Operation Blacklist: What MacArthur's Japan Occupation Teaches Us About Counterinsurgency

September 24, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIImperial JapanDouglas MacArthurCounterinsurgencyWar

Operation Blacklist: What MacArthur's Japan Occupation Teaches Us About Counterinsurgency

Operation Blacklist served as the supreme model to combat continuing resistance from the Japanese following formal surrender.

As the months of 1945 passed at an agonizingly slow pace, Allied forces in the Pacific struggled unwaveringly toward Japan. Expectedly, during the summer of 1945, Allied forces led by the United States faced the prospect of invading the Japanese home islands. The overarching plan for the invasion and occupation of Japan was code-named Operation Downfall. Kyushu, the southernmost of the four home islands, would be the first attacked and occupied. Planning for the invasion and occupation of Kyushu, code-named Operation Olympic, began even as the fighting on Okinawa raged in the spring of that year.

After the difficult victory on Okinawa, American-led forces faced the dreadful prospect of continuing the fight on the home islands of Japan in which tens of millions of Japanese would wage conventional then unconventional warfare with no foreseeable end. As they demonstrated on Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, in the Philippines, and on numerous other islands, the Japanese intended to fight to the death. Not only was surrender by Japanese soldiers forbidden, so too was surrender by Japanese civilians. On Saipan, Japanese civilians held out until there was no hope in their view. Instead of surrendering or being captured, many of these civilians, including mothers holding their infants, leaped from rock cliffs to their deaths.

Consequently, Allied forces faced brutal fighting in the pending conquest of Japan. Allied planners estimated that an invasion and occupation of Kyushu Island alone would require 766,700 ground forces. Allied casualties were expected to reach 105,000 just to seize the southern part of Kyushu, more than double the casualties sustained fighting on Okinawa.

Operation Blacklist

Even before the issuance of Operation Olympic and before he knew of the existence and intended use of the atomic bombs, General MacArthur directed his staff to begin developing Operation Blacklist in May 1945, to address the possibility of surrender by or complete collapse of the Japanese government. Assumptions for Olympic, including expected casualty ratios, led Allied leaders to seek the unconditional surrender of Japan.

The Potsdam Declaration, requiring unconditional surrender, was issued in July 1945. However, the Japanese did not provide a timely response. Consequently, as late as August 14, Allied military leaders did not know which operation, Olympic or Blacklist, they would execute. Fortunately for all parties, the Japanese surrendered following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The devastation of these two cities and the fear of future atomic bomb attacks, however, did not generate any substantial attitude for surrender within the Japanese military leadership or among the general population. “The Japanese Army announced that the Nagasaki bomb was not formidable and that the military had ‘countermeasures.’ The high command … did not believe the war was lost.”

Consequently, the key to Japan’s surrender was the position of and statements from Emperor Hirohito in early August 1945. In an unusual speech during the Imperial Conference of Japanese leaders at 2 am on August 10, 1945—unique that he spoke at all but even more astounding that he took such a strong position rebuking the military leaders present— Hirohito voiced his “divine” decision: “After serious consideration of conditions facing Japan both at home and abroad, I have concluded that to continue this war can mean only destruction for the homeland and more bloodshed and cruelty in the world…. I cannot bear to have my innocent people suffer further. Ending the war is the only way to restore world peace and relieve the nation from the terrible suffering it is undergoing.”

Initially, the military leadership opposed the terms of surrender, but after much internal wrangling and confusion, the Japanese government, on August 14, 1945, officially announced its surrender and acceptance of the terms outlined in the Potsdam Declaration. The most important point for the Japanese was the continuation and protection of Emperor Hirohito. The Japanese conceded everything else required in the Potsdam Declaration. General MacArthur was named Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), and the various parties met on the morning of September 2 for the formal surrender ceremony aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Because the Japanese achieved their primary goal of keeping the emperor in his position and continuing the imperial system, albeit with much reduced authority, the Japanese did not unconditionally surrender. Nonetheless, it would be Operation Blacklist.

The Art of Counterinsurgency Warfare

Insurgencies are not necessarily small wars, as evidenced by the protracted Chinese communist insurgency against the nationalists and the potential for insurrection in Japan. Additionally, insurgencies often develop in response to occupations by foreign powers, such as those in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Malaya, Palestine, Spain, Vietnam, and numerous others. During World War II, some Allied leaders, particularly MacArthur, understood all of this from education, experience, and events preceding the war, including lessons from such historical conflicts as the American Revolution, Boer War, American Indian Wars, and the Philippine Insurrection. Consequently, the announcement and formal surrender by the Japanese did little to assuage U.S. military concerns regarding the occupation and demilitarization of Japan.

Although military occupations of various countries, regions, or periods may have few similarities, the manner in which occupying forces conduct themselves and the methods they use always influence the nature and outcome of an occupation. Related to this, over 2,200 years ago, Sun Tzu wrote, “To win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.” He also wrote, “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.”

These were key premises of General MacArthur’s plan in successfully occupying Japan in 1945, which was the crowning achievement of the Allied forces in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Unfortunately, to the detriment of many, this model of counterinsurgency and occupation is often overlooked by military and political leaders and historians because there were no armed battles to discuss or analyze. It was simply not sensational in terms of armed conflict, maneuvering, and military tactics. Yet, when viewed in terms of countering the largest potential insurgency ever faced by an occupying power, incontrovertible actions and principles become apparent.

An Empire Resistant to Capitulation

In immediate postwar Japan significant concern existed over questions of whether the entire Japanese military would accept surrender and whether the general population would comply with the terms of surrender. Should occupation forces face the prospect of the entire population of Japan fighting against them, they would need millions of troops to defeat and pacify the Japanese people. MacArthur knew too well as he explained, “History clearly showed that no modern military occupation of a conquered nation had been a success.”

In 1945, the population of Japan was approximately 80 million. The Japanese National Volunteer Force consisted of 25 million nonmilitary men, women, and children, ready to support their military, defend their homeland, and fight with whatever means they could muster. Before the occupation in 1945, SCAP headquarters estimated that more than 1,700,000 former members of the Japanese military would have to be disarmed along with 3,200,000 civilian defense volunteers.

Even the Japanese leadership worried over its ability to get the surrender order disseminated with authority and credibility to not only the military but the entire population. When informed that the first occupation troops would arrive on August 23, historian Samuel Eliot Morison writes, “the Japanese asked for more time, stating the problem of controlling their own armed forces and pleading that delay would enable them to prevent regrettable incidents.” The Japanese military was so strongly opposed to surrender that “hotheads in the Japanese Army Air Force threatened to shoot down any surrender mission that took off” from Japan to meet with the Allies.

The Goals of Operation Blacklist

With deep concern over the enormous magnitude of tasks regarding the occupation of the Japanese home islands, American forces executed Operation Blacklist. Under Blacklist, Morison wrote, “the initial, primary missions of the Occupation forces were set out as being the disarmament of the Japanese armed forces and the establishment of control of communications. MacArthur fully intended to use the Emperor and other Japanese leaders in executing every aspect of the occupation [being] thoroughly familiar with Japanese administration.” He outlined and prioritized the following goals of the occupation:

(1) Destroy the military power. (2) Punish war criminals. (3) Build the structure of representative government. (4) Modernize the constitution. (5) Hold free elections. (6) Enfranchise the women. (7) Release the political prisoners. (8) Liberate the farmers. (9) Establish a free labor movement. (10) Encourage a free economy. (11) Abolish police oppression. (12) Develop a free and responsible press. (13) Liberalize education. (14) Decentralize the political power. (15) Separate church and state.

Delegation of authority from SCAP to tactical-level units was an essential aspect of the occupation contributing to its success. Specifically related to disarmament, countering opposition, rebellions, and potential insurgencies, MacArthur through Blacklist delegated the following “Special Tasks” to Army commanders, all of which they accomplished in an exceptionally professional manner under extraordinary circumstances:

a. Destruction of hostile elements which might oppose by military action the imposition of surrender terms upon the Japanese.