By: Jim Neuman, Public Affairs Specialist and Historian, Navy Region Hawaii
On the morning of September 2, 1945 U.S.S. Missouri lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay. The scene was the surrender of Imperial Japan to the allied forces and the end of World War Two. On the veranda deck bulkhead above the hatch that led to the Captain’s in-port cabin hung a framed 31-star American flag in a glass case.
General MacArthur summed up the sentiment of many around the world when he declared, “It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and the carnage of the past—a world founded upon faith and understanding—a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish—for freedom, tolerance and justice.”
For nearly four years the United States and her allies had fought the Japanese Empire over the issue of the control of East Asia and the destiny of the millions of people who inhabited this increasingly important part of the world.
The significance of the 31-star flag lies in its connection to America’s first treaty with Japan and the events that would bring the two nations together as competitors, enemies and friends.
When does America’s Story in the Pacific Begin?
The story of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific has its beginnings as early as the War of 1812 when the famed frigate Essex, under Captain David Porter rounded Cape Horn and decimated the unprotected British commerce along the West Coast of South America. Her crew ventured as far out as the Marquesas Islands before being captured in Valparaiso in March of 1814.
America’s own seaborne commerce was the key to U.S. naval presence in the Pacific in the greater part of the 19th Century. Initially, trade with the lucrative Chinese market consisted of animal skins from the Northwest and sandalwood, largely from Hawaii in exchange for prized Chinese tea, silk and spices, but the commercial focus would soon shift to the whaling industry.
New England whalers plowed the Pacific hunting grounds in record numbers between 1820 and 1860, precipitating the need to call on the U.S. Navy for protection.
In essence, until the geographical shifts in American foreign policy that were wrought by the Spanish-American War, Mahanian Theory and the ascendancy of the Japanese Empire, America’s fixed military presence in the Pacific consisted of small assemblies of ships formed into intermittent “squadrons”or “stations”operating along the Western Coasts of North and South America and in the East Indies.
In the absence of more permanent bases and diplomatic presence in the region, naval captains were called upon to sail the vast Pacific Ocean, ensuring respect for the American flag and acting in a sense as “armed diplomats”. The manner in which a naval captain carried on his responsibilities could either damage American credibility or establish a foundation that could be cultivated for the future.
One example is Commodore Matthew Perry who sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 with a set of demands seeking diplomatic and trade relations between the United States and Japan. The issues were largely commercial in nature, such as: better treatment for shipwrecked sailors, harbors of refuge and access to fuel and provisions, but the overall effect was to open Japan to the world for the first time in hundreds of years. It was the flag from Matthew Perry’s ship that was transported from Washington D.C. to Tokyo Bay in September of 1945 to be put on display aboard the Missouri during the surrender.
Within forty years of the opening of Japan and the closing of the American West, the United States began to develop an increasing interest in the Pacific and the need for a more permanent U.S. naval presence. The Spanish-American War of 1898 brought the Philippines and Guam under America’s aegis as territories. Hawaii was shortly thereafter annexed, and Pearl Harbor developed as America’s intermediary point between the West Coast and the Orient.
The Clash that Became World War Two
In many ways the United States and Japan would grow up together at the beginning of the 20th Century as relatively new players in the search for commercial markets and raw materials in the Pacific region. Ironically, it was Japan on the West and the United States on the East that formed the boundaries of the region and therefore had the most to gain or to lose in discussions of the region’s security. The clash that became the Pacific Theater of World War Two was largely a result of, to quote General MacArthur the “divergent ideals, and ideologies”that divided the two nations.
Though divided by six-thousand miles of ocean, unique cultural values and sometimes “divergent”national policy the goal for peace established seventy years ago has stood the test. Japan and America’s relationship proves that, differences aside, regional stability is attainable when our “most cherished wishes” lead to partnership and a commitment to understanding.