By Eamonn Fingleton
If you Google “Laurens van der Post” and “Hiroshima”, you’ll turn up hundreds of thousands of results. This confirms something that some observers have known for years: that though the South African-born author Laurens van der Post was little known in the United States, he nonetheless has played an outsized role in how Americans see the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945.
We’ll have more to say about this role in a moment but first let’s note something else: if you Google “Laurens van der Post” and “liar” you will also get hundreds of thousands of results.
It is fair to say that van der Post is a controversial figure — so controversial indeed that it is more than surprising that he might be considered a trusted source on anything, let alone on something as epochal and politically charged as the atomic bombing of Japan.
According to his biographer J.D.F. Jones, van der Post was a “compulsive fantasist”. Writing in Teller of Many Tales: The Lives of Laurens Van Der Post (London: Carroll & Graf, 2001), Jones explained: “Time after time, the storyteller’s tales about himself were inaccurate, embellished, exaggerated, distorted or invented. Put more bluntly, he was a constant liar.”
Little was known about van der Post’s character defects in his lifetime and indeed towards the end of his life he came to be revered as something of a secular saint and was even embraced as a close friend by such dignitaries as Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles. Soon after his death in 1996, however, an avalanche of allegations emerged that completely demolished his reputation. Not the least of the disclosures was that in the early 1950s when he was already well into his forties van der Post had seduced and made pregnant a fourteen-year-old South African girl who had been entrusted to his care.
All this notwithstanding, commentators and historians who seek to justify the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki often cite his testimony as clinching evidence for their case. Meanwhile nothing is mentioned of his tendency to make up the facts, let alone various other character issues that have called his credibility into question.
Yet it is now amply clear — and indeed undisputed — that van der Post’s life story was one of the most scandalous of any influential author in modern times.
Born on a farm in South Africa in 1906, he was hired in 1925 as a trainee journalist by a newspaper in Durban. By the 1930s he had moved to the UK where he quickly made several useful literary contacts.
Then at the outbreak of World War II, he volunteered for the British Army and in 1942 was captured by the Japanese in Java. Thus began more than three years of brutal captivity in which he suffered greatly and was witness to the torture and murder of many of his fellow prisoners.
He went on in 1970 to publish The Night of the New Moon, a book about his wartime experiences. This aired a sensational allegation that in the last weeks of the war Hisaichi Terauchi, a senior Japanese military officer, planned as a parting shot to order the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs under his control in South-East Asia. Terauchi, who seems to have been based in Vietnam at the time, was allegedly intent on perpetrating this massacre even though this flouted the express wishes of top military leaders in Tokyo. According to van der Post, it was only because of the shock of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that Terauchi was dissuaded from this plan. Thus, in van der Post’s account, on a net basis America’s resort to atomic weapons saved many more lives than it sacrificed.
For acute observers there have always been problems with this story — problems that for the most part were apparent long before van der Post’s general credibility was torched by J.D.F. Jones and others.
In assessing van der Post’s story, let’s first note that Japan’s very different and rigid we’re-all-in-this-together culture makes the Terauchi story inherently unlikely. Although there is no doubt that Terauchi was one of Japan’s most brutal war criminals (he was responsible for among other things the deaths of more than 15,000 Allied POWs in the construction of the Burma Railway alone), the fact is that the Japanese are not noted for breaking ranks. And certainly the idea that someone in Terauchi’s position — he was a field marshal — would have defied higher-ups on something as epochal as the endgame of a world war seems a stretch.
Another problem with the story is that as a matter of historical record Terauchi had suffered a devastating stroke in May 1945. Thus in August 1945, when according to the van der Post version Terauchi was supposedly planning one of the biggest war crimes in history, Terauchi was actually a semi-invalid. In the event Terauchi went on to die of cardio-vascular complications in 1946 and thus was never tried for his crimes.
Another problem with van der Post’s story is why did it take so long to be made public. If in the immediate aftermath of the war van der Post really had the goods on the “Terauchi plan” (at a time when key witnesses were still very much alive and major media organisations were still massively concerned with the war), he would have been sitting on a major world scoop. Indeed had he promptly sold his story to a top media organisation, he would instantly have won both fame and fortune. Yet we are asked to believe that he made no attempt to sell his scoop but instead chose to return to South Africa to a dead-end job with a regional newspaper. More than two decades were to elapse before he went public with his allegation and even then he did so in a half-baked way that was amazingly lacking in substantiation.
What evidence did he have? He cited only a single named source. This was Ronald Penney, a senior British Army officer who served as the Allies’ military intelligence chief in South-East Asia in the final months of the war. Here is how van der Post put it: “General Penney assured me that, among the staff records captured at Terauchi’s headquarters, evidence was found of plans to kill all prisoners and internees.”
At first sight this may sound like it clinches the argument in van der Post’s favour. Actually it does the opposite: it devastatingly undermines his story. Why? Because had records of this sort really been found, Penney would have passed them on posthaste to one or more of the several major public tribunals the Allies had set up to investigate Japanese war crimes. Once in the hands of any such tribunal such documents would have been effectively in the public domain and it is certainly inconceivable that their existence would have remained hidden for long. (Remember that hundreds of top American, British, Canadian and Australian press reporters had followed the Allied forces to post-surrender Japan and their most urgent concern was to uncover evidence of Japanese war crimes.)
A question remains: what did Penney make of van der Post’s allegations? We don’t know because, conveniently for van der Post’s case, Penney had been long dead by the time the book came out. It is fair to say that it was typical of van der Post’s style to build his case on the basis of quotes from sources who were untraceable or dead.
In closing let’s briefly consider the wider controversy surrounding van der Post. Some prominent people came to van der Post’s defence at the time of the publication of the late J.D.F. Jones’s stunning biography. It is clear that in several cases such people were friends of van der Post’s or at least friends of the family. But while their attacks were long on rhetoric they did little to question Jones’s factual accuracy. Quite the contrary: because van der Post’s defenders have tended to tip-toe around Jones’s most devastating allegations, they have implicitly admitted they had nothing to say in rebuttal.
In answer to the charge that van der Post had been guilty of statutory rape, the best his defenders have been able to do in rejoinder has been to suggest that Jones’s account was “prurient”.
I ought to declare an interest here. As a journalist who worked in London in the 1970s, I happen to have known J.D.F. Jones. Actually in Jones’s then capacity as managing editor of the Financial Times, he hired me in 1978 as editor of the paper’s Saturday savings pages. For the sake of completeness I should perhaps add that I never knew van der Post.
As one of Jones’s former colleagues, I find it more than surprising to see him denounced as “prurient”. He was actually one of the wisest and most decent journalists of his generation and he is widely credited with playing a major role in turning the Financial Times into a globally influential institution.
In recording van der Post’s scandalous love life, was Jones being prurient? Hardly. It was actually incumbent on Jones to investigate van der Post’s character defects. Not to put too fine a point on it, authors like van der Post who present themselves as arbiters on controversial issues had damned well make sure they suffer from no significant character defects. Otherwise they have little or no ability to stand up to any vested interests that might seek to influence their work. Might the fact that van der Post had guilty secrets help explain how he wrote about the atomic bombing of Japan? Maybe. But my guess is that the real explanation is probably more mundane (e.g. by making up a story about the Terauchi plan van der Post may have hoped to improve the publishing value of his work in the United States).
One thing is certain: the fact that such a flawed character came to be accepted as a trusted friend by top British dignitaries sheds an interesting light on the quality of the UK’s intelligence services in the last half century.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).