Criticism — From the July 2017 issue

Killing Bill O’Reilly

The disgraced broadcaster’s distortions of history

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Because I live in Europe and travel around the United States with Fox blinders on, I was largely spared the Bill O’Reilly revolution on cable television and syndicated radio, not to mention his wildly popular book series, the titles of which often lead with the word “killing.” Occasionally, suffering from jet lag in transatlantic hotel rooms, I would hear O’Reilly droning on about how the Soviets “killed” George Patton in postwar Germany or how a fellow traveler killed John F. Kennedy in Dallas. But until my oldest son (forgive him, he was distracted at work and needed a gift) gave me Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War ­II Japan—one of the best-selling non-fiction titles in the country last year—I had never finished any of O’Reilly’s books, or realized the extent to which his “histories” are merely dressed-up psalms to an imagined past.

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

Now O’Reilly—or at least his career at Fox—is history, too. As allegations of sexual harassment piled up and advertisers fled, the Murdoch family (the owners of Fox) decided that he had to go—though not without a severance payout that could be as high as $25 million. Less attention has been paid to the news that Henry Holt, O’Reilly’s publisher, will continue to bring out his books: “Our plans have not changed,” said a spokesman. O’Reilly may be finished as a shock jock, but we are left to contemplate the shameful fact that this disgraced propagandist is the most widely read historian in America. 

In case you have yet to tour the Pacific battlefields with O’Reilly and his collaborator Martin Dugard (who must do the heavy lifting on the first drafts), Killing the Rising Sun is a mash note to American infantrymen and to our air and naval squadrons. O’Reilly’s Pacific is chock-full of brave Marines dashing across hostile beaches, steely pilots dropping their payloads on evil Japanese, decisive generals vowing to liberate fallen countries, and honorable politicians making the decision, without fear or favor, to use the atomic bomb.

As a child of the 1960s, like O’Reilly, I warmed to the same bedtime stories about the American colossus bestriding the earth, especially those about liberating the Pacific or breaching the Siegfried line, which kept freedom away from Nazi-controlled Europe. But a lifetime of conversations with my father—a Marine Corps officer in the struggles for Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, all of which O’Reilly portrays as romantic quests undertaken by fearless knights-errant—disabused me of the belief that the Pacific war was a chivalrous adventure. Traveling to nearly all the places that are mentioned in Killing the Rising Sun, from Peleliu to Manchuria, only made that more clear.

My father died in 2012, so I don’t have the benefit of his thinking on O’Reilly’s new book. But whenever my father and I talked about nostalgia for the “good war,” he would remind me of John Hersey’s Into the Valley, an account of the Matanikau offensive on Guadalcanal. Hersey writes: “One of the things I learned was that war makes no national or racial or ideological distinctions as it degrades human beings.” My father also liked to quote a passage from Wartime, by Paul Fussell, a World War ­II infantry officer:

Now, fifty years later, there has been so much talk about “The Good War,” the Justified War, the Necessary War, and the like, that the young and innocent could get the impression that it was really not such a bad thing after all. It’s thus necessary to observe that it was a war and nothing else, and thus stupid and sadistic.

And whenever someone argued that Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan “told it like it is,” my father would say: “It’s a war movie by a guy who has seen a lot of war movies.” In that sense O’Reilly’s history of the Pacific is a war story by a guy who has read a lot of war stories, and a lullaby for a new age of nuclear confrontation. 

Since O’Reilly took so much delight on his TV program in calling out his political opponents for their inaccuracies, let’s start with a sampling of this book’s many factual errors. On page 35, O’Reilly and Dugard date the American landing on Guadalcanal to June 1942. The actual date was August 7. On page 45, they write about the war in Europe beginning in 1939, “two years after Japan sought to increase its sphere of influence by conquering the northeastern provinces of China, collectively known as Manchuria.” Had the authors consulted the maps published in their own book, they would have learned (on page 59) that the Japanese occupied Manchuria in 1931, and that the 1937 offensive took place in Shanghai and Nanking, which are about a thousand miles to the south. On page 99, O’Reilly and Dugard write that Okinawa is “just four hundred miles from Tokyo.” The distance from Naha to Tokyo is 967 miles. I could go on. 

One of the central sections in Killing the Rising Sun concerns an engagement that took place on Peleliu (one of the Caroline Islands, east of the Philippines). It becomes a metaphor for American courage and fortitude, not to mention the suicidal Japanese defensive tactics that would require the response of atomic bombs. In that fighting, Captain Everett Pope led the men of C Company, 1st Marine Regiment, up to the top of a small hill, which they held through the night against repeated Japanese counterattacks. For his valor, Pope was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, which must be how O’Reilly and Dugard discovered the engagement. (Much of their book is essentially a rewriting and fleshing out of citations given to the winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor.) Although there is no mention of it in the footnotes, the authors seem to have borrowed heavily from an article published about the hilltop fighting in the Marine Corps Chevron in December 1944. Unfortunately, that censored article makes factual mistakes that O’Reilly and Dugard do not correct. 

I knew Pope well for the last twelve years of his life. (He died in 2009, on his ninetieth birthday.) He served throughout the war with my father, who commanded C Company, 1st Battalion, First Marines, on Guadalcanal and New Britain, and during those battles Pope’s platoon was often attached to C Company. When my father became the executive officer of the 1st Battalion, Pope took command of C Company. The two men remained lifelong friends—my father was the one who wrote his recommendation for the Congressional Medal. 

On September 19, my father watched as Pope led the remnants of C Company toward Hill 100 (not Hill 154, as O’Reilly and Dugard mistakenly call it). As my father later wrote to me:

After another day of futile struggle against the fortified limestone catacombs, the battalion was withdrawn and regrouped. Ev Pope and what was left of “C” Company were detached and sent in support of the Second Battalion. With a heavy heart I watched him go, knowing so well that in combat any attached unit is always given the dirtiest, the most dangerous assignment. Theirs was to be no exception.

For years, I heard both men tell the story of what happened that night on Hill 100. With their counsel, in 1997 I traveled to Peleliu, hired a local guide, and climbed what came to be known as Pope’s Hill but is referred to on Marine Corps maps as Hill 100 or Walt Ridge, after the officer whose men later recaptured it. No one I have met ever called it Hill 154.

O’Reilly errs in writing that C Company attacked Hill 100 at dawn and that the company had, by that point, suffered only “30 percent casualties” on Peleliu. In fact, Pope led his men up the hill in the late afternoon, by which time C Company—then attached to the 2nd Battalion—was a skeleton force, having already fought and bled for four days across the island. Casualties were in excess of 50 percent.

Only about thirty men went up the hill with Pope, although they were not, as O’Reilly writes, “cooks and bakers and company clerks.” They were frontline Marine infantrymen, many of them veterans of Guadalcanal and New Britain. One of them, Joe Seifts, who went on to serve with the Marines in Korea and Vietnam, later wrote to me:

By the time we got to the top there were only about twenty of us left…. We had no machine guns or [mortars]. The [Japanese] hit us I believe around ten or eleven at night. We had to hold the hill. Because at the bottom of the hill lay all of our wounded. We stopped attack after attack…. I was never so glad to see daylight. 

Here’s the passage in O’Reilly that describes the same encounter:

Hours later, the afternoon sun beating down on them, Pope’s company attacks once more. His marines are again overwhelmed by precise enemy fire and suffer horrific casualties. Pope’s company numbered almost 235 men four days ago. By 1800 hours, as dusk falls on Hill 154, just 14 remain. 

A reader of this passage might assume that Pope lost 221 men attacking Hill 100, when in fact, as Seifts writes, of the thirty who went up, about ten were injured in the climb to the top. Nor did C Company suffer sixty casualties during the preceding day. About nine men died on top.

Everett Pope would not have described Hill 100 as “a sheer coral outcrop on a slope known as Suicide Ridge.” O’Reilly and Dugard seem to have appropriated that description from either Wikipedia or the Chevron, which mentions “Hill 154, a steep, barren coral peak protruding from the face of Suicide Ridge.” I never heard Ev Pope call it Suicide Ridge, so the name must have been given to the plateau long after his time there on September 19?20, 1944, if ever. Marines in the 1st Battalion spoke only of Bloody Nose Ridge, and occasionally about the Horseshoe, the valley floor leading up to the amphitheater of the cliffs.

All O’Reilly wants is a feel-good story about American patriotism and courage, so he misses the backstory that makes Pope’s night on Hill 100 illustrative of the fog of war. On September 19, Pope and his attacking Marines thought Hill 100 was an isolated knob, from which they hoped to pour level fire across the Horseshoe into the cliffside caves of Bloody Nose Ridge. Instead, when they got up there, they discovered that it was not an isolated hill but a crown at the end of a ridgeline. (Pope would often say the top of Hill 100 was “the size of the tennis court.”) The Japanese occupied the higher slopes.

When Pope received orders to lead his surviving men off the hill at sunrise, he had no ammunition and only about ten men, including Joe Seifts. Back at battalion headquarters, Pope heard that Lewis “Chesty” Puller (the legendary Marine who commanded the 1st Marine Regiment) was furious that Hill 100 had been abandoned. Puller ordered Pope and his men to retake it. As Pope wrote to me in an email:

My most vivid memory, after being driven off the hill, is that of expecting that Puller would have me court-martialed for having failed to hold—i.e., for not having died up there. As your father will recall, late on the afternoon, Puller ordered C-1-1 to take the hill again. Since there were only about 12–15 of us left, it was to have been a suicide mission (ours, not Puller’s). 

In fairness, even though O’Reilly and Dugard get facts and details wrong, they do manage to convey the bravery of Pope and the men of C Company, who held the hill all night against the Japanese, often using rocks instead of grenades and fighting with shovels and their bare hands. 

What O’Reilly and Dugard write about Peleliu is Homeric poetry compared with their descriptions of Okinawa, which read like a grade school paper. For example:

Unlike the coral and jungle of Peleliu, or the remote black volcanic soil of Iwo Jima, Okinawa is a well-populated island full of farmers. Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders. The verdant fields of okra and eggplant that should be carpeting the countryside have been trampled by soldiers, cratered by shelling and littered with the detritus of war: spent casings, empty food tins, burning vehicles, and, of course, dead bodies.

Not even a third grader would consider the population on Okinawa “a mixture of Japanese and Chinese.” The Ryukyuans on Okinawa were an independent kingdom until being annexed by Japan in the late nineteenth century. Equally mystifying is that any author could write about war’s end on Okinawa and not mention the Shuri Line or Sugar Loaf Hill, which acquired the aura of World War I trenches. Think of a book about the Normandy invasion that fails to mention Omaha Beach. According to E. B. Sledge the Shuri Line was

the worst area I ever saw on a battlefield…. Each time we went up, I felt the sickening dread of fear and revulsion at the ghastly scenes of pain and suffering among comrades that a survivor must witness.

Again, O’Reilly and Dugard’s literary device for Okinawa is to pull a Congressional Medal of Honor citation from the files—here they chose that of a medic, Private Desmond Doss—and then pad the account with language that sounds lifted from a drugstore action novel. (“Each man approaches the coming battle in his own way…. But there is one belief that every man shares: no matter what happens when they hit the beach, surrendering to the enemy will not be an option.”)

O’Reilly and Dugard are just as careless when writing about the casualties on Okinawa. They state: “Of the half-million Americans who came ashore, one-third have either been killed or wounded.” That would mean around 166,000 casualties—which is not true. According to Tennozan, George Feifer’s excellent history of the island fighting, there were 7,613 American battle deaths on Okinawa, and about 33,000 men were wounded “seriously enough to be out of action more than a week.” Another 30,000 left the lines at some point with battle fatigue, many during the assault against the Shuri Line. In his history of the end of Japanese imperialism, Downfall, Richard B. Frank estimates U.S. casualties on Okinawa, including those of the Navy offshore, at 49,000. 

What made Okinawa such a drawn-out battle were the rocky escarpments—they look like petrified beached whales—that crisscross the island down to the southern tip, where there is now a Peace Memorial Park to the fallen Americans and Japanese at Mabuni Hill. On each of these rocky outcroppings, the Japanese strung wire, sited mortars, and fought to the death.

Throughout their book, however, O’Reilly and Dugard exaggerate facts and figures to paint the Japanese as a fanatical enemy and to suggest that their actions throughout the war justified both firebombing and nuclear winter. For the same reason, the authors quickly pass over the 100,000 civilians who were killed by American forces on Okinawa. Some jumped from the cliffs on Mabuni Hill as the Americans approached. Many more were killed when U.S. forces dropped grenades into underground shelters where families were hiding.

Having established that on Peleliu, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima the Japanese were prepared to fight to the last man, O’Reilly and Dugard turn their attention to the plans for an amphibious assault on the Japanese home islands in late 1945 and 1946—first on the southern island of Kyushu and later on Tokyo. The landings had the code name Operation Downfall, and speculation as to how many Americans would have died is one of history’s great what-ifs. 

MacArthur’s staff projected at least 55,906 casualties in the Kyushu landings after sixty days; at the high end, Downfall could have led to 1.2 million casualties in ninety days, if the Americans had landed 1.8 million soldiers and casualties had mirrored the campaigns in Leyte and Normandy.

Needless to say, O’Reilly and Dugard accept only the assumption that hundreds of thousands of Americans would have been injured or killed (which is their right, since it is all speculation). Even in their speculations, though, the authors make a hash of the story. They write: 

Instead of the eighty thousand soldiers ­MacArthur believed would be defending the invasion beaches, nine Japanese divisions comprising more than five hundred thousand men are now digging in on the coastline, waiting for the Americans to land…. 

The Japanese believe they know precisely where American troops will invade, so vast underground caves are being constructed behind the beaches and stocked with food and ammunition.

The problems with these paragraphs are many. The unsuspecting reader might imagine, for example, that Kyushu is the size of Normandy (100 miles across its beaches) or even of Okinawa (75 miles in length). Kyushu, however, has a coastline that is 3,900 miles long, and the island is some 14,000 square miles. When I was there, it took hours, sometimes days, to drive from one projected landing site to another.

Even if the Japanese Army suspected correctly that the Americans might land in the south, it still needed to disperse its defense forces around the large island. Moreover, many of the home-island forces (some were the equivalent of a local militia, not crack frontline troops) were relying on horses and carts to move their men and matériel—the U.S. Navy had virtually shut off the importation of oil. And in any case, according to The Invasion of Japan, by John Ray Skates, the Fifty-seventh Army and the Fortieth Army, deployed around southern Kyushu, comprised “thirteen divisions, three mixed brigades, [and] five tank brigades.” Assuming 18,000 men in each Japanese division (a stretch in 1945), at best the Japanese had half the number of men stated by O’Reilly and Dugard, who by their flawed math turn “nine divisions” into 500,000 soldiers. At least it’s closer to reality than the figure of 750,000 troops “massed around beachheads” on Kyushu that they use earlier in the book.

As a frontline officer with the 1st Marine Division, my father had a personal interest in what would have happened to the forces attacking the heart of Japan. (After all, he would have been among them.) At the same time, unlike (I assume) O’Reilly and Dugard, he made it a point—when he was on occupation duty in Japan—to visit the planned invasion beaches and come to his own conclusions about how the battle would have gone. He had no doubt that the landings would have been difficult and bloody—many close friends from C Company had died on Peleliu and Okinawa—yet he did not believe, as do these authors, that the war ended only because of the atomic vapors over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead he took the view, common to many in the infantry, that air power rarely turns the tide of any battle; he believed that Japan surrendered because of breakthroughs by Russian troops in Manchuria and because the U.S. naval blockade had reduced the home islands to poverty and made it impossible for the Imperial Japanese Army to shift forces from one island to another.

When the war ended, my father was stationed at Camp Pendleton, in California, but almost immediately he sailed to Guam and Nagasaki with a battalion of replacement troops for the occupation. (Everett Pope was studying Japanese at Yale University. Both men had rotated Stateside after Peleliu, having been abroad for two and a half years, since the battle of Guadalcanal.) 

During the year that my father spent in Japan after the war, he saw or heard little to convince him that he owed his life only to the bombs. Just the opposite: When his troopship landed in Nagasaki, he was amazed to find much of the city still intact and life there going on as normal. Some years later he wrote in a letter: 

Still uneasily trying to ascertain what must have been certain devastation, we were informed that, since Nagasaki, like Rome, is built on seven hills, there had been an entirely different impact there from the nuclear blast as contrasted with Hiroshima, which lies on a plain. Additionally, the blast had exploded away from the center of the city, with the result that most of the buildings facing it were demolished, while those on the leeward side were largely and strangely untouched.

Although this is only hinted at in Killing the Rising Sun, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki missed its target and exploded north of the city, in a residential neighborhood. O’Reilly and Dugard write simply: “Fat Man is indeed off target, missing the Mitsubishi torpedo plant by almost two miles…. It doesn’t matter.”

The victims at Nagasaki, for whom it did matter, included the Christian community and thousands of Korean guest workers. Estimates for the total number of casualties vary between 35,000 and 80,000. The shipyards along the river in downtown Nagasaki were, however, left standing. In Hiroshima, the atomic bomb did more damage to civilians and a red-light district than it did to any munitions plant.

While in Nagasaki, my father did something few Americans ever did—he visited the hospital where many survivors of the atomic bomb were taken. When I asked about the experience later, he wrote to me:

Local hospitals, where thousands of desperately wounded survivors of the blast were being nursed, were placed off limits to American occupiers, but for some of us, the more curious, who was to prevent an unannounced visit? There, in beds of the long dun-colored wards, lay the caricatures of people who had once been whole, flesh torn from limbs, head wounds suppurating under scraps of bandages, and clusters of relatives in silent bedside vigils. There in those wards lay the answers not revealed to the public of how atomic bombs can, in an instant, sear human lives apart. For those who choose to reflect, it is said that now, one nuclear tipped field artillery shell contains the destructive power of the bomb that flattened Hiroshima.

In Killing the Rising Sun, all the reader ever gets is three cheers for nuclear weapons. At the end of the book, just in case you had any doubts, O’Reilly reprints fan letters from Presidents Carter, Bush the Elder, and W, all of whom agree with the talk show host that Truman’s use of atomic bombs ended the war, that they were a necessary evil.

The biggest problem I have with O’Reilly and Dugard’s conclusions about the Pacific war is that they make the leap to nuclear faith without ever exploring any of the alternatives. They draw a line between the barbarity of the Imperial Japanese Army, especially in China and on various Pacific islands, and the necessity of dropping the bombs, which, they announce, both won the war and were just: Case closed. 

After Franklin Roosevelt had commissioned the construction of the bombs, no one in the chain of command, including his successor, Harry Truman, objected to their use against the Japanese. The bombs rolled off the production line and into the cargo bays of the ­B-29s with few questions asked about their truths or consequences. But there is abundant scholarship that the Japanese did not surrender because of the bombs—merely that they surrendered around the time that the bombs fell, giving postwar Americans (so dependent on air power) the convenient connection between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and victory, although in my view the Pacific war dragged on until 1949, when the Nationalist Chinese fled to Taiwan.

It took me a long time even to consider that the bombs did not end the war or that America could well have defeated Japan without a large-scale amphibious landing. The person who had the greatest influence in changing my thinking was my friend Murray Sayle, the foreign correspondent who spent much of his adult life living in Japan and studying the effects of the atomic bombs. 

Having read the 1945 Japanese cabinet’s deliberations regarding surrender and the reactions of the Imperial Japanese Army to the atomic bombs and the earlier firebombing of Tokyo, Sayle came to the conclusion that Japan feared a Russian-induced partition much more than it cared about the death of Korean guest workers in Nagasaki or the loss of the red-light district in Hiroshima. Japan had seen how the Russians and Americans had divided Germany into spheres of influence, and the cabinet feared the same would happen to them if the Russians were allowed to march through Manchuria and Korea. 

When O’Reilly and Dugard mention the Soviet entrance into the war against Japan, it is to imply that the red devil Stalin was pulling a fast one on his Western allies, trying to snatch as much of Manchuria as his troops could conquer. But whether or not you like what happened at Yalta, Roosevelt’s principal aim there was to persuade the Soviets to enter the war against the Japanese. On this point, perhaps because it suited his geopolitical ambitions, Stalin agreed, and by August his armies were getting close to the home islands. ­Sayle’s work also led him to the conclusion that the Japanese were prepared to surrender (provided they could keep the emperor on the throne) early in the summer of 1945, well before the bombs fell.

To the end of his life, Sayle never could see a connection between the bombs and the Japanese surrender. In 1995, he published an essay for The New Yorker entitled “Did the Bomb End the War?,” in which he writes: 

The sequence of events—Hiroshima, Nagasaki, surrender offer—is striking. Could it be that pure coincidence has clouded our understanding of the surrender for half a century? Indeed it could. By themselves, the dates prove nothing.”

*In the article, Sayle quotes a U.S. government report that was distributed to the president in June 1946. It concludes: “Certainly prior to December 31, 1945, and in all probability prior to November 1, 1945 [the planned date of the Kyushu invasion], Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia
had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

His argument, borne out by the Cold War, was that the Japanese high command surrendered because it believed that the country could survive only if it was protected from the Russian advance by the Americans. The losses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not play a large part in that equation. As he would say often when we would drive together around Japan, visiting the atomic and other World War ­II sites: “If there is such a process as military leaders being cowed into submission by air attacks, nuclear or otherwise, history has no clear example of it.”*

I expect that Bill O’Reilly came to this project with few doubts about his conclusion, which is that the war in the Pacific was history’s best expression of American idealism, even if firebombs and atomic weapons cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. He sees a direct link between the dropping of the bombs and the war’s end, as if to welcome back the Eisenhower era of “massive retaliation,” when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons to maintain the balance of power, even in regional conflicts—an approach that the Trump Administration appears to be reviving. During one of his national security briefings as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump reportedly asked why we have these bombs if we don’t use them. We can only wonder about his thoughts as to North Korea and its missile testing. By sending the nuclear-armed fleet to the waters of the Korean peninsula, Trump seems to be borrowing heavily from the pages of Eisenhower, if not his friend O’Reilly.

O’Reilly dedicates his book to “all World War II veterans. Freedom rings because of you.” In the foreword, he writes: “What Martin Dugard and I are about to tell you is true and stark. The way the United States defeated the Japanese empire is vital to understand because the issues of that war are still being processed throughout the world today.” One of the ironies of the war is that many frontline World War II veterans, my father and Everett Pope among them, had little time for the grand designs of armchair generals, all of which sounded like variations on Chesty Puller’s confused orders for Hill 100. They had seen war at its worst, and wished it on no one. As Pope wrote in a letter to his dean at Bowdoin College, on the death of a beloved company commander, Andy Haldane, on Peleliu: “I had talked with Andy a few days before he was killed, as our companies passed near each other. He was in good spirits, but sick of the killing, as were all of us.”

Neither Pope nor my father believed in war stories or what, since the Civil War, has been called “waving the bloody shirt.” Into their eighties, both men sounded more like Robert Graves, who writes of World War I in Goodbye to All That, “Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners.” 

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Matthew Stevenson is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book is Reading the Rails (Odysseus Books).

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