Commentary / Japan

How Eisenhower's June 1960 trip to Okinawa became a catalyst for reversion

When a leader visits a location in an official capacity, it is essential that he or she knows what the goal is, what he/she hopes to achieve. It is even more vital for the those issuing the invitation to have clear objectives, and to understand the risks in trying to meet them.

Neither of these factors seems to have been taken into account during U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visit to the politically and strategically important island of Okinawa on June 19, 1960. It was meant as a goodwill mission and could have been so — Eisenhower had personally agreed to the return of the Amami Islands seven years before and more recently to the revision of the security treaty with Japan — but the visit as a whole actually increased the frustrations in Okinawa over the continued U.S. administration of the islands.

Indeed, the message relayed at the time — that the trip would show “U.S. interest in the welfare of the Ryukyuan people” — was only decided after the trip had been planned. The first version of the itinerary, in fact, only had the president visiting the Kadena Air Base.

The demonstrations in Tokyo over the passage of the revised security treaty led to Eisenhower’s three-day trip to Tokyo and Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture being cancelled at the last minute. As a result, the visit to Okinawa became all the more important to some, especially those in the U.S. State Department. “If Communist minority demonstrations in Tokyo achieve their purpose in dealing us one really devastating blow,” wrote one senior official traveling with the delegation, “there is no reason why we should give impression that they can impose their will upon us with respect to any area in which we retain legitimate rights.”

Because of this likely sentiment, writers at the time assumed that the visit to Okinawa was made instead of going to mainland Japan, but in fact, as declassified documents suggest, the trip was being considered since January that year when Lt. Gen. Donald P. Booth, high commissioner for the Ryukyu Islands, extended the invitation. Known as a reformer for his more open-minded policies, Booth, who had been the youngest theater commander in World War II, probably wanted to show Eisenhower, a fellow soldier, the advances made in the administration since his earlier visit 14 years before as chief of staff of the army.

The two-hour-plus visit conducted the day after the rainy season ended in beautiful summer weather was not without its problems. It began when Eisenhower’s flight from Taipei arrived at Kadena Air Base 10 to 15 minutes late, reducing the time he would have for interaction. Next, as his convoy drove to Naha along Route 1 (now Route 58), the percentage of flags being waved by people gathered along the roadside gradually changed from the "Stars and Stripes" in the central part of Okinawa, where many of the bases were located, to the Hinomaru in Naha.

Military personnel guarding the route also increased. Some 15,000 lined both sides of the route, initially at 3 meter intervals, but increasing to 1 meter intervals in Naha. This did not stop student protesters and others who scuffled with the 2,300 civilian and military police guarding closer to the Government of the Ryukyu Islands building. There it became so crowded there was no room to stand. Fully armed reinforcements from the 3d Marine Division had to be brought in.

“I understand the need for them to protect their president,” said the head of the Council for the Return of Okinawa Prefecture to the Fatherland years later, “but the bayonets affixed to the rifles and the pushing, shoving and throat-grabbing were excessive.”

In Naha, Eisenhower visited the legislature briefly (a meeting that was boycotted by five members of the extreme left), and then met with Chief Executive Seisaku Ota, with whom he had ridden in an open convertible from Kadena. Ota, who had been appointed to his position in late 1959 by the high commissioner, had proactively requested the visit or to at least be able to meet the president in Tokyo (and was scheduled to do so, briefly, on June 21).

Protesters by this point had gotten into the courtyard of the GRI building and their calls for reversion could be heard from inside. The windows were shut but the message was loud and clear: “Yankee go home.” The chief executive was embarrassed and later sent a note apologizing. However, he also hoped the issue would get addressed.

While that meeting was going on, the president’s team, in light of the protesters, decided to go ahead with an alternate route to Naha Airport, from which a helicopter would bring the president and his delegation back to Kadena. Leaving from the back door at 1:05 p.m., they traveled by an unpaved road out, with puddles and potholes, to the main highway, thus avoiding the protesters. “The president’s car rocked back and forth. Having left from the back and taking this poor road,” Ota wrote later, “it symbolized the two sides of life in Okinawa.”

I asked Ota about this in the late 1990s prior to his passing. He was aghast they decided to take that route, which had not been coordinated with him. But he was honored the president made the visit.

Several writers later said Eisenhower was “chased out of Okinawa.” That was not true, but it was not a dignified departure either. It was also unfortunate, as well, as many residents had wanted to see him and had waited for a couple of hours to do so. At the minimum, much more time could have been devoted to Okinawa, in particular since his schedule was opened wide up thanks to the cancellation of the mainland Japan portion.

After arriving in Seoul as part of the larger trip to the Far East, Eisenhower’s press secretary was asked about the protesters, to which James C. Hagerty said their numbers were small. Chobyo Yara, an educator who later became the first elected chief executive, wrote in his diary that day: “This was a typical mistake of the Americans, underestimating public sentiment.”

It is understandable that Hagerty wished to put a positive spin on the visit. It was not only protesters. There were many who welcomed the visit, including the newspapers. Among the opponents were those who wished to stop it at all costs and those who sought to use the visit as an opportunity to make their demands for reversion known.

One of those in the latter group was the Council for the Return of Okinawa Prefecture to the Fatherland, which had been formed just seven weeks earlier. The council decided that instead of demonstrating, as some of the more radical groups wished to do, they would quietly wave Japanese flags. The organization eventually became the spearhead of the reversion movement, which had been relatively dormant (due to pressure from military authorities) until the Eisenhower visit. Indeed, responding to the visit was the council’s first job.

In this way, ironically, the Eisenhower visit became the catalyst for reversion sentiment to come to the forefront. What until then had been petitions, now became protests, and demands became demonstrations. These would grow in number until it became clear that Okinawa had to be reverted to Japan for the U.S. military to be able to continue to use the bases there.

Eisenhower, with his “million-dollar smile” and genuine feeling of goodwill, was certainly aware of this and had acknowledged to Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi that Japan in fact had residual sovereignty over Okinawa. Interestingly, Eisenhower had also entertained the return of administrative rights over most of Okinawa (minus base enclaves) and ordered a study to that effect in 1958-1959, but a number of considerations prevented realizing it. Okinawa would not be reverted for another 12 years, during which time more friction and misunderstanding would develop.

Rather than maximizing his prestige and popularity, meeting directly with the citizens rather than solely their elected and generally conservative representatives, the president’s overly scripted trip to the Far East essentially became a series of base visits rather than a goodwill tour that he had originally hoped.

“Even little things can greatly change how a historical event is evaluated, forever,” said a former vice governor of Okinawa I interviewed recently in Naha who was in the crowd at the time as a high school student, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the then-leader of the free world behind bayonet-wielding troops.

Robert D. Eldridge, a former professor of U.S.-Japan relations at Osaka University, is the author of "The Return of the Amami Islands" (Lexington, 2003), and is writing a book on the reversion of Okinawa to be published by Routledge in late 2021.

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