Sunday, March 24, 2013


I modestly recommend “Emperor,” a historical film about the early days of the American occupation of Japan.  Starring Matthew Fox (“Lost”) and Tommy Lee Jones, the movie portrays an under examined topic, the U.S. decision not to try Emperor Hirohito for war crimes after the end of the Pacific War. While Nazi crimes have frequently drawn Hollywood’s attention from “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) onward, Imperial Japan has received much less screen time.

Fox plays Bonner Fellers, a Japanese specialist who goes to Tokyo with General Douglas MacArthur (Jones) following the surrender.  Though the film dramatically narrows the time frame concerning the decision to try Hirohito from a couple of years to ten days, “Emperor” provides a reasonably accurate portrayal of American concerns as they sought to rebuild the country.  Despite tremendous popular anger in America toward the emperor over the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government’s early planning for the occupation sought to drive a “wedge” between Hirohito and the Japanese government, placing blame on Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and the militarists (Dower, 278-301).  As portrayed in the film, Fellers and MacArthur were deeply concerned that communists could exploit the postwar devastation of the country to gain a political foothold and believed preserving the monarchy would help stabilize the country.  In the movie as in reality, the U.S. does not try Hirohito and he plays an important symbolic rule during the occupation.

Though Fellers concludes in the film that it isn’t possible to know the emperor’s role in planning Pearl Harbor, Hirohito had knowledge of the attack beforehand (Dower, 292.)  The film also shows Hirohito’s crucial role in ending the war as despite the devastation wrought by the atomic bombs, the Japanese war cabinet split on whether to surrender after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It required the emperor’s radio broadcast of surrender to ensure an end to the bloody conflict.

The film accurately shows the devastation wrought by the American aerial bombing of Japan.  Fellers references the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9—10, 1945, which killed 100,000 people, more than those killed in Hiroshima.  Indeed, one reason the U.S. military chose Hiroshima as a target for the bomb was because it was one of the few cities still relatively intact where the United States could demonstrate the power of their new weapon.

Though the film focuses on Fellers, Jones captures the vainglorious nature of MacArthur, who is seen preening for the cameras and media attention.  But it also shows the general discussing his plans to make Japan a model for transition for military rule.  Indeed, the U.S. occupation became one of the most successful in history, as MacArthur midwifed a new constitution and government that included an elected parliament, women’s suffrage, and stronger labor unions.  The document also forbade Japan from using its military forces abroad and the country emerged as a stable, prosperous democracy and ally that would become strong enough to challenge American economic supremacy by the 1980s.

As I saw the film the week of the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, it was impossible to watch without comparing the two postwar occupations.  Paul Bremer, whom President Bush appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the initial invasion, was no MacArthur and made a series of disastrous decisions, from dissolving the Iraqi Army to barring all former Baath Party members from the new government, fueling the insurgency that would bring the country to the brink of civil war.  Granted, MacArthur had certain advantages, as Japan was an organic country while European colonialists carved out Iraq’s borders at Versailles.  Furthermore, despite the militarism of the 1920s, Japan’s history included a longer tradition of democratic institutions than Iraq’s.  Though Bremer may have faced a more daunting challenge than MacArthur, the differences in the outcome of the two occupations remains quite stark.

“Emperor” does not delve as deeply into the issues surrounding Japanese war crimes as it could have and is marred by a weak love story.  Still, I think it is a worthwhile film that depicts a period that has been long been neglected in popular culture.

Sources: John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York, 1999)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The History of March Madness

This week marks the beginning of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament, popularly known as “March Madness,” which determines the men’s college basketball champion.  The month-long competition, once relatively obscure, has become massively popular, commanding the attention of casual fans more than any other sporting event besides the Super Bowl.

In the 1950s, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) remained the most prestigious postseason college tournament.  Over time, the NCAA surpassed it, with John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins teams dominating the competition throughout the 1960s and 70s, winning 10 titles in 12 years.  The NCAA split the field into four regions, with the winners of each area becoming known as the “Final Four.”  After airing on regional television in its early years, the final appeared on network television for the first time in 1973, as UCLA defeated Memphis State (The Big Dance, p. 100).

As with other sporting events I’ve analyzed, observers often point to one particular game that laid the groundwork for its rise. In the case of the NCAA Tournament, it was the 1979 title game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. Though the game itself was not close, the much-hyped battle between the two future NBA stars produced the highest television rating in the history of the tournament, setting the stage for the event’s growth during the final two decades of the 20th century (and laying the groundwork for the NBA's boom in the 1980s).

The 1980s and 90s witnessed a series of close games involving elite programs and All-American players.  With college stars remaining in school for three or four years, many appeared in multiple Final Fours, including Houston’s Clyde Drexler (2) and Hakeem Olajuwon (3), Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing (3), as well as Duke’s Christian Laettner, who made it in all four of his seasons.  Indeed, Laettner’s Blue Devils replaced UCLA as the dominant program during this era, becoming the New York Yankees of the sport, loved by supporters and despised by opponents.

The emergence of ESPN in 1979 proved crucial to the rise of the tournament, as the nascent sports network covered every game of the hectic early rounds, breaking in to the ends of close contests to show dramatic finishes.  This technique made the first four days of March Madness among the most exciting in all of sports.  After witnessing the success of this formula, CBS purchased the rights to the entire tournament, putting all of the games on network television in 1991 (Big Dance, 105). 

By the 1990s, more and more offices held pools to see who could correctly fill out their brackets and predict the outcome of the tournament.  With everyone putting their money on the line, the office pool became a national phenomenon with even non-fans participating and rabidly following the results.  President Obama, himself a huge basketball fan, has publicly revealed his brackets on ESPN every year since he took office.  Long lunches are often the rule of the day during the early rounds, diminishing worker productivity.  With the emergence of the Internet, the situation has become worse as workers can now watch all games streaming on their office computers.  One firm suggests that 2.5 million workers will spend roughly 90 minutes watching the tournament while ESPN ‘s Liz Granderson proposes making the first two days of the tournament a national holiday (Challenger, Gray and Christmas).

Like most sporting events, the ratings for March Madness have declined in recent years due to competition from new entertainment options.  Furthermore, with players either skipping college entirely or only attending school for a year, few players participate in more than one Final Four anymore.  NBA greats such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, unlike their predecessors, never played in the tournament.  In their absence, the coaches of elite programs have taken center stage, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, and Kentucky’s John Calipari.  Nevertheless, March Madness remains the most consistently entertaining event in sports and I will follow my brackets religiously for the next month (at least until they’re busted!).

Sources: Barry Wilner and Ken Rappaport, The Big Dance: The Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, 2012.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"The Americans," Episode 7, "Duty and Honor"

Soap opera relationships continued on “The Americans” as Philip met an old girlfriend in New York City. At the same time, the arrival of a Polish leader opposed to Soviet involvement in his country foreshadowed the fall of the Iron Curtain.

As the episode begins in 1981, Elizabeth and her kids watch a news report showing images of unrest in Poland. The previous year, Polish workers led by Lech Walesa started the Solidarity union in the shipyards of Gdansk. The formation of the non-communist union represented an ideological threat to the communist government in Warsaw as well as to the other satellite governments in Eastern Europe. Rumors swirled that the Soviet Union would invade Poland and put an end to the protests, just they had done in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In “Duty and Honor,” Philip and his former lover work to undermine the credibility of Andrzej Bielawksi, a Polish opposition leader who appears to be a fictional stand-in for Walesa. In the episode, it is hinted that he has become a priest (which Walesa did not). Still, many believe that Pope John Paul II’s visit to his home country in 1979 laid the groundwork for the rise of Solidarity and the Catholic Church played a vital role in the opposition. In the fictional plotline, Philip sets up a phony rape case, forcing Bielawski to withdraw from his role in the opposition.

In reality, Polish leaders declared martial law in 1981 and forced Solidarity underground, though Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. By the late 1980s, Solidarity reemerged to win the first free and fair elections in Poland in 1989 and Walesa won the presidency in 1990.

“Is this the beginning of the end of communism in the Eastern bloc?” a reporter asks Bielawksi in “Duty and Honor.” Though it was hardly clear at the time, the rise of Solidarity and the bravery of the Polish opposition heralded the fall of the Soviet empire for good.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

"The Americans," Episodes 5-6, "COMINT" and "Trust Me"

While there wasn’t much history to discuss in episodes five and six of “The Americans,” I want to keep the momentum of the blog going. The role of women, a significant theme of another historical drama, “Mad Men,” does make an appearance in “COMINT” and “Trust Me.”

 In episode five, the FBI supervisor played by Richard Thomas (“John Boy” from “The Waltons”), mockingly reproaches an agent for commenting on a female colleague’s appearance. While workplace sexism in the early 1980s had diminished somewhat from the days of Don Draper and Sterling Cooper in the mid-1960s, the nation was still a decade away from the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas scandal that dramatically raised awareness of the issue in 1991.

Elizabeth’s KGB controller also criticizes the stalled progress of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States. Indeed, after passing the Congress overwhelmingly in 1972 and quickly gaining ratification in a majority of the states, the ERA was on the verge of failing in 1981. The emergence of the New Right and an antifeminist movement led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s left the amendment three states short of the three-fourths necessary to become law. After President Jimmy Carter extended the ratification time by three years in 1979, feminists worked furiously, but were unable to secure passage in Illinois or several border and southern states before time expired in 1982. It is noteworthy that the ERA lost momentum after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, which provided fuel to the pro-life movement and the emerging religious right of the period. 

While critics seem to love the show, I’m tiring of the on-again, off-again, arranged marriage of Philip and Elizabeth. I’ll try to be patient, but “The Americans” is beginning to wear on me.