The History of Pacific Forum

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The Pacific Forum is one of the world’s leading Asia-Pacific policy research institutes and was one of the first organizations in the United States to focus exclusively on this region. The inspiration for the organization first came in November 1943, when then-Lieutenant Lloyd R. “Joe” Vasey was aboard the submarine USS Gunnel. In Vasey’s own words:

“After successfully attacking a convoy of enemy ships in the Yellow Sea between Korea and Japan, the American submarine USS Gunnel was worked over by Japanese anti-submarine warships during a 36-hour ordeal, with explosions from depth bombs periodically jolting the submarine severely.

“After surfacing at midpoint during darkness to replenish the foul air, Gunnel was sighted and attacked by gunfire from the three warships. While submerging again, Gunnel torpedoed one of the three warships which was rapidly closing at close range. Several hours later with depleted air and battery power and no other option but to surface, the Commanding Officer, Lieut. Commander John S. McCain Jr., USN, called his officers together and all agreed to fight it out in a surface gun battle with the enemy warships rather than surrender.

“While climbing the 22 foot vertical ladder to the bridge hatch while surfacing, the submarine’s Torpedo Officer, Lt. Lloyd “Joe” Vasey thought to himself “there has to be better ways to resolve international disputes” and vowed that if he survived, he would one day strive to do something about it.”

Click here to see a short clip of Admiral Vasey and Pacific Forum resident research fellows telling the story of the inspiration for the organization’s founding.

In 1972, Rear Admiral Vasey retired from the US Navy after serving as chief strategist (J-5) under Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., then Commander of the US Pacific Command.

In February 1975, at the “Emerging Era of the Pacific – Economic Development, Stability and Rivalry” symposium at the Kahala Hilton Hotel, the nearly 50 attendees agreed “to establish a Forum in the Pacific under the auspices of the private sector for a continuing trans-Pacific private dialogue and consultation among the developing and developed countries of the Pacific area,” to be called the Pacific Forum.

Pending the incorporation of Pacific Forum as a 501(c)(3) in the State of Hawaii, The Scaife Family Charitable Trusts awarded a grant of $30,000 to Pepperdine University “in support of Admiral Vasey’s initiatives to establish the Pacific Forum.” Pepperdine University contributed an additional $15,000 to the project.

Several months later, Pacific Forum formally incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and Admiral Vasey toured the Pacific Rim seeking support for the organization from leading statesmen and policy experts, including:

  • Nobusuke Kishi , Former Prime Minister of Japan
  • Lee Hahn Been, Former Vice Premier of South Korea
  • Tunku Abdul Rahman, Former Prime Minister of Malaysia;
  • Ferdinand Marcos, Former President of the Philippines
  • Thanat Khoman, Former Foreign Minister of Thailand and architect of ASEAN
  • Goh Keng Swee, Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
  • Gen. Ali Moertopo, an influential national policymaker and head of Pacific Forum in Jakarta

Discussions were also held with US ambassadors or their deputies. All enthusiastically endorsed the concept of the Pacific Forum and some suggested that the dialogues include issues of international trade and commerce.

Over the next 14 years, Pacific Forum was instrumental in proactively identifying emerging issues and facilitating dialogue between and among US officials and Asian leaders. The Forum convened dialogues and conferences on topics ranging from “The Future of Nuclear Power,” in November 1979 and “Latin America and the Asia-Pacific Region” in December 1984.

In 1989, the Pacific Forum merged with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the nation’s most influential foreign policy think tanks. Pacific Forum retained its name, own board, independent program agenda, and funding responsibility, while also supporting CSIS Programs. Then-CSIS board chairman Philip Habib described the relationship between Pacific Forum and CSIS as follows:

“The merger is a significant step of a plan designed to put both organizations at the forefront of Asia-Pacific policy formulation, The Forum’s founding principles – to bring to bear the best expertise in Asia-Pacific policy analysis and provide a network from Hawaii to the East and West – will be complemented by Pacific Forum’s exceptional research capability and outreach with Congressional and administration officials in Washington.”

Admiral Vasey retired from the Pacific Forum in 1990 and since then has held the positions of Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors and Senior Adviser for Policy. Admiral Vasey was succeeded as president by Dr. Amos Jordan, James A. Kelly, Ralph A. Cossa, Robert P. Girrier, and currently Dr. David Santoro.

In 2018, after almost 30 years as an affiliate of CSIS, the Pacific Forum returned to its status as an independent research institute. Today, Pacific Forum maintains a full-time staff of 12, a rotating resident research fellow cohort of approximately 5-8, and an annual budget of approximately $2.7 million.