One of the most powerful regulations in human affairs — bettering perhaps the influence of laws governing gravity and thermodynamics — is the Law of Unintended Consequences. It is that immutable rule which holds that an act, done with the finest of intentions, may return to bite its unhappy author in the butt. It works equally well if one’s goals are honorable, or the opposite.
I watched this law in action on a massive scale while serving with the Army in Japan from 1951-1953. Contrary to the opinions of academics, intellectuals, politically-correct columnists, and other mush-brained types, the U.S. Army is loaded with good intentions, which it pursues with great ferocity to the point of imbecility.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Army, in the person of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, declared that Japan’s laborers would be lifted up out of darkness, their consciousness raised, and be empowered to form and join unions. This was the heyday of the New Deal ethos, when government righted wrongs on a universal scale with a simple wave of its imperial scepter. It was clearly time that the downtrodden Japanese should be forced to become, well, almost Americans.
Each military base in Japan was thenceforth to have a labor relations officer who would treat with the unions, hear their complaints and rectify their grievances.
But there were several speed bumps on this path to economic progress. First off, Japan’s labor history is nothing like that of America and Europe. Over here capital and labor are considered mutual antagonists locked in eternal economic warfare. Japanese workers look at the boss as basically a good guy who will do right
Gen. Douglas MacArthur
by them as long as they are loyal and work hard for him. Should he do otherwise, he would “lose face” in the Asian sense and be disgraced.
Matter of fact, a good part of an employee’s job is seeing to it that the boss is not shamed. Should workers have a grievance, they never take it directly to their employer. This would be a rebuke, marking the big cheese as one too dense to see what is plainly wrong. His face would irretrievably vanish. So, they pick a third party to slip him the news gently; thus he can instantly rectify the injustice and maintain his image as all-seeing and all-wise.
I first encountered this attitude when a group of Japanese accosted me and asked a favor. They were depot workers living in apartments on base, and they had a problem. The plumbing leaked. They wanted me to alert the Women’s Army Corps lieutenant in charge of indigenous housing. I took the assignment, and first question she asked me was:
“Why didn’t they come to me?” And all I could think of in reply was:
“They’ll never tell you. You might lose face.”
Add to it the fact that in those innocent, nascent times Japanese regarded all political parties as pretty much alike. And that included the communists.
Japanese workers did their best to digest the alien concept of unionization and meld it with their own ideas of how to run things. At Yokohama Engineer Depot, we soon had an indigenous union for every activity, including a Motor Pool Union larded with communists of the virulent Asian species. But even though our Japanese employees were as organized as a Spartan phalanx, they made no demands and voiced no complaints. They simply hummed along day after day grinding out work and bantering with their GI supervisors. All this tranquility soon put our labor relations officer into a bureaucratic coma.
I attempted to voice a few worries to that eminent functionary, a captain who had been a labor lawyer in civilian life. Communist Party members could be seen plainly putting up posters around the depot calling for a general strike to correct grievances of the Motor Pool Union. Printed in large, red Kanji characters they were easily recognizable. My friends outside translated them for me and wondered aloud if depot authorities knew what was happening before their own gates. So I trotted off to raise their consciousness.
Our labor relations officer was not impressed with the news: “I have received no complaints from any union,” he intoned.
“That’s just it, captain,” I protested. “They’ll never tell you.”
Captains don’t like taking advice from obviously deranged corporals, so I was dismissed. But our labor relations guru was considerably more attentive less than two weeks later when the head of every union crowded into his office and announced they were walking out for a 48-hour strike.
These disgruntled employees had been nursing and pampering their injustices for months hoping the Army would spot and correct them. One can be sure they had sent the captain all sorts of signals through third parties, which he had ignored. Had the grievances been minor they would have struck for only 24 hours. Had they been really major, the unions would have opted for 72 hours. As it was, they settled on two days and no amount of pleading or promising could dissuade them. It was just the Japanese way of handling these newfangled strike things.
Having muddled the negotiations, our military heavy thinkers decided it was time to show the mailed fist. All four depot gates were to be fortified, just in case any strikers might have mischief or sabotage on their minds. Enlisted personnel were given a crash course in riot control and sabotage techniques.
At guard mount the day the strike began, our officer of the day, a lieutenant, announced: “I need a rough, tough combat corporal to head a detail at south gate.” I had been edging toward the back of the crowd, but I bumped into a large GI and was unable to vanish before the lieutenant pointed his finger at me and said: “You! You’ll do. Pick ten men and follow me!” Out we marched to be issued rifles and bayonets at the guard house.
“When do we get ammo, sir,” I asked cautiously.
He laughed: “You get none. If you shoot somebody, I get court-martialed for murder.”
Later at the south gate we were further disillusioned. Our normal complement of two Japanese guards had been doubled and they were armed with carbines and full clips. We GIs weren’t trusted with ammunition and were evidently put there just for show. “Don’t worry,” the lieutenant advised in parting, “You’re covered. We’ve stationed a machine gun crew in the park behind you, and they’ve got live ammunition.”
Obviously these military dispositions were those of no less than Col. Miles M. Dawson, commander of YED, a warrior whose talents history would never confuse with the wiles of General George S. Patton. My only previous contact with this august personality was reading a two-page memo he wrote instructing troops in the proper method of pulling weeds when policing an area. It was a time for total clarity, so I issued the following order to my men:
“Fix bayonets, spread out across the road, and stand at ease. Look as fierce and martial as you can. If some of the strikers want to come to work, let them through. Do not stick them or yourselves with your bayonets. And do not stab the Japanese guards because they might shoot you.”
“There is a machine gun in the park behind us, aimed at our backs. If any serious shit goes down, I want you to fall flat on your faces and follow me as I crawl out of this place.”
Apparently these orders were sufficient, because we spent two indolent and amusing days protecting the south rump of YED, listening to the celebratory whooping of the strikers who had established a community just out of sight behind a hill some distance away. They had formed a band and played a medley of Japanese country songs, which are far more toe-tapping than the yowling of Kabuki opera. At intervals we were relieved for food, sleep, shaving and clean uniforms — not really a bad life.
A lieutenant from my own depot section kept us apprised of current events. He was politically a Yellow Dog Democrat from Texas, and the recent election of Eisenhower to the presidency had cast him into deepest mourning. Nevertheless he bore his tragedy manfully as he recited the news from other depot areas.
Not every entrance, of course, was as peaceful as mine. At north gate they had a tense 20 minutes when crowds of strikers halted incoming trucks, and in an excess of high spirits yanked the Japanese scab drivers out and rolled them on the ground. The lieutenant on the scene was paralyzed by fright. But order was restored when our giant provost sergeant waded into the mob with a billy club, whaling away like Ben Hur at a chariot race, and rescued the drivers.
As for the strikers, they returned to work at the end of 48 hours with no hard feelings, except perhaps for the Motor Pool Union, which remained just as obdurate and politically dogmatic as ever. As for the labor relations officer, I never saw him again or learned whether he managed to keep his job. Some people learn fast, others slow, and some not at all. But, I reflected, he was the perfect type to rise three more grades in rank and replace Col. Dawson as head of the largest engineer depot in the Far East.