Document Type



Why did U.S. leaders ever think they could transform Iraq? Why did anyone think he or she could occupy a hostile foreign country successfully?

Why indeed? Perhaps the reason lies in a mythical past. Perhaps, in other words, the reason for the optimism lies in a tale about an occupation that successfully transformed a backward autocracy into an economically thriving democracy. The tale concerns Japan. In the collective imagination, the Allied (i.e., U.S.) occupation of Japan (1945-52) was the quintessentially good occupation -- an exercise that was planned elaborately in advance, that was (at least initially) idealistically administered, and that successfully laid the legal foundation for Japan’s post-War democracy and prosperity.

Unfortunately, the history is sheer myth. Americans -- especially those Americans celebrated as most "idealist" -- did not plan a Japanese recovery, did not design legal institutions that they thought would advance recovery, and for the first several years did not even bother working for a recovery. Instead, they mostly planned retribution: whom to hang, and which firms to shutter. Economic issues they entrusted to Japanese bureaucrats, and those bureaucrats merely manipulated the legal controls they had used to disastrous effect during the War. Coming from a New Deal background in Washington, collectivist Americans enthusiastically urged them on.

Although the Japanese economy did grow, it did not grow because of the Occupation or of any legal framework the Occupation introduced. It grew despite the Occupation. In early 1949, Japanese voters overwhelmingly rejected the political parties offering economic controls. In their stead, they elected center-right politicians offering a non-interventionist legal platform. These politicians then dismantled the legal controls, and (despite strong opposition from New Deal bureaucrats in the Occupation) imposed a largely non-interventionist framework. As a result of that choice -- and not as result of anything the Occupation did -- the Japanese economy grew.

Might the basis for the misguided optimism toward Iraq lie in a myth we collectively tell about an occupation the U.S. masterminded 50 years ago?

Date of Authorship for this Version

December 2007