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Gunboat Diplomacy Worked in Japan 150 Years Ago ... But Today?

The president of the United States dispatches a heavily armed military force to a despotic country, described by the State Department as “the common enemy of mankind.” With advanced technology and weaponry, the expedition plans to shock and awe its adversary into submission, and, in doing so, to expand American access to important energy resources. Does this sound familiar? It should if you're thinking of the year 1853.

With nine ships, including three steam frigates, 1,500 men, and dozens of cannons, Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Japanese waters. President Millard Fillmore had ordered him to end Japan's ban on commerce with the United States. After delivering Fillmore's letter to the emperor, Perry promised to return the next year.

Many Americans doubted he would succeed. The New York Herald even recommended bombarding the Japanese capital if Japan refused to negotiate. But on March 31, 1854, Perry and the Japanese signed the Treaty of Kanagawa opening diplomatic relations between the two countries. The 150 th anniversary of American-Japanese ties invites comparison with current U.S. policy toward Iraq.

In the 1850s, Americans condemned Japan's military leaders as unelected tyrants whose policies were a threat to the international community. For two centuries, the Japanese had banned almost all contact with Western nations, thus limiting American access to vital energy supplies: coal and whale oil.

Japan's “mountains” of coal were a coveted but unavailable commodity to trans-Pacific steamships, each of which consumed several tons per day. Also in the Pacific, hundreds of U.S. whaling ships harvested the oil that lit American homes and lubricated industrial machinery.

But shipwrecked American sailors who happened to wash ashore in Japan were regarded as outlaws. After all, their presence was a technical violation of Japanese seclusion laws.

In the nineteenth century, of course, there was no United Nations to arbitrate such disputes. Unilateral action, Americans believed, was justified. As one magazine of the day argued, any nation with sufficient strength could act as “accuser, judge, and executioner” over another.

The State Department and Navy thus dispatched Perry to protect American citizens and to expand their commercial opportunities. His orders from Washington, however, emphasized that he could use force only as a last resort—in self-defense—because Congress had the sole authority to declare war. Americans hoped the expedition's display of military and technological prowess would impress Japan into compliance. It would show Japan “both the emblem of peace and the cannon's mouth.”

In a gesture of goodwill, Perry also delivered twenty-four landing boats full of official gifts to the Japanese. Like his frigates—called “black ships” by the Japanese because of the smoke that billowed from their steam engines—these gifts were meant to inspire awe.

A quarter-scale steam locomotive and a telegraph set served as additional reminders of American power. Clocks, pistols, and rifles were smaller but vivid examples of innovation. And cases of whiskey and champagne were examples of the pleasurable benefits of international trade.

Though an aggressive display of military force, the Perry expedition succeeded without firing a single hostile shot. Its only cannon fire in Japanese waters came in the form of salutes. Japan's isolation ended, and its leaders soon established full commercial ties with the United States and other Western nations.

In the twentieth century, however, diplomacy failed. The United States began its post-World War II occupation of Japan (1945-52) and wrote for it the pacifist constitution that still governs today. Contrary to the view offered by some Bush Administration strategists, Japan's twentieth-century history differs too greatly from Iraq's to offer a useful model. A thoroughly industrialized nation that never lost its independence, prewar Japan built a parliamentary democracy on its own.

Finally, the events leading to the U.S. occupation of Japan differ in another significant way from the situation in Iraq. In 1945, the occupying power possessed and had unleashed weapons of mass destruction.