Forty years ago, on 19 November 1969, RN welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato to the White House at the beginning of what would be a significant few days in the history of US-Japanese relations. Typically, the meeting was the result of long planning and negotiations; and, while there was room for spontaneity in the dealings between the two leaders and the two delegations, the general outline of the trip’s results were known before the Prime Minister’s limousine pulled up to the South Portico.
POTUS and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato review an honor guard during the arrival ceremony at the White House on 19 November 1969.
The twenty-seven year occupation of the island of Okinawa, and the presence of American nuclear weapons on it, had been an issue bedeviling relations between the two nations for some time. As the Japanese economy began to revive and flourish, the desire to shake off American what was increasingly seen as an American yoke became focused on the island. Such sentiment was easily provoked by left-wing parties and politicians, and Sato’s Liberal Democratic Party increasingly felt that its survival could depend on some kind of Okinawa settlement.
But the LBJ White House, State Department, and Defense Department, while turning over the Bonin Islands as a token of bona fides, were unable to do more than promise to study the reversion of the Ruyuku Islands of which Okinawa was a part.
“Moving from one’s position now is filled with difficulties”: A Christian Science Monitor cartoon depicted the US-Okinawa negotiations during the Johnson Administration.
In his seminal “Asia After Vietnam,” article in the Fall ’67 edition of Foreign Affairs, RN mentioned Okinawa as a problem that would have to be addressed. From his first days in the White House, in order to clear the diplomatic decks in order to prepare for an approach to China, he moved the resolution of the Okinawa issue to a front burner. By the end of April, he had decided that Okinawa would be returned if the Japanese government guaranteed approval for US forces to remain based there and would undertake to carry out regional defense.
19 November 1969: RN in the Oval Office with Prime Minister Sato. RN said that these three days of White House meetings “will probably be the most successful talks that have been held between our two governments.”
In one of the most egregious leaks of national security documents that plagued the administration’s first year, on 5 June, Hedrick Smith of The New York Times reported on a leaked Top Secret NSC document — NSDM-13: Policy Toward Japan — that gave away the ultimate US negotiating positions for the upcoming talks with Japan:
With respect to Okinawa, the President has directed that a strategy paper be prepared by the East Asia Interdepartmental Group under the supervision of the Under Secretaries Committee for negotiations with the Japanese Government over the next few months on the basis of the following elements:
1. Our willingness to agree to reversion in 1972 provided there is agreement in 1969 on essential elements governing U.S. military use and provided detailed negotiations are completed at that time.
2. Our desire for maximum free conventional use of the mlitary bases, particularly with respect to Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.
3. Our desire to retain nuclear weapons on Okinawa but indicating that the President is prepared to consider, at the final stages of negotiation, the withdrawal of the weapons while retaining emergency storage and transit rights, if other elements of the Okinawan agreement are satisfactory.
Two career diplomats —U. Alexis Johnson at the State Department and Ambassador Armin Meyer in Tokyo— played important parts in working out the details of the agreement that would be signed at the White House in November.
Foreign Minister Kiichi Aichi had sworn off smoking as long as Okinawa wasn’t under Japanese control. As Secretary of State Bill Rogers and Prime Minister Sato watched, RN gave the Foreign Minister a pack of Japanese cigarettes to celebrate the agreement.
A fifteen-point joint communique covering the matters of mutual interest discussed during Prime Minister Sato’s visit was issued on 21 November at the conclusion of the visit (Points 6-15 dealt with Okinawa).
In the Rose Garden: On Prime Minister Sato’s last day in Washington —21 November 1969— RN announced plans for the return of the Ryukyu Islands —including Okinawa— to Japan. The reversion took place on 15 May 1972.
In an extensive and fascinating 1996 oral history interview, US Ambassador to Japan Armin Meyer described a conversation with RN shortly after the above photo was taken:
While I’m thinking of it, one thing that always affected me, was on that very first November day, when we, when Nixon and Sato, concluded that treaty, that statement that was issued, communiqué, which we had spent three months drafting, because that was the heart of the whole Okinawa negotiations, Nixon and I walked Sato back to his car and on the way back Nixon told me… I mean he never saw ambassadors the way earlier presidents had, he just didn’t have time for them, but there was one brief period there when he and I were chatting and he said… “You know our job is to keep the LDP in power, that’s your job, to keep the LDP in power.” And that was really what was moving him on going ahead with Okinawa, on going ahead… because he realized that the election was coming up, that the treaty arrangement was up in another year, and so on. Well, as I mentioned, I went down to Okinawa three days after I presented my credentials, looked around, came back, and wrote a telegram that said, “as Okinawa goes, so goes Japan.” It was preaching to the converted, obviously, because Nixon was way ahead of me on it, but it helped a lot. In that connection, I might say, that among the non-converted, usually, were the military. One time when I came back, one early time, I remember Henry saying, “now Armin, don’t you dare talk to the military, they’re my people, I don’t want you talking to them.” Because he was keeping them in line on this whole Japan policy.
At the Rose Garden farewell ceremony on the last day of the Prime Minister’s visit —21 November— the President said:
There have been many meetings between the heads of government of Japan and the United States over the past 25 years. I am confident that history will record that this is the most significant meeting that has occurred since the end of World War II.
It is customary on such occasions to say that a new era begins in the relations between the two countries involved. I believe today, however, that there is no question that this is a statement of the fact that a new era begins between the United States and Japan, in our relations not only bilaterally in the Pacific but in the world.
As the joint communiquй which will be issued at 11:30 indicates, we have resolved the last major issue which came out of World War II, the Okinawa problem. And further, we have made significant progress in the resolution of other bilateral issues in the economic field, as well as in the field of investment and trade, not only between our two countries, but in the Asian area.