There was a time when American leaders did not bow to foreign princes.
Wesley Pruden delivers some well-deserved criticism of Barack Obama’s mistakes in presidential protocol.
So far it’s a memorable trip. He established a new precedent for how American presidents should pay obeisance to kings, emperors, monarchs, sovereigns and assorted other authentic man-made masters of the universe. He stopped just this side of the full grovel to the emperor of Japan, risking a painful genuflection if his forehead had hit the floor with a nasty bump, which it almost did. No president before him so abused custom, traditions, protocol (and the country he represents). Several Internet sites published a rogue’s gallery showing how other national leaders – the prime ministers of Israel, India, Slovenia, South Korea, Russia and Dick Cheney among them – have greeted Emperor Akihito with a friendly handshake and an ever-so-slight but respectful nod (and sometimes not even that).
Now we know why Mr. Obama stunned everyone with an earlier similar bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, only the bow to the Japanese emperor was far more flamboyant, a sign of a really deep sense of inferiority. He was only practicing his bow in Riyadh. Sometimes rituals are learned with difficulty. It took Bill Clinton months to learn how to return a military salute worthy of a commander in chief; like any draft dodger, he kept poking a thumb in his eye until he finally got it. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, seems right at home now giving a wow of a bow. …
Some of the president’s critics are giving him a hard time, and it’s true that this president seems never to have studied much American history. Not bowing to foreign potentates was what 1776 was all about. His predecessors learned with no difficulty that the essence of America is that all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye. Can anyone imagine George Washington, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson making a similar gesture of servile submission? Or Harry Truman? Or FDR, who famously served the lowly hot dog, with ballpark mustard, to the king and queen of England? John F. Kennedy, on the eve of a trip to London, sharply warned Jackie not to curtsy to the queen.
Douglas MacArthur, who ranked above mere heads of state in his own mind, once invented his own protocol on greeting Emperor Hirohito. The emperor, the father of Akihito, wanted to meet MacArthur soon after he arrived to become the military regent of Japan in 1945, perhaps to thank him for saving the throne at the end of World War II. When the emperor invited MacArthur to call on him, the general sent word that the emperor should call on him – speaking of breaches of custom – and the two men were photographed together, astonishing the Japanese. The emperor arrived in full formal dress, cutaway coat and all, and MacArthur received him in summer khakis, sans tie, with his hands stuffed casually in his back pockets. Further astonishing the Japanese, he towered over the diminutive emperor.
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That photo of MacArthur and Hirohito was specifically taken to humiliate the emperor and demonstrate US dominance to the Japanese people. Although Obama’s bow was idiotic and embarrassing, inappropriately comparing it to this photo as an idea of “how it’s done” is no less so.
I think your perspective is a peculiar one and unsound.
Hirohito was not personally responsible, but Japan did wage aggressive war in Asia, and deliberately attacked the United States, intending the most perfunctory notice prior to the opening of hostilities. Japanese incompetence resulted in no warning preceding the attacks. The war waged by Japan was filled with brutality and what the civilized West regards as atrocities. Large numbers of Americans were killed in a war started by Japan, and we successfully reduced Japan to absolute prostration. Your view seems to suppose that we were supposed to treat Japanese culture, government, and institutions with respect. Most Americans of the WWII generation were surprised by the mildness and consideration with which MacArthur governed Japan. It is generally observed that Hirohito and most Japanese appreciated the moderation of MacArthur’s rule and the reforms introduced to Japan at America’s hands produced a prosperous and democratic society and a generally enthusiastic US ally.
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