On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with four ships to deliver a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore proposing peaceful commercial relations. The Japanese refused to accept the letter, until Perry made it clear that this would result in a cannonade from his ships that would have devastated downtown Tokyo. Ninety-two years later, the pennant of Commodore Perry’s flagship returned to Tokyo Bay, placed atop the USS Missouri, by General Douglas MacArthur to help frame Japan’s surrender after WWII’s unprecedented death and destruction. The Japanese delegation was surprised to hear MacArthur speak: “We are gathered here… to conclude a solemn agreement by which peace may be restored.” Far from recriminations of the past, he spoke of hope for “a better world.” In fact MacArthur, acting on his own authority, had already diverted the U.S. armed forces’ stocks of food in the Pacific Theater to relieve the Japanese people’s near-starvation.
No one need have been surprised. Douglas MacArthur saw himself fulfilling the vision of Millard Fillmore and Matthew Perry (a distant cousin) for peaceful relations with an alien race based on mutual respect—albeit enforced by American military power. He was also following the example of his father, General Arthur MacArthur, who, between December 1900 and May 1901, had made short work of the Philippine insurgency by executing out-of-uniform combatants and their civilian auxiliaries, but who then had won the Philippine people’s affection by championing their welfare and independence.
On July 6, 2016, President Barack Obama announced that he would leave 8.400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, send 560 more to what had been Iraq, and that the restoration of America’s peace vis-à-vis the Muslim world would have to depend on political decisions made by that world’s leaders— of states and of non-state groups alike. Obama cited U.S. efforts in this war: “We dealt crippling blows to the al Qaida leadership. We delivered justice to Osama bin Laden.” The U.S. is still “supporting counterterrorist operations against the remnants of al Qaida as well as other terrorist groups, including ISIL.” Meanwhile, “with our support, Afghanistan is a better place than it once was. Millions of Afghan children—boys and girls—are in school. Dramatic improvements in public health have saved the lives of mothers and children.” Yet despite (or perhaps because of) America’s strategic choices, “al Qaida is trying to regroup” and “ISIL continues to try to expand its presence.” His successor will have to deal with a war that neither Obama nor his recent predecessors have thought to end.
So sharp is the contrast between the consequences of President Obama and his recent predecessors’ approach to peace, war, and foreign relations with those of earlier generations, that the next U.S. president would be well advised to study the differences in the premises that have led to these consequences.