Eisenhower Weighed Asia Pullout in ‘50s, Files Show
Thirty-four years ago, an American soldier named William S. Girard, guarding a machine gun at a U.S. military firing range in central Japan, grew annoyed at impoverished Japanese “brass-pickers” who were scavenging nearby for empty shell casings that they might sell for scrap.
Girard tossed out a few empty shell cases to attract the brass-pickers, suddenly ordered them to disperse, then fired an empty shell case from his rifle-grenade launcher toward the fleeing Japanese. While he said he did not intend to hit anyone, his shot struck a woman named Naka Sakai and killed her.
Now, a batch of newly declassified U.S. government files shows that, spurred by this incident, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles seriously considered pulling all American forces out of Japan and the rest of East Asia.
“We have to look at the Asiatic countries and see if they (U.S. troops) should stay there. If they hate us, (we) can’t do it,” Eisenhower told his secretary of state in a phone call.
The President told congressional leaders that the incident “gave reason for pressing review of the desirability of maintaining U.S. forces in the Far East.” And Dulles called for a State Department review of the U.S. policy of stationing troops abroad, “particularly in Oriental countries.”
A description of this incident is contained in hundreds of pages of newly released documents about American relations with Japan in the 1950s, from the State and Defense departments, the CIA and the White House.
The files, declassified and published by U.S. government historians, provide a new and revealing glimpse at the often-ironic changes in American relations with Japan over the last four decades and at how Japan often outmaneuvered the United States, particularly on economic issues.
During the 1950s, American policy-makers envisioned a Japan that would be economically weak and dependent on the United States but would be militarily strengthened to the point where it could take over much of the U.S. defense burden in Asia.
Instead, the United States got the reverse--a Japan that is a strong economic competitor but has remained dependent on American security protection.
Why? The new files demonstrate that as Japan began its remarkable recovery from the devastation of World War II, America’s top policy-makers and intelligence specialists had no idea at all of that country’s potential for economic growth or of its capacity to compete with or replace American industries.
A national intelligence estimate prepared by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies in 1955 and designed to forecast developments in Japan over the following decade portrayed Japan as an economic pygmy.
“The Japanese must expand their economy considerably to sustain a large and growing population at tolerable levels of consumption and employment,” it said. " . . . Japan will need U.S. assistance for at least the next few years.”
Indeed, in 1955, Dulles haughtily told Japanese Foreign Minister Memoru Shigemitsu that what was then Japan’s trade deficit with the United States would be a permanent fact of life in relations between the two countries.
“There will always be an imbalance in Japan’s trade with the United States,” he said on Aug. 31, 1955.
Japan began running a trade surplus with the United States just 10 years later, a surplus that last year amounted to $41 billion.
Chalmers Johnson, a Japan specialist at the University of California in San Diego, says “these archives sound like those of Roman proconsuls off in the boondocks.”
“By 1957, 1958, Japan’s economy was starting to take off,” Johnson says. " . . . Their patronizing old view that Japan will always be a ward of America helps explain the fix we’re in today. We are, today, a sort of raggedy superpower that’s got to get the Japanese and the Germans to pay for our policies.”
The new files also show that top Japanese officials repeatedly asked their American counterparts for special favors that would help the Japanese economy and Japanese industries.
At one point, Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi even asked the American ambassador in Tokyo, Douglas MacArthur II, whether Japanese businesses could fix their prices in the United States. Kishi said he realized this price-fixing might be a violation of U.S. antitrust laws, but he wondered aloud whether the Eisenhower Administration could quietly waive enforcement of the laws in a way that would “allow Japanese businessmen to stabilize . . . their exports to the United States.”
There is no evidence that the United States agreed to that idea. But American policy-makers embraced many other suggestions from Tokyo aimed at helping Japan’s economy and foreign trade. The United States agreed in an official National Security Council policy statement to buy Japanese goods for U.S. aid programs and to provide financing and technical help for Japanese exports to Southeast Asia. The U.S. Export-Import Bank extended loans for Japan to develop its airlines and its steel and electrical industries.
The Eisenhower Administration also repeatedly gave its approval for Japan’s crackdown on organized labor during the 1950s. Dulles told the Japanese foreign minister and his aides during a 1957 session in Washington that he was “very happy that the Japanese government intended to deal vigorously with the labor problem in Japan.”
Meanwhile, Japan managed to deflect American complaints about Japanese exports and about its legal and administrative restrictions on foreign investment by promising to change in the future.
“They are being pretty good in taking steps not to flood the American market with Japanese goods,” Dulles assured Sen. Walter F. George (D-Ga.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 36 years ago.
Most of all, the declassified files demonstrate that top American officials such as Eisenhower and Dulles didn’t pay nearly as much attention to economic issues as the Japanese did. The overriding preoccupation was to make sure that Japan stayed allied with the United States in the Cold War against the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China.
Their dream, only a decade after the end of World War II, was that Japan would emerge once again as a Great Power in international diplomacy and power politics.
Visiting Tokyo in 1956, Dulles told Japanese officials that “Japan had been a great nation, which had played a great role in this part of the world. In the past, Japan had demonstrated her superiority over the Russians and over China when that country acted alone. It was time for Japan to think again of being and acting like a Great Power. . . .”
Today, the Bush Administration regularly argues publicly that the United States plays the crucial role in stabilizing Asia by preserving the balance of power there. But in the 1950s, the United States was saying exactly the reverse.
“The United States does not desire to act as a sort of balance of power in Asia,” Dulles and his aides told the Japanese foreign minister. “Japan should do this, and the United States would be happier in this event.”
U.S. officials told their Japanese counterparts that the United States did not consider itself an Asian country and had no intention of becoming one. The American officials said they hoped for a relationship in which the United States would stand behind Japan’s leadership in Asia and the Pacific, rather than one in which Japan lined up behind the United States.
Yet, the files show that American leaders were bitterly disappointed by Japan’s lack of interest in becoming a world power. Dulles grumbled to one National Security Council meeting that “we had done everything that we could think of to stir up in Japan a desire to assume a position of international influence once again, and the results had been markedly unsuccessful. Indeed, the Japanese were utterly lethargic and lacking in any perceptible ambition to recover their prewar prestige,” he wrote. “Even under proddings which approached the brutal, they remained inert.”
The talk of withdrawing all American forces from Asia started after Girard’s shooting of the Japanese woman. U.S. military officials agreed to turn Girard over to Japanese authorities for trial, under a secret deal with Japanese authorities that he would not be prosecuted for murder but for a lesser charge of wounding resulting in death.
The Army’s decision touched off a furor in the United States. The American Legion and a number of leading Congress members argued that American troops should never be turned over to a foreign government for trial.
Caught between congressional pressures and the desire to maintain good relations with Japan, Eisenhower agonized that “there is no answer unless you get out (of Japan),” according to notes of one phone conversation. “He knows the American Army, and they won’t let their people be tried by anyone else.”
In the end, the United States handed Girard over to Japanese authorities. He was tried, convicted and given a three-year suspended sentence.
But Eisenhower’s consideration of a troop pullout was not just idle talk. Within a year, the United States had announced it was pulling all ground forces out of Japan and began a cutback of roughly 50% in the 100,000 U.S. service personnel stationed in the country.
The evidence that Eisenhower had been considering pulling out of Asia is a revelation to historians. “I frankly did not know he (Eisenhower) had been proposing to get out of Asia altogether,” says Stephen E. Ambrose, a leading historian of Eisenhower’s presidency. “That’s completely new.”
The documents also demonstrate how American policy-makers in the 1950s dismissed Japan’s concerns about nuclear weapons and atmospheric nuclear tests. During a meeting with a Japanese foreign minister in Washington, in 1957, Dulles belittled the Japanese reaction to the devastation caused by the atomic bomb attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We realize that the Japanese government has a special problem (about nuclear weapons) that is more emotional than reasonable,” Dulles told the Japanese, according to notes taken at the meeting. “The American people perhaps reason about this, while the Japanese view the problem emotionally.”