Right-wing historian Max Hastings justified the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2005, writing: ‘Truman’s Hiroshima judgment may seem wrong in the eyes of posterity, but it is easy to understand why it seemed right to most of his contemporaries.’
That’s a lie.
In the eyes of Truman’s best-informed contemporaries, there were at least two options that could and should have been tried before the Bomb – and they each had a good chance of ending the Pacific War without the need for a US land invasion.
Truman deliberately chose not to use either tactic until after he had dropped the atomic bomb.
To understand what US decision-makers knew and believed in July 1945, we can draw on US historian Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to Use The Atomic Bomb (Fontana Press, 1995).
Russia ‘in the Jap War’
One possible move was a Russian declaration of war.
Russia had indicated in 1943 that it would join the war against Japan after Germany was defeated.
In 1944, British prime minister Winston Churchill told the US political leadership that when Russia entered the Pacific war, Japan ‘would undoubtedly think twice about continuing the fight’ [Gar Alperovitz, p89].
On 8 July, two months after the German surrender, the top-level US-UK combined intelligence committee stressed that: ‘An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat’ [p227].
Truman made a personal note on 17 July 1945, after meeting Stalin: ‘He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about’ [p239].
Why did Truman therefore decide to use the atomic bomb before 15 August? Alternatively, why did he not ask Stalin to declare war in July 1945? That might have ended the war by itself.
Spare the emperor
In April-July 1945, the US decoded secret messages indicating that Japanese political and military leaders were willing to surrender if the position of the emperor could be preserved [pp23–29].
Acting secretary of state Joseph C Grew told Truman on 28 May 1945 that ‘the greatest obstacle to unconditional surrender by the Japanese’ was their fear that this would lead to the end of the royal family.
Grew, the former US ambassador to Japan, said the Japanese needed to be given ‘a method of saving face without which surrender will be highly unlikely’ [p55].
During 1945, Truman was also urged to change the surrender terms to protect the Japanese emperor by:
- British prime minister Winston Churchill – the first time was in February 1945 [Alperovitz p38];
- the British joint intelligence committee – 18 April [p42];
- the US joint staff planners – 25 April [p42];
- the US joint chiefs of staff – 10 May [p43];
- former US president Herbert Hoover – 28 May [p43];
- the head of the US army, general George C Marshall – 14 June [p44];
- the head of the US navy, admiral William D Leahy – 18 June [pp64–65];
- US assistant secretary of war John J McCloy – 18 June [p69];
- the US state department – 30 June [p298];
- and US secretary of war Henry L Stimson – 2 July, 16 July and 24 July [pp300–301].
The British and US joint chiefs of staff, at a combined meeting on 16 July, formally minuted [p245] that Churchill should ask Truman to exempt the emperor. This Churchill did on 18 July [p243].
Despite all this, on 24 July, Truman ordered that the Potsdam declaration should ask for Japan’s unconditional surrender – in the face of contrary advice from all his military and civilian advisers and officials apart from US secretary of state James Byrnes [p305].
It was only after the atomic bombs had been dropped that Truman changed his position.
On 15 August, after the atomic bombings, and after the Russian declaration of war, the emperor broadcast a surrender which, in his words, would ‘save and maintain the structure of the Imperial State.’
Truman accepted this conditional surrender on 15 August.
Emperor Michinomiya Hirohito, who presided over Japanese imperialism in the 1930s and ’40s, ruled until his death in 1989.
- February–July: US president Harry Truman is urged to change surrender terms for Japan – and to accept the continued rule of the Japanese emperor – by the US and UK joint chiefs of staff, the heads of the US army and navy, the US secretary of war, and British prime minister Winston Churchill, among others.
- April–July: the US decodes secret messages indicating that Japanese political and military leaders are willing to surrender if the emperor could remain in power after the war.
- 8 July: Top-level US-UK combined intelligence committee says: ‘An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat’.
- 17 July: Truman writes in his diary after meeting Stalin: ‘He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about.’
- 24 July: Truman maintains demand for unconditional Japanese surrender.
- 6 August: US drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima killing around 100,000 civilians immediately.
- 8 August: Soviet Union declares war on Japan.
- 9 August: US drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Around 70,000 Japanese civilians are killed immediately.
- 9 August: Soviet Union invades Manchuria.
- 15 August: Japan broadcasts conditional surrender, preserving the position of the emperor.
- 15 August: Truman alters his position and accepts Japanese surrender terms, preserving the position of the emperor. The war ends.