In August of 1945 nuclear weapons were exploded upon the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Following these atomic bombings, Japan surrendered. But were the atomic bombings necessary to save Allied lives and end Japan's threat to world peace while avoiding a deadly invasion of the Japanese mainland? The following account summarizes the events that led to Japan's surrender in World War II and then considers other means of achieving Japan's surrender.
For some who are accustomed to the popular beliefs about this matter, this study may be discomforting, although that is not its intent. But if we learn from past occurrences, it may make our future decision-making abilities more capable of saving the lives of our soldiers and sailors and of people on all sides.
The Tide Turns
As the war with Germany drew closer to the end, the Allies waged an increasingly effective war against Japan. After the fall of the Mariana Islands, including Saipan, to the U.S. in July of 1944, the impending defeat of Japan became increasingly apparent to many Allied and Japanese leaders.
The Marianas had been a key area within Japan's defense perimeter; now Japan would be within range of bombing runs from Pacific Ocean locations that were superior to the China bases that had been used for bombing missions (Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941-1945, pg. 174; Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, pg. 176).
And so from November 1944 onward, Japan was the subject of numerous large-scale B-29 non-nuclear bombing raids (Robert Butow, Japan's Decision To Surrender, pg. 41). When Air Force chief General Hap Arnold asked in June 1945 when the war was going to end, the commander of the B-29 raids, General Curtis LeMay, told him September or October 1945, because by then they would have run out of industrial targets to bomb (Sherry, pg. 300 & 410(143n)).
While Japan was being bombarded from the sky, a Naval blockade was strangling Japan's ability to import oil and other vital materials and its ability to produce war materials (Barton Bernstein, ed., The Atomic Bomb, pg. 54). Admiral William Leahy, the Chief of Staff to President Roosevelt and then to President Truman, wrote, "By the beginning of September , Japan was almost completely defeated through a practically complete sea and air blockade." (William Leahy, I Was There, pg. 259).
Then in May of 1945 the surrender of Germany freed the Allies to focus their troops and resources on defeating the final enemy, Japan.
Although fighting fanatically, Japan had lost a string of high-casualty battles (U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the U.S., The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam) 1945, vol. 1, pg. 905).
The Potsdam Proclamation
On the evening of July 26, 1945 in San Francisco (which in Tokyo was the morning of July 27) a message from the Allies now commonly known as the Potsdam Proclamation was broadcast in Japanese. The broadcast was relayed to the Japanese government on the morning of the 27th (Pacific War Research Society, The Day Man Lost, pg. 211-212).
The proclamation demanded "the unconditional surrender of all the Japanese armed forces" (U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the U.S., The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam), vol. 2, pg. 1474-1476). It made no mention of Japan's central surrender consideration: the retention of the Emperor's position (Butow, pg. 138-139). What made this crucial was that the Japanese believed their Emperor to be a god, the heart of the Japanese people and culture (Pacific War Research Society, Japan's Longest Day, pg. 20). The absence of any assurance regarding the Emperor's fate became Japan's chief objection to the Potsdam Proclamation (Pacific War Research Society, The Day Man Lost, pg. 212-214). In addition, the proclamation made statements that, to the Japanese, could appear threatening to the Emperor: "There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest" and "stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals" (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 2, pg. 1474-1476).
Enter the Bomb and the Soviets
On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the people of Hiroshima.
Early in the morning of August 9th Manchuria was invaded by the Soviet Union. The Soviets had notified Japan's Ambassador to Moscow on the night of the eighth that the Soviet Union would be at war with Japan as of August 9th (Butow, pg. 153-154, 164(n)). This was a blow to the Japanese government's peace-seeking efforts. The Russians had been the only major nation with which Japan still had a neutrality pact, and, as such, had been Japan's main hope of negotiating a peace with something better than unconditional surrender terms (Butow, pg. 87). To that end, the Japanese government had been pursuing Soviet mediation to end the war in response to the Emperor's request of June 22, 1945, a fact often overlooked today. (Butow, pg. 118-120, 130).
Late on the morning of August 9th, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb without a second thought, this time on the people of Nagasaki. Rather than wait to see if the Hiroshima bomb would bring surrender, the atomic bombing order to the Army Air Force stated, "Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff." (Leslie Groves, Now It Can Be Told, pg. 308). Word of the second nuclear attack was relayed that day to the Japanese government (Leon Sigal, Fighting To a Finish, pg. 240).
Bringing the nuclear threat closer to home, rumors were reported to the Japanese military that the next atomic bomb would be dropped on Tokyo, where the government leaders were meeting (William Craig, The Fall of Japan, pg. 116). Bombed by the Allies at will, Japan was militarily defeated. It still remained, however, for defeat to be translated into surrender.
After the Hiroshima atomic bombing, the Japanese Army and Navy had sent separate teams of scientists to determine what type of bomb had destroyed the city. By August 11th, both teams had reported to Tokyo that the bomb was, indeed, atomic (Sigal, pg. 236).
Japan had received what would seem to have been overwhelming shocks. Yet, after two atomic bombings, massive conventional bombings, and the Soviet invasion, the Japanese government still refused to surrender.
The Potsdam Proclamation had called for "Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers" (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 2, pg. 1475). On the 13th, the Supreme Council For the Direction of the War (known as the "Big 6") met to address the Potsdam Proclamation's call for surrender. Three members of the Big 6 favored immediate surrender; but the other three - (War Minister Anami, Army Chief of Staff Umezu, and Navy Chief of Staff Toyoda - adamantly refused. The meeting adjourned in a deadlock, with no decision to surrender (Butow, pg. 200-202).
Later that day the Japanese Cabinet met. It was only this body - not the Big 6, not even the Emperor - that could rule as to whether Japan would surrender. And a unanimous decision was required (Butow, pg. 176-177, 208(43n)). But again War Minister Anami led the opponents of surrender, resulting in a vote of 12 in favor of surrender, 3 against, and 1 undecided. The key concern for the Japanese military was loss of honor, not Japan's destruction. Having failed to reach a decision to surrender, the Cabinet adjourned (Sigal, pg. 265-267).
The Emperor's Desire
On the following day, August 14, Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda were still arguing that there was a chance for victory (John Toland, The Rising Sun, pg. 936). But then that same day, the Cabinet unanimously agreed to surrender (Toland, pg. 939). Where none of the previous events had succeeded in bringing the Japanese military leaders to surrender, surrender came at Emperor Hirohito's request: "It is my desire that you, my Ministers of State, accede to my wishes and forthwith accept the Allied reply" (Butow, pg. 207-208).
What made the Emperor's "desire" more powerful than the revulsion the military leaders felt toward surrender? The Emperor was believed to be a god by the Japanese. The dean of historians on Japan's surrender, Robert Butow, notes in regard to the military leaders in Japan's government, "To have acted against the express wishes of an Emperor whom they had unceasingly extolled as sacred and inviolable and around whom they had woven a fabric of individual loyalty and national unity would have been to destroy the very polity in perpetuation of which they had persistently declared they were fighting" (Butow, pg. 224). Or as War Minister Anami said after he agreed to surrender, "As a Japanese soldier, I must obey my Emperor" (Pacific War Research Society, JLD, pg. 87-88).
Surrender was so repugnant to Anami that he committed hara-kiri the day after he signed the surrender document (Butow, pg. 219-220). Where fear and reason had failed, religious devotion to the Emperor enabled the military leaders to overcome their samurai resistance to surrender.
Japanese Hawks versus Japanese Doves
If the hawks in Japan's government surrendered only when the Emperor requested them to do so, what brought the Emperor to express his wish for surrender? For prior to August 1945, it was unprecedented for an Emperor to express a specific policy preference directly to the Cabinet (Butow, pg. 224). The role of the Emperor was to sanction decisions made by the Cabinet, whether he personally approved of them or not (Butow, pg. 167(1n)). As a god, he was considered to be above human politics.
Emperor Hirohito was persuaded to cross this line by the doves in Japan's government, particularly Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Kido (the Emperor's closest advisor) and Foreign Minister Togo, a member of Japan's cabinet (Butow, pg. 206; Pacific War Research Society, JLD, pg. 28-30; Sigal, pg. 71 & 268).
If it was the doves, thru the Emperor, who brought surrender, what moved the doves to ask the Emperor to make his direct request to the government? For not only did this circumvent Japanese tradition, it also put the doves in danger of arrest and assassination and the government at risk of a possible coup, by members of the Japanese military.
The military had been arresting people who spoke out in favor of peace. (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 167-168; Butow, pg. 75(56n) & 178-179; Sigal, pg. 228-229). Japan's Prime Minister Suzuki had personal experience with the military's extremism; he had been seriously wounded and nearly killed during an attempted coup in 1936 by a faction of the Army (Craig, pg. 137). A careless pursuit of peace could have resulted in the destruction of the peace movement and, perhaps, the end of any chance to preserve the throne.
What took Japan's Doves so long?
There were three primary considerations behind why the doves made their move when they did:
The doves were able to surmount their fear of military reprisal when a greater danger appeared: the imminent loss of the Emperor. Even before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the declaration of war against Japan by the Soviets, Japan's doves realized that Japan's defeat was certain (Butow, pg. 47; Sigal, pg. 48). But with the atomic bomb, which could bring mass destruction easily and instantly, and the loss of the Soviet Union as a possible mediator of a negotiated surrender, defeat - and the destruction of the Emperor system - became an imminent threat (Butow, pg. 193).
The doves had run out of time; their religious devotion to the Emperor forced them to risk their lives to save his or, at the minimum, to save the position of the Emperor (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 200). The only chance to save the Emperor was to surrender.
On August 8 - before the Soviets announced their declaration of war and before the Nagasaki a-bomb was detonated - Foreign Minister Togo met with the Emperor to tell him what he knew of the Hiroshima bombing. They agreed that the time had come to end the war at once (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 300; Pacific War Research Society, JLD, pg. 21-22).
The problem of Unconditional Surrender
But unconditional surrender would still leave the doves' central issue unanswered: would surrender allow Japan to retain the Emperor? Japan's Prime Minister Suzuki spelled out the problem of "unconditional surrender" well for doves and hawks alike when he publicly announced on June 9, 1945, "Should the Emperor system be abolished, they [the Japanese people] would lose all reason for existence. 'Unconditional surrender', therefore, means death to the hundred million: it leaves us no choice but to go on fighting to the last man." (Pacific War Research Society, DML, pg. 127; Butow, pg. 69(44n)). From this time on, if not earlier, the Allies knew that the throne was the primary issue for Japan. While some of Japan's military leaders preferred additional conditions for ending the war, ultimately their control proved to be secondary to the desire of the Emperor - and Japan's doves - for surrender.
Much has been written about the vagueness of the Allies' call for "unconditional surrender". This vagueness, combined with many hostile references to Japan's leaders (Henry Stimson & McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service In Peace and War, pg. 626; Butow, pg. 136), contributed heavily to the conclusion by many in Japan that unconditional surrender could mean the end of their Emperor. Even Foreign Minister Togo, one of the leaders of Japan's doves, noted in a July 12, 1945 message to Sato, Japan's Ambassador to Moscow, "as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender, our country has no alternative but to see it [the war] through in an all-out effort". The telegram was intercepted by the U.S., decoded, and sent to President Truman (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 1, pg. 873, 875-876).
Robert Butow has aptly portrayed the feelings the Japanese had for the Emperor, in noting, "The one thing they could not do was sign a death warrant for the imperial house", and if it appeared that the Allies would take steps against the Emperor, "then even the most ardent advocates of peace would fall into step behind the [pro-war] fanatics" (Butow, pg. 141).
To demand unconditional surrender, without comment as to the Emperor's fate, meant a choice, Truman thought, between an invasion of the Japanese mainland or the use of atomic bombs on Japan, or possibly both. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall thought that even after using A-bombs on Japan the invasion would still be necessary, anyway, as opposed to the belief that using atomic bombs on Japan would make the mainland invasion unnecessary (David Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume Two, pg. 198).
Most high-level discussions that assumed either nuclear weapons or a mainland invasion of Japan would be necessary to end the Pacific war did so with the knowledge that unconditional surrender was the official Allied policy. The "a-bombs or invasion" choice was based in part on the assumption that retention of the Emperor would probably not be offered to Japan. Nor was a warning to Japan of the atomic bomb in the decision-makers' plans, as they considered what would be necessary to end the war. These omissions made the use of the atomic bomb seem all the more necessary for winning the war without an invasion.
U.S. learns of Emperor's importance
The U.S. government was not ignorant of the importance of the Emperor to Japanese surrender. Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew had explained this to President Truman in person on May 28, 1945. Grew had been U.S. Ambassador to Japan for 10 years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and was regarded as the most knowledgeable on Japan of any U.S. government official (Leahy, pg. 274). On May 28th Grew informed Truman, "The greatest obstacle to unconditional surrender by the Japanese is their belief that this would entail the destruction or permanent removal of the Emperor and the institution of the throne" (Walter Johnson, ed., Turbulent Era, Joseph Grew, Vol. 2, pg. 1428-1429).
In a June 18, 1945 meeting with Truman and his military advisors, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy argued that Japan should be permitted to retain the Emperor and should be given a warning of the atomic bomb in order to bring an earlier and less deadly surrender (Walter Millis, ed., The Forrestal Diaries, pg. 70-71; Len Giovannitti and Fred Freed, The Decision To Drop the Bomb, pg. 134-136).
On June 28, 1945, a memo from Under Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard was given to Secretary of War Stimson. In the memo, Bard recommended the points made by McCloy and suggested Japan be told that Russia would enter the war against them (Manhattan Engineering District Records, Harrison-Bundy files, folder # 77, National Archives; see also Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed, 1987 edition, pg. 307-308). Bard may have also discussed this memo with Truman in early July (Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope, pg. 52-53; altho 15 years later, Bard did not recall the meeting: U.S. News & World Report, 8/15/60, War Was Really Won Before We Used A-bomb, pg. 73).
On July 2, 1945, Sec. of War Henry Stimson and Truman discussed a proposal by Stimson to call for Japan to surrender. Stimson's memo to the President advised, "I personally think that if in saying this we should add that we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance". Stimson's proposed surrender demand stated that the reformed Japanese government "may include a constitutional monarchy under the present dynasty" (U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 1, pg. 889-894).
However, the constitutional monarchy line was not included in the surrender demand, known as the Potsdam Proclamation, that was broadcast on July 26th, in spite of Stimson's eleventh hour protestations that it be left in (Diary of Henry L. Stimson, 7/24/45, Yale Univ. Library, New Haven, Conn). Pacific war historian Akira Iriye explains, "One reason for this change [the removal of the Emperor retention line] was the growing influence within the State Department of men like [Sec. of State] Byrnes, Acheson, and MacLeish - with no expertise on Japanese affairs but keenly sensitive to public opinion - and the president's tendency to listen to them rather than to Grew and other experts." (Iriye, pg. 255-256). In regard to his disagreement with Under Sec. of State Grew over allowing Japan to retain the Emperor, Dean Acheson later admitted, "I very shortly came to see that I was quite wrong." (Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation, pg. 112-113).
Japan seeks peace through the Soviets
In the meantime, the Japanese government was attempting to persuade the Soviet Union to mediate a peace for Japan that would not be unconditional. This was in response to the Emperor's request at a Big Six meeting on June 22, 1945 to seek peace thru the Soviets, who were the only major member of the Allies that had a neutrality pact with Japan at the time (Butow, pg. 118-120). Unfortunately for all concerned, Japan's leaders were divided over precisely what terms should be sought to end the war, with the Japanese military leaders still wishing to avoid anything that the Allies would have considered a clear "surrender". Surely Japan's leaders hold the lion's share of the responsibility for the fate that befell Japan.
Having broken the code Japan used for transmitting messages, the U.S. was able to follow Japan's efforts to end the war as it intercepted the messages between Foreign Minister Togo and Japan's Ambassador to Moscow Sato. The messages were sent as the result of the June 22, 1945 Japanese Cabinet meeting. The conditions under which Japan was willing to surrender were not clearly spelled out in the messages, aside from a willingness to give up territory occupied during the war and a repeated rejection of "unconditional surrender".
July 1945 - Japan's peace messages
Still, the messages from Togo to Sato, read by the U.S. at the time, clearly indicated that Japan was seeking to end the war:
Objections to letting Japan keep the Emperor
There were various factors that might have made offering retention of the Emperor a difficult choice for Truman. It was believed by some that such a concession would embolden Japan to fight on. This argument, however, rings hollow, for it was all too obvious that the Japanese were fighting on anyway. In regard to American public opinion, it was well known to Truman that unconditional surrender was a popular, albeit vague, idea. For many people, this included punishment of the Emperor. Making an exception in the unconditional surrender to allow Japan to retain their Emperor would have been politically incorrect for the time (and in view of the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit controversy, for the current time as well). In August of 1945 both Truman and his primary foreign policy adviser, Sec. of State James Byrnes, expressed concern over publicly appearing soft on Japan (John Blum, ed., The Price of Vision - The Diary of Henry A. Wallace, 1942-1946, pg. 474; David Robertson, Sly and Able - A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes, pg. 435).
But in spite of the U.S. emphasis that the surrender must be unconditional, the Potsdam Proclamation included in its unconditional surrender terms the condition that the Japanese would be allowed to establish their own government. Perhaps the Proclamation could have gone a step further and stated clearly, as Sec. of War Stimson suggested, that the Japanese could retain the throne. In the end, after atomic bombs were detonated on the people of two cities, the Emperor was allowed to remain, anyway.
It is sometimes argued that an unconditional surrender was absolutely necessary for the purpose of keeping allies Great Britain and the Soviet Union committed to participation in the Pacific war. But Churchill had reservations about requiring Japan's surrender to be unconditional. He stated them to Truman on July 18, 1945: "I dwelt upon the tremendous cost in American and to a smaller extent in British life if we enforced 'unconditional surrender' upon the Japanese.". Churchill came away from his conversation with Truman believing "there would be no rigid insistence upon 'unconditional surrender'" (Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, paperback edition, pg. 547-548). The Soviets favored unconditional surrender because they felt it would prolong the war, enabling them to advance their troops further into conquered territory. But any desire the West had for Soviet participation in the Pacific war was luke-warm at best after July 21st, when President Truman received the full report of the successful atomic bomb test of July 16. Moreover, the U.S. did not even consult with the Soviets on the Potsdam Proclamation, which contained the proposed terms of surrender, before sending it out.
Not surprisingly, the Soviets were angered by this (James Byrnes, Speaking Frankly, pg. 207). And on August 10th, Truman told his cabinet he was prepared to accept Japan's surrender without Soviet agreement (Blum, pg. 473-474).
Military rather than Diplomatic approach
A point made by then Assistant Sec. of War John McCloy and seconded by the then Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Captain Ellis Zacharias is of particular importance. Regarding the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, McCloy later wrote, "everyone was so intent on winning the war by military means that the introduction of political considerations was almost accidental" (John McCloy, The Challenge to American Foreign Policy, pg. 42, my emphasis). Zacharias lamented, "while Allied leaders were immediately inclined to support all innovations however bold and novel in the strictly military sphere, they frowned upon similar innovations in the sphere of diplomatic and psychological warfare" (Ellis Zacharias, The A-Bomb Was Not Needed, United Nations World, Aug. 1949, pg. 29). Defeating Japan was perceived of by the Allies in the narrow terms of military methods. The Japanese messages intercepted by the U.S. in July showed the Japanese government's view toward the war had changed. However, the U.S. didn't keep up with this change, and the advantage of combining diplomatic methods with military methods was largely missed.
The reason for the emphasis on military solutions, as opposed to diplomatic efforts, may lie in the emotionalism and the desire for revenge that accompanies war. Many found the revenge satisfying, regardless of the loss of additional American lives spent to achieve it.
Truman reflected this feeling in a radio broadcast to the public on the night of Aug. 9, after an atomic bomb had been exploded upon the Nagasaki populace: "Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare" (Public Papers of the President, 1945, pg. 212). However, the vast majority of the people killed and injured by the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not fall into those categories.
From a purely emotional standpoint, the desire for revenge is understandable in a wartime situation. But from the standpoint of finding the least deadly way to bring the enemy's surrender and save the lives of one's own military personnel, emotionalism may divert leaders from considering diplomatic solutions by making military/punitive measures seem more attractive and necessary. This may have contributed to Truman's belief that Japan would not surrender without a large-scale invasion of her mainland and/or atomic bombings.
The Emperor stays
Ultimately, Japan was allowed to keep her Emperor. But the Emperor's retention was not established with complete explicitness at the time of Japan's surrender. Two main factors helped Japan's doves resolve the issue:
The Japanese government correctly interpreted this and other statements in the Allied surrender terms to mean that the Emperor could be retained. On August 14 the Emperor told Japan's cabinet, "I have studied the Allied reply and concluded that it virtually acknowledges the position of our note [requesting the Emperor's retention] sent a few days ago. I find it quite acceptable." (Toland, pg. 936-937). With this reassurance and at the Emperor's "desire", on August 14 the Japanese Cabinet unanimously signed the surrender document, agreeing to Allied terms (Toland, pg. 939).
Altho the Japanese military still wished to fight on as late as August 14, it was the doves rather than the hawks in Japan's government who had the final say. As mentioned earlier, it was the atomic bomb plus the belief that the Emperor might be retained that finally led the doves to play their trump card: the direct intervention of the Emperor requesting the Cabinet to surrender immediately.
Were Atomic Attacks Necessary?
But was the use of atomic bombs on Japanese cities necessary to bring Japan's doves to play the Emperor card? The Japanese doves had been working to end the war on the condition of retention of the throne (Butow, pg. 141) before the a-bombs that killed over 200,000 people were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (The Committee For the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, pg. 113-114).
Might the war have been ended sooner, with fewer deaths on both sides, before the Soviets had gotten into northern Korea (thus possibly avoiding the Korean War), before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima frightened the Soviets into putting their atomic bomb program into high gear (David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb, pg. 127-129, 132), and before an atomic precedent had been set? While there can be no conclusive answer to this question, it is worthwhile to study this topic for whatever insight it may give for future decision-making and the future saving of lives on all sides.
Historian and former Naval officer Martin Sherwin has summarized the situation, stating, "The choice in the summer of 1945 was not between a conventional invasion or a nuclear war. It was a choice between various forms of diplomacy and warfare." (Sherwin, pg. xxiv).
Long-time historian of the atomic bombings Barton Bernstein has taken a cautious view of what might have been: "Taken together, some of these alternatives [to dropping atomic bombs on Japan] - promising to retain the Japanese monarchy, awaiting the Soviets' entry, and even more conventional bombing - very probably could have ended the war before the dreaded invasion [of the Japanese mainland by the Allies]. Still, the evidence - to borrow a phrase from F.D.R. - is somewhat 'iffy', and no one who looks at the intransigence of the Japanese militarists should have full confidence in those other strategies. But we may well regret that these alternatives were not pursued and that there was not an effort to avoid the use of the first A-bomb - and certainly the second." (Barton Bernstein, The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered, Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 1995, pg. 150).
Echoing the concern of Assistant Sec. of War John McCloy and Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence Captain Ellis Zacharias that the Allies became overly dependent on military means, Leon Sigal writes, "At worst, withholding force might have prolonged the war for a while at a time when little combat was taking place; it would not have altered the final result. Yet restraint could have significantly reduced the gratuitous suffering on both sides, especially for noncombatants." Sigal concludes, "it could be argued that the United States behaved as if the objective of inducing Japan to surrender was subordinated to another objective - in Stimson's words, that of exerting 'maximum force with maximum speed.' American policy was guided by an implicit assumption that only the escalation of military pressure could bring the war to a rapid conclusion." (Sigal, pg. 219).
Regarding claims that the atomic bombings saved lives, Gar Alperovitz has noted, "It has been argued in this connection that using the atomic bomb was less costly in human life than the continuation of conventional bombing would have been. Apart from the fact that accounts which urge such a view commonly leave aside questions concerning [modifying the unconditional] surrender formula and the impact of the Russian attack, by early August 1945 very few significant Japanese civilian targets remained to be bombed. Moreover, on July 25 a new targeting directive had been issued which altered bombing priorities." "Attacks on urban centers became only the fourth priority, after railway targets, aircraft production, and ammunition depots." "...the new directive (as the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey noted) 'was about to be implemented when the war ended.'". (Gar Alperovitz, The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb, pg. 342).
It didn't take long after the atomic bombings for questions to arise as to their necessity for ending the war and Japan's threat to peace. One of the earliest dissents came from a panel that had been requested by President Truman to study the Pacific war. Their report, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, was issued in July 1946. It declared, "Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." (Bernstein, ed., The Atomic Bomb, pg. 52-56).
In 1948 Sec. of War Henry Stimson published his memoirs, ghost-written by McGeorge Bundy. In them Stimson revealed, "It is possible, in the light of the final surrender, that a clearer and earlier exposition of American willingness to retain the Emperor would have produced an earlier ending to the war". Stimson and Bundy continued, "Only on the question of the Emperor did Stimson take, in 1945, a conciliatory view; only on this question did he later believe that history might find that the United States, by its delay in stating its position, had prolonged the war." (Stimson & Bundy, pg. 628-629).
Robert Butow has affirmed Stimson's position: "Secretary of War Stimson has raised the question of whether an earlier surrender of Japan could have been achieved had the United States followed a different diplomatic and military policy during the closing months of the war. In the light of available evidence, a final answer in the affirmative seems possible, even probable." Butow continues, "Although it cannot be proved, it is possible that the Japanese government would have accepted the Potsdam Proclamation immediately had Secretary Stimson's reference to the imperial structure been retained. Such a declaration, while promising destruction if Japan resisted, would have offered hope if she surrendered. This was precisely Stimson's intention." Butow adds, "The Japanese military... interpreted the omission of any commitment on the Throne as evidence of the Allied intention to destroy forever the foundation stone of the Japanese nation. Here was an invaluable trump card unintentionally given them by the Allies, and the militarists played it with unfailing skill." (Butow, pg. 140-141).
Martin Sherwin has also followed up on Stimson's observation: "That unconditional surrender remained an obstacle to peace in the wake of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Soviet declaration of war - until the government of the United States offered the necessary (albeit veiled) assurance that neither Emperor nor throne would be destroyed - suggests the possibility, which even Stimson later recognized, that neither bomb may have been necessary; and certainly that the second one was not." (Sherwin, pg. 237, emphasis in original). As noted earlier, Stimson explained, "the Allied reply [to Japan's 8/10 surrender offer]... implicitly recognized the Emperor's position" (Stimson & Bundy, pg. 627).
In regard to the U.S. knowledge at the time of Japan's effort to end the war, Butow writes: "the fact is there was at least something of an opportunity here, or perhaps a gamble, which might have yielded startling results had it not been ignored. Although this criticism may be the product of too much hindsight, it is difficult to explain why the Togo-Sato intercepted messages did not at least produce a logical revision of the then current draft of the Potsdam Proclamation to include some guarantee - even a qualified one - with respect to the preservation of Japan's imperial system." (Butow, pg. 135).
From information contained in the Togo-Sato dispatches, the U.S. knew that Japan wished to send to Russia "Prince Konoye as special envoy, carrying with him the personal letter of His Majesty stating the Imperial wish to end the war" (7/13/45 message from Togo to Sato; U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 1, pg. 879). Here may have been another opportunity to bring the war to an earlier end, with lives saved on both sides. Butow notes, "Had Prince Konoye, as the fully empowered personal representative of the Emperor of Japan, been permitted to travel to Moscow (or anywhere else, for that matter) and had he there been handed the text of this [Potsdam] proclamation prior to its release to the world at large, he conceivably could have resolved speedily the very issues which government leaders in Tokyo spent the next three weeks in debating without result. Had the Allies given the prince a week of grace in which to obtain his government's support for acceptance, the war might have ended toward the latter part of July or the very beginning of August, without the atomic bomb and without Soviet participation in the conflict. Although Stalin's price for co-operation might have been equal to what he had already been promised at Yalta, the Western Allies might at least have been spared the added burden of subsequently having the Yalta concessions flagrantly augmented many-fold by hostile Soviet action in Manchuria and Korea." (Butow, pg. 133).
Use Both Carrot and Stick
The full weight of both carrot and stick could have been spelled out to Konoye in private: an opportunity to retain the throne in return for a quick surrender versus the alternative of Soviet invasion and atomic destruction. Allowing retention of the throne, the threat of Soviet invasion, and the threat of atomic attack were the three most powerful inducements for Japan to surrender. None of the three were mentioned in the Potsdam Proclamation, nor were they used to try to bring surrender before an atomic bomb was exploded upon the people of Hiroshima. Weren't our troops, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives, worth this effort to end the war sooner?
Butow adds, "Had anyone thought of pursuing the Konoye feeler in preference to displaying America's atomic achievement and in preference to seeking a belated Soviet entry into the conflict through Manchuria, Korea, and Sakhalin, an excellent avenue of approach existed in Switzerland where the [Allen] Dulles organization [U.S. Office of Strategic Services] had been in touch with the Fujimura and Okamoto [Japanese peace feeler] groups for several months." (Butow, pg. 134).
Setting up surrender talks sanctioned by both the U.S. and the Japanese governments would likely have been difficult. But there is no easy way of ending a war. The primary question is not what is the easier path, but what path will bring a lasting peace while sparing the most Allied lives and, secondarily, "enemy" civilian lives.
While it cannot be proven, had officially sanctioned communication been made by the Allies or the U.S. to Japan thru Konoye, the various peace feelers, or other credible diplomatic channel stating that Japan's time had completely run out due to the impending threats of nuclear destruction and Soviet invasion, and that immediate surrender would mean the opportunity to retain their throne, there is a good chance the Japanese doves would have enlisted the Emperor to bring Japan to surrender in late July or early August of 1945.
We could have informed the Japanese, as Sec. of War Stimson informed President Truman on April 25, 1945, that one atomic bomb "could destroy a whole city" (Stimson diary, 4/25/45), perhaps presenting evidence from the Trinity test. The knowledge that the Soviets were about to declare war upon them would have destroyed any hope Japan had of negotiating peace terms thru the Soviets, and the impending two front war would have disabused Japan's military leaders of their plan to mass their remaining forces against the anticipated U.S. invasion.
And ultimately we did allow Japan to retain their Emperor; as Truman biographer Robert Donovan described it, "accept a condition but call it unconditional surrender." (Robert Donovan, "Conflict and Crisis", pg. 99). As Truman wrote in his diary on August 10, 1945 regarding the Japanese request to keep the Emperor, "Our terms are 'unconditional'. They wanted to keep the Emperor. We told 'em we'd tell 'em how to keep him, but we'd make the terms." (Ferrell, pg. 61).
Atomic Bomb - the Last Resort
There is no way we can know for certain whether this approach would have ended the Pacific war sooner and with fewer deaths. But one may regret that such an attempt was not made. Had the attempt failed, the continuing blockade of supplies, Soviet invasion, and the atomic bombs were still available. However, anyone tempted to use the atomic bomb would have done well to share the hesitancy agreed upon by President Roosevelt and Great Britain Prime Minister Winston Churchill on September 19, 1944: the atomic bomb "might, perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese" (Robert Williams and Philip Cantelon, ed., The American Atom, pg. 45). (School of Advanced Airpower Studies historian Robert Pape has written an intriguing paper stating that further conventional air bombing would have been unnecessary: Why Japan Surrendered, International Security, Fall 1993).
It is likely Dwight Eisenhower was right when he said of the atomic
bombings of Japan, "it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."
(Ike on Ike, Newsweek, 11/11/63, pg. 108).
Sources for photos - Hiroshima: U.S. Air Force; Hirohito: source
unknown; Kido: National Archives; Marshall: U.S. Army; Stimson: U.S. Army.
This article is copyright © 1995-2000 Doug Long. The work may
be copied for non-profit use if proper credit is given to the author.