During the Cold War U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon claimed that the United States had to fight Communism because of the Domino Theory, a principle that said if a country (say, Vietnam) fell to the Communists, other Asian nations would topple, including eventually even Japan and India.
President Obama's visit to Vietnam and Japan this week was a tangible display of American's rebalance to Indo-Asia-Pacific and, some would say, a repudiation of the Domino Theory as it applies to the spread of Communism.
But what if the theory is accurate for some of those nations in a different context.
In Alistair Horne's "Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century" (HarperCollins, 2015), the venerated historian challenges readers to think of the cause and effect and consequences of unbridled pride – as war begets war.
Perhaps we can see the dominoes not as countries but as battles and wars themselves, one leading to another: Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. The dominoes are toppled by a type of human behavior identified and named by Aristotle in ancient Greece: hubris.
Horne begins his flowing, connected history in Japan more than a century ago. The U.S. Navy and Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened the country to Western influence and trade in 1853. Drawn to emulate modern nations, the Emperor Meiji committed his people to curiosity, learning and growth.
"A new, compulsory education scheme would create fifty-four thousand primary schools – or one for roughly every six hundred inhabitants; this would eventually lead to the Japanese becoming the most highly literate people in Asia. Within one generation, Japan subjected itself to an astonishing industrial revolution, one designed to catch up with two centuries of Western progress. The mantra for Japanese industry and learning became henceforth, unashamedly, and in general successfully, 'copy, improve, and innovate.'"
Victory by imperialist Japan, Horne argues, led to hubris and more war.
Horne takes us with Admiral Heihachiro Togo aboard the flagship of Japan's Combined Fleet, Mikasa – last of the pre-Dreadnought-era battleships (now a museum at Yokosuka's Peace Park adjacent to the U.S. naval base).
Using geography, personalities, strategies and tactics, Horne contextualizes history. Readers go with the coal-burning Russian fleet into the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Cam Rahn Bay in 1905. From Port Arthur and Tsushima readers are taken into North Korea, back into Manchuria and down to Vietnam, still at the beginning of the 20th century.
President Theodore "T.R." Roosevelt, author of "The Naval War of 1812" and father of the "Great White Fleet," played a pivotal role in bringing about, through the Portsmouth Treaty in New Hampshire, what would be temporary peace in the Asia-Pacific region.
In Horne's view, the First World War "began, and was caused by, various sublime practitioners of hubris in conflict with one another." He purposefully refocuses on the Pacific.
When Togo retired from official duties in 1926 he admonished his nation to remember an ancient Japanese saying, "Tighten your helmet strip in the hour of victory." His contemporary, General Maresuke Nogi, committed ritual suicide, seppuku, to atone for his shame at the death of so many Japanese troops in Manchuria.
Togo's life and Nogi's death further glorified and galvanized a "suicidally dangerous mythology" of a "divine Japan."
Horne writes, "The myth of Japanese invincibility, which had grown up around him, would lie at the heart of the spiraling new militarism."
|American codebreakers in Pearl Harbor help turn the tide at Midway.|
Meanwhile, hubris led Imperial Japan to move toward Southeast Asia and Indochina for oil and other raw materials, leading to international condemnation, U.S.sanctions and war. Within six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. bases on Oahu, Admiral Chester Nimitz and planners in Hawaii launched an ambush against Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto and the Japanese fleet at Midway.
"In terms of the history of naval warfare, June 4, 1942, was a stunning vindication of the pioneers' belief in the carrier and its aircraft as the future queen of the oceans. Midway saw the eclipse of the mighty Dreadnought class as the capital ship of navies; both the super-battleships Musashi and Yamato would be sunk by carrier planes, having scarcely fired a shot from their gigantic guns. From Midway on, the line would run directly to Hiroshima in 1945 – and beyond that to the establishment of the United States as the world's naval superpower."
|Nimitz inspects the damage after the Battle of Midway.|
Truman's MacArthur was Lincoln's McClelland. When the two met for the first time it was on MacArthur's terms and was "a true dialog of the deaf," one eventually leading to MacArthur's open defiance, hubris, and more toppling of prideful dominoes.
"Few acts of hubris in the twentieth century were punished more savagely or more swiftly than MacArthur's, after that remarkable triumph at Inchon went so catastrophically to his head. Thrusting on to the Yalu in pursuit of total victory was a huge risk, which proved to be a frontier too far, a risk that was unjustified, the costs to world equilibrium unwarranted. Its consequences were legion, casting long shadows beyond the actual conflict of the Korean War. Korea was the first war fought by the United States that did not end in a clear-cut American victory. As far as it had involved a United Nations commitment, this proved an experience unlikely to be repeated. When it came to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the British prime minister Harold Wilson swiftly made it clear that British troops were not going to help out this time. Rather, and similar to President Johnson in 1968, as a consequence of the unpopularity that the war, and specifically the sacking of MacArthur had brought him, Truman declined to run for the White House again. He would be succeeded by another great Second Word War warlord, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"Henceforth, at least until Iraq and Afghanistan came along, the United States would confine itself to waging wars with limited objectives only. As the First Gulf War of 1991 would demonstrate, its leaders would pay fastidious attention to not transgressing national borders. There would be no pursuit of the Iraqi Republican Guard over the Kuwaiti border. Probably the unyielding ferocity with which the Korean War was waged led to a hardening and a prolongation of the Cold War; to a worsening of the split with China, which would not begin to heal until the Nixon-Kissinger initiative of the early 1970s; and to a consolidation of Maoism and all its attendant evils. the spectacle of a modern Western army fleeing before Mao's cotton-clad divisions was not likely to be forgotten in East Asia, no more than had been that of the destruction of tsarist forces in 1905 Manchuria. in the eyes of much of the world, it was Korea 1951 that made a great power of Mao's China."Horne says it remains a question as to whether a more satisfying outcome could have been achieved leading to a "peacefully reunited Korea, if MacArthur had stopped on the Thirty-Eighth Parallel."
The author takes us into Vietnam via France and writes of the "incredible heroism" of the French and Foreign Legion at Dien Bien Phu in the mid 1950s, noting the defeat at the siege there "cost France not only Indo-China but the rest of its empire as well." He contends, "The imbalance left behind in Vietnam was to lead directly to the American intervention."
Horne's book ends on the cusp of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but he brings up other examples of domino hubris in his epilogue, including "various Middle Eastern flareups" such as the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Can the human condition of vainglorious pride be recognized and controlled without more dominoes toppling?
"If hubris is part of the human condition – deep-seated, lingering, pervasive, and potentially lethal – what can we do to avoid it? If, as these chapters have shown, it is not just our leaders who ignore history and their own experience, we might conclude that we all have something to learn."
|Battleship Mikasa Museum in the Peace Park next to Fleet Activities Yokosuka.|
"Last year, at the 70th anniversary of the end of war, I visited the United States and made a speech as Prime Minister of Japan at a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. That war deprived many American youngsters of their dreams and futures. Reflecting upon such harsh history, I offered my eternal condolences to all the American souls that were lost during World War II. I expressed gratitude and respect for all the people in both Japan and the United States who have been committed to reconciliation for the past 70 years. Seventy years later, enemies who fought each other so fiercely have become friends, bonded in spirit, and have become allies, bound in trust and friendship, deep between us. The Japan-U.S. alliance, which came into the world this way, has to be an alliance of hope for the world..."
President Obama asks all of us to think about the deep roots of war and peace, common humanity and shared hopes for the future. The Commander In Chief
concluded his remarks in Hiroshima this way:
"The world was forever changed here. But today, the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is the future we can choose -– a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening."
Obama hugs Hiroshima survivor Shigeaki Mori this week. Mori was 8 when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, leading to the end of the Pacific War.