A Surrender by Atomic Means?

At dawn on August 5, 1945, after “General [Curtis] LeMay finalized the take-off time [of three B-29 bombers], final assembly of the [atomic] bomb proceeded[,] and take-off [from Tinian] . . . occurred on schedule,”[1] setting in motion a portentous chain of events that have since received an inordinate amount of scrutiny. At approximately a quarter past eight in the morning on August 6, the Enola Gay released its load––a single, gun-type atomic bomb––over Hiroshima, Japan, an industrial and military centre. The ten-foot long weapon, christened “Little Boy,” detonated some two thousand feet in the air, leveling a sizable percentage of the city and killing between 70,000 and 80,000 soldiers and civilians––a further 100,000 are said to have perished from acute radiation sickness in the subsequent weeks, months, and years. Three days after the attack on Hiroshima, a second atomic bomb, larger and more powerful than the first, was loosed over the Japanese port city Nagasaki. Fortunately, due to Nagasaki’s uneven terrain, “Fat Man” inflicted fewer casualties (40,000-75,000). In any case, Japan’s Supreme War Council, having convened hours before the Nagasaki bombing at Emperor Hirohito’s bidding, announced on August 14 the country’s surrender as per the terms outlined in the Potsdam Declaration (though only upon receiving a guarantee of immunity for the kokutai, Japan’s monarchy). Given the timing of the surrender––less than a week after Nagasaki––and Emperor Hirohito’s suggestion that the enemy’s possession of “a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives” rendered useless any further resistance, that the world readily accepted America’s use of atomic weapons as the sole reason for Japan’s swift and orderly capitulation is understandable. And yet, one would be remiss to dismiss from this equation the Soviet Union, whose presence grew increasingly ominous as spring turned to summer in 1945. A close reading of the circumstances surrounding Japan’s surrender suggests that the ever-looming threat of communism, rather than U.S. President Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons, dictated Japan’s actions in this final, terrible chapter of mankind’s bloodiest war.

America’s resolution to bring the Pacific War to an expeditious close by using atomic bombs against Japan arguably dates from before Nazi Germany’s collapse in the spring of 1945; indeed, a memorandum composed on May 2, 1945 alludes to a “Target Committee held on 27 April 1945 . . . on the importance of the mission relative to selection of targets [in Japan] . . .”[2] As Soviet, American, and British troops advanced on Nazi Germany, the latter two from the west, a struggle for mastery of Europe ensued. The U.S. and its Western allies (the U.K. and France) took much of Western Europe, while the Soviet Union consolidated the Slavic nations (Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc). Following the Nazi surrender, Germany was parceled out to the four main Allied powers: the U.S., France, and Britain occupied much of Germany’s western half, while the Soviet Union took the lion’s share of Germany’s eastern half. Berlin, firmly ensconced in Soviet-controlled Germany, was itself divided. “[A]n ‘iron curtain’,” so Winston Churchill would declare in 1946, “had descended across Europe, partitioning the free West from the communist East.”[3] Japan’s leadership, having witnessed from afar a geopolitical rift along ideological lines, surely understood that, by then, the grudging U.S.-Soviet, capitalist-communist wartime partnership had irrevocably severed. In addition, given Imperial Japan’s close ally Nazi Germany’s downfall, it stands to reason that Japan’s leadership intuitively recognized that the war was lost, that is, an Allied victory in the Pacific was assured. And lastly, in considering Japan’s evolved infrastructure, industrious workforce, and important geostrategic position in the emerging Cold War (as a potential beacon of free enterprise––a bulwark against communism––in the Far East), the country’s leaders were certainly cognizant of the U.S. and the Soviet Union’s shared desire to integrate Japan into their respective spheres of influence. Japan’s fate, the Council realized, would be decided not long after the two ideological enemies made their separate bids for mastery of the Japanese archipelago.

Despite that the Soviet Union’s apparent desire to impose its communist ideology on the world, as evinced by its repression of the Slavic nations the Red Army had ‘liberated’ from Nazi tyranny, disabused Japan’s leadership of any possibility that an alliance with the communist bloc would leave intact its monarchy and powerful zaibatsu (giant industrial and financial conglomerates not unlike the U.S.’s very own late-nineteenth century trusts), Japan had made repeated overtures to the Soviet Union in the spring and summer of 1945. Under the codename “Magic,” U.S. intelligence intercepted on July 12, 1945 a communiqué between the Japanese Foreign Ministry and its Moscow consulate:

We [the Japanese Foreign Minister Togo et al.] are now secretly giving consideration to the termination of the war because of the pressing situation which confronts Japan both at home and abroad. Therefore, when you have your interview with Molotov [the Soviet Foreign Minister] . . . you should not confine yourself to the objective of a rapprochement between Russia and Japan but should also sound him out on the extent to which it is possible to make use of Russia in ending the war.[4]

Such was Japan’s desire to ally itself with the Soviet Union that the communiqué claimed, “Japan––as a proposal for ending the war and because of her concern for the establishment and maintenance of lasting peace––has absolutely no idea of annexing or holding the territories which she occupied during the war.”[5] Essentially, Japan was sufficiently desperate for a partnership with the Soviets that it was willing to relinquish any hopes it still may have had of preserving its ill-gotten empire. However, Brigadier General John Weckerling thought it was “quite probable” that Japan’s peace offering to the Soviet Union was encouraged by a desire “to stave off defeat . . .”[6] Were this the case, Japan might have seen itself on a more equal footing with the Soviets, as one victorious empire parleying with another. Though Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, a man familiar with the “Magic” communiqués, claimed in a diary entry on July 24, 1945 that Japan’s overtures to the Soviet Union had actually been for naught (“[Japanese Ambassador] Sato asked to see Molotov but was put off . . . He finally did see Molotov who was . . . non-commital [sic] and said that all Russia could do would be to listen to any message which Japan wished to send.”[7]), there always remained the niggling doubt that the Soviet Union would honor its commitments at Yalta and fight against Japan.

This uncertainty as regards the Soviet Union’s intentions impelled the U.S. to act decisively to end the Pacific War, so as to quickly and systematically take control of Japan, a turn of events that seemed less likely as the deadline for the Soviet Union’s entry into the war neared. Given that a proposed land invasion of Japan, projected to cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, was expected to take months to complete, months during which the Soviet Union would also invade Japan and ultimately divide the country as Germany was divided, the proposal to use atomic weapons seemed increasingly plausible. Atomic weapons, it was calculated, would quickly end the war and wrest from the Soviet Union its one chance to absorb Japan into the communist sphere of influence, whether by means of diplomacy or war. Such was the Soviet Union’s fear that the use of atomic weapons by the U.S. would put at risk its own territorial aspirations in Japan that Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, after attending the Potsdam Conference, wrote in his diary, “Worried over the deteriorations in relations. . . . If the Russians felt that they had been pushed out of allied cooperation in this situation [the Pacific War], it would engender bad feeling–– . . . a race [for atomic weapons.] . . . [The Russians] were acting in good faith because of their own fears, and because of uncertainty as to whether we were ‘ganging up’ on them with the British . . .”[8] Though Ambassador Davies’ tone suggests that he believed the U.S.’s intentions toward the Soviet Union were benign, the swiftness with which the U.S. acted in the opening weeks of August 1945 indicates otherwise; by then, the Soviet Union, the red menace, was America’s primary enemy, not Japan.

In conclusion, President Harry Truman’s momentous decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be understood in the context of the U.S.’s ‘Cold War’ with the Soviet Union, not its war with Imperial Japan which by then was certain to end before long. Indeed, the Soviet Union’s impending declaration of war against Japan, set for August 8, 1945 (exactly three months after Nazi Germany’s surrender, as per the Yalta Agreement), might have been a cut-off point for American efforts to force a surrender from Japan, given that the last thing the U.S. wanted was a second “iron curtain” bisecting the Japanese mainland. With reasonable intelligence that the Soviet Union had yet to acquire atomic weapons, the U.S. saw in Japan’s persistent refusal to surrender an opportunity, in one fell blow, to test its ultimate weapon, end the war swiftly and with minimal casualties, and, at the same time, showcase its technological superiority to the world and, especially, to its ideological enemy the Soviet Union.

Works Cited*

[1] “Memorandum from General L. R. Groves to the Chief of Staff, August 6, 1945, Top Secret,” RG 77, MED Records, Top Secret Documents, File no. 5b (copy from microfilm), 1.

[2] “Notes on Initial Meeting of Target Committee, May 2, 1945, Top Secret,” RG 77, MED Records, Top Secret Documents, File no. 5d (copy from microfilm), 1.

[3] Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, Seagull Third Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 883.

[4] “‘Magic’ – Diplomatic Summary, War Department, Office of Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, No. 1204 – July 12, 1945, Top Secret Ultra,” Record Group 457, Records of the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, “Magic” Diplomatic Summaries 1942-1945, box 18, 2.

[5] “‘Magic’ – Diplomatic Summary, War Department, Office of Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, No. 1204 – July 12, 1945, Top Secret Ultra,” Record Group 457, Records of the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, “Magic” Diplomatic Summaries 1942-1945, box 18, 4.

[6] “John Weckerling, Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, July 12, 1945, to Deputy Chief of Staff, ‘Japanese Peace Offer,’ 13 July 1945, Top Secret Ultra,” RG 165, Army Operations OPD Executive File #17, Item 13 (copy courtesy of J. Samuel Walker).

[7] “Diary Entry, July 24, 1945, ‘Japanese Peace Feelers,’” Naval Historical Center, Operational Archives, James Forrestal Diaries.

[8] “Diary entry for July 29, 1945,” Joseph E. Davies Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, box 19, 29 July 1945.

* All citations, excepting [3], can be found at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB162/.

Copyright © 2013 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on August 3, 2013, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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