WASHINGTON -- In a major covert operation of the Cold War, the CIA spent millions to support the conservative party that dominated Japan's politics for a generation.
The CIA gave money to the Liberal Democratic Party and its members in the 1950s and 1960s to gather intelligence on Japan, make the country a bulwark against communism in Asia and undermine the Japanese left, said retired intelligence officials and former diplomats.
Since then, the CIA has dropped its covert financial aid and focused instead on gathering inside information on Japan's party politics and positions in trade and treaty talks, retired intelligence officers said.
The Liberal Democrats' 38 years of one-party governance ended last year when they fell from power after a series of corruption cases. Still the largest party in Japan's Parliament, the LDP formed an awkward coalition in June with its old enemies, the Socialists -- the party that the CIA's aid aimed in part to undermine.
Though the CIA's financial role in Japanese politics has long been suspected, the Liberal Democrats have always denied that it existed, and the depth of the support has never been detailed publicly. Disclosure of the covert aid could open old wounds and harm the Liberal Democrats' credibility as an independent voice for Japanese interests.
The CIA did not respond to an inquiry. In Tokyo, Katsuya Muraguchi, director of the Liberal Democratic Party's management bureau, said that he had never heard of any payments.
"This story reveals the intimate role that Americans at official and private levels played in promoting structured corruption and one-party conservative democracy in post-war Japan, and that's new," said John Dower, a leading Japan scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We look at the LDP and say it's corrupt and it's unfortunate to have a one-party democracy. But we have played a role in creating that misshapen structure."
Bits and pieces of the story are revealed in U.S. government records slowly being declassified. A State Department document in the National Archives describes a secret meeting at which Eisaku Sato, a former prime minister of Japan, sought under-the-table contributions from the United States for the 1958 parliamentary election. A newly declassified CIA history also discusses covert support sent that year.
But the full story is being pieced together through interviews with participants, many well over 80 years old, and descriptions of still-classified State Department documents explicitly confirming the Kennedy administration's secret aid to the Liberal Democrats in the early 1960s.
The law requires the government to publish, after 30 years, "all records needed to provide a comprehensive documentation of major foreign policy decisions and actions." Some State Department and CIA officials say the Kennedy-era documents should stay secret forever, for fear they might disrupt the coalition government in Tokyo or embarrass the United States.
The CIA's help for Japanese conservatives resembled other Cold War operations, such as secret support for Italy's Christian Democrats. But it remained secret -- in part, because it succeeded. The Liberal Democrats thwarted their Socialist opponents, maintained their one-party rule, forged close ties with Washington and fought off public opposition to the United States' maintaining military bases throughout Japan.
"We financed them," said Alfred C. Ulmer Jr., who ran the CIA's Far East operations from 1955 to 1958. "We depended on the LDP for information." He said the CIA had used the payments both to support the party and to recruit informers within it from its earliest days.
By the early 1960s, the payments were "so established and so routine" that they were a fundamental, if highly secret, part of American foreign policy toward Japan, said Roger Hilsman, head of the State Department's intelligence bureau in the Kennedy administration.