A Historical Reflection of the American Approach

'Tosin Adeoti
5 min readApr 3, 2024

Last week, Elon Musk made a tweet that got me nodding my head. It read,

Musk isn’t someone I am fond of. He can be a manchild. But on this one, I considered it a straightforward truism that is self-evident and went my way. A few hours later, I saw many arguments about how clueless Musk is and how totally historically illiterate he is.

I was taken aback. In fact, I had a long debate with someone on this topic on how much revisionist American history is becoming.

America is not at all a morally upright entity but like my good man, Thomas Sowell, teaches to ask on a range of many issues, the question is, “compared to whom?”

Was this how the Roman Empire ruled? The Oyo Empire? The Mongols? The Qin Dynasty? The British Empire?

Compared to all previous conquerors, America is by far the most humane.

The case of Japan readily comes to mind.

It was World War II and the United States had vowed not to get involved. After World War I most Americans concluded that participating in international affairs had been a mistake. They sought peace through isolation and throughout the 1920s advocated a policy of disarmament and nonintervention.

In fact, President Roosevelt established what became known as the Good Neighbor Policy, which repudiated altogether the right of intervention in Latin America. That’s how much America was opposed to wars.

As the European situation became more tense, the United States continued to hold to its isolationist policy. Congress, with the approval of Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, enacted a series of neutrality laws that legislated against the factors that supposedly had taken the United States into World War I. As Italy prepared to invade Ethiopia, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1935. The United States was not going to ship embargoing arms to either aggressor or victim.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and started World War II, Roosevelt was concerned. Because it’s an industrial power, Britain prevailed on the US to join forces. Roosevelt declined. “The best we will do for you and France is sell weapons on a cash-and-carry basis. No money, no weapons”, Roosevelt was empathic.

When France fell to Germany, the US was concerned, still it refused to join the war. Public opinion polls showed that most Americans favoured Britain but still wished to stay out of war. So, Roosevelt started selling more and more weapons to Britain. However, he categorically told the American people:

“Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

He meant it.

But something happened in the Pacific.

Japan was on the side of Germany and Italy. And had been subjugating China whom the United States was on friendly terms with. At a point, the United States stopped exporting oil to Japan because it didn’t want its resources to be used to wage war with its allies.

To the astonishment of the whole world, Japan attacked naval and air installations in Hawaii. In a bold surprise attack, Japanese aircraft destroyed or damaged 18 ships of war at Pearl Harbor, including the entire battleship force, and 347 planes. Total U.S. casualties amounted to 2,403 dead and 1,178 wounded.

If you’ve heard of the Pearl Harbor attack, that was it.

One day later, Congress with only one dissenting vote declared war against Japan. Three days later Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.

The rest is history.

The United States entering the fray completely changed the dynamics of the war. It was a flawless victory for the allies with devastating destruction of Japan as you have heard in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki tales.

All of them eventually surrendered — Italy, Germany, and, of course, Japan.

Japan was particularly apprehensive.

When it colonized Korea in the late 1800s, the horrors it inflicted on the country was legendary.

As with most colonizers in history, Japan made sweeping changes in Korea. It began a process of Japanization, eventually functionally banning the use of Korean names and the Korean language altogether. Tens of thousands of cultural artifacts were looted and taken to Japan, and hundreds of historic buildings like the royal palaces were either partially or completely demolished. Girls aged 12–17 were infamously recruited, forcefully by Japan into sexual slavery. It was only when the US defeated Japan that Korea became free.

So, Japan was expecting similar treatment it had visited on other territories it conquered, including Korea.

But what did the United States do?

With clear instructions, the United States sent General Douglass MacArthur to be the de facto leader of Japan.

He is known as the one and only “Gaijin Shogun,” or “Foreign Warlord,” of Japan.

The general ordered reforms, revived democratic institutions and civil liberties, cracked down on militarism, and spurred the basic institutions which make what Japan is today.

MacArthur commanded American GIs (soldiers) to help the Japanese civilians with kindness.

Japanese people, realizing that their life was much better under American “rule” compared to the militarists, began to praise him as a “great shogun” or “living God.” People started to thank the General for everything good he had done, and the American “occupation” army became known as the American “stationed” army.

When he was relieved by President Truman, it was a big deal in Japan. The Emperor visited him in person to say goodbye. Prime Minister of Japan Yoshida Shigeru also thanked him. The Diet of Japan also passed a resolution thanking him. The people of Japan showered him with gratitude and waved farewell as he went.

There is an entire book filled with letters from the Japanese common folk to Gen. MacArthur.

Ten years after his departure and with democratic institutions in place, Japan became the second-largest economy in the world, and even hosted the Olympic Games in 1964.

You will see the same treatment accorded the ‘conquered’ in other places including West Germany, Taiwan, and South Korea.

Again, the United States is not without blemish, but as I said, the question is not an absolute one, it is ‘compared to whom?’

And this is not to say that America cannot do better, but at least, let’s start with acknowledging the fact that compared to historical conquerors, the US’ approach is radically different and can be built upon.