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Ending the Pacific war: Warry Truman and the decision to drop the bomb.

Speaking on Teaching the Nuclear Age as part of the Wachman Center's History Institute for Teachers, attorney and military historian Richard B. Frank used his own research and the most recent information from intelligence sources and Japanese historians to clear away much of the controversy regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs and the surrender of Japan. That debate had emerged in the mid-1960s when revisionist historians challenged the notion that the use of the bombs was justified, that they ended the war, and had saved lives.

After some brief background on "unconditional surrender" as the U.S. war aim--adopted in order to facilitate remaking postwar Japanese society--Frank first rejected the revisionists' contention that the Japanese were eager to surrender even before use of the Hiroshima bomb. Though Japan's situation might look hopeless to later and outside observers, the Japanese government did not share that view. Prior to the atomic bombs, it sought not surrender but a negotiated end to the war that would leave Japan independent and in possession of all territory still under its control in the summer of 1945.

To convince the United States to negotiate such a peace, Japan had mobilized its civil population in support of the armies in its Home Islands. Thus armed and prepared, the Japanese government determined to "Fight to the Finish" in expectation that Allied forces landing on Kyushu would suffer such bloody losses as to break the perceived-to-be-fragile American morale. Excepting the private exchanges between Japan's foreign minister and his ambassador to the Soviet Union, the "peace feelers" the revisionists used in making their case were unofficial and advanced prior to the use of the atomic bomb. Nor, prior to August 6, did the eight individuals who controlled Japanese policy regard their situation as hopeless. They neither approved those initiatives nor contemplated surrender on Allied terms.

The use of the two atomic bombs caused Japan's leaders to reconsider their terms for peace, which they narrowed to include preservation of the imperial institution, Japan to disarm itself and control its own war crimes trials, and rejection of Allied occupation of the Home Islands. After the Nagasaki bomb, the emperor overruled other policymakers and agreed to settle for only the first of those four, though he initially sought to place himself over the Allied commander of occupation forces. In the end, however, he had to accept a subordinate position--not quite unconditional surrender but well short of what Japan had demanded prior to use of the atomic bombs and what was favored by all other members of his inner cabinet. The United States accepted that condition to preserve the only competent authority--the emperor--that might convince all Japanese forces to surrender.

Describing an estimate of a million casualties as applying only to the landings on Kyushu, the revisionists also challenged that figure as an exaggeration used to justify using the atomic bombs as a life-saving alternative to invasion. In fact, that number not unreasonably estimated the human cost of defeating Japanese forces outside the Home Islands. In light of Japanese resistance on Okinawa and Iwo Jima, that was not an unreasonable figure, especially if augmented by possible losses during conquest of the Home Islands as well. The U.S. Navy, moreover, had long considered that invasion would cause unacceptable American casualties.

When assessing casualties from any delay in achieving Japan's surrender, the perhaps four thousand Asian civilians, Allied internees, and military prisoners who died each day in the East Asia areas occupied by the Japanese army deserve consideration. In China alone, between ten and fifteen million died under Japanese occupation. In addition, had the United States pursued unconditional surrender via a blockade, conventional bombing, and ground invasion, Japanese civil losses from massive famine and continued fighting would surely have numbered in the millions. The bombs did, indeed, save lives--Japanese and American.

Frank also addressed the debate over whether the use of the bombs or the Soviet declaration of war prompted Japan's surrender--and finds that choice too simplistic. Recent work by Japanese historians has revealed that the emperor's acceptance of a very slightly conditional surrender derived from his assessment that, first, the blockade and bombing had caused so much suffering as to endanger the survival of the regime and, second, that he was about to lose control of the Japanese armed forces, which might soon ignore him and pursue a suicidal strategy. To maintain control, the emperor needed to act promptly. In that sense the atomic bombs and the Soviet intervention were "gifts from the gods," in the words of navy minister Mitsumasa Yonai. Available private records indicate that in the emperor's mind what mattered were Japan's domestic situation, its lack of military capacity to resist invasion, and the tremendous destruction done by the conventional and atomic bombing. For him, Soviet intervention seems to have counted for little, though he used that intervention when ordering mainland Japanese armies to surrender.

The text of this speech is a superb supplement to Frank's excellent book on the emperor's decision to surrender in the wake of two atomic bombs. Teachers of history should incorporate his views in their lessons on the end of World War II in the Pacific.

By Richard B. Frank, author of Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire

Reviewed by James L. Abrahamson, Contributing Editor
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Author:Abrahamson, James L.
Publication:American Diplomacy
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Apr 28, 2009
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