Surrender of Japan
Soviet invasion of Manchuria. Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
6 August - 2 September 1945
author Paul Boșcu, January 2019
Our modern wars make many unhappy while they last and none happy when they are over - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The situation that beckoned General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Chester Nimitz and General George Marshall’s operations planning staff at the Pentagon was an unenviable one. They had to consider a Japan that by any rational criteria was defeated, but which was not only refusing to surrender but seemed to be preparing to defend the soil of her mainland. Few doubted that Operation Olympic – a strike against Kyushu slated for November 1945 – and Operation Coronet, an amphibious assault in March 1946 against the Tokyo plain on Honshu, would lead to horrific loss of Allied life on the ground.

Estimates of expected casualty rates differed from planning staff to planning staff, but over the coming months – perhaps years – of fighting, anything in the region of 250,000 American casualties were thought to be possible. ‘If the conflict had continued for even a few weeks longer,’ believes historian Max Hastings, ‘more people of all nations – especially Japan – would have lost their lives than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’

MacArthur was designated supreme commander for Olympic, the invasion of Japan scheduled to commence with a landing on Kyushu. Meanwhile, the Allied bombers continued to incinerate the enemy’s cities, and Japanese industrial production approached collapse. The US Third Fleet under Halsey closed in on Japan and began its own intensive program of carrier air strikes against the mainland, inflicting carnage and destruction upon areas that had escaped the attentions of Twentieth Air Force. ‘In the forefront of the invader, his great carrier task force rampaged about … like a mighty typhoon,’ wrote naval officer Yoshida Mitsuru in awed frustration.

Objectively, it was plain to the Allies that Japan’s defeat was inevitable, for both military and economic reasons, and thus that the use of atomic weapons was unnecessary. But the prospect of being obliged to continue addressing pockets of fanatical resistance all over Asia for months, if not years, was appalling. Experience, especially at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, showed that the enemy exploited every day of grace to strengthen his defenses, and thus to raise the cost of delaying invasion. The chiefs of staff were also concerned that the American people’s patience with the war was ebbing, and thus that it was essential to hasten a closure in the east.

While these preparations for Olympic were going forward, another major Allied offensive was being planned for Southeast Asia. As the campaign in Burma was ending in the largest Allied victory over the Japanese army in World War II, the British looked toward the reconquest of Singapore.

In spite of fears to the contrary, the occupation proceeded peacefully. Japan had been battered by bombing and isolated from what remained of her empire by the destruction of most of her shipping by submarines and mines. However, it had not been fought over inch by inch, and the vast majority of her soldiers and sailors would survive to come home and share in the rebuilding of a damaged but not devastated country. The occupation lasted until 1951 when the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed by 48 nations. The treaty came into effect on April 28 1952, and restored sovereignty to Japan, with the exception - until 1972 - of the Ryukyu Islands.

The existing government structure would be simultaneously kept and remade, its personnel utilized and purged. The Americans arrived not to conquer but to reform. They planned to transform Japanese society, and in many ways they succeeded so well that the Japanese came to maintain many of the changes then made, long after the American occupation had ended.

Whatever the subsequent taboos in Japan about that country's role in initiating and conducting the Pacific War, in Japan after World War II, unlike Germany after World War I, no one ever came to doubt that the country had indeed been defeated — and without what President Truman had called ‘an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.’

Harry Truman has come to be regarded as one of America’s outstanding national leaders of the twentieth century. In the spring of 1945, however, this decent, simple, impulsive man was all but overwhelmed by the burden of office thrust upon him by Roosevelt’s death. ‘I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen upon me,’ he told reporters on the afternoon that he was sworn in. ‘Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now.’ One journalist said: ‘Good luck, Mr. President.’ Truman said: ‘I wish you didn’t have to call me that.’

By one of Roosevelt’s most hubristic omissions, given the desperate state of his own health, he had made no attempt to ensure that his vice-president was briefed to address the vast issues which now fell to his lot. Truman was not even a recipient of Magic intelligence bulletins.

Those who observed President Truman closely during his first months at the White House believed that much he said and did was motivated by insecurity, a desire to appear authoritative and decisive, even though within himself he felt equipped to be neither. Such self-awareness deserves the sympathy of posterity.

Responding to perceived Russian breaches of faith in Europe, Truman directed that lend-lease supplies to the Soviet Union should be terminated. Tokyo ambassador Joseph Grew, together with Averell Harriman, US ambassador in Moscow, wanted him to go further, and repudiate the Asian provisions of Yalta. Truman’s conduct in the months that followed was dominated by a determination to prove his own fitness for office, above all by making no unnecessary concessions to the Soviet Union, and by conducting the last phase of the war against Japan with a conviction worthy of his great predecessor. He now discovered that science promised an extraordinary tool to further these ends.

President Truman was clearly disturbed by the casualties incurred in the Okinawa campaign and wanted a careful review of the alternatives before giving the green light for Olympic and Coronet, operations which were expected to involve even more desperate fighting with an even higher cost in lives. The President's advisors were unanimously in favor of Olympic in spite of the anticipated cost in lives, though the possibility that the dropping of newly available atomic bombs might end the war before that invasion had to be launched was mentioned. It was agreed by all that Olympic was needed as the next step, whether or not Coronet would follow.

A belief persisted in Tokyo that a stalwart defense of the home islands could yet preserve Japan from accepting absolute defeat. General Yoshijiro Umezu, chief of the Japanese General Staff, fantasized in characteristically flatulent terms in a May newspaper article: ‘The sure path to victory in a decisive battle lies in uniting the resources of the Empire behind the war effort; and in mobilizing the full strength of the nation, both physical and spiritual, to annihilate the American invaders. The establishment of a metaphysical spirit is the first essential for fighting the decisive battle. An energetic commitment to aggressive action should always be emphasised.’

Staff officer Major Yoshitaka Horie delivered a current-affairs talk to army cadets which precipitated a reprimand from an officer of the Army Education Directorate, who said: ‘Your lectures are so depressing that officers who hear them will start losing the will to fight. You must end on a high note, assuring them that the Imperial Army is still in fighting mood.’

The atomic enterprise had a momentum of its own, which only two developments might have checked. First, Truman could have shown extraordinary enlightenment, and decreed that the Bomb was too terrible to be employed; more plausibly, the Japanese might have offered their unconditional surrender. Yet through midsummer 1945, intercepted secret cable traffic, as well as Tokyo’s public pronouncements, showed determined Japanese rejection of such a course.

By the high summer of 1945, Japan’s rulers wished to end the war; but its generals, together with some politicians, were still bent upon securing terms, which included – for instance – retention of substantial parts of Japan’s empire in Manchuria, Korea and China, together with Allied agreement to spare the country from occupation or war crimes indictments.

‘No one person in Japan had authority remotely resembling that of an American president,’ observes Professor Akira Nakamura, a modern Japanese historian. ‘The Emperor was obliged to act in accordance with the Japanese constitution, which meant that he was obliged to heed the wishes of the army, navy and civilian politicians. He was able to take the decision to end the war only when those forces had invited him to do so.’ Even if this assertion was open to the widest variety of interpretations, as it remains today, it was plain that Hirohito could move towards surrender only when a consensus had evolved within Japan’s leadership. This was narrowly achieved in mid-August 1945, but not a day before.

Japan’s leaders wasted months asserting diplomatic positions founded upon the demands of their own self-esteem, together with supposed political justice. In reality, their only chance of modified terms came from Allied fears that a host of men would have to die if an invasion of the homeland proved necessary. As blockade and bombardment, together with the prospects of atomic bombs and Russian entry into the Pacific theater, progressively diminished the perceived American need to risk invasion, Japan held no cards at all.

Japanese politicians, with extraordinary naïveté, acted in the belief that wooing neutral Russia would serve them better than addressing belligerent America. In reality, there was more willingness among some Western politicians than in Moscow to consider concessions in return for an early end of bloodshed.

While Japan was suffering terrible pain from the American bomber offensive, it was plain that several months must elapse before the US could launch its next big land campaign, which the Japanese correctly assumed would be an invasion of Kyushu. Japan’s peacemakers supposed, therefore, that they still had time to talk. Since early spring there had been some lowering of expectations among civilian politicians. Facing imminent defeat on Okinawa, they aspired only to preserving the kokutai (Japanese sovereignty), together with Manchukuo’s ‘independence’ and Korea’s status as a Japanese colony.

Winston Churchill was the first and most important Allied leader to propose qualifying the doctrine of unconditional surrender in respect of Japan. Before the combined chiefs of staff in Cairo in February 1945, he argued that ‘some mitigation would be worthwhile, if it led to the saving of a year or a year and a half of a war in which so much blood and treasure would be poured out.’ The White House believed that American public opinion would recoil from concessions to the perpetrators of Pearl Harbor, among whom the emperor was symbolically foremost; and that generosity was anyway unnecessary. Japan’s predicament was worsening rapidly.

Roosevelt dismissed the Prime Minister out of hand. British influence on this issue, as indeed upon everything to do with the Pacific war, ranged between marginal and non-existent. The decisions about how to address the Japanese, whether by force or parley, rested unequivocally in Washington.

A strong party in the State Department, headed by former Tokyo ambassador Joseph Grew, now Under-Secretary of State, favored a public commitment to allow Japan to retain its national polity, the kokutai, of which the most notable feature was the status of the emperor. Grew and his associates believed that the kokutai mattered vastly more to the Japanese than it should to anyone else: if assurances on this point would avert a bloodbath in the home islands, they should be given.

When Truman learned of Germany’s unconditional surrender, he knew of the extraordinary means the United States was soon likely to possess to impose its will on its enemies and to drastically alter the balance of power between itself and the Soviet Union. Stimson told a colleague: ‘We really held all the cards… a straight royal flush, and we mustn’t be a fool about the way we play it… Now the thing is not to get into unnecessary quarrels by talking too much… Let our actions speak for themselves.’ At a press conference following the end of the war in Europe, Truman restated America’s determination to receive the unconditional surrender of Japan’s armed forces. He said nothing explicit, however, about the future of the emperor, and emphasized that America did not intend ‘the extermination or enslavement of the Japanese people.’

Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Jacob, the military secretary to Churchill’s War Cabinet, once quipped that the Allies won the war largely ‘because our German scientists were better than their German scientists’, and in the field of atomic research and development he was undoubtedly right. Werner Heisenberg’s atomic programme for Hitler lagged far behind the Allies’, codenamed the Manhattan Project and based at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Hitler’s scientists did come up with an impressive array of non-atomic scientific discoveries during the war, including proximity fuses, synthetic fuels, ballistic missiles, hydrogen-peroxide-assisted submarines and ersatz rubber.

In the conclusion of his ‘finest hour’ speech of 18 June 1940, Winston Churchill conjured up the vision of a nightmare world in which a Nazi victory produced ‘a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science’. The Nazis did indeed pervert science for their ideological ends, but then of course both sides tried to harness scientific developments for victory.

Because Hitler was a Nazi, he was unable to call upon the best scientific brains to create a nuclear bomb. Between 1901 and 1932 Germany had twenty-five Nobel laureates in Physics and Chemistry, while the United States had only five. Then came Nazism. In the fifty years after the war, Germany won only thirteen Nobel Prizes to America’s sixty-seven. By denying himself the scientific brains necessary to create a bomb of his own, Hitler’s Nazism meant that he had persecuted the very people who could have prevented his own downfall.

The list of those émigrés from Fascism – not all of them Jewish – who went on to contribute to the creation of the nuclear bomb, either at Los Alamos or in some other significant capacity, is a very long one, including Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard and Hans Bethe (who all left Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933), Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner (who left Hungary in 1935 and 1937 respectively), Emilio Segré and Enrico Fermi (who both left Italy in 1938), Stanisław Ulam (who left Poland in 1939) and Niels Bohr (who escaped from Denmark in 1943).

The atomic bomb project had originally been designed in what was believed to be a race with Germany to build weapons of tremendous power. It was assumed that if the Germans made such weapons they would certainly use them; and it was the fear that German scientific and engineering genius would first accomplish this goal that had inspired, or perhaps driven, the effort in Britain and the United States to try to get ahead of the Germans. In that effort, there was a built-in assumption that, when ready, such bombs would be used against Germany.

It was agreed by the British and American governments that they would not share their knowledge with others, and in particular not with the Soviet Union. This decision reflected an awareness of the possibility that the new weapon could either greatly affect the post-war international situation or at least offset the major reduction in their armed forces which both Washington and London expected to make after World War II as they had after World War I.

Although neither London nor Washington appears to have been aware of the massive Soviet atomic bomb project underway since 1942 at the latest, it most certainly was known that the Soviet Union had steadfastly refused to share with its allies any information on its own weapons research projects and had been most reticent about exchanging even routine intelligence.

By 1943 the British, and by late 1944 the American governments had reached the conclusion that Germany had dropped out of the atomic bomb race. By the last months of 1944 however, it had become reasonably certain that the first of the two types of bombs being built by the Allies, one based on uranium, the other based on plutonium, would be ready in the late spring or summer of 1945.

When in August 1939 Albert Einstein had written to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to inform him of the incredible potential of uranium, FDR’s instinctive response was ‘This requires action.’ Sure enough, with huge investment in people and resources, and close collaboration between the American, British, Canadian and European anti-Nazi scientists, the Allies built two atomic bombs, codenamed Little Boy and Fat Man. These scientists had discovered the secret to the vast force that held together the constituent particles of the atom, and how to harness it for military purposes.

As scientists explored the mysteries of radiation at the end of the nineteenth century, several had speculated that radioactivity might provide an incalculable source of energy. Highly theoretical but successful work on the manipulation of atomic nuclei continued into the 1930s, combining pioneering developments in particle physics, physical chemistry, and laboratory engineering. The mathematics underlying this basic and applied research remained in the hands of a few gifted men.

At a score of massive, closely wired installations across the United States, 125,000 scientists, engineers and support staff labored to bring to fruition the Manhattan Project, the greatest and most terrible scientific enterprise of the war. Laura Fermi, wife of Enrico, one of the brilliant principals at the Los Alamos research site, wrote later that she pitied the army doctors charged with the welfare of the scientists: ‘They had prepared for the emergencies of the battlefields, and they were faced instead with a high-strung bunch of men, women and children. High-strung, because altitude affected us, because our men worked long hours under unrelenting pressure; high-strung because we were too many of a kind, too close to one another, too unavoidable even during relaxation hours, and we were all crackpots; high-strung because we felt powerless under strange circumstances.’

At the basic-research level, the nuclear weapons program hardly required massive funding. In 1942 these studies took place in particle physics laboratories in universities — Columbia, Chicago, and California-Berkeley — and were comparatively inexpensive to carry out. The results they produced were significant, however, especially when a Fermi-Compton ‘pile’ of graphite (carbon) beneath Chicago’s football stadium went critical in December 1942. The experiment showed that uranium 235 could produce plutonium and harness uranium and plutonium for a controllable explosion. This breakthrough gave a direct push to the Manhattan Engineer District, which was renamed the Manhattan Project.

The enterprise took final shape in 1943, and soon required massive funding. Two government-industrial complexes at Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, produced the fissionable material and associated ingredients required for nuclear warheads. Industrial contractors — such giants in the machine tool and electrical business as Allis-Chalmers and General Electric — also participated in fabricating the bomb’s exacting components, many of which demanded cutting-edge advances in metallurgical engineering.

The Manhattan Project represented the most stupendous scientific effort in history. In three years, at a cost of $2 billion, the US — with some perfunctorily acknowledged British aid — had advanced close to fulfilling a program which much of the scientific world had thought unattainable, certainly within a time frame relevant to this conflict.

Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, provided the essential leadership for the scientists and engineers. Not until autumn 1944 did the Manhattan Project show signs that a bomb might actually be constructed, even though the basic science indicated that a fission explosion was possible. Among the largest obstacles was finding uranium and producing plutonium that could be safely shaped into a weapon. Consistent with its wartime mission, the Manhattan Project produced its own casualties — eight fatalities during experimentation and testing, one of which was by radiation poisoning.

Churchill followed the Manhattan Project closely, and Britain continued as a partner by mutual agreement in sharing the scientific findings and talent, even if it did not bear the project’s cost. The British worried about nuclear security and accused some of the expatriate scientists of dangerous sympathies with the Soviets; but in fact, the real Russian agents were a British-sponsored émigré German scientist at Los Alamos called Klaus Fuchs, together with a handful of deluded young Americans like Theodore A. Hall and Saville Sax, and four Communist members of the British intelligence and foreign services.

In 1942 the British had made significant progress with research on an atomic bomb; their theoretical knowledge, indeed, was then greater than that of America’s scientists. But, with their own island embattled, they recognized that they lacked resources to build a weapon quickly. An agreement was reached whereby British and European émigré scientists crossed the Atlantic to work with the Americans. Thereafter, Britain’s contribution was quickly forgotten in Washington: the United States became brutally proprietorial about its ownership of the bomb.

It was against a background of looming dread that General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, reported that the first two atomic bombs would be ready by 1 August 1945. At last, an end to the war was in sight, and one that did not involve having to subdue the Japanese mainland. The means to be employed had not existed before, and were scientific, but it was hoped that the very newness of the technology might give the peace party in Tokyo – assuming there was one – an argument for why Japan could not fight on. Truman had few qualms in deploying a bomb that would undoubtedly kill tens of thousands of Japanese civilians, but would also, it was hoped, bring the war to a sudden halt.

In April 1945 Truman received a letter from Henry Stimson requesting a meeting to discuss ‘a highly secret matter’. Next day, the secretary of war and Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves revealed to the new president its secrets, about which he had previously received only intimations. ‘Within four months,’ wrote Stimson, ‘we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.’

In early 1945 Groves and Oppenheimer judged they could fabricate a prototype nuclear device and explode it. Under highly suspenseful and considerably dangerous circumstances, the Los Alamos team set off a plutonium device in July 1945. Among the observers were Groves, Oppenheimer and Fermi. A huge fireball enveloped the desert, sending out blinding waves of light and crushing air pressure; a column of cloud pushed upward, forming the shape of a mushroom. The blast registered a force of 17,000 tons of TNT. The observers felt jubilant but chastened by the destructive power that now rested in humanity's hands.

Groves is one of the least-known yet significant military figures of the Second World War. It is hard to overstate his importance in sustaining momentum towards the detonation of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A major general whose rank would have entitled him only to a divisional command in the field, he had been promoted by fate to extraordinary authority. In 1942 he was a forty-six-year old colonel eagerly awaiting overseas posting — ‘I wanted to command troops’ — when he was instead ordered to supervise the Manhattan Project. ‘If you do the job right, it will win the war,’ he was told.

Groves’s assignment was unique for a soldier, requiring him to oversee thousands of civilian scientists with the highest gifts and often most wayward personalities, led by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer. Beyond these guiding brains, Groves was responsible for a workforce that eventually grew to 125,000, embracing engineers, administrators and construction personnel, centered upon the development laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and operating other facilities all over the United States.

Groves was bereft of tact, sensitivity, cultural awareness, and human sympathy for either the Japanese or the bevy of Nobel laureates whom he commanded. He harassed and goaded the scientists as if they were army engineers building a bridge. Yet his effectiveness demands the respect of history. His deputy, Col. Kenneth Nichols, described him as ‘the biggest son of a bitch I’ve ever met in my life, but also one of the most capable. He had an ego second to none… tireless energy, great self-confidence and ruthlessness. I hated his guts and so did everyone else, [but] if I was to have to do my part all over again, I would select Groves as boss.’

Groves’s commitment was critical to the eventual decision to destroy Hiroshima. When other men faltered or their attention was distracted, he never flagged. A week after the White House meeting with Stimson and the general, Truman ordered the formation of the so-called Interim Committee, to advise him on the progress and appropriate use of the bomb. Groves had already established a Target Committee, which selected eighteen Japanese cities as possible objectives, and endorsed the general’s view that when the time came, two atomic weapons should be dropped.

Groves took the lead in 1943 in organizing a small group of the faithful, the Military Committee, to explore the employment of nuclear weapons within the war’s context. The group examined both German and Japanese targets, some military, some urban-industrial. No one questioned that the bomb would be used. In 1944-45, the Americans learned that the Germans would not be able to develop the bomb and would, in fact, lose the war. Attention then turned to Japan, the only remaining belligerent.

At 08.15 on Sunday, 6 August 1945 (local time), the 9-foot 9-inch-long, 8,000-pound Little Boy was dropped from 31,600 feet over the city of Hiroshima, some 500 miles from Tokyo. It had been flown from the island of Tinian in the Mariana Islands in the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, named after the mother of its pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr, commander of the USAAF 509th Composite Group. A huge, mushroom-shaped cloud then rose 50,000 feet over the city. In all, including the civilian deaths of 118,661 and perhaps another 20,000 military deaths, and many who died of radiation sickness afterwards, around 140,000 people were killed.

In the ‘Little Boy’ case, President Truman adopted precisely the same mechanism employed throughout the war by the democracies to implement strategic decisions. He, the politician, approved the concept, then left its execution in the hands of the military — which meant Groves.

Little Boy, ‘an elongated trash can with fins’ in the words of one of Enola Gay’s crew, scrawled with rude messages for Hirohito, exploded 1,900 feet above Hiroshima’s Shima Hospital, 550 feet from its aiming point. Tibbets, a supremely professional bomber pilot, described this simply as ‘the most perfect AP I’ve seen in this whole damn war’. Every building within a 2,000-yard radius of the hypocenter was vaporized, and every wooden building within 1.2 miles. Altogether 5 square miles of the city were destroyed, or 63 percent of the city’s buildings.

The scenes in Hiroshima in the aftermath were truly hellish. The Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, told a correspondent from the New Yorker magazine how he tried to ferry some survivors over the river to hospital: ‘He drove the boat on to the bank and urged them to get on board. They did not move and he realised that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. Then he got into the water and, though a small man, lifted several of the men and women, who were naked, into his boat. Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly… He had to keep repeating to himself, “These are human beings.”’

The detonation of ‘Little Boy’, the mushroom cloud which changed the world, created injuries never before seen on mortal creatures, and recorded with disbelief by survivors: the cavalry horse standing pink, stripped of its hide; people with clothing patterns imprinted upon their flesh; the line of schoolgirls with ribbons of skin dangling from their faces; doomed survivors, hideously burned, without hope of effective medical relief; the host of charred and shrivelled corpses. Hiroshima and its people had been almost obliterated, and even many of those who clung to life would not long survive.

Truman received the news aboard Augusta, four days out from England on his passage home from Potsdam, as he was lunching with members of the cruiser’s crew: ‘Big bomb dropped on Hiroshima August 5 at 7:15 p.m. Washington time. First reports indicate complete success which was even more conspicuous than earlier test.’ The beaming president jumped up and told Augusta’s skipper: ‘Captain, this is the greatest thing in history.’ Truman then addressed crewmen in the mess: ‘We have just dropped a new bomb on Japan which has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It has been an overwhelming success!’ The president’s delight was apparently unburdened by pain or doubt. He simply exulted in a national triumph. Here was a vivid demonstration of the limits of his own understanding of what had been done. Sailors crowded around the president, asking the question on the lips of millions of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen across the world: ‘Does this mean we can go home now?’

President Truman made a radio broadcast soon afterwards, explaining that the bomb had been atomic, and thus unlike anything that had ever been seen before. Around the world, many people at first found the notion of what had taken place beyond the compass of their imaginations.

When nineteen-year-old Superfortress gunner Joseph Majeski saw the B-29 Enola Gay arrive on Tinian, specially modified to carry only tail armament, and fitted with reversible-pitch propellers and other special equipment, he strolled over and asked one of its crew what they had come for. The man answered flippantly, ‘We’re here to win the war,’ and of course the young airman did not believe him. A few days later the plane dropped ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima.

‘That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT’ (that is, 20 kilotons), Truman told his listeners, which included the Japanese Government. ‘It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the [22,000-pound deep-penetration] British “Grand Slam”, which is the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.’ It was long thought that Truman was accurate, and that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was roughly the same size in terms of TNT, but in 1970 the British nuclear pioneer Lord Penney proved that Hiroshima’s blast had in fact been about 12 kilotons, while the Nagasaki blast had been around 22 kilotons.

Truman’s statement to the world, approved before he left Potsdam, declared that the fate of Hiroshima represented a just retribution for Pearl Harbor: ‘It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of 26 July was issued at Potsdam… If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.’ This time there could be no doubt in the minds of Japan’s leaders about what the president’s words portended. More atomic bombs would follow ‘Little Boy’. Other cities would share the fate of Hiroshima.

Nowhere was relief at the dropping of the bomb more intense and heartfelt than in prison camps throughout the Japanese empire. Yet even among those for whom Hiroshima promised deliverance, a few displayed more complex emotions. Lt. Stephen Abbott’s closest friend, Paul, a devout Christian, entered their bleak barrack room in Japan and said: ‘Stephen—a ghastly thing has happened.’ He described the destruction of Hiroshima, as reported on the radio, then knelt in prayer. Eighteen months later, Abbott wrote a letter for publication in The Times, citing his own status as a former POW, and arguing that a demonstration of the bomb would have sufficed: ‘The way it has been used has not only provided a significant chapter for future Japanese history books but has also convinced the people of Japan that the white man’s claim to the ethical and spiritual leadership of the world is without substance.’

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Blois-Brooke of the British assault ship Sefton, preparing to invade Malaya, said: ‘We heard about some wonder bomb that had been dropped on Japan and which was going to stop the war. We really took no notice, thinking that one single bomb wasn’t going to alter the course of history.’

In Moscow, on the day following the bombing, Russia’s media reported nothing about events in Hiroshima. All that day Stalin remained incommunicado. It is assumed that the Soviet leader was stunned by the news, and fearful that Japan would immediately surrender. But Ambassador Sato’s urgent request to meet Molotov showed that this was not so. Japan was still in the war. It was not, after all, too late for the Soviet Union to achieve its objectives.

The extraordinary aspect of Japanese behavior in the wake of the bombing was that the event seemed to do almost nothing to galvanise Japanese policy-making, to end the war. The emperor and prime minister learned of the attack only after a lapse of some hours. At least one senior officer immediately guessed that this was an atomic device, as was soon confirmed by intercepted American radio broadcasts. Other army commanders remained sceptical, however, and saw nothing in the news to soften their implacable opposition to surrender.

General Korechika Anami, the war minister, privately acknowledged that this was a nuclear attack, and dispatched an investigating team to Hiroshima. He proposed, however, that the government should take no action before hearing its report, which would not be available for two days. Hiroshima at first made some ministers more committed, rather than less, to resisting unconditional surrender.

Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo went to the Imperial Palace two days after Hiroshima. Hirohito told him that, in the new circumstances, ‘My wish is to make such arrangements as to end the war as soon as possible.’ Togo was asked to convey this message to Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki. Even now, however, the emperor was vague about means. He certainly did not urge immediate acceptance of the Potsdam terms.

The Japanese government failed to adopt the course which could almost certainly have saved Nagasaki from destruction: a swift communication to the Americans declaring readiness to quit. Once again, we know why this did not happen: because the decision making process was so slow, the war party so resolute.

Washington recognized that the Russians would not fight the Japanese unless they received tangible rewards for doing so. After months of equivocation, at Yalta Stalin presented his invoice for an eastern commitment. Moscow wanted from Japan the Kurile Islands and southern Sakhalin; from China, the lease of Port Arthur, access to Dalian as a free port, control of the southern Manchurian railway, and recognition of Russian suzerainty over Outer Mongolia. Roosevelt agreed to accept Moscow’s terms.

Churchill and Roosevelt were thrilled by Stalin’s September 1944 promise to launch sixty Soviet divisions against Japan within three months of Germany’s collapse. ‘When we are vexed with other matters,’ the prime minister wrote to FDR, ‘we must remember the supreme value of this [commitment] in shortening the whole struggle.’ MacArthur was firmly of the view that ‘we must not invade Japan proper unless the Russian army is previously committed to action in Manchuria.’ Marshall concurred.

In offering incentives, Roosevelt ignored the fact that Stalin never did — or forbore from doing — anything unless it fitted his own agenda. In 1945, far from the Russians requiring encouragement to invade Manchuria, it would have been almost impossible to dissuade them from doing so. As soon as Germany was beaten, Stalin was bent upon employing his armies to collect Asian territories.

By April 1945, some important Americans would have been happy to break the bargain made with Stalin in February, if they could justify doing so. From then on, the Russians, conscious of this, possessed the strongest possible interest in ensuring that the Japanese kept fighting. If Tokyo made peace with Washington before Stalin had shifted his armies eastwards and was ready to declare war, the Americans might renege on the rewards promised at Yalta.

As the Russians planned and armed for an August descent on Manchuria, however, American enthusiasm for their participation began to falter. Even if US military leaders were eager to see the Red Army committed, politicians and diplomats were much more equivocal. European experience suggested that whatever Stalin’s armies conquered, they kept. It seemed rash to indulge further Russian expansionism in Asia.

The US acted with colonialist insouciance, making important Chinese territorial concessions without consulting the Chinese government. But these arrangements were nominally subject to Chiang Kai-shek’s endorsement. In return Moscow pledged to recognise the Nationalists as China’s sole legitimate rulers.

In Moscow on 28 May, in response to a question from Harry Hopkins, Stalin said that the Soviet Union would be ready to invade Manchuria on 8 August, though weather would influence exact timing. Hopkins reported to Truman that Stalin favored insistence upon Japan’s capitulation, ‘however, he feels that if we stick to unconditional surrender the Japs will not give up and we will have to destroy them as we did Germany.’

Truman found himself president at a moment when it was alleged, not least by Winston Churchill, that American naïveté and weakness had licensed Soviet expansionism. Atomic bombs should allow America to end the war with Japan before Stalin’s armies wreaked havoc in Asia. It seems mistaken of some historians to perceive this view as reflecting a crude competitive nationalism on the part of the US government. Truman’s attitude was certainly ruthless, but it lacked neither realism nor statesmanship. He understood, as some people in the West did not yet understand, the threat which Stalin’s Soviet Union represented.

Japanese leaders feared, indeed anticipated, a Russian invasion of Manchuria. They were nonetheless shocked when, six weeks after Vyacheslav Molotov told Ambassador Naotake Sato that nothing had happened at Yalta which should alarm his country, Moscow announced the abrogation of the 1941 neutrality pact. Yet in May Molotov received Sato amicably, and assured him that the Soviet statement was a mere technicality, that Russia ‘has had her fill of war in Europe,’ and must now address huge domestic problems. Sato, usually bleakly realistic about Soviet pronouncements, was rash enough to swallow this one.

Japan’s foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, appointed Koki Hirota, a former prime minister, foreign minister and ambassador, as his secret envoy to the Soviets, with instructions to pursue their friendship as well as neutrality. Hirota’s first move was to visit Jacob Malik, the Russian ambassador in Tokyo. He expressed admiration for the Red Army’s achievement in Europe, a richly comic compliment from an emissary of Germany’s recent ally. Malik reported to Moscow that Hirota’s overtures, though intended to be deniable, reflected a desperate anxiety by the Japanese government to end the war.

US intelligence annotated the Magic decrypt of the ambassador’s report to Tokyo: ‘[The] meeting leaves a mental picture of a spaniel in the presence of a mastiff who also knows where the bone is buried.’ If it seems extraordinary that the architects of Pearl Harbor could be surprised by another nation’s duplicity, that the Japanese could suppose themselves to possess any negotiating hand of interest to Stalin, their behavior was of a piece with the huge collective self-delusion which characterized Tokyo’s conduct in 1945.

Russian abstention from belligerency until August 1945 was among the odder aspects of the global conflict. In April 1941 it served the interests of both Russia and Japan to conclude a five-year Neutrality Pact. Japan’s ambitions lay south and eastwards. It needed to secure itself from a threat in the rear. When Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa was launched in June 1941, Stalin was thankful to be assured by Richard Sorge, his legendary agent in Tokyo, that Japan would not attack Russia, and thus that the Red Army could safely throw everything into the western war.

Stalin had promised to join the eastern war and launch a great Manchurian offensive in August. Against Japan as against Germany, there seemed every prospect that American lives could be saved by allowing the Russians to do some of the bloodiest business of smashing the enemy. After some 10 days of fighting, the Russians had secured most of Manchuria and northern Korea. The brief campaign cost them 12,000 dead, more than the British Army lost in France in 1940, while something close to 80,000 Japanese soldiers perished.

In the early hours of the invasion, the first of 1.5 million Soviet troops crossed the border into Manchuria, supported by 5,500 tanks and self-propelled guns. They swept across the region, overwhelming the hopelessly outgunned Japanese. In some places the defenders fought to the last, sustaining resistance for ten days after the war officially ended.

In some places there was heavy fighting. ‘This was no country stroll,’ said tank officer Alexander Fadin. ‘The samurais resisted desperately, especially during the first week. All those stories about Japanese suicide soldiers proved to be true.’

A key reality of the Manchurian campaign was that the defenders possessed no means of shifting forces in the face of total Russian air superiority and their own lack of vehicles. They were also critically short of anti-tank guns. Yet where the Russians were obliged to attack painstakingly constructed defensive positions, the Japanese resisted stubbornly and inflicted substantial losses. In the east, at the heavily fortified road junction of Mudanjiang, two Japanese divisions fought for two days. A Japanese soldier described the action there on 15 August: ‘As soon as our anti-tank guns had been silenced, about thirty enemy tanks appeared in front of 278th Regiment’s main positions. They opened fire, inflicting heavy casualties, picking off the defenders one by one and destroying our heavy weapons… At about 1600 hours the regiment’s telephone link with divisional headquarters was cut. Four enemy tanks were destroyed and five damaged. Soon afterwards, fifteen more tanks appeared in front of the division command post. A squad of five men from the Transport Unit, each armed with a 15-kilogram charge, launched a suicide attack on the leading elements, each man destroying one tank. On seeing this, the rest of the enemy armor hastily made off towards Sudaoling, and their accompanying infantry were also routed.’

In Manchuria, the Chinese received news of Stalin’s onslaught with mixed feelings. In the first days, local people greeted the Russian armies enthusiastically. Victor Kosopalov’s unit was delighted to be met in each village by peasants proffering buckets of springwater: ‘It was so hot and we were so thirsty—this was the most welcome delicacy they could have given us.’ Russian soldiers contemplating a flooded torrent were amazed when Chinese on the far bank leapt into the river and swam across to meet their liberators, carrying ropes to facilitate a crossing. Thousands of others went to work alongside Soviet sappers, repairing dams blown by the Japanese. Peasants gave warnings of ambushes. ‘When we entered the city of Vanemia,’ said Oleg Smirnov, ‘the Chinese welcomed us with cries of “Shango!” and “Vansui!” — “10,000 years of life to you.” They were waving red flags and almost jumping onto our tank tracks.’ In reality, local people were most likely crying ‘Zhongguo wansui!’ — ‘Long live China!’ — but Smirnov and his comrades were not to know that.

On the Pacific coast, Russian naval infantry launched amphibious assaults to take the towns of Unggi and Najin, and at Chongjin four days later. Even after the defenders were forced out, many continued fighting in the surrounding hills. Russian warships found themselves duelling with an armored train ashore. Fighting for Chongjin ended when troops of the Russian 25th Army arrived overland to meet the naval infantry.

For Manchurian women, rejoicing at the defeat of the Japanese soon gave way to horror at the conduct of the Russians, as they found themselves facing wholesale rape: ‘We didn’t like them at all,’ said Liu Yunxiu, who was twenty-one and living in Changchun. ‘They stole food, they raped women in the streets. Every woman tried to make herself look as ugly as she could, to escape their attentions. My parents hid me for weeks, in which I was never allowed out of the house.’

The weeks that followed the Russian occupation were a brutal shock to the ‘liberated’ people of Aihni. They witnessed their share of the orgy of rape and destruction which overtook Manchuria. Xu Guiming saw two Russian soldiers accost a local girl named Zhang in the street. She was half-Russian, half-Chinese, like many people of the region. ‘We reckon you owe us one,’ they said, throwing her to the ground. One man held her down while the other bestrode her, and a ghastly little drama took place. Zhang fought fiercely, throwing aside her rapist. This caused the other man to unsling his gun and shoot her. His careless bullets also killed his comrade, however. The occupants of a passing Russian vehicle, seeing what happened, themselves unleashed a burst of fire which killed the murderer. Three corpses were left unheeded in the street.

Communist guerrilla Zuo Yong was among those appalled by the behavior of the Red Army: ‘The Russians were our allies — we were all in the same boat. We thought of their soldiers as our brothers. The problem, however, as we discovered, was they had no respect for our people. Their behaviour in Manchuria was appalling.’ Jiang De, another guerrilla, shrugged: ‘The Russians simply behaved in the same way they did everywhere else.’

Some Soviet soldiers afterwards claimed that their army’s excesses were chiefly committed by veterans of Konstantin Rokossovsky’s front, notorious for its conduct in Europe. ‘They did not behave very well,’ said Sgt. Anatoly Fillipov. ‘They were always showing off, saying “We’re Rokossovsky’s boys!”’

After Hiroshima, the Japanese government decided to fight on regardless, hoping that the Allies had only one such weapon and believing that the home islands could be successfully defended from invasion and the dishonor of occupation. So three days after Hiroshima, the city of Nagasaki was similarly devastated by Fat Man, with 73,884 people killed, 74,909 injured, and similarly debilitating long-term mental and physical effects on the population as at Hiroshima, owing to the radiation released. It almost didn’t happen: the B-29 pilot Major Charles ‘Chuck’ Sweeney nearly ran out of runway on Tinian with his 5-ton bomb on board, and a crash would have wiped out much of the island.

The second mission was launched without any further Washington directive. Twentieth Air Force’s mandate left the timings of both atomic attacks in the hands of local commanders, to be determined by operational convenience. Washington’s only contribution was passive. The president and his advisers discerned in Japanese silence no cause to order the 509th Bomb Group to halt its operations.

At 11.02 Japanese time, having found Kokura, its primary target, under cloud, Maj. Charles Sweeney dropped ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki, his secondary objective. Since midnight, Soviet armies had been sweeping into Manchuria.

The Nagasaki bomb was actually more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, but primarily because of local terrain features caused less destruction and fewer casualties than the earlier one. It is, however, doubtful whether such details were known in Tokyo at the time or would have made any difference. The key point was that the atomic bombs were falling, that one plane with one bomb could now accomplish the effect of hundreds of planes dropping thousands of bombs at a time when the Americans were known to the Japanese to have enormous numbers of planes.

Technological determinism is a prominent feature of modern warfare, and this was never more vividly manifested than in exploitation of the power of atomic destruction. Just as it was almost inevitable that once an armada of B-29s had been constructed to attack Japan, they would be thus employed, so the United States’s commitment to the Manhattan Project precipitated the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Posterity sees the use of the atomic bombs in isolation; yet in the minds of most of the politicians and generals privy to the secret, these first nuclear weapons offered merely a dramatic increase in the efficiency of the air attacks already being carried out, and provoked negligible expressions of moral scruple back home.

Only a small number of scientists grasped the earth-shaking significance of atomic power. Churchill revealed the limitations of his own understanding back in 1941, when asked to approve the British commitment to developing a nuclear weapon. He responded that he was personally satisfied with the destructive power of existing explosives, though he had no objections to undertaking development of a new technology which promised more.

The exchanges between Truman, Marshall and others avowed an understanding that the bomb could prove a weapon of devastating power, but little hint that this would inaugurate a new age for humankind. Marshall, for instance, until August 1945 ordered continued planning for Olympic; he was unconvinced that even if the atomic bombs were dropped and worked as planned, they would terminate the war.

Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, directing the Manhattan Project, was committed to utilization of the new weapons at the earliest possible date. He was wholly untroubled by the agonisings of such scientists as Edward Teller, who wrote almost despairingly to a colleague: ‘I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls.’

George MacDonald Fraser’s views on the morality of what had happened at Hiroshima echoed those of the vast majority of Britons and Americans at the time, both civilian and military. He pointed out that: ‘We were of a generation to whom Coventry and the London Blitz and Clydebank and Liverpool and Plymouth were more than just names; our country had been hammered mercilessly from the sky, and so had Germany; we had seen the pictures of Belsen and of the frozen horror of the Russian Front; part of our higher education had been dedicated to techniques of killing and destruction; we were not going to lose sleep because the Japanese homeland had taken its turn. If anything, at the time, remembering the kind of war it had been, and the kind of people we, personally, had been up against, we probably felt that justice had been done. But it was of small importance when weighed against the glorious fact that the war was over at last.’

The only issue that was significantly discussed was whether a demonstration of the atomic bomb, rather than its use against an urban target, might achieve the desired effect. Following a weekend of intense debate among a panel of scientists led by Robert Oppenheimer, they reported: ‘Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects … We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.’

Among some ordinary people, news of the bomb prompted not triumphalism, but the darkest reflections. A letter to the New York Times described Hiroshima as ‘a stain on our national life. When the exhilaration of this wonderful discovery has passed, we will think with shame of the first use to which it was put.’ British housewife Nella Last recorded in her diary how she and her Lancashire neighbour received the news: ‘Old Joe called upstairs, brandishing the Daily Mail: “By Goy, lass, but it looks as if some of your daft fancies and fears are reet. Look at this.” I’ve rarely seen Jim so excited—or upset. He said: “Read it—why, this will change all t’world. Ee, I wish I was thutty years younger and could see it aw.”’ Mrs. Last, however, reacted very differently: ‘I felt sick—I wished I was thirty years older, and out of it all… This atomic bomb business is so dreadful.’

General Curtis LeMay regarded the Hiroshima and Nagasaki raids merely as an addition — a redundant and unwelcome addition — to a campaign which his B-29s had already won. LeMay had not the slightest moral qualms about the atomic attacks, but was chagrined that they diminished the credit given to his conventional bomber force for destroying Japan.

Many modern critics of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demand, in effect, that the United States should have accepted a moral responsibility for sparing the Japanese people from the consequences of their own leaders’ stubbornness. By August 1945, to Allied leaders the lives of their own people had come to seem very precious, and those of their enemies very cheap. In those circumstances, it seems understandable that President Truman failed to halt the juggernaut which carried the atomic bombs to Tinian, and thence to Japan.

Some of those who are today most critical of the use of the bombs ignore the fact that every day the war continued, prisoners and slaves of the Japanese empire in Asia continued to die in thousands. Perversely, the Allies might have done more to confound Japan’s militarists by publicly announcing that they did not intend to invade the mainland, but instead to continue starving and bombing the Japanese people until they surrendered, than by preparing for Olympic.

No sane person would suggest that the use of the atomic bombs represented an absolute good, or was even a righteous act. But, in the course of the war, it had been necessary to do many terrible things to advance the cause of Allied victory, and to preside over enormous carnage.

Stimson’s role puzzles posterity. He was the most august veteran in the administration, at seventy-eight years old. He disliked many things about total war, above all aerial bombardment of cities. Robert Oppenheimer noted his strictures: ‘He didn’t say that air strikes shouldn’t be carried on, but he thought there was something wrong with a country where no one questioned that.’ In the months preceding Hiroshima, no American political leader devoted more thought and attention to the bomb. Oddly, given his distaste for incendiary attack, he never expressed principled opposition to atomic devastation. He strove, however, to serve the Japanese with notice to quit before this horror fell upon them.

Some people today believe that the Allies found it acceptable to kill 100,000 Japanese in this way, as it would not have been acceptable to do the same to Germans, white people. Such speculation is not susceptible to proof. But given Allied perceptions that if Hitler and his immediate following could be removed, Germany would quickly surrender, it is overwhelmingly likely that if an atomic bomb had been available a year earlier, it would have been dropped on Berlin. It would have seemed ridiculous to draw a moral distinction between massed attacks on German centers of population with conventional weapons, and the use of a single more ambitious device to terminate Europe’s agony.

A military counterpoint should be made. From August 1945 onwards, Truman and other contemporary apologists for the bomb advanced the simple argument, readily understood by the wartime generation of Americans, that it rendered redundant an invasion of Japan. It is now widely acknowledged that Olympic would almost certainly have been unnecessary. Japan was tottering and would soon have starved. Richard Frank, author of an outstanding modern study of the fall of the Japanese empire, goes further. He finds it unthinkable that the United States would have accepted the blood-cost of invading Kyushu, in light of radio intelligence about Japanese strength.

The most obvious question is whether Japan might have behaved differently if the Potsdam Declaration had explicitly warned of atomic bombs. If America’s leaders found difficulty in comprehending the unprecedented force they were about to unleash, the Japanese were unlikely to show themselves more imaginative. If LeMay’s achievement in killing 200,000 Japanese civilians and levelling most of the country’s major cities had not convinced them that surrender was inevitable, there is no reason to suppose that a mere threat of atomic bombardment would have done so.

Truman’s greatest mistake, in protecting his own reputation, was failure to deliver an explicit ultimatum before attacking Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Western Allies’ Potsdam Declaration threatened Japan with ‘prompt and utter destruction’ if it failed to surrender forthwith. This phrase was pregnant with significance for the Allied leaders, who knew that the first atomic bomb had just been successfully tested at Alamogordo. But to the Japanese, it merely heralded more of the same: fire-bombing and eventual invasion.

Why was no explicit warning given? Because the dropping of the bomb was designed to deliver a colossal shock, not only to the Japanese people but also to the leaders of the Soviet Union. Marshall said to Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, head of the British Military Mission in Washington: ‘It’s no good warning them. If you warn them there’s no surprise. And the only way to produce shock is surprise.’ This was precisely the same justification offered by the Japanese military to the emperor in 1941 for declining to give the US notice of its intention to go to war before attacking Pearl Harbor.

Japan bears some responsibility for what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because her leaders refused to acknowledge that their game was up. However, the haste with which the US dropped the bomb as soon as it was technically viable reflected technological determinism, together with political fears focused upon the Russians, as much as military imperatives related to Japan. It is possible to support Truman’s decision not to stop the dropping of the bomb, while regretting his failure to offer warning of its imminence.

It remains cause for astonishment that, even in the wake of the atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, the political stalemate in Japan at first appeared unbroken. The military party, dominated by the war minister, Anami, and other service chiefs, argued that nothing had changed: resistance to the death was preferable to accepting surrender; Japan could still successfully oppose an invasion of the homeland.

Admiral Toyoda, the naval chief, fancifully suggested that world opinion would prevent the US from perpetrating another ‘inhuman atrocity’ with atomic bombs. Some civilian politicians were now willing to accept surrender, but with familiar conditions: there should be no occupation of Japan, and the Japanese must try their own alleged war criminals. Most ministers, however, cared about only a single issue: retention of the position of the emperor, though there were endless nuances about how this demand should be articulated.

Junior officers at the War Ministry, in particular, were appalled by the notion of surrender, and pressed their superiors to have no part in such a betrayal. Vice-Admiral Onishi, creator of the kamikaze campaign and now deputy chief of naval staff, begged Anami not to yield to the peacemakers. News of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki appears to have made astonishingly little impact on the leadership one way or another, save that it fulfilled the American purpose of emphasizing that ‘Little Boy’ was not a unique phenomenon.

The members of the Supreme War Council found themselves called to an imperial conference in the palace. There, they were told, Hirohito would announce a ‘sacred decision’. After a forty-minute private conversation with the emperor, lord privy seal Marquis Kido returned to report Hirohito’s assent to an ‘imperial conference’. The service chiefs agreed to attend, and to hear the ‘sacred decision’, knowing full well what this would be. The imperial conference began ten minutes before midnight: Japan’s fate had been sealed and the emperor gathered the necessary support to accept surrender.

Emperor Hirohito summoned a gathering of his country’s military and political leaders and informed them of his determination to end the war, declared to his nation in a radio broadcast a few hours later. Even then, not all his subjects accepted his conclusion. Some senior figures, including the war minister and a number of generals and admirals, committed ritual suicide, an example followed by several hundred humbler folk. ‘There was a clear division of opinion in the army about whether to end the war,’ said General Staff intelligence officer Major Shoji Takahashi. ‘Many of our people in China and South-East Asia favored fighting on. Most of those in Japan accepted that we could not continue. I was sure that, once the Emperor had spoken, we must give up.’ This view prevailed.

That night junior officers from the Army Ministry, led by Maj. Kenji Hatanaka and Lt. Col. Jiro Shiizaki, staged their coup. It was a feeble adventure, which could nonetheless have had disastrous consequences. First, the two officers and their supporters rushed into Anami’s office on the war minister’s return from the imperial conference. When he said that he could not support them, adding that ‘those who disobey will do so over my dead body,’ the conspirators burst into tears. Senior soldiers began burning documents, a process that continued apace through the weeks which followed, in all Japan’s key ministries and headquarters.

Troops of the Eastern Army arrived at the palace, informed the Imperial Guard soldiers that their orders had been faked, and quickly restored order. Realising that the coup had failed, one plotter, Col. Masataka Ida, drove to Anami’s house to report the news. The war minister invited Ida to join him for a farewell drink. At 5:30 a.m., Anami donned a white shirt given to him by Hirohito, seated himself on the floor facing the Imperial Palace, thrust a short sword into his left abdomen, and made the proper cross and upward cuts. He then severed his own carotid artery. As blood sprayed across the testament before him, his brother-in-law, Lt. Col. Masahiko Takeshita, asked: ‘Do you want me to help?’ Anami said: ‘No need. Leave me alone.’ When Takeshita found the general still breathing a few minutes later, he took the sword and finished him off. Later that morning, Hatanaka and Shiizaki shot themselves.

Hatanaka and Shiizaki, the coup conspirators, slipped into the compound of the Imperial Palace. They successfully convinced Col. Toyojiro Haga, commanding the 2nd Imperial Guard Regiment protecting Hirohito, that he should join their plot, on the understanding that it enjoyed the army’s support. They interrogated the radio technicians and court chamberlains, but were unable to find either the disks or Marquis Kido. Had they done so, much harm might have ensued. Any delay in the imperial broadcast would have cost lives. The mutiny might have spread. Kido and the emperor himself are thought to have hidden themselves during the hours in which angry and frustrated rebels roamed the palace corridors.

Given the mind-set of Japan’s armed forces, what was remarkable was not that a coup was attempted, but that only a tiny handful of officers chose to participate. For all their anger, and although a significant number of suicides took place in the days to come, the overwhelming majority of soldiers did accede to the emperor’s will.

At 19.00 on the evening of 14 August Washington time – already the 15th in Japan – Harry Truman read the announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender to a dense throng of politicians and journalists at the White House. The president then ordered the cessation of all offensive operations against the enemy.

Truman told the cabinet he had given orders that no further atomic bombs should be dropped on Japan without his explicit authority. It is reasonable to speculate that, in the days since 6 August, a sense of the enormity of the consequences of Hiroshima had darkened the mood of celebration with which the president greeted the first news. He was not alone in this. ‘Along with a thrill of power and the instinctive pleasure at the thought of Japan cringing in abject surrender, America’s deep-rooted humanitarianism has begun to assert itself,’ the British Embassy in Washington suggested to the Foreign Office in London, ‘and this secondary revulsion has been very marked in private conversation, although it has not yet appeared in the press… There is a good deal of heart-searching about the morality of using such a weapon, especially against an enemy already known to be on his last legs.’

Not knowing that the Americans had no more atomic bombs to drop, and shocked by Russia’s intervention in the Pacific War, which they were unable to counter effectively, the Japanese did finally surrender on 14 August, with the Emperor Hirohito admitting to his people in a broadcast at noon the next day that the war had gone ‘not necessarily to Japan’s advantage’, especially in view of ‘a new most cruel bomb’. Even as he prepared to broadcast, a group of young officers invaded the palace grounds in an attempted coup intended to prevent him from doing so.

When Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki learned of the emperor’s broadcast, he ordered planes prepared, drank a farewell sake with staff at 5th Air Fleet, then drove to Oita airfield on north-east Kyushu. Eleven Suisei dive-bombers stood ready. ‘Are you with me?’ he demanded of the pilots. ‘Yes, sir!’ they cried. Ugaki shook hands with them. During their subsequent flight, Ugaki made a voice transmission: ‘Despite the courage of every unit under my command over the past six months, we have failed to destroy the arrogant enemy and protect our divine empire, a failure which must be considered my own.’ He left behind his diaries, together with a farewell note: ‘I shall vanish into the sky along with my vision.’ His final flight accomplished nothing save his own extinction, aged fifty-five. All the planes save three, which sensibly turned back with ‘engine failure’, were shot down by American fighters.

In the days that followed, some thousands of Japanese chose immolation rather than acknowledge defeat. Among these were Gen. Shizuichi Tanaka, the Oxford-educated commander of Eastern Army who had suppressed the coup against the palace; Prince Konoe; Vice-Admiral Onishi, prime sponsor of the kamikazes; Marshal Sugiyama and his wife.

On a Philippine island, Lt. Hiroo Onoda and his little band of destitute Japanese soldiers found a message left by the Americans: ‘The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!’ Neither he nor the others believed it: ‘There was no doubt in my mind this was an enemy trick.’ Onoda remained in hiding for twenty-eight years.

Lt. Masaichi Kikuchi and other officers of the Singapore garrison heard rumors of the impending surrender from local Chinese a week before the news became official. Whatever paroxysms of grief these inspired among his professional comrades, for Kikuchi they represented ‘a reprieve from a death sentence. For so long, we had all been asking ourselves: when would it be our turn to face the enemy? And to lose our lives?’

Lt. Gen. Masaki Honda, who had fought in Burma, told his staff: ‘We must accept the emperor’s announcement. This is the end of the war. I ask you to continue to obey orders and to refrain from any violent action.’ One of his officers, Maj. Mitsuo Abe, burst out passionately: ‘The Allies will destroy our heritage and wipe out the Japanese race. The Americans will occupy our country forever. You are our commander. You should commit seppuku — and if you dare not, I will show you how!’ Honda, who was seated on the floor in Japanese fashion, calmly invited Abe to sit beside him. ‘You are a staff officer and thus supposed to be intelligent. Can’t you understand the emperor’s mind? We must bear our misfortunes with courage. Neither the old nor the young must kill themselves; that is not the way to save the nation. We must live on, and build the foundations of the new Japan.’

‘The men all cried about the surrender,’ said twenty-four-year-old Yoshiko Hashimoto, who had lost half her family in the March firebombing of Tokyo. ‘I too cried—but with relief.’ Lt. Cmdr. Haruki Iki flew a little communications plane to navy headquarters the night before the surrender, for a conference about his wing’s invasion suicide mission. On landing, he met two staff officers whom he knew well from navy academy days. They greeted him and said: ‘Forget about the meeting. An important announcement’s due which could change everything. Let’s go and have a drink.’ Then they listened to the emperor’s broadcast. Like so many others, Iki dissolved into helpless tears. He flew alone back to his base, to find that most of his aircrew had decamped towards their homes. Iki, furious, dispatched demands for their return, with which most sheepishly complied. Then a terse order arrived from headquarters: all aircraft were to be destroyed. So indeed they were.

Maj. Shoji Takahashi, a general staff intelligence officer, had spent a week in Hiroshima as a member of the army’s investigating team after the atomic explosion. Takahashi became ill, suffering from what he afterwards assumed was radiation sickness. He learned of Japan’s surrender at the airfield on their return to Tokyo. ‘All the way back to general staff headquarters,’ he said later, ‘I was trying to decide how I would kill myself, because I assumed that we would all be expected to do this.’ It came as a surprise to discover that most officers were content to survive. Takahashi refused an order that he should join the Japanese delegation flying to Manila to receive detailed instructions from the Americans: ‘I could not bear the idea of being one of those who abased ourselves before MacArthur.’

The Allies anticipated that some Japanese would reject the emperor’s call to lay down their arms. In late August 1945 there were indeed difficulties in reconciling some units to defeat, and dramatic suicides by individuals. Hysteria seized some army officers. Tears fell in torrents across the nation. What is remarkable, however, is not how many Japanese rejected surrender, but how many embraced it gratefully, whatever protestations they made to the contrary. This outcome once more highlights the gulf between the private acknowledgement of reality and the public embrace of fantasy which had been the bane of the Japanese nation.

On a Philippine island, Lt. Hiroo Onoda and his little band of destitute Japanese soldiers found a message left by the Americans: ‘The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!’ Neither he nor the others believed it: ‘There was no doubt in my mind this was an enemy trick.’ Onoda remained in hiding for twenty-eight years.

Lt. Gen. Masaki Honda, who had fought in Burma, told his staff: ‘We must accept the emperor’s announcement. This is the end of the war. I ask you to continue to obey orders and to refrain from any violent action.’ One of his officers, Maj. Mitsuo Abe, burst out passionately: ‘The Allies will destroy our heritage and wipe out the Japanese race. The Americans will occupy our country forever. You are our commander. You should commit seppuku — and if you dare not, I will show you how!’ Honda, who was seated on the floor in Japanese fashion, calmly invited Abe to sit beside him. ‘You are a staff officer and thus supposed to be intelligent. Can’t you understand the emperor’s mind? We must bear our misfortunes with courage. Neither the old nor the young must kill themselves; that is not the way to save the nation. We must live on, and build the foundations of the new Japan.’

In the days that followed, some thousands of Japanese chose immolation rather than acknowledge defeat. Among these were Gen. Shizuichi Tanaka, the Oxford-educated commander of Eastern Army who had suppressed the coup against the palace; Prince Konoe; Vice-Admiral Onishi, prime sponsor of the kamikazes; Marshal Sugiyama and his wife.

‘The men all cried about the surrender,’ said twenty-four-year-old Yoshiko Hashimoto, who had lost half her family in the March firebombing of Tokyo. ‘I too cried—but with relief.’ Lt. Cmdr. Haruki Iki flew a little communications plane to navy headquarters the night before the surrender, for a conference about his wing’s invasion suicide mission. On landing, he met two staff officers whom he knew well from navy academy days. They greeted him and said: ‘Forget about the meeting. An important announcement’s due which could change everything. Let’s go and have a drink.’ Then they listened to the emperor’s broadcast. Like so many others, Iki dissolved into helpless tears. He flew alone back to his base, to find that most of his aircrew had decamped towards their homes. Iki, furious, dispatched demands for their return, with which most sheepishly complied. Then a terse order arrived from headquarters: all aircraft were to be destroyed. So indeed they were.

When Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki learned of the emperor’s broadcast, he ordered planes prepared, drank a farewell sake with staff at 5th Air Fleet, then drove to Oita airfield on north-east Kyushu. Eleven Suisei dive-bombers stood ready. ‘Are you with me?’ he demanded of the pilots. ‘Yes, sir!’ they cried. Ugaki shook hands with them. During their subsequent flight, Ugaki made a voice transmission: ‘Despite the courage of every unit under my command over the past six months, we have failed to destroy the arrogant enemy and protect our divine empire, a failure which must be considered my own.’ He left behind his diaries, together with a farewell note: ‘I shall vanish into the sky along with my vision.’ His final flight accomplished nothing save his own extinction, aged fifty-five. All the planes save three, which sensibly turned back with ‘engine failure’, were shot down by American fighters.

Lt. Masaichi Kikuchi and other officers of the Singapore garrison heard rumors of the impending surrender from local Chinese a week before the news became official. Whatever paroxysms of grief these inspired among his professional comrades, for Kikuchi they represented ‘a reprieve from a death sentence. For so long, we had all been asking ourselves: when would it be our turn to face the enemy? And to lose our lives?’

Maj. Shoji Takahashi, a general staff intelligence officer, had spent a week in Hiroshima as a member of the army’s investigating team after the atomic explosion. Takahashi became ill, suffering from what he afterwards assumed was radiation sickness. He learned of Japan’s surrender at the airfield on their return to Tokyo. ‘All the way back to general staff headquarters,’ he said later, ‘I was trying to decide how I would kill myself, because I assumed that we would all be expected to do this.’ It came as a surprise to discover that most officers were content to survive. Takahashi refused an order that he should join the Japanese delegation flying to Manila to receive detailed instructions from the Americans: ‘I could not bear the idea of being one of those who abased ourselves before MacArthur.’

Among the Allied nations, news of victory spread like wildfire. Relieved soldiers and POW’s celebrated the victory on far away lands while civilians took to the streets to celebrate the victory at home.

John Sandle’s regiment in Burma indulged a brief feu de joie on VJ-Day, but ‘the euphoria of the occasion soon evaporated, to be replaced by a feeling of melancholy at the utter futility of war in which our battalion had lost hundreds of men just to finish up where we had started four years earlier.’ He was one of only two officers in his unit to have survived the entire campaign.

Rod Wells, in Singapore’s Changi jail, recoiled in disgust from the fashion in which Japanese began to salute British and Australian inmates, offering them water and cigarettes. A British medical team landed by parachute. When they saw the pistol on a paratrooper’s belt, so institutionalized were the hapless prisoners that they said in alarm: ‘The Japs won’t like that.’ The British officer responded: ‘Cheer up. You can tell them what you like, hit them over the head with a hammer, anything. Don’t mess around—just give them orders. Treat them like scum, that’s all they are.’ Not all the liberating forces behaved sensitively to prisoners. A repatriation officer who arrived at Lt. Cmdr. George Cooper’s camp on Batavia admonished the inmates to realize that they were infinitely better off than concentration camp prisoners he had seen at Belsen and Buchenwald. Several of his hearers walked away in disgust.

At Aomi barracks in Japan, senior prisoner Stephen Abbott paraded the inmates in uniform and said: ‘Today is the greatest day in the history of our time. We must remember, however, that to obtain it millions of all nationalities have died. It is a day, not only for rejoicing, but also for sober thought. You are no longer prisoners of war, but you are soldiers of your countries and upon you rests a great responsibility for good behaviour and dignified example. Remember above all things that you are citizens of the free democracies of the United States and Great Britain. Be true to the ideals which during six hard years we have battled to maintain.’ After dismissing the parade, Abbott and his fellow POWs waited three weeks for liberation. In the interim, at several other locations in Japan, guards murdered captives.

In the streets of Chongqing, Chinese and Americans embraced each other in the streets. ‘Mei kuo ting hao, mei kuo ting hao!’ they cried, ‘America is wonderful!’ Firecrackers exploded, people shouted and cheered sporadically at first, ‘but growing to a volcano of sound and happiness within an hour.’ Some shouted in English: ‘Thank you, thank you!’ Captain Luo Dingwen was among many Chinese who cried, ‘because this meant that for the first time since 1937, I could go home.’ Captain Yan Qizhi’s first thought was: ‘Who else is alive?’ It was weeks before somebody from his Nationalist regiment passed by his village and told his family that he had survived.

Across the globe, Allied nations celebrated Victory over Japan Day. The people took to the streets in cities such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., London, Sydney and many others, to celebrate the hard-earned victory.

MacArthur, in his new role as Supreme Commander of Allied powers, ordered all subordinate commanders to postpone reoccupation of Japanese-held territory until after the formal surrender was signed. Seven million Japanese troops remained under arms, in the home islands and across Hirohito’s empire. A British official wrote: ‘They do not consider that they have been defeated and say so quite openly. They have simply laid down arms on the Emperor’s orders. We are thus in a position that, in a few days’ time, we shall be setting out to disarm an undefeated army.’ It was also plainly a matter of urgency to prevent a vacuum of authority across a huge area where local nationalists were poised to challenge the Allies for control.

On Sunday, 2 September 1945, six years and one day after Germany had invaded Poland, General Douglas MacArthur and Admirals Chester Nimitz and Sir Bruce Fraser together with representatives of the other Allied nations took the formal Japanese surrender, which was signed by the Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and the Army Chief of Staff General Yoshijiro Umezu, aboard the battleship USS Missouri, by then moored in Tokyo Bay. MacArthur concluded the ceremony by saying: ‘Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.’ The USS Missouri was chosen because she had served at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and was Nimitz’s flagship; it was mere coincidence that she was named after President Truman’s home state.

There was a great deal of American debate about whether the formal surrender should be signed on Japanese soil, or at sea. Truman, the most famous Missourian, made the decision. The battleship bearing his state’s name was at sea south of Japan, and the men were opening a new mail delivery. The chief yeoman dashed up to Captain Murray, her commanding officer, and said: ‘Captain, Missouri is going to be the surrender ship—here’s a clipping from the Santa Barbara paper.’

On the afternoon of 1 September, the huge battleship eased its way cautiously into Tokyo Bay, wary of mines and kamikazes. A party of Japanese naval officers boarded from a destroyer to offer the keys of the city of Yokosuka, near the ship’s intended anchorage. Advancing further, the battleship passed more Japanese destroyers, their guns plugged and depressed, and at last stopped engines some six miles off Yokohama. By nightfall, 260 Allied warships filled the bay.

Mustering the great crowd of dignitaries and onlookers next morning, Sunday, 2 September 1945, proved a challenge. There were 225 correspondents and seventy-five photographers, two of these Japanese, together with representatives of every Allied power. Captain Murray took pains to ensure that the respective flag hoists of MacArthur and Nimitz were exactly level. Two Marines hustled an errant Russian photographer into his proper place, while the Americans scrutinised the Japanese cameramen nervously. Soon after 08.00, destroyers delivered MacArthur and Nimitz to the ship.

The Japanese party came alongside Missouri at 08.55. Silence fell over the throng as the defeated enemy’s representatives, in formal dress and top hats, mounted the gangway and approached the close-set ranks of Allied brass. Shigemitsu, who had lost a leg to an unsuccessful assassin’s bomb a few years earlier, made every step in visible pain, embarrassing the more sensitive Americans. When the Japanese were in their places, MacArthur, Nimitz and Admiral William Halsey emerged from a hatchway and strode to the mess table, covered with a green cloth.

MacArthur delivered a short speech, which even his sternest critics have been unable to fault: ‘The issues, involving divergent ideals and ideologies, have been determined on the battlefields of the world and hence are not for our discussion or debate,’ he said. ‘Nor is it for us here to meet, representing as we do a majority of the people of the earth, in a spirit of distrust, malice or hatred. But rather it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purposes we are about to serve, committing all our people unreservedly to faithful compliance.’ His hands trembled as he read. Even MacArthur seemed a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of the occasion. The Japanese were deeply impressed by the generosity of the sentiments expressed by the supreme commander. For the first time, they felt a gleam of hope for the future. Then they all signed.

At 9.25, the silence was broken by a distant drone, then a great roar overhead, as four hundred B-29s and 1,500 carrier planes staged the greatest fly-past in history. The Japanese bowed, retreated, and descended the gangway. MacArthur walked to a microphone, and delivered another slow, majestic speech. ‘Today the guns are silent,’ he began. ‘A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won.’ After rehearsing memories of the long journey from Bataan to Tokyo Bay, he concluded with an appeal entirely worthy of the moment, for mankind to pursue a new spirit of peace: ‘These proceedings are now closed,’ he said.

Nothing so became MacArthur’s tenure of combat command as the manner in which he ended it. The general departed ashore, to begin the most impressive phase of his life, as architect of Japan’s resurrection and redemption — also, indeed, of his own. Aboard Missouri, Captain Murray found that no one had thought of locking up the American copy of the surrender document, and hastily did so himself. He frustrated an attempt by the ship’s cooks to abstract the table used for the surrender ceremony. The war against Japan had ended.