Chugiak High School students had a grandstand view of history on Sept. 26, 1971, when President Richard M. Nixon stopped to thank them for serenading him.
The band was set up at the intersection of 4th Ave. and D Street. Nixon chose to stop short of the reviewing stand between F and G streets because of protestors gathered there to protest nuclear tests on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Chain. He took the opportunity to shake hands with bandmaster Darrell Daley and thank the band for being there.
Nixon’s purpose for visiting Alaska was two-fold. He was invited to meet with Walter J. Hickel, the man he chose as Secretary of the Interior and then fired after the former Alaska governor publicly criticized the commander-in-chief. Hickel hoped for a reconciliation in order to foster support for oil drilling in the Arctic. He and wife Erma hosted Nixon and his wife Pat at a reception that night in their Turnagain home attended by 150 guests who were entertained by popular folk-singer Burl Ives.
The trip coincided with a stopover on an over-the-pole flight to Europe by Japanese Emperor Hirohito. It was the first-ever trip by a Japanese monarch to United States soil. Hirohito, then 71, and Empress Nagako were visiting seven nations on the other side of the globe.
The meeting between the two leaders was brief. Neither made political statements as they exchanged polite greetings. There was neither accusation nor apology over the war between the two countries that ended a quarter of a century earlier. Dressed in business suits and overcoats, they both bowed only slightly as they shook hands. The First Lady and the Empress stood beside their husbands on the small platform.
Noting that this was “the first time a reigning monarch of Japan in your long history to step on foreign soil,” Nixon welcomed Hirohito and Nagako to Alaska and America.
Hirohito expressed appreciation for America’s “unstinted assistance, materially and morally, after the end of the war, in the restoration and building up of our country.”
Controversy surrounded both the Japanese visitors and Nixon.
The prime minister and other high-ranking officials of the emperor’s homeland feared the meetings with Nixon and other world leaders would be politicized. They especially were not in favor of Hirohito meeting the American president but finally relented.
Hirohito, the 124th emperor in the centuries-long line of his family’s succession, assumed office in 1926 upon the death on Christmas day of his father, Taisho. The Japanese monarchy is the oldest in the world, dating from Emperor Jimmu’s assumption of the throne in 660 BC. Hirohito, who died Jan. 7, 1989 at age 87, was still considered the head of state even though his responsibilities were limited by a constitution adopted in 1947. Previously, all government actions were taken “in the name of the emperor,” officially making him the one who initiated the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 and the one who ordered the unconditional surrender in August of 1945.
Under a constitution drawn up at the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, Hirohito remained as head of state and crown prince, but not as a “living god” and now without military powers. A parliament became the governing body and the emperor’s authority was severely limited. MacArthur insisted that blame for the war be placed on the Japanese military, not the emperor. The ministers were wary that on this trip Hirohito might be given more attention than warranted under conditions that had been in place for two just decades.
MacArthur had directed that Hirohito was not to be among those tried for war crimes, but remain free as emperor as a gesture to the people of Japan. General Hideki Tojo, chief of the Kwantung Army, and six others were executed for war crimes following conviction in Tokyo trials; 16 others were given life sentences. In other war crimes trials outside Tokyo, more than 5,000 were found guilty and 900-plus were executed. They had been charged with brutal treatment of prisoners, involuntary medical experiments, slavery and other inhumane acts.
Nixon currently was under fire in a nation divided over conduct of the Vietnam Conflict.
Criticism was focused on Alaska over the upcoming Nov. 6 explosion of the third in a series of underground atomic weapons tests on Amchitka Island, near the end of the Aleutian Chain. That explosion, the final one conducted there, caused a seismometer reaction equal to a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. That compares to the recent 6.3 reading assigned to the probable nuclear explosion set off by the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Nixon and Hickel parted on cordial—if not warm—terms following their 1971 meeting in Anchorage.
The Watergate scandal that was to lead to Nixon’s resignation in 1974 did not begin until June of the year following the historic Anchorage meeting. Nixon was to be pardoned for potential criminal activity by President Gerald Ford, who had been vice-president. Nixon died April 22, 1994. Hickel was to be elected to a new term as governor, serving from Dec. 3, 1990, until Dec. 5, 1994. He died May 7, 2010. Erma Lee Hickel died Sept. 14.
Hirohito died on Jan 7, 1989, and was succeeded by his son, Akihito, who is the current Emperor of Japan. After his death, Hirohito was given the name Showa and his era declared to be one of “enlightened peace.”
This look at the meeting in Anchorage makes note of the role of local residents in welcoming the sitting president. Near the band were several locals who had an opportunity to see Nixon stop for a moment to chat with the bandleader. Among them were former Eagle River legislator Ed Willis and Mike Alex, son of the last Eklutna shaman and spiritual shepherd of the village who was to help gain passage of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act.
It can be safely said that Japan continues to be a strong ally of the United States. The relationship established between the 124th emperor and the U.S. president continues to be exhibited by the 125th emperor of that Asian nation and this country.
It can also be noted that despite the protests against detonation of three nuclear weapons in the bowels of Amchitka vast information about the effects of those bombs was obtained. Measurements from those tests are helpful today in recognizing the seismic waves given off by an explosion and differentiate between those and a natural underground disturbance. They also were able to record effects of the blast on surrounding terrain and measure the radiation resulting from the explosion.
Amchitka’s Project Cannikin set off a nuclear warhead of five megatons’ expected power 5,875 feet below the surface. When it was detonated, it created a small ocean wave near the island, but did not result in a tsunami. Surface soil was raised temporarily about 25 feet. The shock was felt on Adak and Shemya, each island about 200 miles away, east and west. According to the government, all radiation was safely contained underground.
The uninhabited island far to the west of us sustained no serious damage and the deadly radiation, now well past its half-life, was apparently contained underground.
What worries many people today, however, is that a nuclear warhead launched by anyone having such a weapon would not be aimed at an uninhabited island.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.