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The U.S. Returns Okinawa to Japan, 1971

In 1945, towards the end of World War II, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps invaded Okinawa with 185,000 troops; a third of the civilian population was killed. After the war, Okinawa became a de facto trustee of the U.S. government, which established several military bases there and on other Ryukyu islands. In addition, the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands altered the currency and culture of the region, causing tensions between native Ryukyuans and U.S. officials.

In 1960 the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed, which stipulated that the U.S. would come to Japan’s aid should it be attacked. In turn, the Japanese allowed more access to base and ports for the U.S., provided that the U.S. government confer with the Japanese regarding any significant military action. The treaty was up for renewal in 1970. However, in the years preceding renewal, Japanese officials began to pressure the United States to return the Ryukyu Islands to Japan. The possibility that the Japanese might not renew the Security Treaty if the reversion was not addressed gave Tokyo additional leverage and made the Ryukyu Islands a pressing issue for Washington.

Negotiating the return was a sensitive issue for those who did not believe the U.S. should give up rights to such valuable territory, which had proven to be crucial to U.S military and diplomatic efforts in the East China Sea. Several different agencies were involved as there was a considerable amount of U.S. property and materiel on the Ryukyus.

Another complicating factor was the issue of nuclear weapons. While the U.S. policy is to neither confirm nor deny their presence on ships or at a base, the Japanese insisted that they not be allowed on Japanese soil. For these reasons, many in Congress and the Department of Defense (DoD) voiced strong opposition. Despite this, the Okinawa Reversion Treaty was finally hammered out and signed simultaneously in Washington, D.C and Tokyo on June 17, 1971, It solidified U.S. relations with Japan and proved to be a key diplomatic accomplishment.

Marshall Green, who served as Assistant Secretary from 1963-73, recalls the military importance of the Ryukyus. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning December 1988. Paul K. Stahnke was on the Japan Desk in the Department of State from 1965-68 and was interviewed by Thomas J. Dunnigan beginning June 1994.

Holsey G. Handyside, then Deputy Office Director of Political-Military Affairs, discusses the problem with the nuclear issue and the opposition in Congress, as well as Alexander Haigs.forceful handling of the Defense Department. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart beginning April 1993. Charles A. Schmitz, who served in Embassy Tokyo from 1969-74, speaks of the intricacies and problems that arose for the reversion treaty talks. He was interviewed by Samuel F. Hart beginning in July 1993.

For a comparison, see how the UK returned Hong Kong to China and other Moments on negotiations.


“If the reversion negotiations fell through, the Security Treaty with Japan might not be renewed by the Japanese

Paul K. Stahnke, East Asian Affairs Bureau (EA), Japanese Affairs Base Negotiations, 1965-1968

STAHNKE: In the latter years on the desk, I became heavily involved on the complex negotiations — both within the U.S. government and with the Japanese — on the return of the Ryukyus to Japan. It was an extraordinarily complex matter, more complex than any of us thought at the time.

We had to work out a basic agreement. We also had a very complex series of finance transactions because we had a good deal of property that we were occupying there and we were turning back to the Japanese some of it and retaining some of it. These matters heavily involved both the Treasury and Defense Departments as well as State.

The issue was politically very sensitive, more so in Japan than in the United States. We did have some problems in the States with those, within and without government, who felt that, since we had won the war, we had every right to keep the islands and its important military bases.

Marshal Green, Deputy Assistant Secretary 1963–1965; Assistant Secretary, 1969-1973

GREEN: The Department of Defense was a bit “sticky” on this issue — more than it was on the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty of 1960. Incidentally, the Security Treaty of 1960 [which stated that any attack against Japan or the U.S. in the Japanese territorial administration region requires both countries to address the common threat and supported a continuous U.S. military presence within Japan] came up for renewal in 1970.

So the questions that came up in 1969 regarding the reversion of the Ryukyus also had to take into consideration the fact that, if the reversion negotiations fell through, the Security Treaty with Japan might not be renewed by the Japanese. Meanwhile, there was a great deal of Japanese pressure on us to “do something” about the Ryukyus.

Now the issue of the reversion of the Ryukyus was very complex. First of all, their strategic importance has to be underlined strongly. These are a chain of islands, Okinawa being the most important one. It is located off the East China Sea, right in the middle of this whole series of islands looping down from southern Japan. It couldn’t be more critically located.

More than that, Okinawa is a large island, large enough to accommodate Japanese farmers and city residents, as well as a lot of American installations. We had a problem with the administration there. It wasn’t just like a big U.S. military base. There was a large Okinawan population to deal with. Increasingly, there was a great deal of sentiment, mostly among the Okinawans, regarding their future reversion status.

Going back to the Peace Treaty with Japan of 1951, the Ryukyus had been placed temporarily under American administration. However, their ultimate sovereignty was vested in Japan. So it was simply a question of when the Ryukyus were going to revert to Japanese control.

In the State Department we thought — and certainly the Embassy in Tokyo did too — that it was critically important to move rapidly on the Ryukyus. Things were beginning to go sour in both the Ryukyus and Japan. We needed to move in a timely fashion, bearing in mind that we had a deadline of 1970 [for the renewal of the Security Treaty of 1960]. So we entered into talks about the reversion of the Ryukyus with the Japanese in Tokyo and Washington.

“The key negotiations were intra-US government”

Charles A Schmitz, Embassy Tokyo, 1969-1974

SCHMITZ:  As these discussions proceeded, the issues changed from ones of large policy to ones of technical implementation. How would we square the resulting U.S. presence on Okinawa with their existing treaties in Japan, particularly the Status of Forces Treaty.

In the middle of that continuum, between those two extremes, there were policy questions which could take legal form having to do with issues such as:  How do we take care of the dollars which were being used as legal currency in Okinawa that would be picked up by the Japanese when reversion occurred in such a way that they would not become additional claims on the balance of payments problems of the United States. This was a matter of great concern at the time to the Nixon Administration.

The principal issue was whether or not we could get the support of the American people to do it at all. We, who were concerned with it, were absolutely certain that it was the best thing to do. I and my colleagues had seemingly endless debates with Americans who thought that giving back Okinawa was a terrible mistake. We had, after all, fought and bleed and even died for it. It was important to national security and we couldn’t trust the Japanese. In fact, we shouldn’t give the Japanese a thing and we ought to just hang on to it and provide for ourselves.

There were some subsidiary issues in the Okinawa exercise having to do with what do we do with nuclear weapons, what about the American businessmen who were already on the island. What about American activities which were nonconforming under the Japanese Status of Forces such as our VOA [Voice of America] station, Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, some of the special military operations we were running out of there, religious language broadcasting, etc. I think probably there were about a thousand issues that had to be resolved government to government in that negotiation.

STAHNKE:  The [Defense Department] was quite reasonable about it at the higher levels. Some of the lower ranks had to be pulled in kicking and screaming but we, and key elements in Defense, got them to come around….The key negotiations were intra-U.S. government — State…, DOD and Treasury. After a fitful start, we developed a smooth, cooperative environment.

After the completion of each phase, we would consult with the Japanese to make sure they were on board. When they were not, we had to back to the interagency drawing board. The Japanese, of course, wanted to be as cooperative as they could because return of the islands was of great political importance to them.

Our most important weapon in encouraging their agreement was our position that the visit to the U.S. much desired by then Prime Minister Sato could not be accommodated until agreement of the transfer was reached.

 “The United States felt that we were giving up an awful lot of property”

GREEN:  There were a lot of bitter feelings in the Ryukyus about the Japanese at that time — bitter feelings that Japan has subsequently been at pains to allay.

The people of the Ryukyus felt like “second class citizens” and all of that. So that was another issue which had to be straightened out. In other words, there had to be assurances by the Japanese that they were going to treat the Ryukyus “the right way.” Of course, the Japanese had a reason for giving such assurances, because the international spotlight was right on them. I never had any doubt that the Japanese would treat the Ryukyus properly.

We had to have extended talks and discussions in Tokyo and Washington over the actual reversion of the Ryukyus. The financial arrangements were sticky, because the United States felt that we were giving up an awful lot of property and we already had constructed many buildings, roads, utilities, etc.

The Japanese finally did come through fairly handsomely on payments to the United States for materiel, buildings, and so forth which we had left to the people of the Ryukyus. It was a complex negotiation, involving just about every department of our government. I was the chairman of the task force in our government, dealing with all of these financial and other issues.

We had various problems with our bases in Japan and the Ryukyus — and we of course had to distinguish between the two, because the Ryukyus didn’t revert to Japan until 1972. At this point we are talking about 1960. The bases in Japan and especially the Ryukyus were also very important to carry out our treaty commitments in other parts of East Asia. To some extent it might appear to our other allies in East Asia that the Japanese had some kind of controlling hand over the use of our facilities in support of missions for the defense of those other countries.

That could wreak havoc with the fabric of our relationships with those countries. The skill was how to come up with a treaty which, on the one hand, comported with Japan’s feelings that it did not want to become a lightning rod and that it did want to be able to control all that went on in their country.

At the same time there were the views of the countries which were protected by our bases. I think that diplomacy really triumphed in this situation. The negotiations were handled with great skill by the powers that be. I take no credit for this. They were handled by our ambassador, CINCPAC [Commander in Chief, Pacific fleet of United States Pacific Command], the Secretary of State, as well as by Japanese Prime Minister Kishi and his officials.

“Under no circumstances would the Japanese agree to our having any kind of nuclear equipment

Holsey G Handyside, Political-Military Affairs (PM Bureau), Deputy Office Director, 1970-1974

HANDYSIDE: The rationale for State Department involvement was really demonstrated and validated … in the context of the Okinawa Reversion Treaty.

Prior to the negotiations with the Japanese on Okinawa, the United States never admitted to the Japanese government in a formal way that we had nuclear weapons in Japan or that U.S. Naval ships visiting Japan had nuclear weapons on board.

We always took the stance, “Neither confirm nor deny”. We simply refused to talk about it, especially in terms of a specific U.S. Navy ship. Nor did we publicly admit that various of the units, both ground forces and naval forces that were based on Okinawa had had their ration of nuclear weapons and that these weapons were stored in special ammunition storage sites on the island.

But quite clearly when we started to negotiate with the Japanese government on the return of the island to Japan years after the end of the Second World War, one of the things that was never said publicly or even formally in the negotiations, but which was communicated loud and clear, was that while the Japanese were going to be prepared to allow Americans to continue to base military forces on Okinawa, under no circumstances would the Japanese government agree to our having any kind of nuclear equipment on Okinawa.

Moreover, we were prepared to do that. Mr. Nixon and his foreign policy and national security advisors had decided that this was no longer a requirement, that there were other ways that we could solve the problem in the Western Pacific. Therefore, we were prepared to go along with this. The Defense Department was dragged along kicking and screaming into this position, but they finally in their proper bureaucratic way had decided that they had to acquiesce to the President’s analysis.

GREEN:  The big question was this. We had major bases in the Ryukyus that were of critical importance in the support of any operation that we might have to conduct in Southeast Asia — or China or Korea, for that matter in support of our commitment.

If the Ryukyus reverted to Japan, we would have to have bases in the Ryukyus on a continuing basis. We would also have to have ready access to those bases and the ability to use them when critically necessary. Our allies and friends in embattled Southeast Asia, Korea and Taiwan, were concerned over their dependence on our basis in Japan, for Japan always had a tendency of being rather pacifistic, and might deny us the use of those bases at a critical moment. So we had to meet that concern in any communiqué with Japan on reversion.

We finally got Japan to agree on language in the Joint Communiqué, which stated that Korea was vital to the security of Japan and the United States and that the security of Taiwan was more important. Once we got agreement on that language, then things began to fall pretty much into place. So we and the Japanese were able to declare in November [1969], that the Ryukyus would revert to Japan in 1972. We needed the time between 1969 and 1972 to complete an enormous amount of housekeeping and bookkeeping duties so as to turn the administration over to Japan.….

As you know, the drafting of most communiqués always precedes agreements and visits. They are not done afterwards. The communiqué had been agreed to long before Prime Minister [Eisaku] Sato came to Washington.

When Sato come to Washington, there was a press conference, at which he made a statement which, in essence, said that Japan recognized the critical importance of the Ryukyus to the United States in discharging its security missions.

Of course, it is a basic principle of our Navy and of our military never to confirm or deny the presence of any particular weapons systems such as nuclear. So we couldn’t confirm or deny this. Instead, there was an acceptable Japanese-U.S. “understanding” that the issue had been worked out in satisfactory fashion for the Japanese….

We came up with a formula under which the treaty left it unclear as to the precise extent to which we would be responsive to Japanese requests not to use our bases for particular missions. In essence the formula involved an exchange of letters in Washington at the end of 1960 which stated that in carrying out our missions each of the parties would take into account the concerns of the other party.

Whatever we did would comport with Japanese concerns about not having any nuclear weapons in Japan, not drawing Japan into a position of being a lightning rod, and so forth.

That was a very sensitive and difficult maneuver and an example of diplomacy at its very best, involving some very good men at the helm in the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. We had, too, especially Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson, a superb diplomat.

At the time of the agreement with Japan on the reversion of the Ryukyu Islands in November, 1969, there was an understanding that one of the things that Japan would do, in response to our rather generous offer on the return of the Ryukyus, was that they would respect certain “restraints” on textile [exports to the United States]. President Nixon was under very heavy pressure from a number of members of Congress from the South, where our textile industry had moved, to deliver on these restraints, so that the Japanese would not export such large quantities of textiles.

STAHNKE:  This was an interesting process; one that was new to me. In the course of the year or so of intense negotiations, we (together with the Japanese) drafted the communiqué [an official press release], which was to follow Sato’s visit to President Johnson. Only when all but the final “i” was dotted did we extend the formal invitation for the visit. We left it to the two heads of government to dot the final “i” which was, as I recall, a minor point of procedure.

The visit, which included agreement on return of the Ryukyus, was a huge political success for Sato who, presumably in gratitude, gave me and several others, a set of pearl cufflinks which I still use. The communiqué-drafting procedure we adopted proved to be an extraordinarily effective lever with the Japanese bureaucracy in order to get them, who moved ponderously at best, to move with relative rapidity to help us resolve the Ryukyu problem, several trade issues and a few minor ones. We found that a most effective way to develop a prime ministerial visit. One that was relatively foolproof. In other words, pre-scenarioed.

There was considerable interest from Congress. We had an almost constant interaction with the Congress. [We] kept in close touch with elements of Congress, the Armed Forces Committee, Foreign Affairs Committees, etc., who were obviously interested in this and had their own inputs which we always took seriously.

Most felt that the time was right to close out that period in our history. The Ryukyu issue had been a constant sore point between us and the Japanese which we had to be eliminated. A key element of the agreement was the maintenance of U.S. military bases in the Ryukyus; without that we would never have gotten Congressional or DOD agreement.

The final agreement gave the military and Congress all they desired and proved satisfactory to the Japanese as well. The Japanese fully understood that it was in their fundamental interest to maintain a strong U.S. military shield as protection against outside forces such as the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China.

We [got] what we wanted in the way of bases and the general authority to run them. This was the most important part of the agreement.

Getting the Senate Onboard

HANDYSIDE:  The sirens really started to blow when Senator [Stuart, pictured] Symington, the senior Senator from Missouri (who was a member of three key committees:  the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Senate Armed Services Committee), addressed the Okinawa weapons problem on the floor of the Senate.

Earlier in classified consultations with the Senate involving Senator Fulbright, Senator Symington and others, Executive Branch representatives had made it clear that if we were going to remove our weapons stockpile from Okinawa, while there would undoubtedly be a certain amount of reduction, that we were going to have to find other places throughout the Western Pacific for the storage of this equipment.

Senator Symington one afternoon got up on the floor of the Senate and made a brief speech in which he said something to the effect that it was inconceivable that the United States Senate would advise and consent to the ratification of the Okinawa Reversion Treaty until it had been briefed in detail and with full and complete information on the projected nuclear basing posture for the Western Pacific that was to take the place of the weapons stockpiles on Okinawa.

Symington had very publicly thrown down the gauntlet in front of the Executive Branch. Senator Fulbright had been telling Secretary [of State William] Rogers quietly for months that the Senate was going to take this position. Rogers and the rest of us had tried to push the National Security Council staff and the Defense Department staff along to the point where they would recognize Senate realities and begin to operate realistically and pragmatically within the confines of these political parameters.

But we hadn’t been able to budge the problem. Obviously Senator Symington knew that and in his own inimitable fashion as a former Secretary of the Air Force and the incumbent of other responsible positions within the Department of Defense recognized that the only way the Senate was going to be able to impose its will in this matter was to make it a public issue. He very carefully did it in a way that he didn’t give any secrets away, although certainly the nervous Nellies around Washington thought that he had.

Four days before the Secretary was to appear before the Senate, we still had no decision. There was still a standoff between the State Department and the Defense Department. So General Al Haig, who was the Deputy National Security Advisor under Kissinger, called a meeting of the State Department, Defense Department, and White House staff to address this problem.

In the meantime, because we were really getting down to the deadline, I had written the transmittal letter we were going to have Secretary Rogers send my paper up to the Hill with. So it was all set to go. All we had to do was send it to S/S [Secretary’s staff]and get them to send it into the Secretary for his signature.

“’We are not assembled here today to argue whether the President has made a wise and useful decision. We are assembled here today to determine how to get the President’s treaty for him.’”

On Monday morning, around 9:30…the Secretary was to appear before the Committee at 10:00 Wednesday morning…we all assembled in the Situation Room in the White House. The State Department delegation consisted of Alex Johnson, as the chief, Harry Symmes, who at that point was principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in Congressional Relations, and me.

We walked into the room and discovered the whole other side of the table was filled with the Defense Department. All the guys in uniform had lots of brass on their shoulders and fruit salad [display of medals and ribbons on a dress uniform].that went from shoulder to waist. The fellows from the Office of the Secretary of Defense were there with their best lawyerly manners and their legal briefcases, etc. There was a handful of people from the White House, most of whom I did not recognize. And Al Haig was at the end of the table.

At the appointed hour General Haig opened the meeting with a very quiet but very firm statement. He said, “Before we begin our deliberations today, I think it would be useful for me to remind all of us why we are here.

“The President of the United States has decided in the fullness of his wisdom that the time has come to return the island of Okinawa to the Japanese government, and he put in train a series of actions that have now produced a negotiated treaty that has been signed by both governments and which is about to be sent up to the Senate for its Constitutional advice and consent.

“We are not assembled here today to argue whether the President has made a wise and useful decision. We are assembled here today to determine how to get the President’s treaty for him. He has publicly put his position and his name and his reputation on the line. It is the responsibility of his staff to pull this chestnut out of the fire for the President.”

And with that he said, “Now it is my understanding that the State Department has now come to us and says that as a result of consultations with the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as the result of some floor speeches that have been made by Senator Symington and others, that there is no way that the Senate of the United States is going to provide its advice and give its consent to the Okinawa Reversion Treaty unless and until we inform the United States Senate about the weapons deployments we are planning to establish in the Western Pacific to replace the Okinawan stockpiles and to house the weapons we have been storing on the island.

“Further, the State Department has come to us with the considered judgment that the most prudent way to provide this information to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is in a highly classified, very restricted, formal document which would then be subjected to the kinds of security constraints and oversight that would be accorded appropriately to a Top Secret, Limited Distribution document, as opposed to giving to the members of the Senate Committee an oral briefing on this topic.

“The State Department says that if we provide the information in an informal briefing, we run the risk of having bits and pieces of highly restricted, Top Secret information scribbled down on the backs of envelopes and stuffed into Senatorial jacket pockets. It seems to me that in this instance the State Department is probably right. So now we get to the point where we have to decide whether or not we are in fact going to give the Senate a paper and if we decide that we are, what paper are we going to give the Senate.”

With this lead in, Al Haig had effectively chopped off the legs of all the members of this panoply of Defense Department officials….

The upshot of it was that after about a 45-minute meeting, we finally left with approval of the State/PM paper…. Later, during the opening testimony of Secretary Rogers, Senator Symington found a way to make some allusion to the fact that this State Department paper had in fact been delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and he, with a certain amount of effusiveness, expressed his appreciation and thanks to the Secretary of State for having responded so completely and fulsomely to the Senate’s requirement for information….

The final chapter of this sequence was when both committees recommended to the full Senate that it consent to the ratification of the Okinawa Reversion Treaty. In due time this is exactly what the United States Senate did.

Our continued government there made us look like imperialists” 

SCHMITZ:  It took us the better part of two years to negotiate the treaty and its related arrangements and to make sure it came into effect in good form. It was, for the United States, one of the best deals we had made since, I think, the Louisiana Purchase, because we wound up yielding practically nothing. We made some adjustments, but those adjustments did not make it more difficult or more expensive for us to carry out our functions.

We continue to this day to use Okinawa as a military staging base, something which in 1969 we weren’t sure would last for even five years after Okinawa was returned to Japan. From that standpoint, any usefulness now of Okinawa for us is a big plus.

But in addition to being able to use it for almost everything we wanted to, we were relieved of the burden, financial and other, of occupying and running the island, which most Americans didn’t realize was costing us millions and millions of dollars every year for doing something which we weren’t good at and didn’t need to do. Our continued government there made us look like imperialists, and that was causing us a lot of trouble throughout the rest of Asia.

What we did in the negotiations was sell the effort that we had already put in to running Okinawa… I argued that once we had committed ourselves to giving Okinawa to the Japanese, we would in effect, in legal terms, be yielding our “future interests” to the facilities which we had constructed there. We would then be criticized by the U.S. people or the Senate as it considered the treaty, for having disposed of American assets without making proper accounting of them.

I did a considerable amount of research on this and discovered that when NATO was thrown out of France there was a similar kind of negotiation when the French took over military facilities. The formula used then was to find the value of the facilities which the French accepted. And that value turned out to be something we came to call the “depreciated replacement value”. That is, what it would cost today to build that same facility with the same amount of years on it as it had had.

Obviously it is a purely mathematical construct, but it managed to take into account both the depreciation of the thing and the inflation, which had to be a major consideration. On that basis we calculated a value for these facilities and were able in various ways in the Okinawa Reversion Agreement to have that accounted for by the Japanese and paid back to the United States, not so much in cash, but in very usable forms.