91. Action Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy) to Secretary of State Rusk1


  • Ryukyus and Bonins
We are confronted by a considered Japanese request to agree to negotiations for the return of administration of the Ryukyus and Bonins to Japan by 1970.
Foreign Minister Miki and Ambassador Shimoda in separate conversations (Tab B)2 have proposed discussion of this problem during the Miki visit in September, looking to an agreement between the President and Sato in November to begin negotiations on the terms of reversion, which would need to include special base rights to satisfy our military requirements.
Ambassador Johnson reports that Miki is hoping for our initial reaction before Johnson returns to Washington for the Cabinet meetings. Ambassador Johnson plans to leave Tokyo about August 28. In a letter to us (Tab C),3 he envisaged a scenario presenting the Japanese with a “bill of particulars” to force the Japanese to make the necessary decisions. This would be followed by your discussions with Miki, and, if all goes smoothly, an announcement during Sato’s meeting with the President of agreement to begin negotiations on reversion.
Our recommendation is that we inform the Japanese that we are prepared to negotiate on reversion provided they give us advance commitments to assure broad freedom of action for the use of U.S. bases, particularly to support the Vietnam War, and to enlarge their political and economic role in Asia. We have concluded that our prospects for reaching an agreement with Japan on this basis will never be better than at the present time. We also anticipate that actual return of the islands [Page 190]to Japanese sovereignty will not take place until 1969 or 1970 since lengthy negotiations on the detailed arrangements will be required.
ISA and EA have drafted a Memorandum to the President from you and Secretary McNamara4 recommending this course of action. We have discussed the position recommended in the memorandum with Messrs. Rostow and Owen, and they agree with its basic thrust.
Mr. Macomber5 has serious reservations about acting now on the Ryukyus and Bonins, given the opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty. He would prefer to wait until the Panama Treaty debates are completed. Although return of these islands can be accomplished by executive agreement, he also suggests a joint resolution by Congress or some other form of associating Congress with the actions recommended. Finally, he recommends that when and if you conclude it is essential to push forward with the return of these territories to Japan, that our recommendation to the President be couched in terms of seeking his approval of our consulting with appropriate Members of the Congress, prior to making a final recommendation to proceed.
The draft memorandum is being forwarded by ISA to Secretary McNamara. I understand that he is inclined to move ahead with reversion if we can get the right price. He will not act formally, until he receives the views of the JCS. The JCS position heretofore has been to hold onto the Ryukyus and Bonins as long as possible until political pressures force us to return administration of these islands to Japan.


That you meet briefly with Messrs. Bundy, Macomber, and Sneider to renew this issue and provide guidance for final discussions with DOD.6

[Page 191]

Tab A

Draft Action Memorandum for President Johnson 7


  • Reversion to Japan of the Ryukyus, Bonins and other Western Pacific Islands8

We are confronted by a clear cut Japanese request to resolve the Ryukyus and Bonins question by 1970. They wish to commence discussions now looking to an early return of the Bonins and other Western Pacific Islands to Japanese civil administration and a subsequent return of the Ryukyus to Japanese civil administration under special arrangements maintaining our military bases and satisfying our military requirements. The Japanese are vague on the specific arrangements which would be agreeable to them.

Before going ahead with further discussions with the Japanese, we need your decisions on whether to commence negotiations with Japan on the reversion of both groups of islands to Japanese civil control, and on what prior commitments are required from Japan to make certain that reversion does not compromise our essential security interests and our capability to conduct the Vietnam War.

I. Background

Okinawa, the principal island of the Ryukyus, is the most important U.S. military base in the Western Pacific. Its value is enhanced by the absence of any restrictions on our freedom of action. The availability of the Okinawa base, close to potential theaters of operation, adds substantially to overall U.S. capability and flexibility. The Bonins and other Western Pacific Islands are of little or no importance militarily but have been retained principally for contingency purposes.

At the present time, we exercise all civil and military authority on the islands.

Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyus and the other islands has been recognized. The Japanese Government has cooperated up to now in keeping reversionist sentiment in both Japan and the Ryukyus in check, but it is under ever-increasing political and public pressure in both countries to resolve this issue. Reversion is now the only major problem between Japan and the United States.

[Page 192]

Foreign Minister Miki has presented Ambassador Johnson with an Aide Mémoire proposing three steps:

Examination of a formula for accommodation of Ryukyu reversion and “the military roles which Okinawa should play”;
Agreement on interim measures for improvement of the administration of the Ryukyus; and
Agreement on early return of the Bonins and other Western Pacific Islands to Japan.

He has requested preliminary comments from Ambassador Johnson prior to the Ambassador’s return to the United States at the end of August.

Foreign Minister Miki proposes discussions of the reversion issue during his visit to Washington in September. This would be preliminary to your meeting with Prime Minister Sato in November, when the Japanese would apparently like a joint announcement agreeing to start negotiations for the return of administration of these islands. They have informed us that they want us to retain our military bases in the Ryukyus and other islands, and that they are prepared in effect to negotiate special arrangements which would enable us to meet our military requirements and responsibilities in the area.

They would like the negotiations completed so as to permit the return by 1970. The date is significant. In that year the opposition will have its first opportunity since 1960 to mount a campaign for the renunciation of the Security Treaty and a repudiation of the Japanese-American alliance. The opposition intends to make the U.S. occupation of the Ryukyus the focal point of their attack.

II. The Alternatives9

We have examined two major courses of action:

Reject the Japanese request, on the grounds that we do not believe it would be useful to begin discussions of reversion at least until after the Vietnam war is over, or, more indefinitely, that we do not believe that reversion will be possible until there is a basic change in the security situation in the Far East.
Inform the Japanese Government that we would be prepared to enter into negotiations for return of the Ryukyus, Bonins and other Article 3 islands, provided we obtain in advance commitments by Japan:
To agree to new special arrangements granting us broad freedom of action for conventional military and other activities in the [Page 193]Ryukyus and freedom to mount military combat operations without consultation in defense of Southeast Asia and Taiwan;
To enlarge its regional political and economic role in Asia and provide over the next several years a substantially greater economic contribution to the development of Asian countries;
To agree to our retention of the whole island of Iwo Jima as a military base.

III. Recommendations10

We recommend that you authorize the second course of action.
We also recommend:
That we be prepared to withdraw our nuclear weapons from the Ryukyus, if during the discussions with the Japanese they insist on this point, and if they agree to make the other commitments set forth in our first recommendation.
That, if you do not agree to enter into negotiations on the Ryukyus, you authorize negotiations for return of the Bonins and other Western Pacific Islands, provided that Japan will agree to our retention of the whole island of Iwo Jima as a military base.
That, if you approve any of the foregoing recommendations, you authorize us to consult with key Congressional leaders prior to entering into future discussions with the Japanese.

IV. The Alternatives Examined

Two major arguments are advanced for rejecting the Japanese request:

  • First, there is no need to change the status quo since our position there is still politically tenable.
  • Second, the status quo is essential on military grounds.

These arguments and the advantages of early negotiations are discussed below. We conclude that an effort to retain the current status of the Ryukyus involves unacceptable and unnecessary risks. We also conclude that it is timely and advantageous to enter into negotiations on return of the Ryukyus and other islands provided the Japanese satisfy our essential requirements, and in no way impair our freedom of action to support the Vietnam War.


The Political Equation

U.S. administration of the Ryukyus and other islands has always involved political risks. Until the present, these risks have been acceptable because reversionist pressures have been tolerable, and partially muted by effective U.S. administration and by Japanese and Ryukyuan cooperation with us. The Japanese Government has recognized up to [Page 194]now that Japan’s interests were best served by permitting the U.S. full control and freedom of action in the Ryukyus.

We could remain in the Ryukyus on the present basis for a time, because reversionist pressures have not yet reached the boiling point. In these circumstances, the Japanese Government would reluctantly accede to our position, rather than force a major confrontation with us. But, it cannot hold to this position for long.

Reversionist pressures are mounting in both Japan and the Ryukyus. It is no longer a demand made solely by the opposition. More and more of our conservative friends in both areas are beginning to insist on it. The conservative leaders, therefore, sense that it is timely, it is vital to their political interests, and it is essential to Japan-American relations that this issue be soon resolved. Furthermore, the Japanese Government has concluded that security attitudes in Japan will now permit an accommodation with U.S. military requirements after reversion. An opportunity still remains for quiet negotiations free from uncompromising public demands.

The longer we delay negotiations the greater the danger that an explosive situation could develop.

We already face two potentially dangerous deadlines in the next three years. In the 1968 Ryukyu elections, the slim conservative majority could be lost and a far less cooperative left-wing government could take over. In 1970, the Security Treaty debate could bring irresistible pressures for reversion. The ensuing debate on the Treaty and reversion would have considerable bearing on the outcome of the next general election which must take place by January 1971.

The Soviets are poised to exploit the reversion issue. They sense the emotional content of the Ryukyu issue in Japan, and we have reports that they plan to offer to return some of the northern islands in order to put strains on Japanese-American relations.

If we wait until events force us to change our policies in the Ryukyus, and then reluctantly concede, we may gain a few more years. But we also risk serious strains on our relations with Japan, create difficulties for friendly Japanese Governments, and could conceivably jeopardize our base position in the Ryukyus.


U.S. Military Requirements


The Current Status

We and the Japanese fully agree that retention of the Ryukyu military bases for the foreseeable future is in both our interests. The issue between us that will require resolution is how much freedom of action for the U.S. is essential in both our interests.

If the Ryukyus are returned to Japan under the terms of our current security arrangements with Japan our freedom of action would be [Page 195]restricted and the military value of the Ryukyu bases be reduced. The principal restrictions imposed by the present arrangements in Japan proper are:

the need to consult and obtain Japanese consent prior to conducting combat military operations from Japanese bases, except in the case of the defense of Japan or Korea;

the need to consult prior to any storage of nuclear weapons.

There would be other less important restrictions as well as the inhibiting effect of losing administrative powers over the Ryukyus. It is worth noting that these restrictions have not prevented effective use of U.S. military bases in Japan for many activities also conducted in the Ryukyus, and for the support of U.S. forces in Vietnam.


Special Arrangements Needed

Applying the existing Treaty arrangements in Japan to the Ryukyus would not therefore be adequate to our essential military needs. New special arrangements would need to be negotiated as the price of reversion.


Military Combat Operations

The Japanese Government would have to agree to allow the U.S. to mount operations in defense of Southeast Asia and Taiwan without prior consultation. This is to be certain that reversion will not in any way limit our needed freedom of operations for Vietnam or other possible contingencies.

During the Vietnam War, we have not mounted combat operations directly from Okinawa except for several instances when B–52s were forced by typhoons to seek haven in the Ryukyus and subsequently launched missions to Vietnam from there. As for the future, we would not need to mount conventional combat operations directly from Okinawa unless we wished to engage in conventional bombing of the Chinese mainland, which is not likely.

We are not certain that the Japanese Government is prepared to grant us this freedom of action. But, this right to use the Ryukyu bases without consultation is important not only as a safeguard for contingencies, but as a means of associating Japan with our efforts in Vietnam, and making certain that there will be no restrictions on essential combat operations for Vietnam.


Nuclear Weapons

The issue of nuclear weapons on Okinawa is likely to be the major obstacle to an agreement on special arrangements. The Japanese have indicated serious concern about the acceptability in Japan of permitting nuclear weapons to remain on Okinawa after reversion. The Department of Defense has studied the question of the importance of maintaining nuclear weapons on Okinawa. The Secretary of Defense [Page 196]has concluded that because the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons at other locations in the Pacific is sufficient for contingencies, and because we could resupply speedily weapons from the U.S. if necessary, there would be no significant degradation of our capability if we removed all of our nuclear weapons from Okinawa.

The nuclear issue has an additional aspect. There is an outside possibility that some Japanese officials and political leaders may yet be prepared to agree to nuclear storage after reversion in order to accustom the Japanese people to the presence of nuclear weapons, and thus facilitate a Japanese nuclear weapons program should they decide to undertake one. Our efforts to discourage the Japanese from going nuclear would be enhanced if we removed nuclear weapons from Okinawa prior to reversion. This would still leave us with the right to storage subject to consultation, as is now the case in Japan itself. We are therefore prepared to withdraw the nuclear weapons if the Japanese insist.


Other Base Arrangements

There are certain other operations which we carry on from Okinawa and not from Japan. These include the mounting of clandestine operations and the maintenance of a VOA transmitter. We believe that we can negotiate an agreement that would give us greater latitude in these matters on Okinawa than we have on the Japanese mainland. These rights would be embodied in a special base rights agreement to be negotiated at the time of reversion.


The Advantages of Early Negotiations

The timing is favorable. If we move now on reversion, we demonstrate an American sensitivity to the concerns of our allies, an ability to forge new and constructive relations with our allies, and an ability to deal in advance with potentially dangerous problems. We will have dealt, in a most timely manner, with the only important and serious issue between ourselves and Japan.

It is our judgment that our bargaining position will never be better than it is now. Sato’s political position is strong enough to put across a deal favorable to us on the Ryukyus. He is securely in power for the next few years, having survived in January a major threat to his continued rule. If we begin negotiations immediately, we have very good prospects for getting all the special base rights that we need, plus a Japanese commitment to greater regional responsibilities.

There is always the possibility that Sato will not be able to accept our conditions for reversion. But, in this event, our proposal will place responsibility for delaying reversion squarely on the Japanese Government.

Return of the Ryukyus will also act as a powerful incentive on Japan to undertake broader responsibilities in Asia. The Japanese are [Page 197]already making an increasing contribution, particularly to the economic development of the non-Communist countries in the region. Return of the Ryukyus will by itself draw Japan into an expanded regional role and inevitably necessitate increased military activities for the defense of this area. But, the Japanese should be urged to do substantially more. The Japanese are not ready yet to play a military role in regional security and we doubt whether most other Asian countries would welcome this at this time. However, if we are going to carry most of the military burden, they should carry a heavier economic burden. One of the prices paid by Japan for reversion should be greater Japanese economic aid to East Asia.

V. The Special Problem of the Bonins and other Western Pacific Islands

We consider that retention of these islands has little military justification. The U.S. does not now maintain any major regional installations on these islands and we have no current plans for any new facilities.

We propose to negotiate the return of these islands as a package with the Ryukyus. However, if it is decided not to negotiate on the Ryukyus, we should agree to a prior return of the Bonins in an effort to try to stem, for a time, pressures for reversion of the Ryukyus.

VI. Congressional Considerations

Return of administration over the Ryukyus and other islands can be accomplished, as was done with several Ryukyuan Islands in 1953, by an Executive Agreement accompanied by a base rights agreement probably with some secret annexes. We anticipate that there will be Congressional opposition to reversion, particularly to return of Iwo Jima and, for this reason, propose to retain the whole island as a military base. However, we believe that there will be substantial support for this action provided Japan makes the commitments recommended below and it is clear that there will be no detrimental effects on our war effort in Vietnam.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 19 RYU IS. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Sneider and cleared by Macomber. A handwritten note on the memorandum reads: “Sir: EA has now offered this new second page (below) reflecting Sec. McNamara’s views.”
  2. At Tab B are telegram 271 from Tokyo, July 15, summarizing the July 15 conversation between Miki and U. Alexis Johnson (Document 88), and telegram 5236 to Tokyo, July 12, summarizing the July 10 discussion among Shimoda, Bundy, and Berger, attached but not printed.
  3. Attached at Tab C but not printed is a July 12 letter to Sneider.
  4. At this point a handwritten notation that reads: “(draft at Tab A; Sec. McNamara has not yet cleared—see para. 7 below)” was inserted. The draft memorandum is printed below.
  5. William B. Macomber, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations, March 1967–October 1969.
  6. Rusk approved the recommendation and set the meeting for August 14 at 11:30 a.m. The meeting was attended by Bundy, Berger, Read, Sneider, and John P. White, Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations. It ended at 12:18 p.m. (Johnson Library, Rusk Appointment Books, 1967) No other record of the meeting has been found.
  7. President Johnson apparently received the final version of this memorandum; it has not been found.
  8. In addition to the Ryukyus, Japan has residual sovereignty over the following islands covered in Article 3 of the Peace Treaty: the Bonin Islands, Rosario Island, the Volcano Islands (including Iwo Jima), Parece Vela, Marcus Island, and the Daito Islands. [Footnote in the source text.]
  9. For McNamara’s recommendations see Document 92.
  10. The draft gives no indication of President Johnson’s decisions on these recommendations.