It’s the best and perhaps lone lesson of history
We’re only now emerging from the most divisive election of our lifetimes, which means what lies ahead is even harder than the election season: the reconstruction.
For months, in the background of my days and when I’ve had the time, I’ve listened to William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar. I don’t know if it was kismet or coincidence but last week I reached the point in the book where the Japanese surrendered, World War II ended, and MacArthur presided over a ruined and enfeebled Japan.
He and other American officers went to a Tokyo steakhouse to celebrate. They placed their orders, hoisted their drinks and toasted each other. The world was quite literally theirs.
MacArthur’s steak came and with it an overwhelming dread. Because the world was theirs, what was to keep the vanquished foe from trying to reclaim a small part of it? What was to keep, in other words, the owner of this steakhouse from poisoning MacArthur’s meal? Just weeks prior, this owner was likely part of the 32 million Japanese ready to fight and die for the emperor, a leader so revered that civilians were told they could not look him in the eyes without being struck blind. Who was to say the owner didn’t still have a blind faith for the Japanese cause?
And what a prize killing MacArthur would be, the most arrogant general in a war full of them but also, and easily, the most brilliant, a man whose iconoclastic strategies left the Japanese military baffled and in awe of the man with the aviator sunglasses and corncob pipe.
An aide to MacArthur leaned in and said someone from the restaurant’s staff must try Mac’s steak first. MacArthur weighed the suggestion. It was the prudent choice, but what sort of message would it send the owner? An owner who would likely spread news of this meal to his family and friends and future customers?
MacArthur shook his head and joked that, “This steak is too good to give a bite to anyone else.” He cut the first piece and placed the forkful in his mouth. The other officers cautiously did the same.
The owner rushed to the table. He bowed deeply and with a flushed and almost ecstatic face told MacArthur he had expected him to request the steak be tasted by an employee. The owner even had a man ready for the job. But that MacArthur had not requested it? “What trust!” the owner said. Never had he thought the victorious Americans would treat him this way.
MacArthur beamed. This story would spread.
And it did. It was pushed along by other anecdotes, like when MacArthur and his staff later returned to the restaurant for breakfast and the owner said because of the war’s ruinous effects he could scrounge up only a single egg for MacArthur’s meal.
Mac issued a new order: The men under his command would henceforth eat only from their own rations. They would not take or oblige the Japanese for anything.
Days later, at the signing ceremony that officially ended the war, MacArthur’s soaring speech to preserve the peace through a magnanimity of spirit and a gracious trust — a speech that Life called one for the centuries — so impressed the Japanese leadership that one of its diplomats wondered if his countrymen would have been anywhere near as accommodating had Japan won.
The lesson? When the battle is over, when we put down the guns, they must stay down. Otherwise the enmity will rise again, too. I’m not so sentimental or naive to think that deep political divisions disappear when we reach out to each other, but if we don’t try, right now, and every day, to see the humanity beneath our political beliefs we’re ruined. My next-door neighbor is a huge Trump supporter. I despise Trump. I can either despise my neighbor or find a way, however difficult, to understand him.
MacArthur was a flawed man; Manchester titled the book “American Caesar” for good reason. But you know what? We’re all flawed. If we choose to stay apart, to see only each other’s stupidity, to read only the comments in our social media feeds, we will never find the common cause that built a republic like ours or shaped and made mighty a democracy like post-war Japan’s.
That’s the real and perhaps lone lesson of history.
New to my writing? I’m a best-selling author who’s written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I’m now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.