H-Diplo Review Essay 311- “Satō, America, and the Cold War”14 min read

Fintan Hoey’s book Satō, America, and the Cold War is a detailed, somewhat revisionist examination of the diplomacy of Japanese Prime Minister Satō Eisaku (in office 1964-1972), especially toward the United States.  In contrast to prevailing scholarship that has tended to portray Satō as either an unwitting pawn of the United States, a dull, wishy-washy technocrat who survived by never committing to anything, or a cynical political operator who knowingly sacrificed Japan’s national interests to burnish his personal legacy, Hoey seeks to argue that “Satō Eisaku was a visionary statesman and leader” who “skillfully navigate[d] the ship of state” through rough currents to become “not only one of the great leaders of modern Japan, but also a major statesman of the twentieth century” (1, 21, 181).

H-Diplo Review Essay 311

3 February 2021

Fintan Hoey.  Satō, America, and the Cold War: US-Japanese Relations, 1964-1972.  Houndmills:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.  ISBN:  978-1-137-45761-5 (hardcover, $109.99); 978-1-349-57194-9 (softcover, $39.99).

Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Nick Kapur, Rutgers University

Fintan Hoey’s book Satō, America, and the Cold War is a detailed, somewhat revisionist examination of the diplomacy of Japanese Prime Minister Satō Eisaku (in office 1964-1972), especially toward the United States.  In contrast to prevailing scholarship that has tended to portray Satō as either an unwitting pawn of the United States, a dull, wishy-washy technocrat who survived by never committing to anything, or a cynical political operator who knowingly sacrificed Japan’s national interests to burnish his personal legacy, Hoey seeks to argue that “Satō Eisaku was a visionary statesman and leader” who “skillfully navigate[d] the ship of state” through rough currents to become “not only one of the great leaders of modern Japan, but also a major statesman of the twentieth century” (1, 21, 181).

Along the way, Hoey provides a detailed chronological account of Satō’s diplomatic maneuverings throughout his entire run as prime minister, based on his readings of an impressively wide array of published and archival sources in both English and Japanese.  In particular, Hoey diligently mines Satō’s notoriously dull diary for the occasional colorful or revealing passage. Chapters 1 and 2 set the stage for the dramatic events to follow by briefly summarizing Satō’s foreign policy initiatives during his first year in power from 1964-1965 (Chapter 1), and his initial efforts to broach the possibility of Okinawan reversion with President Lyndon Johnson and his evolving views on nuclear weapons from 1966-1968 (Chapter 2).  At the end of Chapter 2, Hoey provides a brief but useful account of the origins of Satō’s famed ‘Three Non-Nuclear Principles’ of non-possession, non-production, and non-introduction that would ultimately contribute to his winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.

The centerpiece of Hoey’s book is three extensively researched chapters (Chapters 3, 4, and 5) devoted to the negotiations leading up to the 1972 reversion of Okinawa, which since the end of World War II had been occupied by the United States as a de facto colony.  Making use of newly released documents and recently published memoirs that were not available to earlier scholars, Hoey’s account immediately becomes the most comprehensive and up-to-date account of the Okinawan reversion in English.[1] In particular, Hoey demonstrates how Satō and U.S. President Richard Nixon were similar in their distrust of their nations’ foreign-policy bureaucracies, and preferred to pursue foreign policy breakthroughs through trusted intermediaries who operated outside the normal policy-making apparatus. In the case of the Okinawan reversion negotiations, this was Satō’s trusted confidant Wakaizumi Kei, a university professor with no official government post, hammering out details in private conversations with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who was acting directly on behalf of President Nixon in an end run around the State Department.  The result of these negotiations was an agreement to revert Okinawa to full Japanese sovereignty by 1972, in exchange for three major concessions: the indefinite retention of U.S. military bases in Okinawa; a promise from Satō negotiate limits on Japanese textile exports to the US, which Nixon saw as undercutting U.S. manufacturers and harming his reelection prospects; and a secret personal agreement between Satō and Nixon—the ‘Agreed Minute’ of November 21, 1969—whereby Satō agreed that the United States could re-introduce nuclear weapons to Okinawa in case of emergency, despite Satō’s public stance that nuclear weapons would never be allowed on Japanese soil.

Chapter 6 moves on to consider Satō’s response to the so-called Nixon Doctrine,  announced by Nixon in July 1969, which called for greater burden-sharing on the part of U.S. allies in providing for their own defense. In this chapter, Hoey examines how Satō successfully resisted calls within Japan for a more autonomous defense policy, which would have required fundamental changes to the core compromises at the heart of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Hoey then concludes his study with two chapters (Chapters 7 and 8) on the so-called Nixon Shocks in the summer of 1971, when Nixon stunned the world with two surprise announcements, coming just one month apart: first, his hitherto secret plans to visit the People’s Republic of China the following year; and second, his suspension of the convertibility of dollars into gold, which would ultimately bring about the end of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates.  As part of the latter ‘shock,’ Nixon also added a 10% surcharge on imports which was more or less explicitly targeted at Japan. No country was more ‘shocked’ by the Nixon Shocks than Japan, and arguably no nation’s politics and economy were thrown into more immediate turmoil.  These events, and especially their impact on U.S.-Japan relations, have been surprisingly under-studied, and in these chapters Hoey offers far and away the most comprehensive account of the U.S.-Japan relations angle of the Nixon shocks to be found in English-language scholarship to date.  Along the way, Hoey also provides a useful update to the history of the ‘textile wrangle’—the long-running dispute between Nixon and Satō over the pricing and volume of imported Japanese textiles occasioned by the Okinawa reversion deal—that had not been much studied since a very early stab by political scientist I.M. Destler in 1979.[2]

Hoey’s book stands out among other, similar books in this field for his fluid, narrative writing style, and above all for his close readings of such a wide variety of sources, giving equal treatment to both American and Japanese perspectives.  By writing primarily in a narrative mode, Hoey is able to recapture some of the high drama that many of the participants in these negotiations felt at the time, and has produced a book that will be accessible to a wide variety of readers. And by giving Japanese sources and voices the full weight they deserve, Hoey provides a valuable update to earlier accounts of U.S.-Japan relations during this period that relied exclusively on the English-language archive.[3] Moreover, the Satō years in Japanese history have been extremely under-studied from any angle, which makes Hoey’s account one of the few books in any language that focuses primarily on Satō’s premiership.  Accordingly, Satō, America, and the Cold War will be of interest to scholars and students of a wide variety of topics touching upon U.S.-Japan relations, postwar Japanese history more broadly, and Japan’s often overlooked role in the broader shifts in the Cold War international system that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

All that said, this study is not without a few minor flaws and missed opportunities.  At times, the book reads a bit like a hagiography of Satō, presenting Satō’s actions and motives in the brightest possible light.  Hoey urges the reader to give Satō ‘credit’ for various achievements, and in one case, criticizes previous scholars because, in Hoey’s words, they “fail to give adequate praise to Satō” (46).  However, it is unclear to this author whether academic historians have a remit—let alone a duty—to ‘praise’ the historical figures they study.

Indeed, Hoey’s book goes beyond persuading the reader that Satō was more than an unwitting stooge of the United States and in fact had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the costs and benefits of his efforts to ingratiate himself to Nixon. In addition, he insists that Satō was a “visionary” and one of the great statesmen of the century (1, 181).  Similarly Hoey goes further than demonstrating that the terms of the reversion of Okinawa, which have been widely criticized by other scholars, were not nearly as bad for Japan as has been generally believed. In addition Hoey’s book, in his own words, “puts forth the view that Satō obtained the best possible outcome for Japan in securing the return of Okinawa, preserving the American security guarantee and, insofar as was practical, taking popular views into account” (47, emphasis added).

While one can agree that Satō and his aides negotiated hard and tried to secure the best outcome they could, can we really be sure that this was the best outcome possible?  That nobody else could have possibly achieved a better deal?  By Hoey’s own account, Satō had some deficiencies as a negotiator, including his tendency toward delegating negotiations to others, his disinterest in details, his impatience for negotiations to conclude, and his tendency toward exhaustion as negotiations dragged on.  Moreover, proclaiming the terms Satō received on the Okinawan reversion “the best possible outcome” with no further qualification begs the question, from whose perspective?  Certainly not from the perspective of the Okinawan people, who got the worst end of the bargain.

Even in the case of what is widely acknowledged to be Satō’s lowest moment, when he was caught completely flat-footed by Nixon’s surprise announcement about the visit China, and suffered severe political damage for having so staunchly supported U.S. policy of non-engagement with China even as Nixon himself moved toward rapprochement, Hoey still searches for opportunities to praise Satō. Despite the fact that when Satō reached out to try to normalize relations with China, his attempts were flatly rejected by Chinese leader Zhou Enlai, who refused to even have any contact with Satō (159), Hoey argues that the fact that Satō bothered to reach out at all “manoeuvre[d] Japan toward normalization” and “speaks to his immense diplomatic skill and political nous” (160).

Hoey also lets Satō off the hook for the seemingly gross hypocrisy of accepting a Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, in large part for having publicly declared Japan’s refusal to allow nuclear weapons on Japanese soil, despite knowing that he had secretly negotiated with Nixon to allow the entry of nuclear weapons into a newly-reverted Okinawa—a fact that was not made public until years later.  In briefly glossing over this controversy in his conclusion, Hoey does not explicitly acknowledge the evident contradiction between Satō’s publicly avowed “Three Non-nuclear Principles” and his private negotiations with Nixon.  Instead, he only vaguely alludes to “outlandish criticism” of Satō’s Peace Prize (181).  That said, insofar as the occasional tendency to lapse into enthusiastic praise of Satō jars with Hoey’s own narrative, this is because Hoey is too careful a scholar to allow his obvious personal admiration of Satō to more than superficially impact his otherwise nuanced analysis.

It must also be noted that Hoey’s analysis, while incisive, is somewhat circumscribed by his tight focus on foreign policy and only minimal discussion of Japanese domestic politics or policies.  Satō, America, and the Cold War is for the most part a rather conventional sort of diplomatic history, which focuses almost entirely on top-level foreign policymaking and negotiations between high-ranking diplomats and other state officials.  However, in recent decades, diplomatic historians have increasingly come to a consensus that foreign policy and domestic policy are two sides of the same coin, and that it is almost impossible to fully comprehend foreign relations without understanding domestic politics on both sides.  Accordingly, many recent works of diplomatic history have brought diplomatic negotiations into close dialogue with domestic political developments to bring to light the pressures, constraints, ideologies, and incentives under which foreign policymakers were operating.[4]

Hoey does not do this for Satō.  Instead, he portrays Satō as pursuing Okinawan reversion largely for its own sake, or at most, on behalf of securing some sort of personal legacy.  No mention is made of any domestic policies Satō may have wanted to pursue, and little mention is made of Satō’s political situation at home.  However, Japanese prime ministers in the postwar era had a long and well-known history of pursuing splashy foreign policy triumphs in order to secure the political capital at home necessary to pursue domestic reforms.[5] My own view is that Satō pursued Okinawan reversion so doggedly and desperately not merely for its own sake, but in order to allow him to achieve his domestic policy goals. But as Hoey shows, the negotiations over Okinawan reversion dragged on for so long, and Satō made such enormous sacrifices to bring them to a conclusion—including staunchly adhering to the non-engagement policy with China and promising a textiles deal he had no power to deliver—that even though he finally achieved reversion he had already lost most of the political capital he had hoped to gain from it.

However, because Hoey portrays Okinawan reversion as a goal for its own sake, and does not discuss Satō’s domestic policy ambitions, we are not able to assess the full extent to which Satō’s strategy did or did not pay off.  There is also scant discussion of the massive student protests of 1968-1969, movements such as Beheiren and others that protested Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the far-left terrorism of the early 1970s, or other domestic events in Japan that may have affected Satō’s foreign policy calculus.  A brief passage on how author Mishima Yukio’s spectacular suicide by hara-kiri in 1970 affected Sato’s thinking (129-30) is the exception that proves the rule, providing a tantalizing hint of the kind of richer treatment of Satō’s foreign policy the book might have been able to provide if it had attended slightly more to domestic affairs.  Given Hoey’s Japanese language skills, he would have been ideally equipped to offer a more well-rounded view of Satō’s foreign policy than other scholars have been able to provide, so the decision not to do so represents something of a missed opportunity.  Moreover, providing more context by outlining some of the domestic ambitions and constraints that guided Satō’s decision-making would only have furthered Hoey’s own stated aim of moving beyond threadbare tropes of Satō as an American stooge.  In fact, it was Satō’s skillful balancing of foreign policy with domestic concerns that allowed him to navigate a treacherous period in U.S.-Japan relations to become the longest continuously serving Japanese prime minister up until that time—a longstanding record broken only very recently by Abe Shinzō.  Presenting a slightly more well-rounded account of Satō’s skills as a statesman would have helped make Hoey’s glowing praise of said skills seem like a bit less of a reach.

These minor quibbles aside, Hoey’s book represents a major scholarly achievement.  Satō’s negotiations with Nixon over Okinawa and trade shaped broad contours of the U.S.-Japan relationship that remain visible to this day.  Deeply researched and eminently readable, Hoey’s meticulous account of this crucial chapter in the history of US-Japan relations deserves wide readership from both scholars and general readers alike.


Nick Kapur received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and is presently Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University’s Camden campus, where he teaches Japanese and East Asian history.  His research interests focus on modern Japan and East Asia in transnational and comparative perspective, as well as the history of US-Japan relations.  He is the author of Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo (Harvard University Press, 2018) and has also recently published an article entitled “The Empire Strikes Back?  The 1968 Meiji Centennial Celebrations and the Revival of Japanese Nationalism” in Japanese Studies 38:3 (Fall 2018).  He is currently working on a book project about suicide and self-sacrifice in modern Japan.



[1] For example, Wakaizumi Kei’s memoir, from which Hoey’s account extracts key insights, was not published in Japanese until 1994, and was not published in English translation until 2002.  See Wakaizumi Kei, Tasaku nakarishi o shinzemu to hossu [I should like to believe there was no better way] (Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 1994), and Wakaizumi Kei, John Swenson-Wright, ed., The Best Course Available: A Personal Account of the Secret U.S.-Japan Okinawa Reversion Negotiations (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002).

[2] I.M. Destler, The Textile Wrangle: Conflict in Japanese-American Relations, 1969-71 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979).

[3] See, for example, Walter LaFeber, The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations throughout History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), and Michael Schaller, Altered States: The United States and Japan since Occupation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[4] For two recent examples in similar areas of study, see Hajimu Masuda, Cold War Crucible: The Korean Conflict and the Postwar World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), and Jennifer M. Miller, Cold War Democracy: The United States and Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[5] Nick Kapur, Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 79-80.