THE last phase of the debate on the application of the trusteeship system to the former Japanese-mandated islands has now opened. The American position in regard to the control of the islands, certain of which are now included in our chain of military bases, was described by President Truman in a statement on November 6 and set forth in detail in a published proposal which later will be submitted to the Security Council. This proposal is in the nature of a compromise between the principles of collective and national security. We suggest that the Marshalls, Carolines and Marianas be placed under United Nations trusteeship, but with the United States as sole trustee. The United States would have administrative, legislative and jurisdictional power over the islands, which would be considered an "integral part of the United States." Moreover, areas would be classified as "strategic," under Article 82 of the Charter, at the sole discretion of the United States as administering authority. We thus claim the right to debar representatives of the Trusteeship Council from visiting such areas as we may designate at any time as "closed for security reasons."

These terms stop short of outright annexation. Moreover, that we are submitting them to the United Nations for approval and discussion is significant. Modifications will, of course, be proposed. The Administration is aware that the terms must finally be ratified by the United States Senate; but it is awake to the importance of world opinion. The President speaks of the willingness of the United States to place under trusteeship "any Japanese islands" for which it assumes responsibility, but says nothing specific about bases on the Ryukyu, Bonin or Volcano Islands.

It would be a hopeless undertaking to try to discuss the strategic bases in which the United States has a vital interest in limited and regional terms. American interests are world-wide. Even if attention is focused on a particular base or group of bases, the analysis leads inevitably to the general principles of our foreign policy. To raise the question of maintaining or abandoning any one of the bases established during the war is to raise the problem of the American security system as a whole. A discussion of strategic bases must therefore begin with an examination of primary questions concerning the security system at which the United States policy aims.

First, it is essential to note that we are in process of revising the basic geographical foundations of our national security, most significantly in regard to what has hitherto been thought to be its central pillar -- the "western hemisphere." At one time President Roosevelt used to speak of "this hemisphere" or of "the western hemisphere" as if it were a clear regional concept permitting us to define geographically how far this country would go in defending and stabilizing its security zone. That was in the days when the American people were just awakening to the necessity of measures of defense. Now, in the age of the B-36 and the atomic bomb, few can believe that the zone of North American security is that which was accepted, almost as a law of nature, ever since the Monroe Doctrine warned "Hands off the western hemisphere." [i] What is the western hemisphere? Where are its frontiers? The idea to which we are adjusting ourselves is that the frontiers of our national security zone lie wherever American interests are at stake, and that they reach anywhere that peace is endangered. It means, of course, that as a yardstick for determining the extent of our security zone, the Monroe Doctrine has crumbled.

Realization that the concept of a western hemisphere is not definable clears the ground for an attempt to determine the requirements of our security. It does not in itself solve the numerous problems which are hidden behind the term "strategic bases." To say that we have interests everywhere is one thing; to assume that we are, therefore, justified in establishing a military base wherever such a base seems essential to protect this country against attack is something very different. The difference is between a nationalist policy and a policy of internationalism. Certainly there are many gradations on the long line stretching between them, but our policy must move in one direction or in the other direction. We shall delude ourselves if we think that it can move in both.

Before considering this question further, it is well to note explicitly that what we regard as bases intended for defense against attack by hostile Powers might, and surely will, be considered by other Powers, e.g. the Soviet Union, as evidence of a new American belief in Manifest Destiny. In other words, wherever we maintain a strategic base for defense purposes, we shall be suspected of harboring aggressive intentions. (Indeed, some early sponsors of the plan to erect an American security system upon a strong chain of fortified bases gave justification for this suspicion by explaining that the purpose was to offset the future power of the Soviet Union and of China.) A Russian admiral in a Pravda article of September 12, 1946, described the United States naval policy as clearly offensive in character. He declared that our farflung peacetime naval bases cannot be intended for the defense of the American continent, since some of them are situated at the close approaches to the Asiatic continent (Okinawa) and of Europe (Iceland and Greenland). In the same vein, on September 13, 1946, the Russian historian Eugene Tarlé attacked Admiral Halsey's statement that henceforth American foreign policy must be conducted from "aggressive positions." Vice versa, we suspect the Russians of offensive intentions when they establish advanced bases.


The American base system grew out of the war. The number of bases which we built in order to mount the offensives against Germany and Japan defies the imagination. At a press conference in September 1945, Mr. Struve Hensel, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, stated that the United States, commencing in 1940, built 434 war bases of various dimensions: 195 in the Pacific area, 11 in the Indian Ocean and the Near East, 288 in the Atlantic area, 18 of which are in the North Atlantic, 67 in the Gulf of Panama and the Caribbean, 25 in the South Atlantic, 55 in North Africa and the Mediterranean, 63 in Great Britain, France and Germany.

The inclusion of 63 bases in Great Britain, France and Germany in these naval statistics points to the necessity of a study in the semantics of the term "base." Much fallacious thought on the subject results from an uncritical assumption that the word "base" is more or less synonymous with the word "port." Thus the term "strategic base" is usually associated with the idea of an insular area, or of a beachhead in foreign territory. But bases are not only overseas but overland, too, as in the important case of what might soon become a vital United States defense frontier in northern Canada. The occupied countries of Germany, Japan, Korea, Italy and Austria, or the territories of nations within the Anglo-American orbit, are not associated with the term "strategic bases." But a sound analysis of the question of bases cannot differentiate between island bases and beachheads, and other foreign territories available for military operations. Thus the complete story of American bases should include an appraisal of the rôle which, for instance, Japan and the American zones of occupation in Germany, Austria and Korea play within the framework of a United States security system of today, and, possibly, a United Nations security system of tomorrow.

Seen through Soviet Russian eyes, the United States security zone at present includes, for practical purposes, the impressive chain of strategic bases under the flags of the British Commonwealth of Nations, beginning with the British Isles (except Eire). The British and American base systems are, indeed, closely interwoven, and their full implications can be evaluated properly only if that is remembered. In this connection it is extremely significant to note that Britain is blueprinting a new defense system for her empire based on the supposition that in another world war seapower, and strongholds in the Mediterranean, would no longer safeguard the life lines of the Commonwealth. In this new system, the center of gravity has shifted from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and, through the heartland of Africa, to the Atlantic bulge of west Africa pointing toward America. Here the British system of defense almost links with the United States bases in Latin America, especially those in Brazil, Cuba and Panama. (For years, the United States has steadily broadened this defense system, which still stands in spite of the fact that many of the bases were returned to the Latin American republics after the war.) Cognizant of the fact that the Mediterranean may become too vulnerable in atomic and rocket warfare, Britain's new plan appears to be a drastic admission that even she must in the future rely on landpower and landbased airpower rather than on seapower alone. The equatorial heart of Africa, with its string of air bases constructed during World War II, has been chosen to protect the Mediterranean-Suez Canal-Indian Ocean artery and to control British (and American) oil interests in 'Iraq, Iran and Arabia. This new defense system in depth rests upon two main pillars. One is the Nigeria base, close to west Africa's Atlantic bulge and providing a natural bridge to both the British Isles and to the United States and Canada. The other pillar, to be connected with Nigeria by a 3,000-mile strategic highway, is Kenya, close to the Indian Ocean and to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan where Britain controls the headwaters of the Nile.

We would be dangerously mistaken if in analyzing the strategic bases of Soviet Russia we limited ourselves to a discussion of the Kuriles, or of her bases in Finland, or of Kalinograd (the former Königsberg), or to the appraisal of her actual or possible demands for bases in the Dardanelles, in Eritrea and Tripolitania, or on Spitsbergen. To complete the picture of the strategic bases of the Soviet Union we must include Germany east of the Oder-Neisse frontier, as well as northern Korea. We must also include the entire belt of nations within the Soviet sphere of influence, both in Europe and Asia. To fail to perceive the full meaning of the term "strategic base" is to misjudge completely the relative power positions of the United States and the Soviet Union. If one should limit one's appraisal of bases to those which come under the classification of islands or ports, and compare the strongholds of this nature maintained by the United States with those under the Soviet flag, one would reach the erroneous conclusion that the Soviet Union has shown considerably more restraint in establishing bases than has the United States. Henry Wallace seems to fall a victim of this generous but dangerous error when, in his letter of July 23, 1946, to President Truman, he claimed that "up to now, despite all our outcries against it, their [the Russians'] efforts to develop a security zone in eastern Europe and in the Middle East are small change from the point of view of military power as compared with our air bases in Greenland, Okinawa, and many other places thousands of miles from our shores." The Soviet Union, in fact, found ample compensation for the lack of opportunities overseas by establishing bases in lands directly adjacent to hers, either by military occupation or by the collaboration of friendly governments in her spheres of interest.

Our naval and air bases are usually classified in three groups: permanent operational bases, which are to be fortified and garrisoned with sufficient force to be held against a major attack until relieved from the continental United States; limited operational bases, which would be used chiefly for aërial reconnaissance; and emergency bases, which need not be garrisoned in normal times but which we would be entitled to occupy should an emergency arise. As examples in the first category, one could mention the following Pacific bases: Kodiak, Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, Bonin, Volcano, Palau, Ryukyu, Leyte, Manus; in the Atlantic, Guantanamo, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Trinidad and, of course, the Canal Zone. As limited operational bases, Attu, Midway, Truk, sites in the Philippines, French New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, Peru and the Galapagos (which belong to Ecuador) have been named. Emergency bases are planned in Dutch Harbor, Canton, in the Bermudas and throughout the Caribbean area. It should be noted, however, that many of these bases are primarily naval bases. Among the additional air bases, Iceland and Greenland, the Azores and further bases in the Caribbean are outstanding.

Living as we do in a constant state of emergency, the aforementioned classification has little more than technical significance. It is impossible to appraise the military significance of each individual base. Even if that could be done with full knowledge of all new and forthcoming weapons in the fields of atomic and bacteriological warfare and of airborne weapons, the appraisal would miss the point. Any discussion limiting itself to an individual base or an isolated group of bases disregards the fact that each base must be viewed as part of a general system of national or of collective security. If the bases of a Great Power are merely part of a national defensive system, then there is no escaping the sad conclusion that the more and better bases that nation has, the more and even better ones it needs, in order to protect the old ones. L'appetit vient en mangeant. The security zones of the Great Powers are already overlapping everywhere; but if Soviet Russia, Great Britain and the United States are proceeding on the assumption that collective security is already an outmoded concept, then the saturation point for base extension is not yet in sight.


The Atlantic Charter and the Cairo Declaration committed the United States to the principle of territorial non-aggrandizement. This principle was reaffirmed in 1945 in Chapters XI-XIII of the United Nations Charter, dealing with international trusteeship. President Roosevelt's foreign policy had seemed to be directed toward a system which would include a chain of naval and air bases flying the flag, not of the United States, but of the United Nations. But the climate of international opinion was drastically changing. The Yalta Agreement which gave the Kuriles to the U.S.S.R. was so secret that it remained unknown even to the Secretary of State until February 1946; but a growing uneasiness in the United States in 1945 prompted high-ranking naval officers to make a series of statements which advocated strong naval and air bases under the flag of the United States. A statement by Admiral King in April of that year, shortly before the San Francisco Conference got under way, to the effect that the United States must keep those Pacific bases for which we paid "by the sacrifice of American blood" was typical. At San Francisco, in May 1945, a subcommittee of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee urged outright annexation.

The trusteeship principles were qualified in the Charter. The special dispensation for "strategic areas" in trust territories, which placed such areas under the jurisdiction of the Security Council (with its veto provision) instead of the Trusteeship Council (Articles 82, 83 of the Charter) made it possible for a Great Power to control strategic bases short only of outright annexation. A passage from the Report of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee of July 16, 1945, reveals the American attitude clearly:

No island in the Pacific occupied by the United States could be placed under trusteeship without this government's consent, and therefore only on terms agreeable to the United States.

It was pointed out that careful consideration has been given to the security interests of the United States with respect to the trusteeship system. In this connection . . . letters from the Secretaries of War and Navy, stating that the military and strategic implications of the Charter, as a whole, are in accord with the military interests of the United States, were read into the record.[ii]

In January 1946, General Kenney, chief Army adviser to the United States delegation in London, suggested at a press conference that the United States should annex all the Japanese islands she needed. It was only then that two newspapers, The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, called attention to what seemed to be a serious difference of opinion within the United States delegation, and between the State Department and the military command, over the question of annexation of strategic areas in the Pacific. President Truman thereupon expressed himself in favor of placing the Japanese islands under trusteeship. But his remarks, made informally at his press conference on January 15, 1946, were so general that they did not make the official United States policy clear. The press, and opinion at Capitol Hill, were divided into two camps. Senator Byrd was one of the most candid; he declared that it would be "absurd" to talk about placing the Pacific bases under trusteeship when Russia was gaining complete control over the Kuriles.[iii] The same nationalist philosophy was reflected in the report by the Special Senate (Mead) Committee to investigate the National Defense Program of August 31, 1946: "The War, Navy and State Departments should have had plans, before the end of the war, to utilize those overseas bases necessary to our national defense, and they should have used the full weight of our bargaining power in executing these plans. The appropriate government agencies must now work out and set into operation a feasible program for the acquisition or use of strategic overseas bases." Former President Herbert Hoover summarized the trend when he told naval officers on August 30, 1946, that we must hold on to the Pacific islands because "we must extend our perimeter of defense."

The "perimeter of defense" concept is equivalent to a somber admission that the decision as to what we shall do about strategic bases should be left to the military experts, though the American public was perhaps hardly aware of the implications of such a policy.

About this time, we suggested to the British that bases in Canton and on the Christmas and Funafuti Islands be transferred to the American flag. Australia was requested to grant us naval and air rights in the harbor of Manus in the Admiralty Islands, where during the war we built a base at the cost of $156,000,000. The difficulties which the United States encountered in these negotiations with the Government of Australia well illustrate the fact that two competing principles -- national and collective security -- are at stake in all this bargaining. The Government of Australia requested a regional defense agreement for the southwest Pacific area based on the principle of reciprocity, a demand which was reiterated by the Duke of Gloucester on November 6, 1946, when he declared before the Australian Parliament that Australia would welcome an arrangement with the United States "for joint use of Pacific bases on the principle of reciprocity." It also emphasized that Manus is part of the Australian mandated territory of New Guinea and argued that the trusteeship provisions of the United Nations Charter preserve for members existing rights and interests in Mandated Territories. To our argument that the expense involved in the construction of the Manus base was sufficient justification for retaining the use of it, they replied that the so-called "Anzac agreement" of January 1944 had advanced the principle that the construction and use, in time of war, of military installations in the territory of another Power does not, in itself, afford any basis for territorial claims after the cessation of hostilities. It is not without interest that, in an article on dependent areas in the Pacific, Professor K. H. Bailey, who was adviser to the Australian Government at San Francisco, mentions the fact that an American reference to the harbor base included the "contemptuous expectation" that the Australians would "put up a squawk" about trusteeship.[iv] Unilateral action and collective action are two different things. To pursue one, under the assumption that we are dedicated to the other, can have only unhappy results.

Congress appropriated funds, for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1946, for United States bases on the former Japanese islands of Saipan, Tinian, the Ryukyus (Okinawa), Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Truk, Palau, Majuro, and the Bonins. It also allocated funds for bases in the Philippines, on Guam, Hawaii, Wake, Midway, Christmas and Johnston Islands, in Alaska, on the China coast, at Manus, and on Espiritu Santu, a British island in the New Hebrides.[v] But the very cloudiness of the situation, and the resulting dangers, helped start us on a new tack.

An official announcement by Admiral John H. Towers, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific fleet, after a White House conference between President Truman and top Navy commanders on September 30, 1946, indicated a different trend in our policy in regard to bases in the Pacific. According to Admiral Towers, a considerable reduction of the number of bases had been decided upon. The reasons mentioned were a "re-examination of the general situation" and President Truman's directive to the Navy to curtail expenditures by $650,000,000. The bases which will be abandoned were not specified, but the Admiral's statement indicated that Eniwetok and Majuro, which flank Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, might be given up. Truk, once a strong Japanese naval bastion in the Carolinas, will get little more than caretaker status, although an air strip will be maintained there. The anchorages at Ulithi and Peleliu, in the west Pacific, and Manus in the Admiralty Islands (where we modified our demands) are in a similar category.

In the Atlantic, we had earlier asked the Republic of Iceland to let us maintain our bases there for the duration of our military occupation in Europe. The people of Iceland did not consider that this harmonized with the policy expressed in President Roosevelt's message to Congress of July 7, 1941, in which our future policy toward Iceland was stated as follows: "[We] have given the people of Iceland the assurance that . . . immediately upon the termination of the present emergency all American forces will be at once withdrawn, leaving the people of Iceland and their government in full and sovereign control of their own territory." [vi] Even if there were some justification for the argument that the "present emergency" carried over into the postwar occupation, it was not surprising that the Icelandic people and their Government were unwilling to permit us to retain the bases. For one good reason, they were aware that the Soviet Union might establish a counter-base on Spitsbergen. A possibly serious diplomatic conflict between Iceland and the United States was avoided by the State Department's announcement, on September 21, 1946, that we would withdraw our military and naval personnel from Iceland within 180 days. Under the proposed agreement with Iceland, the United States merely reserves the right to use the American-built Keflavik airfield as a transit point for planes coming from and going to Germany, until the occupation of Germany is over. Even this comparatively moderate request met with violent opposition by the Federation of Icelandic Trade Unions, which tried to force the hand of the Icelandic Parliament by a general strike.

In Copenhagen, Denmark's Foreign Minister told the Parliament on October 30, 1946, that Denmark is considering terminating the agreement under which the United States placed wartime installations in Greenland. The termination appears justified, he said, because the "peace and security of the American continent was no longer endangered." Such developments show clearly how obsolete today would be the half-forgotten schemes for the purchase or even annexation of Greenland, dusted off in 1939 by some isolationist Congressmen.

We are reported to have made a request to Portugal for bases in the Azores. For reasons which are evident from Portugal's precarious geographical position in the Atlantic, we might be more successful in our dealings with her than with Iceland. The Portuguese Government is said to have asked for a political commitment in case her relations with other nations were damaged as a result of concessions to us.[vii] We were granted transit rights for a period of 18 months. However, the United States went out of its way to stress its respect for the sovereign rights of small nations by selling the American base and its equipment on Santa Maria Island to Portugal.

In the Far North the situation is obscure. Here the U.S.S.R. is our immediate neighbor over the top of the world, across the "Arctic Mediterranean." "If there is a third world war," said General Arnold, "its strategic center will be the North Pole." The importance of the problems involved in this vast zone is highlighted by a report from Ottawa in The New York Times of June 28, 1946, to the effect that Prime Minister Mackenzie King denied in the House of Commons that a recent memorandum from Washington to Canada on Arctic defense was in any way in the nature of an "ultimatum" and that the United States had presented a plan for northern air bases. This denial was prompted by an article in a Toronto weekly which, for the first time, discussed the memorandum that had actually been received but had not been mentioned in Parliament or in the press. We may note that on June 28, 1946, the Moscow radio broadcast that 540 hydrographical expeditions would be undertaken in seas bordering the Soviet Union during the next five years.


It is proper to remember that there are many stages on the road to effective collective security. A distinction may rightly be made between the advisability of maintaining distant national bases, and those close to the home center of national power. A chain of bases extending from the Caribbean to the Canal Zone is and will remain essential to the defense of the United States, for example, however sincerely we subscribe to collective security. Equally, the Soviet Union can rightly claim that her bases in Finland are essential for her security, in the event that she wishes an agreement with the United States and United Kingdom founded on the principles of collective security.

The further national bases are from the homeland, the greater the danger that they will become barriers to the growth of the United Nations. The newest developments in weapons of war will perhaps weaken the usefulness of distant bases, and make more apparent the dangers of overextension. But even without inside knowledge of the new technology of warfare, solely from elementary facts of geography, it is apparent that some of the distant American bases are ineffective for a strategy based entirely on national interests. This seems to be especially true for the wide chain of bases off the coast of Asia. Dangerous errors of judgment can follow a habit of looking at Asia across the vast expanse of the Pacific. Look north! The claim that the United States needs naval and air bases close to the Asiatic coast in order to hold true the balance in the destinies of China and Soviet Asia does not rest on geographical realities. It overlooks the growing significance of the immense land frontier between China and the U.S.S.R. That area is the fulcrum for whatever leverage we, or any other Power, will exert in China. The age of colonial imperialism, in which China was opened and controlled from her ports, is coming to an end. The military and political developments of recent years make it evident that the decisive force in Asia will be generated in the center, and from there will radiate toward the Pacific coastline. Such trends cannot be much affected, let alone controlled, by even the most perfect chain of island bases overseas; such outposts are no longer blue chips of United States power. Lack of imagination due to geographic ignorance can have sorry consequences.

Strategic bases rest on the assumption that "strategic frontiers" are still realities. The remaining Great Powers should have learned from the last war to subject that assumption to close scrutiny. Obviously, the time is far away when the United States, Britain or the Soviet Union could entrust its defense to United Nations bases, protected by United Nations forces. But the course taken by the United States in regard to the former Japanese-mandated islands is one of the factors which will determine whether or not the United Nations is to become a strong organization. Our most recent proposal repudiates the radical demand for annexation, although it could easily result in the kind of military occupation which is practically indistinguishable from annexation. However, the proposal recognizes the right of the United Nations to have a voice in the matter. Attempting to steer a middle course between a foreign policy devoted to the ideals of collective security and what seem the immediate demands of national security we doubtless desired to do no more than protect our rights and needs in the event that the United Nations proves not to be as potent as we hope.

But the terms in which we announced our decision still make possible the charge that the United States has a double standard of international morals in a matter which we consider vital to our safety. Of course, there is a real distinction to be made between almost uninhabited islands and populous territories: the primary purpose of the trusteeship system is to guard and advance the native welfare in "backward" areas, through international supervision of national administrations. Nonetheless, precedents set in the Pacific will affect the situation elsewhere -- in Africa, for example. The writer has stated above his reasons for doubting whether, for geographical reasons, the region in question (covering waters one-third the size of the United States, but a land area not larger altogether than Rhode Island, with a population of about 53,000) is really vital to our security. The attention now centered on the trusteeship areas in the Pacific should not obscure the fact that on several fronts the United States has taken the first steps toward a reduction of her strategic base system, though without advertising these steps as contributions to the cause of collective security. Whether we extend the areas which we proclaim to be strategic, thereby closing them to visit and inspection, will depend on the development of the international situation as a whole, and especially on whether there is evidence of reciprocal reliance on United Nations agencies on the part of the Soviet Union.

[i]Cf. "The Myth of the Continents," by Eugene Staley, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1941.

[ii] Huntington Gilchrist, "Second Commission: The General Assembly," International Conciliation, September 1945, p. 458.

[iii]Cf. Vernon McKay, "International Trusteeship," Foreign Policy Reports, May 15, 1946.

[iv]Cf. "Dependent Areas of the Pacific: An Australian View," by K. H. Bailey, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1946.

[v]Cf. "Influence of Armed Forces on United States Foreign Policy," by Blair Bolles, Foreign Policy Reports, October 1, 1946, p. 176.

[vi]Cf. Hans W. Weigert, "Iceland, Greenland, and the United States," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, October 1944.

[vii]Cf. The New York Times, James Reston, June 26, 1946.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • HANS W. WEIGERT, of Antioch College, formerly on the faculties of Trinity College and the University of Pittsburgh; author of "Compass of the World" (with Vilhjalmur Stefansson) and other volumes in the field of political geography
  • More By Hans W. Weigert