Issue of the Week: Human Rights, Economic Opportunity, Hunger, War, Population, Environment
The Forum, Rome (c) 2016-2019 Lisa Blume & Keith Blume
The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Fifteen.
When walking through the Forum in Rome, one is walking with historical ghosts starting from two and a half millennia ago.
As the study and memory of history has diminished to barely remembering the last tweet, the memory of these ghosts is mainly non-existent for most.
But there are many reasons to listen to the voices of these ghosts.
The name most remembered, although most don’t remember why, other than that he was a great general who expanded what was about to officially become the Roman Empire before he was assassinated in 44 BCE, was Julius Caesar.
His killing, and the many reasons for it and leading up to it, in the Roman Senate by several senators, unofficially marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire, officially declared after civil war in 27 BCE. All emperors would take the name, Caesar.
The Roman Republic lasted about five hundred years and the Roman Empire about a millennia and a half after that, although the last several hundred years were an increasingly weakened and divided empire.
Two thousand years of Roman dominated civilization. Unmatched in western civilization. In some ways unmatched, period. Again, as we remind, especially given the global dominance of western civilization over time, with the good, the bad and the ugly, as we’ve put it before. And as we’ve also reminded, western civilization like all civilization started in the Rift Valley in Africa, and the western variant was dominated at the start by middle eastern civilizations and northern African civilizations such as Egypt. Alexander made his home city there after pushing as far as and being influenced by Indian civilization, just as the Greeks were influenced by their enemies, such as the Persians, with all of the above influencing Roman civilization, including its own empire-building conquests. If the epic wars between Rome and the north African civilization of Carthage had not been won by Rome, what would history look like since? The relationship between Julius Caesar and the last Egyptian ruler Cleopatra has been well-romanticized. Egypt–a civilization three thousand years older than Roman, then became a Roman province. And so on.
The primary connection in today’s culture and consciousness to Roman civilization may well be the 2000 movie Gladiator.
Contrary to its presentation of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, in reality both murderous conqeror like the rest, and wise ruler in some ways (known for his meditations on stoicism to those few who still know this), he had no intention of restoring the Republic, already two centuries gone.
The best and worst of the republic and the empire in many ways made their way over the next two millennia through Britain and then to America.
The founders of the United States were in no small part influenced by the history of the Roman Republic, particularly its democratic aspects and their limitations (as well as the classical Athenian democracy and its limitations, the ideas of the Enlightenment, as well as other influences).
Unfortunately, in addition to not applying in some fundamental ways the lessons of the fall of the Roman Republic to begin with, two pillars of the Roman Republic and empire that followed which America emulated were conquest and slavery.
That didn’t make the US exceptional (in the wrong way), just the most recent in a long line, and eventually the most powerful. There are better angels of the US nature, and human nature, of course, the struggle about which will determine the human future and the fate of the world.
The British, French, Spanish and Portuguese colonial conquests and wars in the Americas, and the North American expansion of the US later, were predicated on stealing the land of and destroying native peoples.
The first great evil.
The next great evil was slavery of Africans. Four hundred years ago this month, the first slaves were brought to America.
(These were in addition to the transporting to the “New World” of the ongoing great evils of classism and sexism, systemic inequality and exploitation.)
The latter has more ongoing impact on US culture overall because, among other things, most of the Native-American peoples died, and the African-American population is substantial.
Then there was the ongoing nature of the economic engine of slavery, and its aftermath still today.
And the Civil War, the greatest slaughter percentage-wise of any war in American history, with slavery at its rotten core, and its aftermath still today–but which could have been a very different story.
We’ll get back to that below.
First, a further stroll through the Forum in Rome.
Who controls the land has throughout history been the moniker of power and the center of the fight for equality. Until only a few years ago, this still meant mainly in the rural areas. Now the cities are more populous, although the rural populations remain enormous in most of the world. The issue of control of land remains core in those places, as it is in cities as well. Who owns property, a home, who rents, who can afford anything, who owns and develops and controls property, and makes money from it. And then there is what has been described as the newest form of real estate–the virtual kind.
But who controls the land on which food is produced and how this is done has been at the center of more war and revolution in history than anything. And from the core lessons of this context come the same core lessons of inequality and conflict whether rural or in cities, land or other assets controlling jobs and economic equality or the lack thereof.
Economic equality, hunger, poverty, population, environment, human rights, war and so on–all determine each other. But if you don’t have a guarantee that you and your children will be well nourished and housed and with health care and protected from violence and abuse, you simply don’t have the capacity or motivation to care about anything else. You can be turned against each other out of fear of scarcity, and eventually you will revolt against those with power.
A person of great intelligence and caring asked one of the writers here recently–when things get bad enough, why won’t those in power just kill off everyone in the way?
The answer is they will. They always have. They are. Directly and indirectly. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not. We’ve continually covered the specific horrors of this historically and to date.
All this has ever accomplished is a back and forth hell of slaughter. The haves win. The have-nots win. The haves win again. And so on. What’s different now is that in a world of weapons and technology and so many other things in a completely connected world that can destroy everything instantly, there’s no way to pull off even the most horrifically conspiratorial mass-murder of the majority of the population without triggering the whirlwind for all. Its a kind of continuation “writ-all” of the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War. We figure it our for all of us or we all go.
And remember, all individuals are responsible for what they do. But we need systems in which doing the right thing is required in terms of providing basic human needs and human rights for all. That’s observable historical fact at its most rudimentary.
So back to strolling through the Forum in Rome.
One of the best things about the Roman Republic was that it was a republic at all, replacing a King with some form of democratic government based in the Roman Senate. The bad part was that it was a senate of oligarchs. But not meaningless given the era. It was a start that could have evolved.
And in part, it did. In 494 BCE, just a decade and a half after the founding of the republic, under pressure from the great majority of have-nots in Rome, the Tribunes of the Plebs (people) was created, elected by an assembly of the people. The history thereafter of this evolution is long, fascinating and critical. Read-up.
Fast-forward about three and a half centuries to 133 BCE.
The most important assassination in Roman history and in ending the republic was not that of Julius Caesar.
It was of the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, in 133 and 121 BCE respectively.
It was all downhill from there.
Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus were both Tribunes of the Plebs. They came within an inch of successful economic and political reform that would have created far greater equality and transformed the relationship between haves and have-nots in the Roman Republic.
Over the years, the Roman population, economic and political dynamics changed enormously, in the wrong direction. Many Roman citizens were smaller landowners and farmers. They were also the soldiers. Ironically (and painfully predictably), the foreign wars they fought enriched the elite, who basically stole their land and disenfranchised them. Slavery increased dramatically as the work force, also the result of conquest. Increasingly there were the rich, the poor and the enslaved.
There were slave revolts (in years to come after the Gracchi, the Spartacus revolt–popularized in film and TV, one of the only other things a larger number of people may know about Rome).
But within Rome the masses of disenfranchised citizens were the greater immediate threat to the republic.
So the Gracchi proposed land reform and food distribution for those in the cities. All the public land controlled by the oligarchs in the senate would be given to the citizens, the poor, the veterans. A self-sufficient, small-farmer citizen republic again, but even more widespread in equality, with a political system evolving that would represent all.
The oligarchs of the senate had them both killed (one may have killed himself with imminent murder coming.)
The Gracchi are often compared with John and Robert Kennedy. Others see them as demagogues–which basically means people who lie to get power and don’t ever carry out any real reform. In terms of the historical lesson, it actually doesn’t matter, but the facts say they put their lives on the line to accomplish a great and necessary common good.
They are sometimes described as populists, a word often being used one-dimensionally these days as a negative. Sometimes its negative, sometimes positive. Lie, divide and conquer? Negative. Create basic needs and rights for all? Positive. As Lincoln said, “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” If it really is, that’s the answer. If it isn’t, then its the big lie.
When opposed in an undemocratic manner by the senate oligarchs, the Gracchi sometimes fought back outside rules that guaranteed the oligarchy gone wild would never allow equality or even survival for the masses. Some commentators have opined that the Gracchi not playing by the rules started the unravelling of the republic. Really? As many have noted, it was a republic in any sustainable or decent sense that had been destroyed already by a senate playing by no rules except making themselves rich by enslaving and impoverishing everyone else. The Gracchi were the last chance to save the republic. They represented a window for populist reform. They were followed by populist demogogues increasingly which led to civil war and all power in the hands of generals–then emperors.
But analyzing the Gracchi and their motives personally is beside the point. The point is that they were created by the massive inequality and brutal exploitation of the system to enrich the few that the republic had become. Explosion was inevitable. Which continued for the next few decades until the republic was gone and the empire in place.
The best parts of the empire, in some aspects of the legal system and Pax Romana, were the legacy of the instincts of reformers and the realization of those in power of what was in their own enlightened self-interest. The worst parts were what destroyed the republic, multiplied many times, which eventually rotted and destroyed the empire.
How many times has history seen that play–up to the minute?
. . .
After winning the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin famously said at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, that the US had: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
It couldn’t be kept as a nation in which nearly all voters were required to be white male landowners or taxpayers, disenfranchising the rest. Some of them knew it from the start and wanted better. But there was likely going to be no start without starting this way.
Dr. Samuel Johnson opposed the American Revolution. With all his faults, he wasn’t wrong when he said, “”How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it”, said Franklin.
It certainly couldn’t be kept with slavery.
So, 63 years later, The Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln walked the line between infamy and greatness until the Emancipation Proclamation.
He was willing to end the war and have the South back and keep the Union with slavery. He allowed slaves to be sent back to the Confederacy to their deaths because they were property legally. He did so in order to keep the option open of re-uniting the Union with slavery in tact. A Union general stopped this practice and used the rationale that property of a state in rebellion should be confiscated, a rationale Lincoln then accepted. Had Lincoln died or had the war been lost or settled before the Emancipation Proclamation, he would have gone down in history as monstrous. That’s often how thin the line is. Fortunately, he came to see, both strategically and morally, that the war could not be won without ending slavery.
Post-Civil War reconstruction policy was a war by other means that was won and lost by one vote in the first trial after impeachment of a president in US history at that point.
That too, is how thin the line often is.
No one knows for sure what Lincoln would have done had he lived. He won the Civil War by coming around to ending slavery as a political necessity. He is seen as the martyred hero he in the main deserves to be, simply by making the right choice at the key historic moment. His malice toward none and charity toward all sentiments in his last inaugural address had merit, but also could have foreshadowed another strategic blind spot in how the South–a system of brutal racist, classist power by a virtual dictatorship of plantation-owning oligarchs–was dealt with after the war. And most importantly, how equality was or was not brought to the former slaves.
Lincoln’s evolution on slavery, and his fighting hard and successfully for the 13thamendment to formally abolish it, were positive signs he would have ended up in the right place. As well as the fact that he was a Republican, and this new party was the radical force in politics and policy that made him and the end of slavery possible. He sometimes clashed with the most progressive elements of the party, but that was the core of the party, and in the end it was a critical element of what pushed him to the better angels of his nature.
His vice-president, Andrew Johnson, was another matter. A Democrat who Lincoln had brought on for the possibility of national unity, although like his fellow Democrats was pro-slavery, he drew the line at insurrection against the Union and supported the North against the South.
After Lincoln was assassinated and he was president, however, Johnson supported reinstituting the brutal power structures of the South with slavery in every way but name only. This was against the very core of what Republicans, who controlled Congress, stood for, and what for most in the North at that point, the war had been fought about.
The most important indicator that Lincoln would have continued to change history in reconstruction as he had in ending slavery was what he already had done as a first act of reconstruction as the war was ending–approving General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famed “40 Acres and a Mule” Special Field Order No. 15 on January 16, 1864—one of the most radical actions in American history.
African-American slaves were the forced agricultural labor on plantations that slaves on Roman estates had been nearly two millennia before, and that occurred around the world before and since, in either actual slavery or virtual slavery, as hungry landless peasants who worked the land–sharecroppers as they would be called in the American south after the end of slavery. The planned reconstruction of Congress had at its heart the gutting of the barbaric, racist, classist, dictatorship of the oligarchy that had led to the war. And real equality for the former slaves. Which could only happen one way.
Break up the plantations and give ownership of the land to small black farmers.
. . .
The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule, by Henrry Louis Gates, Jr., an accompanying article to the PBS series he hosted, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, covers the historical moment well:
We’ve all heard the story of the “40 acres and a mule” promise to former slaves. It’s a staple of black history lessons, and it’s the name of Spike Lee’s film company. The promise was the first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations to newly freed slaves, and it was astonishingly radical for its time, proto-socialist in its implications. In fact, such a policy would be radical in any country today: the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property — some 400,000 acres — formerly owned by Confederate land owners, and its methodical redistribution to former black slaves. What most of us haven’t heard is that the idea really was generated by black leaders themselves.
It is difficult to stress adequately how revolutionary this idea was: As the historian Eric Foner puts it in his book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, “Here in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.” Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth. After all, one of the principal promises of America was the possibility of average people being able to own land, and all that such ownership entailed. As we know all too well, this promise was not to be realized for the overwhelming majority of the nation’s former slaves, who numbered about 3.9 million.
What Exactly Was Promised?
We have been taught in school that the source of the policy of “40 acres and a mule” was Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on Jan. 16, 1865. (That account is half-right: Sherman prescribed the 40 acres in that Order, but not the mule. The mule would come later.) But what many accounts leave out is that this idea for massive land redistribution actually was the result of a discussion that Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held four days before Sherman issued the Order, with 20 leaders of the black community in Savannah, Ga., where Sherman was headquartered following his famous March to the Sea. The meeting was unprecedented in American history.
Today, we commonly use the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” but few of us have read the Order itself. Three of its parts are relevant here. Section one bears repeating in full: “The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes [sic] now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”
Section two specifies that these new communities, moreover, would be governed entirely by black people themselves: ” … on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves … By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro [sic] is free and must be dealt with as such.”
Finally, section three specifies the allocation of land: ” … each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”
With this Order, 400,000 acres of land — “a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast,” as Barton Myers reports — would be redistributed to the newly freed slaves. The extent of this Order and its larger implications are mind-boggling, actually.
Who Came Up With the Idea?
Here’s how this radical proposal — which must have completely blown the minds of the rebel Confederates — actually came about. The abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been actively advocating land redistribution “to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power,” as Myers observed. But Sherman’s plan only took shape after the meeting that he and Stanton held with those black ministers, at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 12, on the second floor of Charles Green’s mansion on Savannah’s Macon Street. In its broadest strokes, “40 acres and a mule” was their idea.
Stanton, aware of the great historical significance of the meeting, presented Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous brother) a verbatim transcript of the discussion, which Beecher read to his congregation at New York’s Plymouth Church and which the New York Daily Tribune printed in full in its Feb. 13, 1865, edition. Stanton told Beecher that “for the first time in the history of this nation, the representatives of the government had gone to these poor debased people to ask them what they wanted for themselves.” Stanton had suggested to Sherman that they gather “the leaders of the local Negro community” and ask them something no one else had apparently thought to ask: “What do you want for your own people” following the war? And what they wanted astonishes us even today.
Who were these 20 thoughtful leaders who exhibited such foresight? They were all ministers, mostly Baptist and Methodist. Most curious of all to me is that 11 of the 20 had been born free in slave states, of which 10 had lived as free men in the Confederacy during the course of the Civil War. (The other one, a man named James Lynch, was born free in Maryland, a slave state, and had only moved to the South two years before.) The other nine ministers had been slaves in the South who became “contraband,” and hence free, only because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union forces liberated them.
Their chosen leader and spokesman was a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier, aged 67, who had been born in Granville, N.C., and was a slave until 1857, “when he purchased freedom for himself and wife for $1000 in gold and silver,” as the New York Daily Tribune reported. Rev. Frazier had been “in the ministry for thirty-five years,” and it was he who bore the responsibility of answering the 12 questions that Sherman and Stanton put to the group. The stakes for the future of the Negro people were high.
And Frazier and his brothers did not disappoint. What did they tell Sherman and Stanton that the Negro most wanted? Land! “The way we can best take care of ourselves,” Rev. Frazier began his answer to the crucial third question, “is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.” And when asked next where the freed slaves “would rather live — whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by themselves,” without missing a beat, Brother Frazier (as the transcript calls him) replied that “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over … ” When polled individually around the table, all but one — James Lynch, 26, the man who had moved south from Baltimore — said that they agreed with Frazier. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, after President Lincoln approved it.
What Became of the Land That Was Promised?
The response to the Order was immediate. When the transcript of the meeting was reprinted in the black publication Christian Recorder, an editorial note intoned that “From this it will be seen that the colored people down South are not so dumb as many suppose them to be,” reflecting North-South, slave-free black class tensions that continued well into the modern civil rights movement. The effect throughout the South was electric: As Eric Foner explains, “the freedmen hastened to take advantage of the Order.” Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston, one of the group that had met with Sherman, led 1,000 blacks to Skidaway Island, Ga., where they established a self-governing community with Houston as the “black governor.” And by June, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land.’ ” By the way, Sherman later ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules; hence the phrase, “40 acres and a mule.”
And what happened to this astonishingly visionary program, which would have fundamentally altered the course of American race relations? Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned the Order in the fall of 1865, and, as Barton Myers sadly concludes, “returned the land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it” — to the very people who had declared war on the United States of America.
. . .
Gates’ new PBS series, Reconstruction, covers many other aspects of the era as well. There were many atrocities and many accomplishments that have echoed forward to today. But nothing so central as the issue of land reform, and what might have been.
President Andrew Johnson’s rescinding of Sherman’s order–and Lincoln’s–was his first shot in a war against the beginning of Lincoln’s policy and the policy of the government controlled by the Republicans which had prosecuted the war for the Union and preserved it.
This clash between an accidental president and the party of the murdered president in power in Congress led to Johnson’s impeachment.
The vote for conviction was only one vote shy of the needed two-thirds.
Impeachment is by definition a political process. The constitution leaves it to Congress to decide what high crimes and misdemeanors means. The balance of power in which the elected representatives of the people decide whether a president is abusing power is exactly how it works. And the politics of abuse of power that led to the Civil War in effect won back what it had lost, by one vote.
It utterly changed history for the worse.
The vote of the senator who saved Johnson is surrounded with controversy. For good reasons, but that’s another story. Revisionist history was written as a result of the one-vote escape and the policies that followed. Even John Kennedy used the senator as one of his examples of a profile in courage. He was dead wrong. Another example of a political moment in a campaign to be president before he evolved into the president he became in the end.
It needs to be added that there is every reason to believe that the policy Lincoln had endorsed would have been extended to poor and disenfranchised whites as well as reconstruction and history moved forward. Divide and conquer no more.
Unfortunately, the best evidence of this was the Homestead Act that Lincoln had signed in 1862. For all of the positive economic development and social equity this provided for many whites moving west, it was at the expense of furthering the first great evil—stealing the land from, killing, starving and destroying Native Americans.
African Americans, Native American, all Americans, and all people by virtue of the reality of American historical influence, are still paying for all this.
. . .
Now fast forward to 1945.
And one of the most radical and historic actions America or any nation ever took—and this time completed.
And if you asked most Americans or most people anywhere, they wouldn’t know it. Everyone knew it at the time. And it’s been memorialized in books and movies since.
It doesn’t matter.
No historical memory beyond the last tweet.
When the Japanese surrendered ending World War Two, after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 74 years ago this month (reminding everyone since why this could never happen again and why we are all in peril in a world of nuclear weapons at all times), the US had absolute control of Japan under occupation.
General Douglas MacArthur, dubbed “American Caesar” in the title of William Manchester’s biography, who many considered America’s greatest general in his campaigns against the Japanese during the war, was now in charge of the occupation.
He was in effect the dictator of Japan.
MacArthur was a right-winger who wanted to be president and who was widely popular across ideological lines, largely because of his wartime role. No one thought more highly of him than he himself did, by all accounts. He had a brilliant mind strategically. Years later he virtually saved the UN Forces, mainly US forces, from defeat in Korea by the extraordinary landing at Inchon, and then led his forces to the Chinese border. After Chinese intervention led to stalemate, MacArthur seemed to advocate war to defeat China itself if needed, which risked wider war with the Soviet Union as well, which had newly acquired the atomic bomb itself. In any event, his public statements contradicted President Truman, implicitly challenging his position as commander-in-chief. Truman famously removed MacArthur from duty, who nonetheless returned home to the largest ticker tape parade in New York in history at the time.
In 1945 in Japan, MacArthur did the following.
He fully supported President Roosevelt’s policy of total surrender in order to break the back of fascism. And the policies FDR and the United Nations had defined as the war aims–to provide equality for all people.
In Japan, the fascist military dictatorship was deeply imbedded in a feudal culture which had not changed in many ways in its history. The emperor was seen as a God.
The emperor was stripped of all power, but not of his public role. He was required to tell his people, who had never been allowed to hear his voice, to cooperate with the Americans. An investigation found insufficient evidence tying him to the fascist war decision to take further action. This appeared partly accurate and partly not, and was extremely upsetting to many US authorities. But it was likely that MacArthur at least hoped for, if not planned, as a part of his strategic approach—to have the Emperor in place as a symbolic presence to support the impossible to imagine actions he was about to take.
First, land reform. In a feudal society essentially unchanged for a thousand years, landless tenant farmers who worked at starvation wages for the powerful absentee landlord oligarchy, part of the backbone supporting the fascist military, were given ownership of the land.
The result, immediate socio-economic-power change in equality with the landed aristocracy finished. Food production exploded, families that could feed their children saw infant deaths drop dramatically which was followed by a major drop in birth rate as insurance births were no longer needed. The cry for land reform heard before in the Russian Revolution and at the time by the communists in the civil war in China was carried out not in name that became a betrayal of totalitarian collectivist starvation and murder, but gave real power to the peasants and transformed the entire society, launching it into late twentieth century economic status rapidly.
The state department told MacArthur if he did this Japan would go communist. MacArthur told them what anyone could observe—if he didn’t carry out the reforms Japan would go communist.
Another commie move by the right-wing general. (The same thing FDR’s radical successes in the New Deal accomplished and were illogically attacked by a minority while the majority laughed and kept re-electing him by landslides—MacArthur, although right-wing, saw the New Deal as a model for much of what he did.)
He set up a representative government with a new democratic constitution that banned having a military and made pacifism a requirement, with a universal right to vote.
And most stunning related to the latter, he gave the right to vote to women—and created a constitution that was a model for equal rights—in a country in which most still found this unimaginable.
MacArthur did in a few short years what had taken centuries and countless wars to accomplish elsewhere. And often not as well.
Then the occupation ended.
(This, of course, was in marked contrast with how Japanese-Amercians were horribly treated during the war by being interned in camps, which we have commented extensively on before.)
Within a few years, Japan went from completely destroyed in every way, from a feudal, sexist, fascist state, to the model in many ways of the opposite, and the number two economic power on earth after the US for many years–number three still, after China, even as a relatively small island state by comparison, and even with economic stagnation.
An inspiring and little-known story worth noting here, as part of the remarkable transformation of Japan under American occupation, is that of Beate Sirota Gordon, the 22-year old woman who created the equal rights and women’s rights aspects of Japan’s new constitution which guaranteed rights the US didn’t guarantee entirely–and still doesn’t.
Here’s an excerpt from “The American Woman Who Wrote Equal Rights Into Japan’s Constitution”, by Cristine Russell in The Atlantic in January 2013 shortly after Gordon’s passing at 89 years old:
Gordon went to work in Washington, D.C., as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff, and, on Christmas Eve, 1945, arrived in Tokyo as part of his team to find her parent’s home devastated and their whereabouts unknown. She said she was the first civilian American woman to work in postwar Japan. In February 1946, she worked in Tokyo on a top-secret project to draft a new Japanese constitution. Her assignment: women’s rights.
Despite her young age, while growing up Gordon “had seen discrimination against women in Japan,” she told the Mills commencement audience. “Women had no rights at all. The arranged marriages were often unhappy. The women sometimes did not even meet their future spouses until just before the wedding. Women were not trained for careers and thus could not obtain work that interested them. Women had no inheritance rights, no rights to choose their own domicile.”
With a tough deadline, she headed for the library, searching through copies of constitutions from other countries. She drafted two provisions that included broad equal rights language — “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin” — as well as specific civil rights for women:
Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.
The new Japanese constitution went into effect in 1947. “It set a basis for a better, a more equal society,” Carol Gluck, a Columbia University professor of Japanese history, said in an excellent New York Times obituary of Gordon. “By just writing those things into the [Japanese] Constitution — our Constitution doesn’t have any of those things — Beate Gordon intervened at a critical moment. And what 22-year-old gets to write a constitution?”
MacArthur initially supported labor unions in Japan and then moved to limit them. He made other mistakes to be sure. There was and is no utopia there. Economic inequality has become an increasing issue as in other such economies. But that’s a global issue with at this point only global solutions to be sustainable.
What was demonstrated was that an entire history of massive inequality and brutality and nationalism and militarism and classism and sexism could be turned around (that’s turned around, not solved completely) in the right direction radically and virtually instantly with astounding results, which nearly everyone thought was impossible.
Its not, of course.
. . .
To be continued.