America’s Secret History in East AsiaRoundup
tags: Japan, politics, Korea, East Asia, diplomacy, Asian History
Professor of history at the University of Connecticut.
Neither South Korean nor Japanese officials point a finger at the United States for their dispute, and yet they should. This diffidence may be understandable: The United States is their security guarantor. But the historical moment they are fighting about, more than a half-century later, was fundamentally shaped by America’s involvement. Even as it claimed to help resolve Japan’s and South Korea’s longstanding grievances with the 1965 treaty, Washington used one ally over the other out of expedience, to advance its own interests.
Today’s fights between Japan and South Korea over history have a history of their own — and it prominently involves American diplomats. A significant behind-the-scenes player was William J. Sebald, who held several important positions between 1946 and 1952, including as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s chief political adviser in Tokyo during the American occupation of Japan. In May 1965 — on the eve of the controversial treaty’s signing — Sebald published his memoirs, “With MacArthur in Japan: A Personal History of the Occupation.” He was retired by then but remained influential, and his book is especially revealing for unmasking dominant attitudes toward East Asia in 1965 American government circles.
Sebald had cultivated personal relations with powerful Japanese political figures, and those ties appear to have led him to internalize their positions about “Korea” — the term he continued to use, even then, well after the Korean Peninsula had been divided. He reconciled them with his own understanding of America’s interests, namely, “the clear United States objective of keeping Japan out of Communist orbit.” Notably, his book bleeds unabashed contempt for Koreans as a people.
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