Douglas MacArthur's reversal on democratic reforms in Japan still reverberates today. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Douglas MacArthur's reversal on democratic reforms in Japan still reverberates today. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

So far, President Barack Obama has yet to call the coup that ousted Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi a coup, or to cut off U.S. military aid to its increasingly autocratic and brutal regime. As Obama put it in his statement last Thursday, "Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interest in this pivotal part of the world and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we've sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people." A murmured consensus says that the U.S. can't afford to sacrifice the advantages of its security relationship -- military overflight rights, priority for U.S Navy ships at the Suez Canal, intelligence cooperation and upholding peace with Israel -- in order to stand up for democratic principles.

There's a cautionary counterpoint to this realist catechism, and it comes from an episode frequently, and mistakenly, cited as an unqualified policy success: the U.S. occupation of Japan.

The short, happy version of the nearly seven-year occupation history is that a magnanimous U.S. occupying force led by supremo Douglas MacArthur thoroughly transformed a defeated Japan into a model democracy and staunch ally. The behavior of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, is a reminder that there's more to the story. Abe's nationalist rhetoric, his unyielding prosecution of territorial quarrels and his penchant for revisionist history about the war flow in part from a fateful occupation-era U.S. choice.

It was called the "reverse course": Roughly two years after the occupation began in 1945, U.S. policy-makers concerned about the developing Cold War and the spread of communism in Asia dropped the emphasis on "demilitarization and democratization" in favor of building up Japan's economy, restoring its conservative political establishment and, eventually, rearming it. As numerous scholars have documented -- including John Dower in his Pulitzer Prize-winning occupation history "Embracing Defeat" -- the purging of war criminals and militarists gave way to the purging of leftists.

Beneficiaries included Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, one of 19 Class A war criminal suspects released as a result of the policy u-turn, who went on to become prime minister. Losers included outspoken left-leaning journalists, academics and trade unionists. With the onset of the Korean War, the U.S. largely abandoned efforts to reform Japan's corporate and financial structure in favor of bolstering the economy, not least its ability to supply U.S. forces in Korea. As Dower writes, "The political and ideological rationale behind the economic 'reverse course' ... was to ensure Japan's emergence as a strong anticommunist bastion, and this necessarily entailed support of the most conservative and corporatist elements in Japanese society -- and, as it happened, the continued American parenting of [Japan's] 'abnormal' market economy."

We all know how that worked out: Among other results, it birthed an export juggernaut operating behind a formidable wall of tariff and non-tariff barriers. The U.S. reliance on Japanese ministries to carry out occupation directives reinforced Japan's bureaucracies, and its support for Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (including slush money from the CIA) helped to entrench the LDP's stultifying one-party rule.

Of course, Japan's people and their leaders were hardly passive spectators in this process. And who's to say what modern Japan would look like if the U.S. had had the courage of its founders' convictions and persevered with its democratic reforms? My opinion is that the world would be a better place if it had. Certainly Abe's revisionist views of the war, with all their dangerous belligerence, would be less likely to take root. Now, in Egypt, the U.S. decision to sacrifice democracy on the altar of realism seems likely once again to yield an inferior result.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)