THE present system of United States military bases overseas offers a striking contrast with the situation that existed a decade ago. At that time, we retained occupation forces in Germany, Austria, Japan and Korea, with very limited air and ground support facilities elsewhere overseas. A few troops remained in China and Trieste, but were being progressively withdrawn; and we had only three base agreements, in addition to simple transit rights at designated airfields in Iceland and Saudi Arabia. Today, United States forces are stationed in about 35 separate countries and territories, exclusive of additional areas where our military representation is confined to training and advisory missions. Slightly more than one million Americans, including military dependents and civilian employees, are involved in our military activities overseas, and expenditures for the maintenance of these forces and installations are putting more than two billion dollars into local economies each year.

While the swift growth of this base system has not been distinguished by a pristine clarity of purpose, it has in fact proceeded logically and pragmatically from our assumption of a progressively greater responsibility for the military and political security of the non-Communist world. The base system reflects fundamentally our decision to assure the effectiveness of the strategic deterrent, but also our decisions to organize and sustain the NATO alliance, to maintain strong naval forces in Mediterranean waters, to support a collective security system in Southeast Asia, to protect Japan and Korea, to safeguard Taiwan. These decisions in turn have emerged over the past decade from the mounting pressure of the Sino-Soviet threat, from the very great disparity between United States power and the power of our overseas allies, and from an underlying awareness of the suicidal consequences of retreat into "Fortress America."

There can be no doubt that the requirements of our strategic air forces have provided the greatest single impetus to the development and expansion of the base system; for, with the exception of the military build-up in the NATO area, it is correct to say that the rapid development of overseas bases since 1949--and particularly during the Korean War--proceeded from the need to accommodate the flight characteristics of the B-47 bomber, which is the jet-propelled successor to the ponderous, propeller-driven B-36. While the B-47 is now being replaced, it remains for the time being the backbone of our strategic retaliatory forces. Expansion of existing facilities in Japan, Okinawa and Guam; further development of bases in Canada and Newfoundland; establishment of the elaborate operational complexes in England, Morocco and Spain--all these followed from the decision to rely upon the B-47 as the principal instrument of United States strategic air power. The effective combat radius of that aircraft required forward operating bases nearer to the target areas than could be located within territory controlled by the United States. But in addition the availability of such bases held out the prospect of important strategic advantages. A wide dispersal of United States air power around the Sino-Soviet perimeters would, by forcing a diffusion of the Soviet air-atomic effort, make it more difficult for the Soviets to calculate that they could destroy our retaliatory force by surprise attack. Moreover, carefully selected base areas "close in" to the Sino-Soviet borders would permit approaches from virtually all points of the compass and this would greatly complicate the problem of Soviet defense. In combination, these factors were expected to impose due caution on Soviet policy, at least as regards its contemplation of direct attack upon the United States.

By and large this strategic conception and the base system built to support it have served their intended purpose for the better part of the last decade. If they have eloquently demonstrated that strategic air power alone is an inadequate and almost useless instrument for dealing with the limited military and quasi-military challenges with which the Sino-Soviet bloc has repeatedly confronted us during this period, they have nevertheless proved an effective deterrent to general war; and, viewed in true perspective, that has been the principal task assigned these instruments by United States policy. Now, however, we have crossed over another threshold into a new strategic situation, pushed relentlessly by technological and political change which in these days moves with such incredible speed and presents such a bewildering complexity of political and technical choices as to threaten strategic planners with paralysis. Once more we are face to face with an urgent need to re-assess the fundamentals of our strategic position.

The principal military development which calls forth the reassessment is the dangerously rapid and impressive growth of Soviet atomic striking power which has increased the vulnerability of the overseas bases to a point which now makes their use for sustained operations a very dubious proposition. In the face of this stark new condition, the United States has worked hard to devise improved air refueling and other techniques which would make possible a gradual pull-back of units into the Western Hemisphere and the gradual transformation of the overseas air bases into what are essentially landing fields for pre-strike and post-strike ground refueling. In this effort we have made considerable progress. Moreover, we are developing weapons and techniques which should further reduce our dependence on foreign bases for purposes related to strategic deterrence. One must be careful, however, to avoid giving a misleading impression of the present position. The overseas base system remains very important to the credibility and effectiveness of the Great Deterrent.

Nevertheless, it is correct to say that our strategic striking forces are moving gradually toward an independence of overseas bases, hastened by the developing Soviet ability to make them unusable for this purpose. Because the unfolding of the new situation will present consequential choices regarding new weapons, deployments and money, the United States cannot avoid an early re-assessment of the overseas base system, of its assets and liabilities, and indeed of the fundamental substance and emphasis of the present strategic concept. One desperately hopes it will be conducted with searching deliberation and that decisions will be taken knowingly rather than by inadvertence or default.

In making this assessment, it will be of great importance that those responsible take fully into account all of the relevant factors involved, and that they avoid applying--whether out of ignorance, lack of reflection, lack of will or desire for economy--the deceptively simple logic which the unfolding developments, technological and political, might seem to indicate. For while the base system was established and expanded primarily to assure the effectiveness of our strategic air-atomic capability, and is best understood in this context by Congress and American public opinion, in truth it has become a major--if at times a too conspicuous--element of United States foreign policy.

One fact not always appreciated is the wide variety of installations and facilities that go to make up the base system, and the equally broad spectrum of military and political purposes they are designed to serve. For example, the island of Guam (which is United States territory), the large base complex in Morocco and the magnificent installation at Thule are principal operating areas for the Strategic Air Command. The bases in Japan, on the other hand, afford not only airfields, but ports, ship repair facilities, tool shops and skilled labor that could be duplicated nowhere else in Asia. In Libya we have large-scale aircraft maintenance facilities and aircraft gunnery ranges to assure that our European air forces remain in a high state of readiness. There are radar stations and air-tanker fields in Canada, an Army communications unit in Ethiopia, and missile testing sites in the Bahamas. This is a measure of the scope and diversity of the base system, underpinned by political and economic arrangements of equal complexity. Though it generates frictions at many points and creates acute difficulties between the United States and the host countries, it remains a major strategic asset. It constitutes the cement in our system of alliances.

At present the inherent liabilities and cumulative frictions are in greatest evidence. The virtually permanent stationing in foreign countries of large numbers of American soldiers and airmen, sustained at higher living standards than the local population and enjoying certain immunities from local laws, has produced resentment and difficulty in the best of circumstances. But this problem alone would not be unmanageable. What now strains and threatens to vitiate many of the base agreements upon which the strategy of alliance rests are the implications of United States military policy in an atmosphere charged with new tensions and marked by a widening appreciation throughout the world of what atomic warfare is likely to mean. From the first, host countries have been sensitive to the inherent dangers of granting bases for use by U. S. strategic air forces. With the progressive development of Soviet atomic striking power--dramatically emphasized by the sputniks --and with the mounting drumfire of harsh Soviet warnings that countries containing American bases will be magnets for attack and destruction in the event of war, the anxiety has grown. In the circumstances, it has become more difficult to persuade host countries that their security is bound up with the physical presence of United States air forces, particularly those less sophisticated countries located at some distance from the Soviet Union and with whom the United States has entered into no binding arrangements for mutual defense. In these cases the unfolding situation, aggravated by the rising pressures of nationalism and anti-Western feeling, is serving more often than not to reinforce the instinct for disengagement and neutrality. Last year, for example, the Ryukyuan legislature unanimously passed a resolution calling for the discontinuation of base construction on Okinawa, expressing the fear that this would lead in time to "annihilation of the entire Okinawan population."

A year ago the Japanese Government, determined to attain a position of equality in its relations with the United States, and pressured by a public opinion intensely agitated by the Girard case, demanded and achieved the substantial withdrawal of American forces from Japan. While our prompt acquiescence appears to have made Japanese leaders more aware of the dangerous exposure which a too rapid departure of our forces would create, public opinion remains so sensitive on the question of atomic weapons that it is at best doubtful whether a situation which called for United States military operations in Korea, Southeast Asia or elsewhere in the area could now be supported from bases in Japan. In the Far East as a whole, in Africa and the Middle East, there is instinctive resistance to atomic weapons.

Nor is atomic fear confined to the "grey areas." The last elections in West Germany were distinguished chiefly by a gathering protest against the storage and prospective use of atomic weapons on German soil, and more generally, against their manufacture anywhere. Our European NATO partners remain decidedly cool to the offer of intermediate-range missiles, and Spain has asked pointed questions concerning the vulnerability of Spanish cities located near American air bases.

On the other hand, the military presence of the United States has served, and is serving, to strengthen the resolve of many nations to withstand external Communist pressure and to deal firmly with internal subversion. This was particularly true in Europe during the Greek civil war, the Berlin blockade and the anxious early days of the Korean War when the build-up of NATO forces around a strong American nucleus was a source of special reassurance. It is manifest today in Europe's defiance of Soviet missile threats. It has been, and remains, true in Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Elsewhere, as in Libya, the establishment of a military base provides a means of promoting and defending United States political interests which might not otherwise be open to us. Wheelus Field, for example, serves the needs of our strategic and tactical air forces; it also gives rise to an intergovernmental relationship which has enabled us to equip the Libyan Army and to provide economic assistance, two programs which contribute materially to Libyan independence and constitute a measurable counterweight to Egyptian influence.

In endeavoring to assess the exceedingly complicated and fluid problems and opportunities presented by our overseas base system, we would do well to recognize that most of the difficulties are inherent in the relationship created between foreign Power and host country. Opinion in the host country is unavoidably beset by a disturbing ambivalence. On the one hand, it desires the protection of United States military power and the economic advantages that flow from the presence of our armed forces and installations; on the other hand, it wants to assert its national independence by removing the foreign military presence, and indeed anything else that suggests foreign influence and control. The problem is not confined to Asia, but extends to host countries everywhere. The solution does not lie in rapid and total American withdrawal; for the countries concerned are, for the most part, aware of their acute exposure and would be dismayed by the departure of American forces. We must also realize there is most certainly a "peril point" beyond which further withdrawal would gravely endanger our own vital national interests.

To nurture the underlying mutual interest, which is so easily obscured, and to hold in check the state of tension which inheres in the relationship with host countries, we must also appreciate the need to grant meaningful compensation for our base rights. Political and military commitment, carefully selected mutual defense arrangements, various forms of military and economic assistance, trade agreements and technical aid have accordingly become indispensable elements of our alliance strategy and we must be prepared to use them on a continuing basis with intelligence and discrimination. This is a fact of international life to be recognized, even in dealings with our closest allies. In the best of circumstances, we may expect that the host countries are anxious in return to make their own tangible contributions to the common defense. In others, where ethnic, cultural and historic ties are tenuous, our position will depend more heavily on expenditures in the local economy, on various forms of assistance and on an unceasing effort, in face of enormous difficulties and disparities, to create a true sense of mutual interest and mutual trust. Broadly speaking, the challenge, after ten years, is still to devise a politico-military doctrine which is compatible with the strategy of alliance, which will nurture solid relations with our overseas friends because they can find it consistent with their real interests.

As we face this challenge anew, there is certainly no ground for optimism. On the face of it, our prospects for maintaining a viable system of overseas alliances were never worse. The balance of power has shifted against us--just how much is difficult to measure--and the Eisenhower Administration seems to watch this ominous development in benumbed passivity. The climate of world opinion is unfavorable. Unreason runs rampant in Asia and the Middle East. Nor can we expect to resolve fully the ambivalence which characterizes public opinion in all the host countries, even among our staunchest allies. Still there is reason to believe that the developing technological situation affords opportunity for improvement. If we can make the proper choices as regards both strategic doctrine and weapons systems it is possible that we can retain, and perhaps enhance, the significant advantages afforded by the base system, while at the same time reducing certain of its severe disadvantages.


Let us turn first to the choice of weapons systems. If enough money and the proper allocations are forthcoming without delay, we can still hope to have within seven or eight years--about the beginning of the predictably dangerous "missile lag period"--a respectable force of atomic-powered submarines mounting the remarkable Polaris missile, a compact, solid-fueled weapon with a range approaching 1,500 miles. These submarines, able to operate almost indefinitely beneath the surface of the ocean and, if necessary, to launch their missiles while submerged, offer special advantages in concealment and mobility. As the Nautilus and the Skate have now indicated, Polaris may enable us to exploit a permanent advantage conferred by geography: namely, that all critical targets in the Soviet Union are within 1,500 miles of large sea areas to which we have ready access. In the Arctic Ocean, the Polaris submarine can hide under the vast area of the ice pack, the edges of which are very close to Russia's northern sea frontier. For these reasons, Polaris is a weapon of special promise and may well become, within a few years, the most dependable means of maintaining the strategic deterrent to general war.

With sufficient effort, the intercontinental ballistic missile (I.C.B.M.) can also be available within the same general time period. With a range of over 5,000 miles, this weapon could be emplaced on United States territory or in adjacent areas of moderate political sensitivity, such as Newfoundland, Greenland and northern Canada. It would seem most practical, taking into account both military and political factors, to locate the I.C.B.M.s in areas which are remote from population centers and which afford maximum opportunity for dispersal and protection.

Development of weapons such as these would in time render our long-range atomic force independent of forward bases located on foreign soil. This could be expected to give added poise to our posture of strategic deterrence by affording better protection to the striking force and by assuring singleness of political control. In such circumstances, this instrument of ultimate recourse could, in significant degree, be removed as an object of controversy and irritation in the pulling and hauling of day-to-day relations between governments and could be relegated to a position further downstage where, as is appropriate to ultimate power, it could form a quiet but unassailable backdrop to United States diplomacy. The added freedom of action resulting from this development would permit United States diplomacy to pursue its objectives with greater clarity and consistency, to eliminate bases where they are no longer needed, to avoid awkward commitments that embarrass our true purposes, to escape from the present necessity of distorting policy for the sake of retaining base rights in particular places. Secretary Dulles, for example, would be relieved of further need to endorse the colonial status of Goa for the sake of the Azores; and he might more readily agree to repatriation of the few hundred Bonin Islanders who, as a destitute lobby in Tokyo, now comprise a nasty irritant in U.S.-Japanese relations.

Conversely, if we should choose to place significant reliance on the land-based intermediate-range ballistic missile (I.R.B.M.), we will be driven back into an even greater dependence on overseas bases for maintaining the strategic deterrent, particularly on those close to borders of the Soviet Union and Communist China; for the limited range of the weapon would dictate its emplacement. Moreover, the nature of the weapon is such that its emplacement in foreign territory, as a weapon to be used by American forces, would cause a severe aggravation of all the political problems that now confront us in the era of the manned bomber. The question of joint control would arise almost everywhere, in part because the technical nature of the weapon lends itself more readily to joint control than does the bomber, in part because of the more obvious dangers involved for the host country. Missiles cannot be put through practice manœuvres, cannot be quickly moved to alternate bases, and cannot "fail safe" if fired accidentally or through a miscalculation of the situation. Moreover, the combat readiness of the liquid-fueled missile is markedly inferior to that of the manned bomber.

Politically and militarily, therefore, the liquid-fueled I.R.B.M. may represent a wrong choice for the United States. It would appear to contribute little to a secure and reliable strategic deterrent. It is not a suitable weapon for limited war. And by straining relations with our friends and allies, it would tend to cast doubt on the reliability of our base rights for any purpose. The slow reaction time of the present I.R.B.M. applies even more to the presently projected intercontinental missile, which is also liquid-fueled. However, the disadvantage would tend to be reduced in the latter case by the factor of greater distance; and by the better warning, stronger active defenses, and singleness of political control afforded by emplacement on U.S.-controlled territory.

A land-based, solid-fueled missile of intermediate range would very likely serve to reinforce the strategic deterrent, if held under the national control of certain responsible allied governments, but there is no space here to discuss the ramifications of this question; nor does such a weapon appear to be an immediate prospect.


Let us turn now to the choices of strategic doctrine. Any assessment of the base system must take account of the fundamental geopolitical situation, namely, that the Sino-Soviet bloc, comprising a vast concentration of organized power, animated by a messianic compulsion that manifests itself in a policy of unlimited expansion, and presenting a pervasive challenge to both the values and physical security of the non-Communist world, occupies the center of the world's principal land mass--the Eurasian heartland. Most of the free countries are on the fringe of the heartland, while the United States lies in an island continent at some distance from Eurasia. Given these facts, the problem of defeating the aggressive designs of the Sino-Soviet bloc necessarily involves the holding of strategic points all around the Eurasian perimeter. Because the independent countries of Europe and Asia are not strong enough to hold these positions alone, this central task has fallen primarily to the United States. In shouldering the burden, we have unavoidably created a system of overseas military bases designed to impose caution on the enemy, to deter him from expansion in any of several possible directions and by any of several possible means.

As some of us have long contended, the United States is really faced with two distinctive military problems and must possess the will and the means to cope with both if the free world is to survive. The first is to deter the Soviet Union from resort to general atomic war; the second is to prevent the Sino-Soviet bloc from expanding its influence through the conduct of limited military or quasi-military aggression against any additional areas of the free world. While the two problems are intimately related, in fact interdependent, they are not one and the same; nor can both be met effectively with the same military means. Success in the first will depend upon our maintenance and continued development of atomic striking power and continental defenses, and upon our unflinching determination to use that power against a major aggressor, if the provocation is so extreme that no other course of action would be consistent with our continued national integrity. Success in the second will depend on our possession of highly mobile, stringently practised "fire brigades" capable of effective limited action with appropriate weapons, and on our finding the will to defend our interests and those of our friends through the application of military force for rational and restricted purposes. The forces for limited action must comprise a combination of all arms, and must assuredly be prepared to use tactical atomic weapons in certain circumstances. But it seems quite clear that the situations most likely to confront us on the boundaries of Eurasia will call for modern ground forces supported by tactical air and naval forces, and employing primarily what are called "conventional" weapons. The central fact is that these two distinctive elements represent interdependent halves of the only viable military doctrine open to us, and that our default with respect to either is likely to mean the continued decline and ultimate collapse of our fortunes, our purposes and our hopes for mankind.

These comments on strategy are relevant because the overseas base system is likely to contribute, in future, to the strength and political solidarity of the free world only if the United States is prepared to accept the doctrine of local defense and limited military action as a necessary corollary to the policy of strategic deterrence. The opportunity presented by the coming of Polaris and I.C.B.M. is the opportunity to remove the issue of general atomic war, with all its attendant anxieties, from the forefront of relations with our overseas allies and to make a fresh approach to arrangements with them, based on the sounder and more politically palatable idea of regional and local defense.

With strenuous effort and some sacrifice, we may hope to devise adequate weapons systems under our own control which will deter general war and thus permit us to avoid general atomic destruction. Yet if we succeed in this endeavor, we may be sure the Sino-Soviet bloc will continue to emphasize a fundamental of their operational theory and practice: namely, to keep the conflict divisible, to carry on relentless advance in small doses, by ambiguity and indirection, scavenging and distorting genuine revolutionary movements, while seeking to avoid confronting the United States with an issue so direct and so morally clear as would provoke a massive response. To meet this threat and thus avoid the continued erosion of the free world, we must have a policy of firmness and precision with respect to the use of force locally; and we must have allies in the forward areas with confidence in the United States and a will to defend themselves.

In Europe, where the "base" is the entire western peninsula of Eurasia, the situation calls for our more explicit recognition that the military threat to NATO takes more than one form; that in addition to the possibility of massive atomic attack, real danger exists in what General Norstad calls the "fait accompli"--the swift forward movement of Soviet shock troops, brushing aside a thin "trip-wire" force and taking effective possession of a West German province. Such recognition should take the form of renewed support for the concept of the "shield" and for SHAPE's efforts to raise this shield to the respectable strength of 30 ground divisions, including a permanent nucleus of strong American forces. It will also be important for us to say more convincingly to our European allies that we intend to fit our military response to the size and nature of a particular threat that may arise; that we do not rule out the possibility of non-atomic and localized response to certain situations in Europe (although we properly refuse to give a pledge not to use atomic weapons); above all, that it is our considered policy to do everything possible, consistent with effective reply to aggression in any form, to limit the scope and destructiveness of hostilities that might begin in Europe.

In the Middle East and Asia, the need is similarly for development of a military doctrine that will not repel our friends and allies, but the problem is more difficult here because of the greater disparities in power and technical skill between the United States and the host countries, and because the emergent nations, determined to free themselves from all vestiges of colonialism, are especially sensitive to politico-military arrangements with the West. Yet ironically their need for such arrangements is great and growing, for (with the exception of India) they form an exposed fringe of small states around the Sino-Soviet bloc. All are now militarily weak and (with the possible exception of India and Japan) their military strength is likely to decline relative to that of the Sino-Soviet bloc during the next several years. Accordingly, U.S. military bases on that fringe, or directly behind it, assume particular strategic importance; for without adequate U.S. military presence in these areas, and in such deployments as will make our capacity for action credible, it is certain that almost all of the countries concerned--from Japan around the arc to Iran --would feel compelled in varying degrees to accommodate themselves to the Sino-Soviet bloc.

If we hope to maintain our strategic positions in Asia and strengthen relationships with the nations of the region, several adjustments in our thinking are imperative: there will have to be greater participation by the host countries in defense planning and in operation of bases; and there will have to be more explicit commitments by the United States to defend particular regions and localities by means which do not guarantee the annihilation of the local inhabitants. The United States has spoken much in recent years of its desire to achieve a sense of "mutuality" with its overseas allies, particularly in Asia. But the goal has eluded us, in part because our strategic doctrine and our administrative preferences have aggravated the inherent difficulties of relations with host countries.

In the Philippines, for example, we must deal with men who feel a deep need to assert themselves in their relations with us in order to counteract an impression in Asia that the young Philippine Republic is a docile ward of the United States. They are also frustrated by the fact that independence has not brought them full freedom from reliance on their former guide and teacher, and they resent what they conceive to be our paternalism and tendency to take them for granted. Yet our military activities in the islands appear to be conducted with relative insensitivity to this condition. We have accepted native liaison officers at each base and have agreed to fly the Philippine flag, but aside from these gestures, the bases are regarded as a strictly United States operation. Nor have we tried to define the missions of the Philippine armed forces, nor to relate these coherently to the capabilities and functions of United States forces in the area. The difficulties are formidable and a good case can be made for our reluctance to be drawn deeply into commitments which might deprive us of military flexibility in a major crisis. Yet if we persist in this attitude, we should not be surprised if local public opinion is at best apathetic to our military presence and does not identify it with any vital interest of the host nation.

The fact remains that our hope of maintaining conditions favorable to our presence in Asia depends on our entering into activities and commitments from which we have heretofore held aloof. We must be prepared to share the operation of the bases with the host government, to participate in joint military planning, to designate particular forces for particular defense missions, to encourage local armed forces to assume responsibility for military tasks which fall within their technical and financial capabilities, and to relate these tasks to a coherent plan of local or regional defense.

Even with superlative diplomacy and the utmost good will, we will not succeed everywhere, but will encounter situations that call for more fundamental adjustments to political facts. For example, while holding out every hope of developing over the long term a strong and cordial relationship with Japan, we are nevertheless faced now with the need to adjust our military dispositions in such a way as to permit the support of our solemn commitments in the area from bases outside Japan. A possibility here would be the redeployment of selected forces to certain "back bases" in the central Pacific. From vantage points like Saipan and Tinian[i] we could maintain an effective military presence within the general area, without the disadvantages of concentrating our forces conspicuously in countries where the present political climate is unpropitious. If a "thinning out" of the forces on Okinawa could also be accomplished as part of such a redeployment, it would serve to relieve the present physical congestion there, and perhaps to reduce the political pressures as well, particularly if it were possible to remove the long-range bomber elements.


The emphasis which has been placed here on the importance of choosing the right military doctrine is necessary in any consideration of the future of the overseas base system. Only if we face up squarely to the problem of limited war, show a willingness to enter upon joint military planning with our non-European allies and declare ourselves ready to commit appropriate forces to local and limited defense actions are we likely to hold together our alliances in Asia and the Middle East. Conversely, only if we retain forward positions of advantage overseas will we be able to maintain a valid capability for limited military action on the boundaries of Eurasia and thus to hold a favorable local power balance in selected areas. Much therefore turns on the doctrine we choose. The long-range or sea-based weapons now in prospect should facilitate our making the right choice by permitting us to remove the disturbing issue of our air-atomic forces from our day-to-day relations with our allies. But they cannot assure it. Unless we can soon transcend the rigidities of "massive retaliation" we are headed for involuntary isolation.

[i] These islands are within the Strategic Trust Territory administered by the United States and the establishment there of naval, military and air bases is expressly authorized by Article 5 of the Strategic Trust Agreement.

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  • TOWNSEND HOOPES, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, 1948-55; Secretary of the Military Panel of the Rockefeller Special Studies Project; recently Consultant to the White House on overseas bases
  • More By Townsend Hoopes