Pacific Deal

By Walter F. Mondale, Thomas S. Foley and Michael H. Armacost

Tuesday, September 25, 2001; Page A23

As former ambassadors to Japan, we are extremely concerned about a little-noticed measure that is working its way through Congress as an amendment to a routine piece of legislation. If adopted, this amendment would undermine our relations with Japan, a key ally. It would have serious, and negative, effects on our national security.

The provision in question certainly has an honorable purpose: to help former U.S. POWs. But in pursuing that aim, this amendment would abrogate one of America's most important treaties, the 1951 San Francisco Treaty, which ended World War II in the Pacific. That treaty is the cornerstone of U.S. security arrangements in the Pacific, for it provides the legal and political basis for related bilateral agreements that have allowed the United States to station troops in Japan for a half-century. The San Francisco Treaty anchors other bilateral and multilateral security agreements on which the United States depends.

Why would Congress consider passing a law that could abrogate a treaty so fundamental to our security at a time the president and his administration are trying so hard to forge a coalition to combat terrorism? Surely that is not what Congress set out to do. Rather, members have tried to be responsive to the pleas of U.S. veterans, former prisoners of war held by Japan during World War II. Many of these formers POWs tell heart-rending stories of atrocious treatment at the hands of the Japanese and about the cruelty and inhumanity of their Japanese captors.

Some -- certainly not all -- of these former POWs have sought for years to bring lawsuits against Japanese companies, on the ground that it was the companies that actually interned them and forced them to work. But courts have uniformly rejected suits by POWs, because their claims were settled by the San Francisco Treaty.

In a well-intentioned effort to be responsive to our former POWs, Congress has considered passing legislation that would essentially require courts to entertain the POWs' lawsuits. These bills take different forms, but any measure that provides a basis for these lawsuits would certainly violate an essential provision of the San Francisco Treaty.

Some have suggested that Japan gave other countries more favorable treatment, which justifies allowing U.S. POWs to sue. But this has never happened. Japan has never allowed POWs or nationals of other countries to sue and recover from Japan or Japanese companies. Besides, federal Judge Vaughn Walker recently ruled that it is for the U.S. government to decide if some other country got a better deal, and our government has never thought that happened. On the contrary, every administration since that of President Truman believed the treaty meant what it said: All claims are settled.

The situation at the close of World War II in Germany was different. The San Francisco Treaty with Japan was an unambiguous settlement of accounts, but in Europe, Germany was divided, and the Cold War prevented or delayed settlements. This is why our government supported recent Holocaust-era settlements while strongly opposing claims against Japan.

Americans who were imprisoned by the Japanese were paid from more than $90 million in assets seized from Japan. Although the approximately $3,000 received by those who suffered most may not seem like much today, it amounts to about $23,000 in present value. Does this mean our soldiers have been adequately compensated? Of course not. Nothing can ever fully compensate for the suffering and pain they endured. But there is more to consider here.

Congress certainly has the authority to award further compensation to our World War II veterans. Such federally mandated payments would not be inconsistent with the San Francisco Treaty. In fact, there are several bills in Congress for this very purpose. Former secretary of state George Shultz recently wrote a moving letter to congressional leaders, opposing legislation that would permit POW suits against Japan, and said, "I have always supported the best of treatment for our veterans, especially those who were involved in combat. If they are not being adequately taken care of, we should always be ready to do more -- but let us not unravel confidence in the commitment of the United States to a treaty properly negotiated and solemnly ratified with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate." We share that sentiment.

The writers were ambassadors to Japan during Democratic and Republican administrations.

2001 The Washington Post Company