Reischauer: From Professor To 'Sensei' and Back To Professor

Edwin O. Reischauer left the Harvard campus in 1961 to become John Kennedy's Ambassador to Japan. An eminent scholar, born in Tokyo and married to a member of a distinguished Japanese family, Reischauer seemed to epitomize the new breed of Kennedy government servants.

In his five years as the American representative, Reischauer did much to improve relations between the two countries, and was instrumental in restoring a strong confidence to the war-battered Japanese. With his encouragement, the Japanese began to lose their feelings of diffidence toward America and started an economic surge which has returned them to the first rank of international prominence.

Yet by the end of the Ambassador's tenure in Tokyo, the Japanese press had lost some of its exhalted respect for the sensei (honored teacher). In more and more circles of the Japanese government, there was unflattering talk of the "two Reischauers" -- the diplomat who defended his government's Asian policy inflaggingly and the scholar who harbored serious doubts about "absurd" tragedies like the war in Vietnam.

Last week, in his fifth floor corner office at the Center for Far Eastern Studies, Reischauer freely admitted that there had in fact been two Reischauers. "While I was in Japan," he said, "I used my status as a scholar to great advantage. I gave many lectures on modern Japanese history which improved my relations with the people, and then ducked embarrassing questions at news conferences by saying, 'Well, you know I'm only a professor. I'm not really qualified to answer questions like that. But if you'd like my opinion as a student of Japanese history . . .'"

On his return to the United States in the fall of 1966, the 57-year-old University professor began to express his disapproval of the policies he had defended as Ambassador. In lectures around the country and in Beyond Vietnam, a newly-published study of the whole U.S.-Asian situation, Reischauer called for a new approach to forthcoming foreign policy. Attacking the long-defended State Department conviction that a Chinese Communist Wave was about to sweep over Asia, Reischauer wrote:

There are sharp limits to the geographic extent of Chinese military power. China simply does not have the industrial base to fight the kind of war the Japanese fought a quarter century ago, when they destroyed our naval power and defeated Western armies some 3000 miles from their own home bases.... Because of our great mobility by air and sea and China's poor transport capacity even by land, the United States is strategically much closer to parts of East and South Asia than is China. It is for these reasons that any attempt by China to conquer and hold down India or much of South east Asia would prove disastrous for China.

But Reischauer claims that the blame for our misguided foreign policy cannot be ascribed solely to the oft-maligned State Department. The American system has deprived the Department both of authority and of "talent and funds needed to do the job properly." The real menace to an intelligent far-seeing American Asian policy is the staggering pressure on governmental shoulders of having to solve daily crises. "The men at the top must jump from crisis to crisis, thus staying behind our problems rather than ahead of them.... Sometimes the possible alternatives to the response (to a specific problem) chosen or its long range implications are not considered at all," he writes in Beyond Vietnam. During the 1962 Asian turmoil, for example, he said, "The Cabinet worried for weeks about Laos--the most unimportant country in the world," and ignored relations with Japan.

If the government could take the time to consider "what will happen there when you do something here," then it might avoid strangling, entangling commitments. The silver-aired Reischauer analyzed the Vietnamese situation 13 years ago just as the U.S. took over from the French. With the foresight he advocates for the Executive, Reischauer warned then, "The French failure to relinquish Indochina has put a heavy burden on the United States financially and could end by costing us dearly in lives."

Reischauer today is trying to find a way to combat the short-sightedness necessitated by the day-to-day nature of American government. In the interview last week, he suggested that the President appoint a special advisory panel at the highest level of the Administration whose sole purpose would be long range planning. Although the ultimate decisions would remain in the President's hands, this panel could propose solutions to crisis situations based on a detached view of the long-term national interest. Reischauer said he had mentioned the idea to several Faculty members, but had not yet made an effort to contact Washington, since he feels such an innovation would have to be the work of a newly-elected President.

Reischauer disclaims any personal interest in politics, but sitting prominently displayed on his desk is a personally-inscribed copy of Robert F. Kennedy's To Seek a Newer World. Reischauer admits to an intense admiration for the junior Senator from New York. As Attorney-General, Kennedy twice visited Reischauer in the Tokyo Embassy, and the Ambassador found him "intelligent, receptive and strongly-principled." If Robert Kennedy were to run for President, Reischauer says, he would be glad to serve in the campaign, although he has no interest in returning to government service.

"Chet Bowles (John Kennedy's chief talent searcher) offered me two jobs in 1961, Ambassador to Japan or Under Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs," he explained. "I turned down the second without a moment's hesitation. As Under-Secretary, I would have been doing nothing in depth -- just fighting hundreds of brushfires."

Reischauer has a very keen sense of his own physical and intellectual limitations--and of where his own speciality should lead him. The stamina of men like Rusk and McNamara amazes him. "These are bone-crushing jobs," he said. In the more limited job of Ambassador, Reischauer at first felt ffihe was "on the edge of a precipice: one false move could cause a catastrophe," and marvels at Rusk's ability to step off a plane after wearying world-wide trips and still make errorless, careful statements to the press.

Reischauer was born in Tokyo in 1910, the son of Presbyterian missionaries. He earned his A.B. at Oberlin (1931) and his Masters and Doctorate at Harvard. From 1933 to 1938, he studied in France, Japan and China on a Harvard-Yenching Institute Fellowship.

In the summer of 1941, the tall, slim instructor in Japanese History went to work in the State Department. During World War II, he served the War Department as a lieutenant colonel, trying to break the Japanese code. After the War, Reischauer re- turned' to Cambridge; he became a professor in 1951.

An article on U.S.-Japanese affairs in a 1960 issue of Foreign Affairs brought him to Kennedy's attention, and despite the strenuous protests of his wife, he accepted the Ambassador's nomination. It was a popular appointment among the Japanese. "No simple professor could help but be gratified to find that he had suddenly been transformed into your Excellency. My wife and I were like movie stars. Everyone recognized us."

After five years devoted to "changing the feel of the relationship between the two nations"--while he tried to erase the "terribly inferior" attitude of the Japanese--Reischauer retired in August, 1966. "My reason for being there was outdaded by history," he said.

Last June, Reischauer started work on Beyond Vietnam. Fearing above all that the frustrations of Vietnam might inspire a right wing isolationist reaction in this country, Reischauer has tried to strike a middle ground between isolation and escalation. Urging the government to seek negotiations rather than a military victory, he argued that further bombing of the North could do little beyond creating a second guerrilla theater. On the other hand, he maintains in his book, if we pull out immediately "in our eagerness to save American lives and stop the carnage, we might help produce such instability in Asia and such impotence in ourselves that the development of a more stable prosperous, and peaceful Asia might be delayed by decades."

Reischauer believes America's chief hope for a tolerable outcome is "to force the other side gradually to reduce the scale of fighting and eventually to accept some sort of reasonable settlement."

To avoid future Vietnams, Reischauer urges general acceptance of a stance he has been taking for decades. The American educational system must move towards acceptance of a world history which concerns the Asian civilization as something more than just "what came before the Greeks." A balanced history of mankind--recognizing the enormous sophistication of the ancient Orient--may start the West on its way toward understanding the East.

As the war rages on in Vietnam, America may force itself to listen to Edwin Reischauer. But he fears, and perhaps it is a reasonable fear, that with the end of the war, Americans may register their disgust with swamps and rice paddies and Viet Cong by refusing to tackle the larger problems of the most heavily-populated continent. As more and more Asian nations gain a sense of national identity, a new attack of American isolationism would trigger a reaction more tragic than all the absurd Vietnams and Laoses put together