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A Cold War that Unleashed a Rising Sun
Review by John E. Van Sant

America and the Japanese Miracle: The Cold War Context of Japan's Postwar Economic Revival, 1950-1960America and the Japanese Miracle: The Cold War Context of Japan’s Postwar Economic Revival, 1950-1960. By Aaron Forsberg. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xvii, 332. $45 cloth.)

Forsberg’s examination of U.S.-Japanese relations during the early Cold War reveals the roots of future trade friction between security-minded Washington and increasingly rich Tokyo.

While several works have examined, at least in part, U. S.-Japanese economic relations during the Occupation years (1945-1952), Aaron Forsberg painstakingly examines the subsequent pivotal era when Japan began to establish its postwar economic foundations in international trade. The author, who has taught for several years in Tokyo at the University of Maryland’s Asian Division and Meiji Gakuin University, has produced an exhaustively researched study that scholars of Japan’s postwar economic foundations would do well to consult.

The fundamental thesis of Forsberg’s study is that “U. S. national security policies and the escalating Cold War played a larger role in promoting Japanese economic welfare and in forging the pattern of postwar economic integration and conflict between Japan and the United States than has previously been recognized.” Three themes are incorporated within this thesis: First, Japan’s economic recovery was an important objective of U. S. national security policy. Second, U. S. policies and other variables–such as the Korean War–often worked to Japan’s advantage. And third, Japan’s economic recovery and U. S. policies eventually created an “undercurrent of friction” between the two countries. Generally, the thesis and themes of this study are not exactly news to scholars of postwar Japan and U. S.-Japanese relations. Forsberg makes an especially strong case, however, by utilizing a prodigious amount of archival, documentary, and secondary source material. Most of these sources are from the American perspective, but important Japanese government sources have also been effectively used to sustain the thesis and themes of this book.

The author demonstrates how the U. S. government–especially Secretary of State John Foster Dulles–used the Korean War and the emergence of the Communist People’s Republic of China to exert pressure on Japan’s leaders, particularly on Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, to maintain a defensive alliance with Washington and not be swayed by domestic arguments in Japan to adopt a neutral posture in the expanding Cold War world. In addition, Forsberg discusses in detail the meetings and political negotiations resulting in the important treaties that helped “keep Japan on our side,” especially the San Francisco Treaty of 1952; the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation of 1953; and Japan’s admission to GATT in 1955. Indeed, this reader considers the details rather excessive and difficult to follow, especially when it came to specific trade items. Thankfully, Forsberg includes good introductions and summaries in each of the book’s eight chapters to orient and re-orient the reader’s attention to the book’s primary arguments.

Clearly, Forsberg’s volume was written to challenge the view among “revisionist” scholars that U. S. officials opened the trade floodgates and allowed limitless foreign manufactures into the United States during the 1950s, while permitting severe restrictions on American exports abroad for the sake of national security; and because the Truman and Eisenhower administrations worshipped at the neoclassical altar of free trade. In other words, Tokyo got a free ride. Specifically, Forsberg’s book is meant to rebut Alfred E. Eckes’ Opening America’s Markets, and to partially counter Chalmers Johnson’s MITI and the Japanese Miracle and Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power. It would be difficult to claim that Forsberg completely succeeded in his challenge. He clearly demonstrates the fluid complexity of the international context of the emerging Cold War and how this affected U. S.-Japanese economic relations. He does this consistently–even though he barely examines the domestic social and political conditions in Japan or in the United States, which would add even more complexity to the bilateral relationship. Yet, when he argues that “there was no simple trade-off between American national security and commercial interest,” he also writes (in the preceding sentence) that without the Cold War, “it is unimaginable that the United States would have worked as actively to provide economic assistance, sponsor Japan’s accession to GATT, open its domestic market to Japanese goods, or tolerate Japan’s many restrictions on trade and investment.” Much of Forsberg’s evidence, and even his own words, can be read as supporting the “free ride” theme of Japan’s economic reemergence in the postwar era.

An issue Forsberg neglects to treat is the recognition that Japan had built a modern, industrialized economy decades before the Pacific War. Thus, while Japan’s re-emergence as a major economic force and international competitor in the postwar era was achieved in a relatively short period of time, it was hardly miraculous. To Forsberg’s credit, he rarely uses the term “miracle” in describing Japan’s postwar economic revival. (Perhaps this word’s appearance in the title of the book was the publisher’s idea.) Readers should be aware, however, that unlike nearly all de-colonized countries of the postwar era, Japan already had the institutional and intellectual foundations to rebuild its economy, with or without American assistance in gaining liberal international trade treaties. U. S. officials of the 1950s deserve credit (or blame, depending on one’s point of view) for facilitating Japan’s economic re-emergence; but it would have eventually happened anyway.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Forsberg’s book is a solid, well-researched work that should be studied by anyone seriously interested in the postwar relationship between Japan and the United States.


John E. Van Sant is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where he teaches Japanese history and Japan-US history. He is the author of Pacific Pioneers: Japanese Journeys to America and Hawaii, 1850-1880 (2000).


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