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Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
But hardly as biased as the government-controlled press you experienced as a young officer during the 1930’s in Japan.
When I was over there [1935–39], that was wartime from the Japanese point of view, because they were at war with China, and censorship was on. We had no transoceanic radio at that time. At the embassy we’d get a pouch about twice a month. You had cables, of course, but in terms of newspapers and things of that sort, comment on world events, almost nothing. So I had to depend entirely on the Japanese newspapers for news, so that after awhile I became almost convinced Hirohito was the Son of Heaven. You could just feel your critical abilities fade.
What was the purpose of the exchange of military personnel between Japan and the United States?
Since the turn of the century, after we went to the relief of Peking, our Army and Navy had an arrangement whereby two officers would go each year to Japan and China to learn the language. Japan sent the same number here. In the case of the Army, you were allowed to be assigned to one of their military units. But in the case of the Navy, the Japanese were so secretive that our officers never had any comparable assignments. I don’t know what we did with their naval officers, but I hope there was absolute reciprocity.
How did you get into the exchange program?
I had heard about the program as a West Point cadet, and being much interested in languages—I spoke French and Spanish—after graduation I came down here to Washington to apply. I went to the old executive office building which, would you believe, then housed all of the state department and all the Army and Navy senior offices. I was a brand new second lieutenant of engineers. The Army intelligence officer I talked to looked me over and said, “Taylor, I’ll put your name down, but I must say you’ll never get the assignment because the engineers would never approve of it.” So I thanked him and went my way and thought no more of it. In 1935, when I was about to leave the Command and General Staff School at [Fort] Leavenworth for a very undesirable assignment, some angel was looking after me, because a wire came from the War Department asking if I was still interested in going to Japan.
Was intelligence the real purpose of the exchange?
Yes, to learn the language and become as familiar as one could with the Japanese military establishment. You must remember, between the world wars, if you asked why do we have armed forces, generally the answer was because of the threat of Japan. While that was not an urgent thing, it was nevertheless in the background. Japan was regarded as our most likely enemy in case of war.
Were you writing reports on Japanese tactics?
I was assigned to a Japanese artillery regiment for a couple of months, after I was able to read their newspapers and have conversations. After that I was sent to China to serve as a Japanese-speaking assistant to Colonel “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who was observing the advance of the Japanese army south to the Yellow River. Then, when the war moved south, I was ordered back to our embassy in Tokyo, where I acted as an assistant military attaché. I had a very interesting self-assigned job. The Japanese were so damned secretive that you couldn’t get your hands on their military literature or anything of the kind you routinely read in newspapers here. But I discovered by prowling around the sites of the principal military schools in Tokyo that I could buy textbooks that were printed to help officers pass examinations to get into the schools. These books gave tactical problems along with the approved solutions. I collected some sixty-four of these map problems and, trying not to look at their solutions, staked out each situation on the appropriate map, as I had been trained to do at Leavenworth, and then wrote out my solution. Then I compared each with the book’s solution to find the differences between the oriental and occidental military minds.
What were the differences?
The Japanese army was completely fascinated, deluded actually, by their faith in seishin [spirit] and their belief that the armies of the emperor were invincible and hence should never go on the defensive. Always attack. It was similar to offensive à outrance, the doctrine of the French army in 1914 which led to so many bloody defeats early in World War I. According to Japanese theory, if you were in a situation where obviously in view of your mission you should defend your position or conceivably even retreat to another, they would always put on a night attack. Even though they clearly wouldn’t have enough strength, they’d take advantage of the night and try to surprise the enemy. A night attack was something our forces were very leery of doing because of the disorder that can be created. So it was clear we could expect many night attacks and very little defensive action. You could also get some details of technique from their use of artillery, which was always very bad from an American point of view. Technically the Japanese were way back about World War I in the use of artillery fire. They didn’t know how to mass their artillery effectively. So those insights were of value.
What did you do with this information?