CONFUSION STILL reigns over America's war aim, and this week's home-stretch debate at the UN Security Council shows it. Does the Bush administration want ''regime change'' or disarmament? Despite President Bush's callow equation last month that disarmament is regime change, the two purposes are not only different; they can work against each other. Such confusion is typical of the careless Bush mind, but in this circumstance it is dangerous. Perhaps there is something to learn from another time when public and private perceptions of America's war purpose became confused at the crucial moment - with tragic results.
Beginning with an agreement made at Casablanca in 1943, the purpose of the Allied war was ''unconditional surrender'' of the Axis enemies. After the utter destruction of Germany, Japan began to put out ''peace feelers'' in the spring and early summer of 1945, seeking clarification of Allied objectives. Of particular concern to the Japanese was the fate of the emperor, a concern no doubt exacerbated by the grotesque deaths of Hitler and Mussolini.
To his people, Hirohito was no mere Fuehrer or Duce but a divine personage, the object of worship. Would he be tried as a war criminal? Would he be executed? Forced from his throne? What unthinkable dishonor awaited him? Could these questions be negotiated? The answer from the Allies was no: Truman repeated ''unconditional surrender'' in early June.
But senior US officials debated in secret what ''unconditional surrender'' actually meant, knowing that the all-but-defeated Japanese fighting force would die to its last man rather than betray the emperor. Indeed, the emperor's word would be necessary to get them to lay down their arms. But there was no public mitigation of terms.
At the end of July, with ''totality and severity,'' in the phrase of Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, the demand for ''unconditional surrender'' was reiterated from Potsdam. The Japanese diehard fatalism that would follow was factored into the massive cost of an anticipated Allied invasion of the island homeland, which in turn was used to justify the dropping of the two atomic bombs. Because the Japanese wanted to protect their emperor and because the United States refused to negotiate the point - no retreat from ''unconditional surrender'' - the nuclear age began.
Then what happened? On Aug. 10, the day after Nagasaki, a message came from Tokyo accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, but ''with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler.'' All Japanese resistance would cease, but only assuming the emperor would be spared - as emperor.
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Byrnes, for one, wanted to refuse the offer because it was not unconditional, and ''we might be exposed to the criticism that we had receded from the totality and severity of the Potsdam Declaration.'' The secretary of state was overruled and the war ended, yet the question of that ''receding'' would stand.
Having just obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the sake of an absolute victory, didn't the attached Japanese condition relativize it? If we would agree to the emperor's survival as emperor after the bombs, why would we not do so before? We maintained the mental and spiritual absolutism required to incinerate two entire cities - but only long enough to accomplish the incineration. Was the shock of what we had done the source of our sudden - and humane - flexibility? Was even Washington aware that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had tipped a moral scale?
In the horror of what we had done, the emperor's fate, like the Japanese surrender with a condition attached, could seem a mere detail. For 21/2 years ''unconditional surrender'' had defined our stated war aim, but in the end we accepted something less. (Hirohito did not renounce his divine status until 1946. He reigned as emperor until his death in 1989.) How might World War II have ended if America had sooner found and indicated a readiness to yield this point of transcendent honor? How many bodies are buried in this question?
''Regime change'' is another way of saying ''unconditional surrender.'' To Saddam Hussein's ear, the phrases must be synonymous. It may be progress that the quite different, less absolute war aim of disarmament is also announced, but, except in Bush's mind, the American position may not reflect confusion. Perhaps the contrasting notes being struck by Washington - Rumsfeld ''total and severe,'' Powell relatively flexible - represent a deliberate blurring of national purpose at the service of obtaining the UN Security Council endorsement this week. Once a resolution passes - any resolution will do - ''regime change'' will surely resume its place of primacy.
As before, Washington will hold to its stated purpose until the momentum of war trumps everything else, until even the White House, the Pentagon, and our shamefully pliant Congress are at last appalled by what such rampant absolutism actually costs in human life.