By Marshall Garvey
During the United States’ pacific campaign in World War II, some of the most intense fighting occurred on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The area, which also included the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands, became known as “The Keystone of the Pacific” due to its strategic location. After the war’s end in 1945, the U.S. not only maintained a substantial military presence on the island, but also control over it and the nearby Ryukyu islands
In the years following the Japanese surrender and the alliance forged by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and Japanese Emperor Hirohito, relations between the two countries were stable and beneficial, especially for Japan. Open trade markets and the robust strength of the American dollar contributed to Japan’s spectacular economic growth, and in turn became a reliable ally, as Asia’s biggest country, China, turned to communism.
While President Nixon was skilled at building strong alliances, he was also wise enough to recognize when they needed to be lessened. By the time he assumed office, Japan was seeking to grow its influence in both Asia and on the world’s stage, and felt restrained by the presence of the U.S. military.
Despite a generally strong economy in his first two years in office, President Nixon began to face a stagnating economy in 1971. Aside from the U.S. dollar’s declining strength in tandem with the gold standard, the country also faced ballooning trade deficits, necessitating a new approach to economically vital ties to other countries.
On June 17, 1971, President Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato agreed to sign the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, which was officially ratified in Japan on November 24. While the U.S. still maintained a small military presence on the islands from the 1952 peace treaty, they also agreed to keep their bases nuclear-free. While President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger were at first apprehensive about removing nuclear capabilities at a time when they were of strategic interest to the U.S. (chiefly due to the Vietnam War), they ultimately realized the political fallout from staying against the demands of the Japanese would be unwise and counterproductive.
In viewing President Nixon’s legacy on the world stage, his acceptance of the Okinawa Reversion Agreement not only reflects his common-sense approach to foreign relations, but also presents a fascinating contrast with his detente policy with Russia. In that case he chose to increase diplomacy and ties with the rival Soviet Union at the very height of the Cold War, he significantly relinquished longstanding economic and military ties to a stable ally with respect to Japan around the same time.
In both cases, however, President Nixon understood the importance of diplomacy and equal standing between nations as a key to America’s strength on the world stage. Ultimately, they proved to be to both countries’ benefit thanks to his stewardship and even-handed approach.