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Bataan Death March, Trail of Tears,
and History as Propaganda

April 2, 2014
by William P. Meyers

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The War of 1812 almost saw the demise of the nation still known as the United States of America. Miscalculating America's military capabilities, members of Congress initiated the war with the British Empire with an aim to conquering Canada and Florida, if not the entire continent of North America. Towards the end of the war the New England states nearly revolted (see Hartford Convention). After the war was over the U.S. won a single battle, near New Orleans, and that is what we are trained to remember.

General Andrew Jackson, a man noted for his cruelty towards slaves and animals, was credited with winning the Battle of New Orleans. With other friends in high places he compensated for failing to grab Canada by grabbing vast expanses of Native American Indian lands, essentially all of what are now the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Jackson created the Democratic Party, dedicated to the principles of genocide, slavery, and hoodwinking the the common voter, and then got himself elected President of the United States in 1828 and again in 1832.

Back in the state of Georgia the Cherokee Nation had built up a civilization and used the federal court system to defend their property from appropriation by the white racists who ran the state. President John Adams had defended the Cherokee, but Jackson would not. He signed a law "exchanging" Indian national lands east of the Mississippi River for lands to its west. The actual death march of the Cherokee, along the Trail of Tears, took place in 1838, after Jackson was dead and the Choctaw (1831-1833), Seminole (1834), and Creek (1836) had been "removed." About 4000 Cherokee died during their death march, which was accompanied by U.S. Army troops.

Today this is not a "hidden" part of U.S. history. The federal government even established a Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. But it is ignored in the moral calculus of most Americans' thinking.

Compare the Bataan Death March. It too may fade from the memories of most Americans, but from World War II until today its memory is kept alive by our institutions. They need it; it is a lynchpin of the psychology of the American empire (which is mainly an empire of commerce, backed by the U.S. military and administered by puppet leaders of other nations).

In 1898 the U.S. government decided it wanted some of the remaining territory of the Spanish Empire, including the Philippines. The people of the Philippines had almost finished throwing out the Spanish, but the Spanish sold the Philippines to the U.S. anyway after losing the Spanish-American War. The U.S. proceeded to slaughter any Filipino who objected. The sugar plantations were profitable, and Manila provided easy access to China, but brown people were not wanted as American citizens, so they were eventually forced into a "commonwealth." Which is an American word for colony.

When Asian people finally got tired of being bullied by white people and revolted in 1941... Scratch that. Unacceptable to Americans. Try this: General Douglas MacArthur, commanding the U.S. forces in the Philippines, was given the go ahead (by FDR) to attack the Japanese in Formosa (now Taiwan) a couple of weeks before the Battle of Pearl Harbor. But the General was planning to run for President, and did not want to precipitate war with Japan without authorization by Congress (because most Republican voters, until a few days later, were Isolationists).

Anyway, a huge fleet of reinforcements had already left San Diego, heading for Manila, and MacArthur thought the Japanese could be defeated in a few weeks. MacArthur at that time was best known for slaughtering unarmed U.S. veterans who had been protesting in Washington D.C. during the Great Depression, explicitly disobeying the orders of President Hoover.

The great military strategist put his air force on a runway, with the planes as close together as possible. When he heard about Pearl Harbor, he left them that way. The next day Japanese planes came in and destroyed them all, on the ground. MacArthur awoke from his stupor and realized maybe the Japanese were not such bad fighters after all.

They were not, not even the second-rate tier, old men fighters given to General Homma to capture the Philippines. American resistance (the larger part of MacArthur's army consisted of poorly equipped Filipinos. The U.S. was afraid if they were well-equipped they might try for independence) quickly collapsed. The U.S. forces retreated to the Bataan Peninsula, while MacArthur and his staff his out in the safety of the island fortress Corregidor.

MacArthur had no way to supply his troops. He told his superiors who told FDR. The President lied (well, that is what Presidents do best, and FDR was a master of lies) and said reinforcements were on the way. They were not. The troops in Bataan were low on ammunition, and reduced to 3/4 rations, then 1/2 rations, then whatever they could scrounge. The commanders in Bataan begged MacArthur to evacuate the troops or allow them to surrender. FDR said no; he wanted Japanese troops tied down, and to use the tragedy to whip up the American people against the Japanese.

Under orders from FDR, General MacArthur turned tail and ran for Australia (in a submarine) on March 12, 1942. The Japanese army, reinforced, started their final attack on April 3rd. U.S. resistance largely collapsed by the 5th. General King surrendered his troops on April 9.

About 60,000 Filipino troops and 15,000 American troops surrendered. Many were wounded or sick, almost all were starved to near death.

General Homma was prepared for the U.S. surrender. He had established a POW camp at Capas, which ironically had been a U.S. military base. The POWs would gather in Balanga, then march to San Fernando, about 80 miles, and would go the rest of the way by rail.

It was not a good plan, but it was not a bad plan either. Some of the Japanese troops who had just been fighting the Americans purposefully mistreated them, which is a war crime. It is the most common war crime, and a different sort of crime than commanders ordering mass executions of POWs. It is the kind of crime U.S. soldiers committed against American Indians, and against each other all too often in the Civil War. Not respecting POW conventions is to be condemned, no matter which soldiers are committing the crimes.

But consider the state of the POWs at the time of capture. Normal, healthy troops should have had no trouble walking the 80 miles to San Fernando.

In the chaos of war it is hard to say exactly how many troops died after surrendering. Many tried to escape; some succeeded, some were shot while trying to escape (not a war crime).

The high estimate for American (excluding Filipino) deaths is 650; it is unlikely less than 100 died. That may be appalling, but these were sick and starving men who had been betrayed by their own commanders. It is a testament to both the soldiers themselves and the Japanese military that over 14,000 white U.S. troops survived the march. In detailed interviews with the marchers, many reported acts of kindness by their Japanese guards. The Filipinos fared worse, probably because they were discriminated against within the U.S. forces prior to surrender (given inferior equipment and rations). Thousands of Filipinos died during the march, but again over 50,000 lived.

In short, the Bataan March was not a death march for most involved. There was Japanese brutality, but it was mostly ordinary bad soldiering brutality, not an organized slaughter.

The combination surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and propaganda about the Bataan Death March became an excuse for wide range of U.S. atrocities, many of them ordered by FDR himself. The U.S. engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare, which the U.S. had claimed was illegal when the Germans did it during World War I. The U.S. bombed Japanese cities; before the war FDR had condemned nations that bombed cities because, in fact, targeting civilians is a war crime. U.S. soldiers often killed Japanese soldiers that surrendered, particularly in the campaign in which MacArthur recaptured the Philippines. It also led to American citizens of Japanese descent being placed in concentration camps in the U.S. for the duration of the war.

Finally, there was the demand for unconditional surrender (which was unprecedented, and prolonged the war both in Germany and in Asia) and the Atomic Bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These are usually rationalized as "saving the lives of American soldiers." But the basic idea of war crimes is that civilians are not to be killed for military advantage. The U.S. could have saved the lives of American soldiers by negotiating a peace with Japan.

I know very few Americans think of the Trail of Tears and the Bataan Death March as related in any way. But they are more than just two sad instances of historic inhumanity. They are a test of how well people are trained to make excuses for the behavior of national governments. They are also a test of racist sentiments.

The Philippines were granted official (but not real) independence by the U.S. in 1946. They had declared independence, encouraged by the Japanese, on October 14, 1943. Most Filipinos cooperated with the Japanese. Later, after MacArthur reconquered the islands, a legend grew that large numbers of Filipinos guerillas fought the Japanese during the war. In fact very few did. Jose Laurel, President of the Philippines, cooperated closely with the Japanese during the war, as did most upper-class Filipinos. Laurel also ran for President of the Philippines in 1949, but lost to Elpidio Quirino.

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