Japanese Emperor Hirohito had agreed to surrender 18 days earlier. No one knew what to expect of the coming occupation of Japan, or even whether the peace would stick. American forces had gone ashore, but none had yet entered Tokyo, where hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops were still in arms.
As the Japanese and the other dignitaries waited on deck, coffee and cinnamon rolls were served in Adm. Bill Halsey’s private wardroom to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied Powers, and Adm. Chester Nimitz, chief of the Pacific Fleet. In one corner of the compartment, a handcrafted leather saddle was on display. Halsey had publicly declared that he would seize Hirohito’s famous white horse as a trophy of war. The saddle had been sent as a gift by his admirers in the United States.
At 9 o’clock, MacArthur stepped out on deck, followed by Nimitz and Halsey. They wore plain khaki uniforms without ties, in sharp contrast to Shigemitsu’s top hat and frock coat. Speaking into a microphone with a slow, stentorian cadence, MacArthur said, “We are gathered here, representative of the major warring powers, to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored.” Witnesses noted that his hands shook as he read from his handwritten notes.
In a tense silence, Shigemitsu sat down, placing his hat and gloves on the table. He paused, then with a few strokes of a pen signed his name in Japanese kanji. History’s bloodiest war had finally ended.
As the Japanese delegation later descended the gangway, hundreds of American B-29 bombers and carrier planes thundered overhead at low altitude. The message was clear. Japan lay prostrate, and the conqueror’s power was absolute.
While returning to Tokyo, the Japanese listened to MacArthur’s radio broadcast to the American people. “Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won,” MacArthur said. The speech, a forgotten classic of American oratory, was a resounding denunciation of modern warfare. Technology had made war too terrible, MacArthur said, and if nations did not find peaceful means to resolve their disputes, “Armageddon will be at our door.”
Japan, he said, would be liberated and rebuilt on democratic foundations. Its economy would recover by building “vertically rather than horizontally” — that is, at home rather than through foreign conquests. Japanese ingenuity and energy would be redirected to constructive ends.
Toshikazu Kase, an aide to Shigemitsu, later said he was “thunderstruck” by the speech. The Japanese had dreaded the coming occupation. The country was on its knees, verging on famine. Bombing raids had reduced Japanese cities to fields of ash and debris. Halsey’s bloody-minded tirades against the Japanese had seemed to vindicate the regime’s propaganda insisting that the Allies would enslave Japan. MacArthur could have tried to humiliate the Japanese. Instead, he had pledged to help the defeated nation “lift itself from its present deplorable state into a position of dignity.”
Historians have been hard on MacArthur. The list of indictments against him is damning. He took a huge secret payment from the Philippine government and then championed liberating the Philippines before attacking the Japanese homeland. While serving overseas, he pulled political strings at home, allowing right-wing supporters to run him as a dark-horse candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1944. MacArthur’s views on global strategy were unwavering: He should receive more troops and weaponry regardless of what was happening elsewhere in the world — and he would subvert authority to try to get his way. That outlook continued into the Korean War, finally prompting President Harry S. Truman to send him into retirement.
But even the critics applaud MacArthur’s performance from 1945 to 1950 as supreme commander in postwar Japan. Retaining Hirohito as a constitutional monarch, he made the emperor a vital ally. He oversaw the drafting of a democratic constitution guaranteeing basic rights to all citizens, including women. He introduced sweeping social, legal and economic reforms that benefited workers and small farmers. The Japanese came to revere MacArthur as a benevolent liberator.
More than any other Allied commander, MacArthur understood that the Pacific War was a contest of ideas as well as arms. Simply winning was not enough; Japan’s imperialist ideology had to be discredited and replaced with something better. When the moment came for MacArthur to speak for the victorious Allies, he exceeded his mandate by speaking for all nations, including the defeated. Halsey would never ride the emperor’s white horse, and the Japanese people would not starve. Japanese democracy, which turns 75 years old on Wednesday, is MacArthur’s greatest legacy.