CHATAN, OKINAWA PREF. – If Caroline Kennedy, whose name apparently is being floated to succeed John Roos as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan, is nominated and confirmed, she will be completing, in a sense, a journey that was started almost 50 years ago by her father, President John F. Kennedy, and his staff.
JFK, the popular and young president, was tragically assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in his third year in office during a visit to Dallas, Texas. As a result, he was not able to fulfill some of his plans and goals for the remainder of his first administration, and those of his second, had he been re-elected.
One of the first things on his agenda in 1964, despite its being an election year, was to visit Japan. In fact, on the day of that national tragedy, several members of the Cabinet were already flying over the Pacific on their way to Japan.
Secretary of State D. Dean Rusk and members of the White House staff were to begin coordinating the president’s visit when they reached Japan, but they, too, never made it there. They turned around in midair to attend the funeral and join their compatriots in mourning.
The idea of Kennedy visiting Japan seems to have been in the works for a while. The reasons for doing so were many, particularly after President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to abort his plans to visit Japan because of the Japanese government’s inability to guarantee his safety in the middle of the riots surrounding the ratification of the revised bilateral security treaty.
If JFK had been able to able to visit Japan, he would have been the first sitting U.S. president to do so. Importantly he was also a very popular president in Japan, symbolizing a youthful and vibrant United States full of promise.
Japan at the time was also very much vibrant, too, and optimistic. In the fall of 1964, it was to host the Olympics, symbolizing its return to the international community after World War II. The bullet train and expressways were coming on line, and the nation, now past the divisive security treaty revisions riots of 1960, was now united behind the moderate Hayato Ikeda administration focusing on economic growth.
For Kennedy, who had visited Japan in the fall of 1951 with his brother, Robert, Japan would have looked dramatically different in 1964.
After JFK’s seven-week trip to the “Middle and Far East,” he wrote, “The East of today is not the East of Palmerston and Disraeli and Cromer. Were it so, we might accept Kipling’s dictum that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. But this we dare not do. We want, we may need, allies in ideas, in resources, even in arms, but if we would have allies, we must first of all gather to ourselves friends.”
Of course, historical “ifs” are not really permitted, but I have always wondered how U.S.-Japan relations might have developed in the 1960s had JFK been able to visit Japan. His brother’s visit as attorney general in February 1962 brought a huge amount of good will and publicity, particularly for his willingness to engage in frank discussions with radical students during a visit to Waseda University. Certainly, the level of good will at the national level and deepening of the personal relationships between the president and prime minister would have been furthered.
Because JFK was not able to visit, nor did his two successors, the two countries had to wait another decade before a sitting president, Gerald R. Ford, came to Japan. During that time, relations became frayed between the two countries over the handling of the Vietnam War, basing issues, Okinawa’s reversion, trade friction and recognition of China, to name a few.
JFK is probably looking down proudly at what his 55-year-old daughter, who is the sole survivor of JFK’s immediate family, has accomplished over the years, particularly in the arts, literary world and education, in addition to foundations and nonprofits. His legacy may guide her in her new assignment in Japan, but her experiences and connections will have to power her through these difficult and less-than-optimistic times.
Robert D. Eldridge, Ph.D., a former tenured associate professor of U.S.-Japan relations at Osaka University, was a recipient of the JFK Presidential Library Research Travel Grant in 2000. He is currently working on a book about the reversion of Okinawa.