70 years ago, Japan surrendered and the Second World War finally came to an end. There is a mythology about what exactly happened at this turning point in history, that covers up a moral obscenity.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 56% of people in the US still believe the use of nuclear weapons on Japan was justified.
Western propaganda says that the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the Second World War in the Pacific rapidly, and avoid a drawn-out US land invasion that would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. They were a terrible last resort.
The truth is quite different. US President Harry S Truman’s commitment to using the A-bomb on Japan actually led him to postpone steps that might have brought an end to the war earlier. There is a strong case that Truman’s determination to use the Bomb may have lengthened the war.
It is absolutely certain that the atomic bomb was not the only remaining recourse.
When judging the morality of the US-UK decision to drop the bomb, we cannot use hindsight (for example the US ‘Strategic Bombing Survey’ of 1946, or the views of decision-makers after the war); we have to examine the evidence that was available to decision-makers at the time.
It is a simple historical fact that, by July 1945, US president Harry S Truman was well aware of two other game-changing tactics that each had a good chance of ending the Pacific war – apart from a prolonged and bloody US land invasion of Japan.
Truman deliberately chose not to use either tactic until after he had dropped the atomic bomb.
One possible move was a Russian declaration of war.
In October 1943, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin told US Secretary of State Cordell Hull that he would join the war against Japan – after the end of the war with Germany. A year later, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told US political leaders that when Russia entered the Pacific War, Japan ‘would undoubtedly think twice about continuing the fight’.
On 8 July 1945, two months after the German surrender, the top-level US-UK Combined Intelligence Committee stressed that: ‘An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat’.
Why did President Truman not ask Stalin to declare war in July 1945, to hasten the end of the Pacific War?
Why did Truman decide to use all the atomic bombs he possessed against Japan before 15 August?
As it happens, as soon as the US bombed Hiroshima on 6 August, Russia rushed to declare war on Japan on 8 August, shocking much of the Japanese leadership, which had been hoping that Stalin would assist them in negotiating an end to the war.
It was well-known in US and British political and military circles that a key objective for the Japanese government in 1945 was to preserve the position of Emperor Showa, known in the West as Hirohito, and to protect him from a war crimes trial.
During the period April-July 1945, US intelligence intercepted and decoded a number of secret Japanese messages indicating that political and military leaders were willing to surrender if the position of the Emperor could be preserved.
On 28 May 1945, former US ambassador to Japan and acting secretary of state Joseph C Grew told president Truman (as recorded in a formal memo after their meeting): ‘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. If some indication can now be given the Japanese that they themselves, when once thoroughly defeated and rendered impotent to wage war in future, will be permitted to determine their own future political structure, they will be afforded a method of saving face without which surrender will be highly unlikely.’
Grew wrote in his memorandum: ‘The President said that he was interested in what I said because his own thoughts had been following the same line.’
During 1945, Truman was also urged to change the surrender terms to protect the Japanese Emperor by every advisor he had, apart from one. He was urged to drop ‘unconditional surrender’ and give immunity to the Emperor by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (first in February 1945); the British Joint Intelligence Committee (18 April); US Joint Staff Planners (25 April); the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (10 May); former US President Herbert Hoover (28 May); the head of the US Army, General George C Marshall (14 June); the head of the US Navy, Admiral William D Leahy (18 June); US Assistant Secretary of War, John J McCloy (18 June); the US State Department (30 June); and US Secretary of War Henry L Stimson (on 2 July, 16 July and 24 July).
This view was also reached by the British and US Joint Chiefs of Staff at a combined meeting on 16 July, when they formally minuted that the British military should approach Churchill to talk to Truman about exempting the Emperor. This led to Churchill approaching Truman on this subject again on 18 July 1945.
Despite this consensus of all his military and civilian advisors and officials, Truman ordered on 24 July 1945 that the Potsdam Declaration published two days later should reaffirm the demand for unconditional surrender. The only official in favour of this hard-line course was US Secretary of State James Byrnes.
Truman held firm to his position – until after the atomic bombs had been dropped.
Even after all this, Japan refused to surrender unconditionally, and insisted on preserving the Emperor.
On 15 August, Hirohito broadcast his order to surrender to ‘save and maintain the structure of the Imperial State.’
Truman then performed a colossal U-turn, and accepted this conditional surrender.
15 August was celebrated as ‘Victory over Japan Day’. The Emperor was granted immunity, and ruled Japan until his death in 1989.
Why did Truman wait until after the bombing of Nagasaki to make this change to the surrender terms – a change that almost the entire political and military leadership of the US and Britain had urged on him for weeks if not months?
US Secretary of State James Byrne told Senator Warren R Austin on 20 August 1945 that he ‘had hoped we could finish up with the Japanese without participation by the Russians’. Byrne ‘was very anxious’ and had ‘hoped that the Russians could not mobilize’ against Japan before 15 August (the date Stalin had given) – ‘because he knew of the development of the atomic bomb and the probability of its being effective’.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not a ‘last resort’. Truman and Byrne were determined to use the atomic bomb before using either a Russian declaration of war or immunity for the Emperor to secure a Japanese surrender.
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate