Saturday, July 06, 2019

Coddling Japan and Coveting Okinawa: Kennan and MacArthur set the course of North Asian history post-World War II

This is the script of my 2017 5 15 Asia Brief episode titled

The Dark Heart of Asia: George Kennan and America’s Pivot to Japan in 1948

An interesting thing happened on the road to universal freedom in the early 1950s.  The United States switched to a cold war footing in Asia.  The catalyst was George Kennan, the legendary architect of Soviet containment, and the mechanism a report he wrote for the State Department after a factfinding trip to Japan in 1948.  His report is one of the most important documents in post World War II Asian history.

Franklin Roosevelt had envisioned the United States as a virtuous participant in post-war Asian decolonization, starting with independence for the Philippines and including national determination for ex-colonies that eventually became nations like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Burma, Indonesia, Singapore and Korea.

But by the time 1948 came along, FDR was gone, Truman was president, and containment hawks looked at Asia through the lens of thwarting Soviet expansion.

When Kennan left for Japan in March 1948, it looks like he already had his Japan policy figured out.  The questions he had for MacArthur were more like detailed policy proposals for which he was soliciting MacArthur’s buy-in.

Kennan looked at the disposition of forces in Asia, including the flailing of Chiang Kaishek’s Republic of China regime on the mainland in its struggle with Mao and the Communists, and decided that the United States needed secure island bastions in Asia to serve as military bases to confront the Soviets.

A key focus was Japan, successfully subdued by its defeat and the occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur…and already hosting US military forces.

Kennan decided World War II was over and it was time to develop Japan as a pro-US asset. 

To declare that Japan was out of the woods on World War II meant handling the awkward fact that there was still no peace treaty.  Kennan was in no hurry to conclude a peace treaty because, as he saw it in 1948, a peace treaty would involve the removal of US forces.  Because of his anxieties concerning the Soviets, he wasn’t ready for that. 

For Kennan, the key was to restore the viability of the Japanese economy, not necessarily as a regional powerhouse but simply as a state prosperous and stable enough to resist anti-American unrest and Soviet subversion.  To restore Japan’s economy, the US needed to step up with assistance and access.  

That was because, especially without the peace treaty, Japan had to look east to the United States.  It had lost its mainland resources and markets, and the nations of East Asia that had suffered from Japan were not terribly keen to re-open their markets without a peace treaty…and reparations.

The US was determined to dodge the universal call for Japanese reparations.  Neither Kennan nor MacArthur had any interest in stripping Japan of 1000 of its most important factories—which had already been identified and tagged for the reparation program—to ship to Japan’s victims. 

No reparations is exactly what Japan got two and a half years later at the San Francisco Peace Conference.

The US was able to finesse the reparations issue at the 1950 conference.  By “finessing” I mean inserting a clause in the treaty that pushed off reparations for subsequent bilateral negotiations, in other words, only when Japan was ready to talk about them, and making sure that the most vociferous proponents of reparations were either excluded from the peace conference, as Russia, China, and Korea were or, in the case of the Philippines, pressured to accept the provision.

Kennan was keen to lighten the hand of MacArthur’s administration in order to avoid offending Japanese nationalism and provoking elite anti-Americanism.  This meant soft-pedaling reforms to break up Japan’s huge industrial combines like Mitsubishi and Mitsui, and scaling back the purge of Japanese officials and executives allegedly tainted by militarism.

Kennan also called for wrapping up the war crimes trials, which he and MacArthur regarded as a useless distraction.  

The prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, can probably thank Kennan for the release  in December 1948 of his grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, who had been held in prison as a Class A war criminal.  Kishi had run the economy of Manchuria quite harshly for the Japanese imperial army in the 1930s, as well as literally signing the 1941 declaration of war against the United States. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the Kennan-MacArthur discussions was the role of Okinawa, which US planners regarded as the indispensable US military bastion in the Western Pacific.

MacArthur stated that Okinawa was not really part of Japan, and he saw no problem with alienating it permanently to the control of the United States.  Per Kennan’s notes, he said:

The people were not Japanese, and had never been assimilated when they had come to the Japanese main islands. The Japanese looked down on them. He had been obliged to evacuate a half million of them back to the Ryukyus, as one of the first acts of occupational policy. They were simple and good natured people, who would pick up a good deal of money and have a reasonably happy existence from an American base development in the Ryukyus.

The takeaway from the meeting was that Okinawa would stay American after any peace treaty, and serve as the primary US base in the Pacific for naval as well as air and marine forces.

Kennan formally advised Secretary of State Dean Acheson that 

The United States Government should make up its mind at this point that it intends to retain permanently the facilities at Okinawa, and the base there should be developed accordingly. The problem of obtaining international sanction for our permanent strategic control of the islands should be studied at once in the Department of State.

That is, of course, what happened.  The United States maintained administrative control over Okinawa until 1972.  Since then, the US, with the wholehearted support of the Japanese government, has battled local opposition to the massive footprint of its military bases, which cover 20% of the island.  

Okinawan resistance and resentment has striking parallels to anti-Japanese agitation in Korea, which I discussed in my previous Asia Brief episode.  In both cases, the core of the dispute is Japan’s determination, with the active backing of the United States, to evade any responsibility for the fortunes of an annexed people it summarily abandoned at the end of World War II.

It turned out that for the United States in the Cold War, maintaining US military bases in sovereign states was not the insurmountable task it had feared.  The first US-Japan security treaty signed in 1951 provided temporary provisions for US forces to stay and protect Japan, the second one, concluded in 1960, made the US presence permanent.

America had some help from a Japanese friend.

Upon his release from prison, Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi was patronized by the United States as its key political asset in Japan; he rose to Prime Minister and was eventually able to achieve one of the core objectives of the United States in the postwar period: obtaining Japanese ratification of the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1960 over massive local resistance, thereby assuring the US military presence in Japan and on Okinawa in perpetuity.

The unacknowledged reverse current in the US pivot to Japan in 1948 is Kennan’s determination to ignore the factors of decolonization and nationalism in Asia, and the popular forces that welcomed Communist support.  

Instead, Kennan applied his European Soviet containment template to Asia on the premise that the primary significant force at work was Soviet expansion, and the way to counter it was to secure nations and bases to project US deterrent military power.  This assumption proved to be very profitable for the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex—and very good for Japan-- but caused immense suffering and destruction in Asia during the Cold War.

Todat, 70 years after George Kennan’s report, Japan remains at the heart of the American security structure in Asia. 

Here's an extract from Kennan's report

The Russians were Orientals under the skin [according to MacArthur]. That was our great mistake in dealing with them; that we had not realized this and tried to treat them as Occidentals. Nevertheless, they could not pass as Orientals among the other Oriental peoples, and therefore could not exercise great influence in the Far East.

For these reasons, he attached great importance to Okinawa, and felt it absolutely necessary that we retain unilateral and complete control of the Ryukyu chain south of Latitude 29.

He regretted that we had not adopted a firm and permanent policy of base development at Okinawa. This had reflected unfavorably on the morale and efficiency of the forces stationed there. He pointed out that we had complete unilateral control of the Ryukyus at this time. They were not under SCAP authority but were under the authority of the Far East Command. They were therefore today entirely in our power and under our flag and no one could force us to release them without our consent.

As for the Japanese islands, he did not believe that it would be feasible for us to retain bases anywhere in Japan after the conclusion of a treaty of peace. For us to do so would be to admit the equally legitimate claim of others to do likewise.

If Russia still presents the same sort of threat to world security that she presents today, then I see only two alternatives: either we must not have the treaty at all and retain allied troops in Japan or we must permit Japan to re-arm to the extent that it would no longer constitute an open invitation to military aggression.


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