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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.