June 29, 2005,
Past and present.
This is the season of war anniversaries, and these engender the best in humankind, and remind us at the same time that that which we once thought perduring, and bled and died for, winces away from moral inflexibility under the tides of history.
In Japan they are having a complicated time centering on Saipan. This island now belongs to us, and we paid very dearly for it. Sixty-one years ago it had its great day in the history of the Second World War. From June 15 to July 9, 1944, our men fought to take the island, as the first step in wresting the Marianas away from Japan. The Japanese defenders resisted desperately, but the Americans finally prevailed. The island remains U.S. property, and there are no irredentist demands being made by the Japanese, even though they owned it throughout their empire days, from 1914 until we took it from them in 1944.
Life there today appears to center less on nationalist impulses than on the cultivation of tourism, most of this coming in from Japan. What excited special attention this week was the appearance on Saipan of Japan's elusive Emperor Akihito, son of Hirohito, whose death in 1989 we permitted to pass by without a very industrious historical investigation of his bloody role first as conqueror of China, then as war leader in a military enterprise that kicked off with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Coming quickly to the point at hand, a decade or so ago, the citizens of Honolulu welcomed one of the pilots of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which proved to be a date that would not quite live in infamy another broken promise by President Roosevelt. But the Pearl Harbor pilot was treated merely as a technician of war a man who receives orders from above to drop bombs on particular targets, and does so without any thought to the moral consequences of the deed.
The little disruption this week was on the matter of whose deaths was the emperor to grieve. Obviously the dead Japanese, and here he singled out for special attention, in addition to the soldiers who died fighting, the hundreds of civilians who died in a spectacular mass suicide rather than surrender to American soldiers.
The emperor intended to commemorate the loss not only of the Japanese who died in battle (40,000), and those who died by suicide (several hundred), but also the Americans who died (5,000) to conquer the island.
Missing, in the original plans for the royal bereavement, was any notice of the hundreds of Koreans who died on Saipan, most of them there for forced labor. The emperor took stock of the protest and at the last minute scheduled a visit to the Korean memorial.
Meanwhile the prime minister of Vietnam, Phan Van Khai, arrived in Washington and was received in the White House by the president. This was five years after the first (and so far only) visit to Communist Vietnam by an American chief of state, President Clinton. And the visit this time was moderately austere half an hour in the Oval Office, no fireworks. President Bush said something about the desirability for the Vietnamese people of democratic government, and Phan Van Khai replied, All in due course; meanwhile we should be given access to the World Trade Organization. Vietnam, like China, pays avid attention to economic liberalism, and now, with its 80 million people (80 million includes the 40 million in what used to be called South Vietnam), lists the U.S. as its largest trading partner. There were scattered protests outside the White House, some Americans participating, but mostly ex-South Vietnamese who are unwilling to deal amicably with the conqueror from the Vietnamese north who deprives the south of all those things (liberty, free press, self-government) we helped them fight for, but gave up.
It is good to forget, less good to forgive and forget. The great gesture of postwar Europe came when Charles de Gaulle welcomed Konrad Adenauer to Paris only a few years after a war ended in which Germans had occupied France, hunted down Jews, and visited Nazism everywhere they could extend their influence. The trick was to continue to hate and deplore the Nazis, while making peace with their successors. In Vietnam it is less easy, because the incubus is still there, strutting its stuff in Hanoi. We are hoping that it can be seduced away from its workaday savagery, as has happened in China, by the muse of commerce.
So let the Vietnamese into the World Trade Organization, and hope that their concern for balance sheets (Prime Minister Khai stopped by to visit Bill Gates en route to the White House) will slake their appetite to exert their will over other people.