinning to the new US imperialism. Then, after decades of US-imposed “democracy,” the Iraqi people would rise up to forge their own future. That’s how long it took Asians to reject the idea that democracy grows out of the barrels of American guns.