TOKYO—When German executives visit Tokyo, they are often treated to a session at Bernd’s Bar, a notably authentic German pub. A bit too authentic, perhaps, given its Axis-era accoutrements. The last time I was there, one of the walls still featured a huge photograph of Willy Messerschmitt in conversation with Charles Lindbergh. It had evidently been taken at a German aerodrome in the late 1930s and a couple of Messerschmitt’s eponymous fighter planes—the sort that a few years later were to cause such grief for the British—loomed in the background.
It is all a bit of a joke for the Japanese, who tend to be less embarrassed than their German counterparts about their shared military past. Indeed it is said that proceedings at Bernd’s sometimes get so raucous that it is not unknown for a Japanese host to dig a German guest in the ribs and stage-whisper, “Next time without the Italians!”
No doubt no one at Pearl Harbor need lose much sleep over this. But there is still a grain of truth in the joke—and not just because the Japanese and Germans fought better than the Italians in World War II. Whatever pieties may be recited in Washington about America’s need to provide—from now until kingdom-come apparently—a massive defense umbrella over an allegedly helpless Japan, the Japanese are more capable than most of coping with any national-security threat the future may hold. So too, for that matter, can the Germans.
Given that more than 20 years have elapsed since the Berlin Wall came down, American budget hawks are understandably wondering why Uncle Sam needs so many bases, not least in nations as rich and potentially militarily self-sufficient as Japan and Germany. The scale of America’s “forward deployments” is hard to exaggerate: as recorded in a recent book by the military scholar Andrew Bacevich, the U.S. continues to deploy fully 300,000 troops in more than 760 bases in 39 foreign countries, not to mention a further 90,000 sailors and marines at sea. More than 40,000 troops and support staff are stationed in Japan alone.
While Washington’s reasons for persisting with the Cold War status quo have come in for considerable scrutiny lately, less attention has been paid to why so-called host nations have been so apparently meek in tolerating what amount to occupation armies on their soil. It is a significant oversight, as many host nations harbor private agendas at odds with the American national interest.
I will focus here mainly on Japan. It happens to be the case I know best, and it is also the most relevant. As the late Chalmers Johnson pointed out, few nations seem less in need of U.S. protection than modern Japan. After all, its peace constitution notwithstanding, Japan has long boasted one of the world’s most sophisticated military establishments. (The peace constitution has, of course, been honored more in the breach than the observance since as far back as the early 1950s. Its only significance these days is as an excuse for staying out of harm’s way when America becomes embroiled in another war.)
Japan moreover is now in key ways more technologically advanced than the United States. As I have documented in several books and pace all talk of “two lost decades,” Japan has leapt far ahead of the United States in countless militarily crucial, if virtually invisible, manufacturing technologies. Examples range from advanced materials such as gallium arsenide and carbon fiber to vital production machines such as the so-called steppers used in the semiconductor industry and the hyper-accurate machine tools needed to make state-of-the-art aircraft. Even in nuclear technology, Japan is no slouch. It has been building its capabilities since as far back as the 1950s and, having bought what remained of the erstwhile world-beating Westinghouse nuclear division some years ago, now ranks as the world leader in nuclear power.
What makes Japan particularly relevant is its finesse in manipulating an often nervous and short-sighted Pentagon for purposes that, to put it politely, serve Japan’s interests better than America’s. To be sure, in former times even the most significant of host nations, not least Japan, genuinely valued U.S. protection, particularly in staring down Soviet expansionism. But that was a long time ago, and from the late 1950s on it has been apparent—to close observers at least—that a simple wish to bolster their defenses has not necessarily been the main reason, let alone the only one, why the more militarily capable host nations have played along with Washington’s imperial illusions.
In most cases there has been an unstated understanding about other matters, particularly economic ones. Indeed, in a phenomenon that has attracted far less attention than it deserves, many host nations have long viewed the Pentagon as a sort of geopolitical Santa Claus, ever willing to shower favorites with economic goodies.
As Chalmers Johnson argued, the Pentagon has played a decisive role in palliating American anger over mercantilist trade policies in several host nations. By far the greatest beneficiary has been Japan, but if anything the trade policies of South Korea have been even more blatantly at odds with American ideas of fair play. To a lesser extent, key European allies, not least the Germans, have also been allowed to perpetuate policies that render their markets resistant to American exports.
Although for the most part the economic rationale behind host nations’ cooperation has remained sub rosa, there have been occasions over the years when it has been hard to overlook. It is probably not an accident, for instance, that when war broke out in Korea half a century ago, American policymakers, desperate for bases in Japan, fell over themselves to help Japan crank up its then stalled export engine. Not only did the Pentagon’s sourcing program strongly favor Japanese suppliers, but the State Department campaigned vigorously to get European nations to open their markets to Japanese exports. As the economic historian Alfred Eckes has recorded, the United States went so far as to cut tariffs on imports from certain European nations in return for those nations boosting imports from Japan, not from the United States! The State Department moreover worked energetically to overcome European resistance to Japan’s wish to join key international bodies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The Pentagon’s need for bases also proved serendipitous for Japan during the Vietnam War. By then the Japanese economic system had several American industries, most notably the television manufacturing, on the ropes and U.S.-Japan commercial relations were poisoned by numerous charges of Japanese dumping. Nonetheless, bogged down in a war in Indochina and badly in need of logistical support from Japan, the Nixon administration was persuaded to go easy on the Japanese television-set cartel.
“Essentially we gave away our electronics industry in return for Japanese support in Vietnam,” says Washington-based trade expert Pat Choate. “In any other country there would have been riots in the streets.”
For Japan as well as other host nations, another advantage of cooperating with the Pentagon has been to receive countless officially sanctioned transfers of American technology, not least crucial military technology such as the secrets to build Japan’s latest generation of fighter jets. Meanwhile, as Choate points out, the Justice Department has often been persuaded to turn a blind eye to theft of American intellectual property by several host nations.
The bases have also served Japan well in pitching for U.S. defense contracts. Indeed, Washington has come to regard contractors based in many host nations as “honorary Americans”—a position officially acknowledged in the mid-1990s when, under budgetary constraints imposed by the Clinton administration, the Pentagon more or less abandoned its policy of preferring domestic contractors. Cast aside, too, was the traditional idea that the United States should maintain self-sufficiency in fundamental military components, materials, and equipment.
American bases evoke a powerful not-in-my-backyard response almost everywhere. But the full strength of this feeling is well hidden in the case of the Japanese and South Koreans, thanks in part to the extreme politeness and lavish hospitality they confer on foreign bigwigs. One policymaker who badly misread the tea leaves is William Cohen, who served as Defense Secretary in the Clinton administration. He argued in 1998 that America’s bases in Asia and Europe were vital “to shape people’s opinions about us in ways that are favorable to us.” Host nations’ views of the United States are bolstered when “they see our power, they see our professionalism, they see our patriotism, and they say that’s a country that [they] want to be with.” Cohen added: “You can only do that if you’re forward deployed.”
Peddling a similarly self-satisfied line, the Clinton administration’s assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye has argued that America’s massive bases in East Asia help promote “democratic development.” It is a view that is outspokenly scorned by better informed observers. Here, for instance, is how David Vine, a scholar at American University, put it in 2009:
Bases abroad have become a major and unacknowledged ‘face’ of the United States, frequently damaging the nation’s reputation, engendering grievances and anger, and generally creating antagonistic rather than cooperative relationships between the United States and others. Most dangerously, as we have seen in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and as we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign bases create breeding grounds for radicalism, anti-Americanism, and attacks on the United States, reducing, rather than improving, our national security.”
Chalmers Johnson made much the same point in Blowback a decade ago. He focused in particular on the sexual side of base life, a topic notable for its absence in most Washington discussions of “forward deployment.” In the history of foreign occupations, American GIs are undoubtedly better behaved than most. But prostitution and venereal disease are only the most obvious of several social problems that bases bring in their wake. It is worth remembering that even in the darkest days of World War II the British were sufficiently ambivalent about U.S. bases that they only half-jokingly referred to American GIs as “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” Just a few bad actors can do enormous damage, and that damage is compounded when top policymakers like Cohen and Nye seem so out of touch.
In Japan, popular discontent over the bases has usually been hushed up. Over the years many rapes and other serious incidents have gone unreported not only by American generals but, for the most part, by Japanese officials. The catalog of Japanese citizens’ grievances goes back to the earliest days after Japan’s surrender in 1945. The point was well documented by Richard Deverall, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. In a little noticed book privately published in 1953, he showed that the reality of the early postwar U.S.-Japan relationship was far from the marriage made in heaven it was portrayed as being by occupation chief Douglas MacArthur.
Deverall, who was later to bequeath his papers to the American Catholic History Research Center in Washington, wrote: “In areas such as Northern Japan and Hokkaido I saw many incidents which made me blush deeply. For example, in Sapporo I saw a cute little Japanese boy shine the shoes of a burly paratrooper. When finished, the kid said ‘Okeh!’ and looked for his fee. The paratrooper carefully leaned over, spat down the boy’s neck, and walked away.”
The full significance of this incident is apparent only when you realize that the child was in all probability a war orphan—even in the near-starving conditions of the late 1940s, a strong taboo existed against boot blacking among the Japanese.
Deverall added: “During 1947-48, I invariably saw GIs chasing Japanese girls, staggering around and teasing Japanese men, or indulging in other infantile pursuits such as jeeping past a car [bus] stop and holding a stick or fist to hit every Japanese en route.”
To be fair, it should be noted that even Deverall acknowledged that for the most part the GIs’ behavior was “not bad.” Exceptional efforts were made on both sides to insulate Japanese citizens from the worst effects of occupation. In a characteristic move instituted within days of surrender, the Japanese authorities, for instance, set up a vast system of quasi-regulated brothels for the Occupation forces. The intention was clearly, among other things, to minimize the risk of the GIs’ sexual demands instigating an outbreak of venereal disease.
Yet despite all efforts to keep a lid on tensions, Deverall reported that just below the surface “a smoldering resentment boiled and bubbled.” One Japanese citizen quoted by Deverall had this to say of the Americans: “Many of us are not impressed with the crime rate, the superiority complex, vulgar speech, racial prejudices, the lynch mobs, etc of your ‘civilized’ country.”
Tensions lessened little in subsequent decades. Nonetheless top Japanese officials ignored popular discontent about the bases. By the same token they kept the Pentagon on tenterhooks about how much longer the basing arrangements would be tolerated. Writing in The Fragile Blossom in 1972, Zbigniew Brzezinski reported that Tokyo was on the brink of asking the Americans to leave, and he predicted that by 1975 they would be gone. This proved a false alarm, but it was well calculated to strengthen the Pentagon’s wish to do anything necessary to keep Tokyo on side.
Tokyo’s true position became apparent a few years later when, in an early effort to rein the federal budget deficits, the Carter administration toyed with the idea of pulling out of Korea. Tokyo’s response was to institute the so-called omoiyari yosan—the “sympathy budget”—under which it has ever afterwards picked up a significant portion of the cost of the Pentagon’s Japanese bases. This helped head off the risk of American pullout. It should be noted, however, that Tokyo’s subventions fall far short of covering the total cost even of the Japanese bases and does nothing to cover the cost of bases in the Middle East whose main economic purpose is to secure Japan’s oil.
Close observers of Japan, however, sense that the end is now nigh for this strange marriage of convenience. From a Japanese point of view there is little more to be gained from suppressing popular resentment against the bases. After all, Japan no longer much needs the Pentagon’s help in trade diplomacy: the United States has now become so enfeebled that it can no longer retaliate against even the most egregious deviations from fair practices on the part of its trade partners. Moreover, there is little left in America’s technology cupboard that Tokyo covets.
Of course, one question remains: what will happen if and when the Americans withdraw? The answer, at least where East Asia and Europe are concerned, is probably nothing. Certainly, as people like Bacevich and Johnson have argued, the role of our bases in maintaining peace has been grossly exaggerated.
A more pertinent question is how much longer the United States can afford to enfeeble its economy in pursuit of secondary national-security goals. Given that China counts as both America’s greatest perceived great-power threat and its largest creditor, the answer is surely obvious.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Dominance.