Why Japan Surrendered in 1945

It’s commonly said (in America anyway) that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 saved the lives of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of American soldiers, since our destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki convinced Japan to surrender, and that meant we didn’t have to invade Japan.

According to Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath, by the Australian historian Paul Ham, that’s not how historians view those events. I haven’t read the book and don’t know if I ever will (it’s 500 pages plus notes), but a review at the Los Angeles Review of Books site by Rutgers University historian H. Bruce Franklin strongly suggests that the book is worth reading if you want to understand what really happened at the end of World War 2.

Franklin summarizes the consensus view among historians:

…the atomic bombs were not necessary and did not significantly shorten the war, … no invasion of Japan prior to November was even contemplated, … the surrender of Japan was already imminent in July, … the Soviet entry into the war on August 9 was a major factor in the Japanese surrender, and therefore the atomic bombs probably saved no American lives at all.

He also summarizes Japan’s military situation in mid-July 1945:

… Japan had lost all its bases in the Pacific, and fleets of B-29 Superfortresses had reduced all but four Japanese cities to desolate ruins and smoking ashes while carrier-based navy bombers were systematically destroying its military facilities. Japan had no viable defenses against these aerial assaults. Japan’s only remaining army of any significance was isolated in Manchuria and Korea, and could not be brought home to defend the homeland because US ships were blockading Japan and shelling its coastal regions with impunity.

The most surprising aspect of this story (speaking as someone educated in the United States) is the role of the Soviet Union in ending the war with Japan. The Russians had agreed months before to enter the war by August. The Red Army had more than one million men in position by July. On July 17th, President Truman wrote in his diary that the war would be over as soon as the Russians began their offensive. 

Then Truman received a full report on the successful testing of the atomic bomb:

Up until the time he received the full report on July 21 …, Truman and his advisors kept urging the USSR to enter the war as soon as possible. After that date, they kept trying to delay the Soviet entrance into the war. On July 26, the United States and United Kingdom issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum that demanded Japan’s “unconditional surrender” or face “prompt and utter destruction.” … As Ham and many others have argued, the demand for “unconditional surrender” effectively rebuffed the numerous Japanese attempts to negotiate a surrender, which had been going on for months.

Ham argues that the decisive event in this rapid sequence was: 

the Soviet juggernaut that destroyed Japan’s last great land army and terrified that nation’s leaders… At midnight on August eighth, the Red Army launched the largest land engagement of the entire Pacific war. Within a few days, almost 600,000 Japanese soldiers and hundreds of Japanese generals had surrendered. Eighty thousand had been killed… [The Soviet  campaign] captured from the Japanese in a week of colossal combat an area almost the size of Europe.

Before reading this review, I’d never heard of this large-scale combat between the Russians and the Japanese. As Franklin says, the story we all heard was that the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan after the atom bombs went off in order to join in the victory. America had already finished the job. But according to Ham:

A greater threat than nuclear weapons — in Tokyo’s eyes — drove Japan finally to accept the surrender: the regime’s suffocating fear of Russia. The Soviet invasion of August 8 crushed the Kwantung Army’s frontline units within days, and sent a crippling loss of confidence across Tokyo. The Japanese warlords despaired. Their erstwhile “neutral” partner had turned into their worst nightmare. The invasion invoked the spectre of a communist Japan, no less.

According to Ham, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t make much of an impression on the Japanese leadership. The firebombing of other Japanese cities, especially Tokyo, had already demonstrated our ability to destroy cities and kill civilians. Some of the Japanese leadership had already been advocating for peace. Franklin and Ham describe what happened next: 

An hour before the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, the war and peace factions of cabinet met in a bomb shelter under the Imperial Palace and began a furious and endless debate about the terms of surrender they should offer because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria… Ham describes how they greeted the news of Nagasaki:

“Nothing of great moment had occurred in Hiroshima to persuade them of the futility of further defiance; the militarists scorned the weapon as a cowardly attack on defenceless civilians. Toward the end of the interminable discussion — now into its third hour — a messenger arrived with the news of the destruction of Nagasaki — by another ‘special bomb’. The [Japanese leaders] paused, registered the news, and resumed their earlier conversation. The messenger, bowing apologetically, was sent on his way. ‘No record … treated the effect [of the Nagasaki bomb] seriously,” noted the official history of the Imperial General Headquarters’.

The doves in the Japanese leadership had been demanding that the Emperor remain in power after a Japanese surrender. That was the single condition they had insisted on. Now the hawks agreed. Japan would surrender so long as the Emperor’s position would be maintained. The U.S., which had previously insisted on unconditional surrender, finally conceded that the Emperor would remain in power. The war was over. 

Given this evidence, it’s clear that the Soviet Union played an important role in ending the War in the Pacific. The stories about Soviet opportunism are clearly false (they had, after all, been carrying the brunt of the war again Germany earlier in 1945). Whether Truman should have dropped the bomb is another question. The most charitable interpretation is that he truly believed using the bomb would significantly shorten the war and save lives (not just American lives but Japanese and Russian lives?). A less charitable interpretation is that his real target was the Soviet Union. Using the bomb against Japan showed the Russians that America had the most powerful weapon in the world and was willing to use it. It also resulted in the Soviet Union controlling less of East Asia when the war ended and America controlling more. He probably had all these considerations in mind before he ordered the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

5 thoughts on “Why Japan Surrendered in 1945

  1. One of the biggest shocks as I learned about WWII was discovering that the European theater was basically a war between Germany and the USSR, with everything else, Africa, Italy, and the Normandy invasions, essentially being a sideshow. America’s biggest contribution in that theater appeared to be supplying the USSR with equipment and supplies and, very belatedly in the view of the USSR, opening up a second front to put pressure on the Germans. (In retrospect, it was a beneficial strategy to let Germany and Russia weaken each other, but I doubt we were that Machiavellian.)

    From what I’ve read of Japan’s surrender, there is a lot of disagreement about what exactly happened. The second atomic bombing and Russia’s attack happened on the same day. Arguing that only one or the other pushed a very divided leadership over the threshold is probably oversimplifying. Even after they decided to surrender, there was an attempted coup to prevent it, so it was a very chaotic and complicated situation.

    For Truman and the American leadership, I think we have to remember that they didn’t have the hindsight we now have. They probably had no idea what would get Japan to surrender, only had hazy conceptions of what the post-war world might be like, and limited understand of just how horrible atomic weapons were. They knew what the Okinawa invasion had been like (horrific), had no reason to think an invasion of Japan itself would be any better, and that despite months of firebombing, Japan showed little obvious inclination to surrender. Under those conditions, I think throwing everything they had at Japan was understandable, if regrettable.

    • As I said, I haven’t read the book, so don’t know what evidence is offered that isn’t mentioned in the book review, but, as you say with reference to the war in Europe, it seems clear that the Soviet Union played a larger role in ending the war with Japan than most of us realize. Up until reading this review, I thought they played no role at all (i.e. they supposedly joined in at the end in order to participate in a risk-free victory). Whether their involvement was more worrisome to the Japanese leadership than our continuing air attacks is another question, but the author appears to offer some evidence in favor of that view. (It was also big news to me when I learned that our war in Europe was less important to the eventual outcome than Hollywood and others led us to believe.)

      Regarding the American invasion, here’s a paragraph from the review:

      So what about that US invasion of Japan, dubbed “Operation Downfall,” that was going to cost all those American lives that were saved by the atomic bombs? When was that supposed to take place? The first stage of the invasion, “Operation Olympic,” was to be an amphibious assault on the Japanese island of Kyushu tentatively scheduled for November. The main invasion, “Operation Coronet,” would not follow until March 1946. Anyone familiar with the vast historical literature on this issue would have to agree with Ham that although Truman authorized planning for these operations, the president and his senior military advisors “had all but abandoned the land invasion by early July,” even before the successful test of the atomic bomb. By late July, with a massive Soviet assault on the Japanese main forces in Manchuria imminent in a few weeks, it was clear that there would be no need for an American invasion. Ham argues that “the bomb was not a substitute for an invasion for the simple reason that Truman had no intention of approving one,” despite all the president’s later wild claims that the bomb saved up to a million US lives. Truman was not about to order an invasion that would cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young Americans against a regime that was already defeated and trying to negotiate a surrender.

      Of course, an invasion might have been necessary if the hardliners among the Japanese leadership had been able to avoid a Japanese surrender, but once we agreed to let the Emperor stay in power (conceding on that point to the Japanese), surrender quickly followed, despite remaining opposition among the hardliners.

      • Interesting. My reaction to the quoted paragraph is that it has a lot of confident assertions about what Truman would or would not have done. One of the problems with history is posing counterfactuals. There’s simply no way to know what Truman might have done without the bomb or Russia’s entrance. Even Truman himself probably really didn’t know since he never actually faced the decision. Conventional wisdom was that American public support would fade over a long siege war (which seems borne out by later history), but that would have had to be balanced against the projected sky high casualties.

        From what I’ve read, before Nagasaki and the Russian attack, the Japanese had more demands than just maintaining the Emperor. Would the Americans have accepted surrender earlier with only the Emperor condition? The American hand was weaker before Nagasaki, so I tend to think they would have, but it’s another counterfactual.

        • Presumably, there is evidence in the historical record indicating that Truman and the military had decided that an invasion of Japan wouldn’t be necessary. The pages of the book that are available on Amazon refer to meeting minutes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as President Truman’s and Secretary of War Stimson’s diaries. Page 193 of the book refers to a passage in Truman’s diary in which he asks “shall we invade or bomb and blockade?” given the Okinawa experience, and a meeting of the Joint Chiefs on June 18th to discuss the issue. Unfortunately, the next few pages aren’t shown.

          But it seems to me that whether Truman decided against an invasion is to a large extent a question of interpreting the record (including documents that weren’t available to the public in 1945), as opposed to speculating about counterfactuals. For example, there’s the July entry in Truman’s diary stating that the war would be over if the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan (he didn’t write “that will make our invasion easier”). The historian who wrote the book and the one who reviewed it have concluded, apparently in agreement with many other historians (“the vast historical literature”) that Truman wasn’t really going to launch an invasion, despite what he said after the war (although there are probably historians who think otherwise).

          • Certainly if we had records indicating that Truman had decided not to invade, I’d be convinced, and maybe the book has those. I can’t see his failure to mention invasion plans in a diary entry too convincing though, but this isn’t that big an issue for me.

            I think the reason I’m skeptical of this book is because of all the ideological hatchet work that’s been done in this area. The book sounds one sided, and clashes with what I recall reading in books like ‘Truman’ and ‘Freedom From Fear’, and from sources like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrender_of_Japan

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