The Kennan-MacArthur Meeting and the Future of Japan
General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur signs the surrender as Supreme Commander Allied Powers on board USS MISSOURI.
Image Credit: Cross W G (Sub Lt), Royal Navy official photographer

The Kennan-MacArthur Meeting and the Future of Japan


Sixty-seven years ago, two of America’s 20th century giants met in Tokyo to discuss the future of Japan and its role in U.S. postwar foreign policy. George F. Kennan, the director of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, arrived at the Dai-ichi Insurance building on March 1, 1948, later recalling that his mission “was like nothing more than that of an envoy charged with opening up communications and arranging the establishment of diplomatic relations with a hostile and suspicious foreign government.” Kennan was referring not to Japanese officials, but rather to General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP).

Kennan had been sent by Secretary of State George Marshall to reign in MacArthur, whom Washington viewed as too independent of its control. According to Seymour Morris Jr., in his new book Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan, Marshall told Kennan that he would be meeting a “very difficult man with a colossal ego,” who is also “smarter than you are.” “Listen carefully,” Marshall advised, “be sure to flatter him, and ignore his satraps . . .”

They were two very different men. Douglas MacArthur graduated first in his class at West Point in 1903, and shortly thereafter toured much of Asia with his father, General Arthur MacArthur. Douglas saw action with the army in Mexico and later served bravely in the First World War as deputy commander and commander of the famous Rainbow Division. After the war, MacArthur served as superintendent at West Point, commanded troops in the Philippines, and was later appointed U.S. Army chief of staff by President Herbert Hoover. MacArthur served in the Philippines from the mid-1930s until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After retreating from the Philippines, MacArthur was named Supreme Commander of U.S. forces in the Southwest Pacific, and from his base in Australia waged a brilliant combined arms effort to bypass and clear Japanese forces from New Guinea and retake the Philippines. After the Japanese surrender, MacArthur headed U.S. occupation forces in Japan. MacArthur was brash, egotistical, brilliant, imperious, and confident of his own abilities and authority.

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George Kennan graduated from Princeton in 1924, and subsequently entered the U.S. Foreign Service. His diplomatic career took him to Geneva, Berlin, Riga, Tallinn, Moscow, Prague, Berlin again, and Moscow again, from where he wrote his famous “Long Telegram” in February 1946 to warn Washington about Soviet postwar intentions. In 1947, as head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, he wrote “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” under the pseudonym “X” in Foreign Affairs, which explained the policy of containment. Kennan was shy, introspective, bookish, and scholarly.

During their first meeting, according to MacArthur biographer D. Clayton James, the general subjected Kennan “to a two-hour monologue in which he proclaimed, among other things, that the Japanese were thirsty for guidance and inspiration . . .” MacArthur stated that it was his goal to bring the Japanese both democracy and Christianity, and he predicted that the great events of the next thousand years would take place in the Far East. Kennan noted in his report to Washington that MacArthur compared his occupation policies in Japan to Julius Caesar’s occupation of the barbarian provinces of Gaul and Britain.  He also noted that MacArthur downplayed the communist threat to Japan.

During the next few days, MacArthur’s staff briefed Kennan and other guests on occupation policies and accomplishments, while Kennan in turn briefed SCAP officials on Soviet developments.

On March 5, 1948, Kennan had a private session with MacArthur. “We discussed,” Kennan later wrote, “all the leading problems of occupation policy as well as the problems of relations with our former allies in matters affecting the occupation and the peace treaty.” MacArthur, according to Kennan, agreed with Washington that certain occupation policies needed modification. Kennan stressed the importance of Japan’s economic rehabilitation and “the restoration of her ability to contribute constructively to the stability and prosperity of the Far Eastern region.” MacArthur was particularly pleased, wrote Kennan, when he was informed that Washington saw no need for him to consult with the Far Eastern Commission (FEC) regarding its views on “implementing the terms of surrender.” MacArthur failed to realize, however, that this meant he could no longer take refuge in the FEC when he disagreed with Washington’s directives.

In strategic terms, writes Melvyn Leffler in his magisterial A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War, Kennan and MacArthur agreed that U.S. security in the Far East could be anchored by an “off-shore security perimeter embracing the Aleutians, the Ryukus, the former Japanese mandates, and Guam [and] Okinawa.” In his report to Washington, Kennan further noted that at their final meeting on March 21, 1948, MacArthur advocated increased military aid to the Nationalist forces in China to give them a fighting chance to defeat the communists. “[MacArthur] feels,” Kennan wrote, “that we would have everything to gain and very little to lose by furnishing moderate support to the Chinese Government at this critical time. He feels we should back up this government to the maximum practicable extent, short of provoking actual hostilities with Soviet Russia.”

Kennan later informed Washington that MacArthur’s occupation policies had “brought Japanese life to a point of great turmoil and confusion [and] a serious degree of instability,” and made Japan “vulnerable to Communist pressures.” In PPS/28, Kennan set forth a series of recommendations for occupation policies dealing with property, purges, war crimes trials, a peace treaty, economic recovery, security, education, and reparations that significantly altered MacArthur’s policies.

The ultimate result of the Kennan-MacArthur meeting was the diminution of MacArthur’s independent authority over occupation policies in Japan. Washington finally exerted its control over the Supreme Commander. This was codified in NSC 13/2 in October 1948, also drafted by Kennan. Several of MacArthur’s occupation policies were modified or discontinued. Japan’s economic recovery and its ability to act as a security bulwark against Soviet expansion became the focus of U.S. policy.

Kennan and Washington had effectively corralled MacArthur. As D. Clayton James concluded, “From now on, the Supreme Commander for the allied Powers would be, in reality, just the American commander in Japan and would be kept on a much shorter leash by his military superiors, who, on occupation matters, were now acting in close accord with the State Department . . .” Kennan believed that his role in limiting MacArthur’s authority in Japan was, after his contribution to the Marshall Plan, “the most significant constructive contribution I was ever able to make in government.”

Seymour Morris Jr., however, views the result of the Kennan-MacArthur meeting as a shift in emphasis rather than a complete reversal in policy. “[T]he change in policy,” he writes, “was more like a car veering off to the right at a fork in the road.” U.S. occupation policies succeeded. Japan became a thriving, vibrant democracy and a key part of America’s postwar security architecture. The Kennan changes, Morris concludes, should not detract from MacArthur’s accomplishment in Japan – “the greatest feat by America’s greatest general.”

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War.  He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books, The National Interest, The Diplomat, the Washington Times, American Diplomacy, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.

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