Germany was defeated in May 1945. Preparations immediately began for a final assault on Japan that might involve massive numbers of Chinese troops. Instead, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August forced Japan’s sudden surrender, which took most of the world, including China’s leaders, by surprise.
The halting of Japanese forces was something Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek could cling to at the start of 1945, and he also found other grounds for cautious optimism. Chiang took General Joseph Stilwell's recall as a sign that America was 'sincere' about helping China: 'This is the greatest comfort for me in the new year.' He was still concerned about American attempts to arm militarist rivals such as Xue Yue and Long Yun, but told himself that the American attitude was 'completely different' from the type of imperialism advocated by the British.
Ambassador Clarence Gauss, whose increasingly despairing messages back to Washington showed his lack of confidence about the situation in China, resigned shortly after Stilwell's recall, and Patrick Hurley was promoted from presidential envoy to full ambassador. Hurley's arrival in post ended the policy of warmth toward the Communists and strengthened Chiang's hand. Hurley lacked the analytical abilities of his predecessors, and their experience of China. Whereas Gauss tended to think the worst of Chiang, Hurley thought the best, although not always to Chiang's benefit.
In the spring of 1945, once the tide had turned in Europe and in Burma, and Operation Ichi-go had run its course, Chiang again argued for an offensive in China during a meeting with Admiral Louis Mountbatten in Chongqing. Chiang requested Mountbatten’s agreement to the withdrawal of Chinese forces from Burma for this purpose. Mountbatten refused, arguing that China’s Expeditionary Army in Burma was needed to keep pressure on the Japanese flank. He further explained that no amphibious landings would take place and no US forces would be deployed.
Chiang was worried about the intentions of the CCP, and with good reason. The waning of his power had been matched by a steady growth in Mao's. With party membership of over a million people, and some 900,000 regular troops supplemented by a similar number of militia troops, the Communists would clearly be a major force in the post-war order.
Far off in the New Mexico desert, an extraordinary experiment was taking place to develop an atomic bomb. But in early 1945 it was still unclear whether it would work, and the Allies had to make plans for a campaign to conquer Japan that might involve a long and extremely bloody struggle. The fate of much of Europe and Asia was to be decided at a conference that began at Yalta, on the Black Sea, in the Crimea region of the USSR. Here it was decided that Japan would have to be invaded. Stalin committed the USSR to war against Japan in exchange for territorial concessions in China’s detriment. When he heard even the public terms of the agreement, Chiang was plunged into gloom, thinking that the world would be thrown back into the same race for dominance that had marked the aftermath of the Great War. 'This meeting of the three leaders has already carved the seeds of the Third World War,' he wrote. 'Roosevelt is still calling this a diplomatic victory - this is really laughable.'
The ailing American president used the last reserves of his energy in fighting the global war, and on 12 April 1945 died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia. As the nation mourned, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as president. Among the problems the shrewd but under-briefed new Commander-in-Chief had to deal with was the growing crisis in China. Differing voices continued to emerge from the State Department. Hurley clung to a position of absolute support for Chiang. Others continued to speak out in favor of alternatives in case Chiang balked. In turn Mao accused the US of fueling civil war in China.
After the war in Europe ended, Asia would be at the center of the conflict, and the USSR would be part of that effort. In early July Chiang sent T. V. Soong, along with his Russian-speaking son Ching-kuo, to Moscow to negotiate terms with Stalin. Stalin agreed to recognize only Chiang as the ruler of China, but made extensive demands in return, including China's recognition of Outer Mongolia's independence and the granting of a privileged status for the USSR in Manchuria. The question of what China would cede to the Soviets was still unresolved when Stalin left for the Allied conference at Potsdam.
The war had been just as destructive to Chinese society as it had to its military, creating yet more deprivation and destruction in China's most fertile areas. The efforts in the early war years to create a more integrated system of welfare provision had always become weaker the further one travelled from Chongqing, but by the last year of the war, they seemed a hollow mockery in the face of massive need. To tackle the problem, China engaged with a remarkable new organization: the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA). Although some forty-four countries signed UNRRA's founding document at the White House, it was always heavily bankrolled by the US and run primarily by American administrators. The China office was headed by the American Benjamin H. Kizer.
Allied plans developed for the push against the Japanese. In Potsdam, the leaders concentrated on the settlement for peace in Europe. But the US, Britain and China also issued a declaration that called for 'the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces', warning that 'the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction'. In China itself, Wedemeyer was drawing on Stilwell's plans to train thirty-nine new divisions of Chinese troops for the recapture of eastern China. Both the Chinese and the Japanese armies were exhausted beyond measure. By the middle of 1945, the Japanese had been driven back from their most important Pacific conquests. But on the Chinese side, the Nationalist armies were also in a state of near collapse after Operation Ichi-go, the massive Japanese offensive in China of the previous year.
Throughout the spring and summer, Wedemeyer worked to build up ‘approximately 20 divisions of the standard of the five CAI divisions’, for an offensive, named variously Iceman and Pagoda, in the fall, not along the Yangtze, but towards Canton. This operation fitted overall US strategy against Japan. It wanted the Soviet Union to take on the Kwantung Army in the northeast. If the counter-offensive in China could cut off lines of Japanese retreat from south-east Asia, a US offensive against Japan by the Pacific Fleet would be made easier, and it would be impossible for the Japanese government to relocate to the Asian mainland. Had such a relocation happened, US infantry operations would have had to fight on the Asian mainland after all.
When in June and July the Nationalists recovered Guilin, Nanning, and Liuzhou in Guangxi Province, Wedemeyer became more optimistic. On 1 August he wrote to General Marshall that ‘we now look forward confidently toward a successful drive to the Coast’. But he also stated that ‘instructions have been issued to follow up and press enemy withdrawals but to avoid large-scale commitment, air or ground’ before the US had secured Manila and operations could be supported by air forces operating from there. No real counter-offensive, in short, ever took place before the Japanese surrender.
On the 6th of August, a large US Air Force aircraft named Enola Gay flew over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and released a 4,400-kilogram bomb nicknamed 'Little Boy'. The first atomic bomb to be used against a human population instantly burned some 66,000 people to death. On the 9th of August, the Soviet Union launched its troops into Manchuria. On the same day a second atomic bomb, 'Fat Man', was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese government was now in a state of utter panic. On 14 August, at 10.50 a.m., the emperor declared, in a pre-recorded statement, that it was time to 'endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable'. The meaning was unequivocal: Japan would accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrender without conditions.
The end had come, suddenly and unexpectedly. The war had broken out almost by accident in July 1937, escalating within weeks from a local skirmish to an exile from eastern China that would last eight years. China had changed immensely. In August 1945 China was simultaneously in the strongest global position it had ever occupied and weaker than it had been for nearly a century. When the war began, it had still been subject to extraterritoriality and imperialism. Now, not only had the much-hated system of legal immunity for foreigners ended, but China was about to make its mark on the post-war world.
China paid a terrible price for victory. The war with Japan had hollowed China out. Even now, at the moment of victory, the country was split. It was divided between parties, Nationalist and Communist, who talked about compromise but seemed set for civil war, a civil war that would eventually be won by Mao and his communists.