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No reader has ever likely been stuck at the airport to find themselves in a situation like a couple of American visitors to Japan 60 years ago today. Not only was it inconvenient for their host (U.S. Ambassador to Japan Douglas A. MacArthur, II), who had gone out to Tokyo International Airport to meet them and also had to be evacuated himself, but the incident that kept them there for a couple of hours had great implications for the Japan-U.S. relationship afterward and was one of the major factors leading to the cancellation of a visit by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower a week later.

James C. Hagerty, press secretary to Eisenhower, had arrived with the president’s appointments secretary, Thomas E. Stephens, on June 10, 1960, from Okinawa to coordinate the presidential visit. Ike, as he was affectionately known, was scheduled to arrive on June 19, which was the day that the revised Japan-U.S. security treaty would automatically pass the Upper House. The itinerary had been officially announced on May 31, but planning had begun in January, when Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi issued the original invitation during their summit meeting to sign the renegotiated treaty in Washington.

Eisenhower’s trip to the Far East was originally meant as a peace tour following a summit in Moscow, which also got cancelled due to the breakup of the four-power summit in Paris in mid-May as a result of an incident at the beginning of the month when an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and the U.S. government badly mishandled the publicity over it. Eisenhower eventually took personal responsibility for it.

Two days after the Paris meeting, in Tokyo, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party forced a vote late on May 19 in the Lower House on the revised treaty, in order to allow enough time for the treaty to pass the Upper House automatically a month later when Eisenhower, in the last year of his presidency, was scheduled to visit. Demonstrations had already been growing against Kishi’s handling of treaty deliberations, and these actions ended up inflaming the situation, a storm the highly capable Hagerty was about to fly into.

Rather than traveling on a military plane and heading directly to a base where he would be picked up in an unmarked car as the ambassador had suggested (and probably should have insisted on), Hagerty, the longest-serving press secretary in history, replied to MacArthur that he “didn’t want to do that, that he didn’t want to be sneaking in the back door. We had an open relationship with Japan, the treaty had been negotiated and signed in the White House. He felt that he must come in through Haneda."

The media had announced the date and time (3:30 p.m.) of his arrival, and nearly 10,000 demonstrators went out to “greet” them. Initially, nothing happened, but after getting in the ambassador’s vehicle and before exiting the airport grounds they were met by the protesters who immediately surrounded them, “stoning the car, shattering the windows, cutting the tires, and trying to turn us over,” according to the ambassador’s telegram afterward. Hagerty “kept his cool completely,” even taking out a pocket camera to take photos of the protesters outside. Stephens, who also served as a Republican party strategist and political advisor to the president, was “extremely agitated,” MacArthur said of the two’s reactions later in his oral history.

After some 15 minutes, the police arrived and cleared an area to allow them to get on a hovering Marine helicopter that would fly them out as the vehicle was essentially stuck there. The helicopter had been on-call and waiting at the airport but the ambassador, after consulting with his two guests, had chosen not to use it — “if the Leftists were going to resort to force and violence it was better for [us] to know now rather than when the president arrives. Furthermore, I felt that if force and violence were used against us, there would be a deep feeling of revulsion on part of the great majority of Japanese which would seriously blunt the pro-Communist offensive here.”

But even using the chopper became difficult, as it was not able to land until 4:30 p.m. — the area cordoned off by police was not wide enough to do so safely before. Worse, protesters began throwing clubs, rocks and other objects at the Sikorsky UH-84D’s four massive blades.

Stephens wanted to make a run for the helicopter but was cautioned by the veteran diplomat: “No, no, don’t run. When you run in a mob — I’ve seen it happen too often — it just excites them. It’s like a cat running after a mouse or a dog running after a cat. If the cat stands there [it is fine]. But if it starts running, they go after it. So, we’ll walk at a deliberate pace.”

MacArthur related that when they landed at Hardy Barracks near the U.S. Embassy and the helicopter rotors began slowing down, two of the blades that had been hit at Haneda by the protesters fell off. “So, we were very lucky. They could have just as well fallen off up in the air, and we would have been 800 feet [244 meters] up in the air, down to the ground in nothing flat.”

Hagerty gave a news conference that night in which he described the incident and criticized the perpetrators — primarily the anti-mainstream faction, led by the Japanese Communist Party, of Zengakuren (or All-Japan Federation of Students’ Self-Governing Associations), and JCP-affiliated unions — as did many in the media and Japanese society.

The prime minister, foreign minister, and education minister sent messages of regret immediately, but MacArthur instinctively knew the “Hagerty Incident” put into doubt the president’s trip. Secretary of State Christian A. Herter confirmed it the next day, expressing the “grave misgivings” he and others had over the “flat failure” of the Japanese government to prepare for that situation.

MacArthur met with Foreign Ministry officials to confirm with them the ability of the government to protect the president, including his motorcade. A ministry official asked instead whether Eisenhower — who was the first president to fly in a helicopter — could use one. MacArthur responded such a question suggested a lack of confidence in their ability to provide security and that it was better to postpone the visit.

Eventually, that is what they would do, but it would be incorrect to place all the fault on the Japanese side — the U.S. Embassy and White House clearly shared some of the blame about how things were handled and estimates about reactions. The incident, and the postponement, would affect Japan-U.S. relations for years to come and is still written about today. Fortunately, the wealth of declassified documents allows us now to do it with more information, rather than conjecture.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor at Osaka University and the author of the forthcoming book "Japan’s Educational Recession and the Path Out of It" (in Japanese from Koyo Shobo).

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