The Menlo Roundtable

Second World War Guilt

Was Hirohito the pacifist of the Pacific War? In trying to answer this question, after Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, the U.S. found itself in a double bind.

On the one hand, since Hirohito had been portrayed up to that point as a militant, the prevailing sentiment in America was to hold the emperor accountable; a month after the surrender, the Senate, for its part, introduced a resolution by unanimous consent asking President Truman to arrest Hirohito. On the other hand, prosecuting the divine leader of Japan risked further bloodshed and threatened the chance for a peaceful transition. In 1946, the U.S. declared its official position: led by chief war crimes prosecutor Joseph Keenan, U.S. officials announced that Hirohito would be exempt from prosecution as a war criminal. In addition, the U.S. allowed him to remain emperor, a title he kept until his passing on January 7, 1989. Eventually, as part of the complete remaking of his image, the post-war world came to regard Hirohito as a pacifist; his designated posthumous name, Shōwa, means “Bright Peace.” Rather than sealing his legacy, however, his death has renewed an old debate: was America’s strategy to exonerate Hirohito justified? While some might point to Hirohito’s constitutional authority over the military and the putative cover-up after the war as indications of his guilt, the evidence does not prove Hirohito’s guilt, but rather suggests that the emperor ruled at the mercy of his military commanders. Either way, the U.S. made the right call to absolve Hirohito since the emperor’s exoneration benefitted U.S. interests by enabling a smoother transition during the occupation of Japan and setting the stage for a prosperous, peaceful future between the two nations in the ensuing decades.

Photo: Photo: Hirohito. Wikipedia.