Review by Andrew J. Bacevich
Keystone: American Occupation of Okinawa and U.S.-Japanese Relations. By Nicholas Evan Sarantakes (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M Press, 2000. Pp. xxiii, 264. $34.95 cloth.)
In this solid and eminently useful contribution to U. S. diplomatic history, Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University – Commerce, chronicles the saga of how the United States conquered, occupied, and stayed on to rule Okinawa, a strategically vital outpost of its postwar imperium.
The story that Sarantakes tells—at turns colorful, disheartening, and revealing—spans nearly three decades. It begins with a concise account of the bloody battle for Okinawa in 1945 and concludes with the return of the Ryukyu lslands to Japanese control and the departure of the last U. S. high commissioner in May l972. But the author devotes most of the book’s ten chapters to examining the occupation itself—evaluating the American military’s approach to administering Okinawa and describing how Washington policy makers responded to the ways in which the protracted American presence complicated U. S- Japanese relations.
It is a story told largely from an American perspective. In preparing his book, the author tapped the resources of a host of presidential libraries, archives, and other depositories across the country and also made extensive use of oral histories prepared by senior U. S. military and civilian officials.
Apart from 1898 and its immediate aftermath, the architects of the American imperium have tended to prefer informal to formal empire. Sarantakes shows that the occupation of the Ryukyu Islands constituted something of an exception to this rule. He argues convincingly that Okinawa from the late 1940s through the 1960s was an American colony in all but name. Furthermore, he depicts the American approach to governing its colony, implemented largely under the aegis of senior U. S. military officers, as anything but enlightened, especially in the years immediately following the end of the Pacific War. Only as it became evident that arrogance and heavy-handedness were fueling popular discontent with the American presence did the U. S. military begin to encourage local economic development and display a modicum of sensitivity to local concerns. In short, the account that Sarantakes offers flies in the face of the well-entrenched myth that U. S. forces arrived in defeated Japan inspired by the prospect of spreading the blessings of liberal democracy.
Not political ideology, but concrete strategic interests convinced the United States to retain its hold on Okinawa and to garrison a large military force there. Okinawa offered a useful springboard from which to project U. S military power in the western Pacific. In that sense control of the island formed an essential component of the larger strategy of containing the Soviet Union. But as Sarantakes makes clear, stationing U. S. forces in Okinawa also offered a hedge against the possible revival of Japanese militarism—a prospect that continued to worry the Pentagon well into the 1960s. When “reversion” did occur (over the sustained objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), it emerged out of growing recognition in Washington that insistence on the status quo in Okinawa risked jeopardizing the relationship between the two countries. Relinquishing nominal control of the Ryukyus—while retaining a complex of U. S. bases and a large U. S. troop contingent—had become a precondition for preserving the U. S.-Japanese alliance that had long since become the cornerstone of Washington’s strategy in the Far East.
Keystone opens up a new window through we can glimpse yet another aspect of U. S. grand strategy in the postwar era. It is an excellent and informative book.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University. His most recent book, edited with Eliot A. Cohen, is War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age.