Japan feared the Soviets, not the bomb
For a generation after the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed on Sept. 2, 1945, the standard narrative remained fairly straightforward. By deciding to use nuclear weapons—against Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and on Nagasaki three days later—President Harry Truman enabled the realists in Tokyo, also called the peace faction, to prevail. This made a full-scale invasion of Japan unnecessary and thus saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. Even if there had been no invasion, a related argument went, the two bombs saved millions of starving Japanese civilians by making unnecessary a long siege of their devastated home islands.
In 1965, a revisionist theory was presented by historian Gar Alperovitz. He accepted that the bomb persuaded Japan’s leaders to surrender, but he argued that they had intended to do so in any event, and certainly well before the proposed Allied invasion, named Operation Downfall, set for Nov. 1. Alperovitz further asserted that Truman’s primary motive for using the bomb was to send an intimidating message to Stalin about America’s awesome new capability. Using nuclear weapons was not necessary to end the war, Alperovitz concluded, and it was therefore wrong to do so.
Over the ensuing four decades, the debate, often acrimonious, essentially revolved around whether the use of the bomb was moral or not, and necessary or not, either in the context of the time or in retrospect. Neither camp questioned the underlying assumption that the two nuclear explosions forced the Japanese into giving up the fight. Both sides were focused on the supposed motives for using nuclear weapons, to the detriment of assessing those weapons’ actual effects.
Enter Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a Japanese-born professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, until his retirement in 2016. In his award-winning 2005 book Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, Hasegawa—whose specialty is Soviet politics and history—upset the apple cart by arguing that Tokyo’s decision to accept the Potsdam Declaration was made primarily because the USSR declared war on Japan on Aug. 8.
Racing the Enemy placed the finale of the Pacific War within the context of the emerging rivalry between Moscow and Washington. In the book and in subsequent refereed articles, Hasegawa provided evidence that in the Emperor’s “sacred decision” to surrender, engineered by a small group within Japan’s ruling elite, Soviet entry into the war provided a more powerful motivation than the two bombs. Further, by posing counterfactual hypotheses, Hasegawa argued “that Soviet entry into the war against Japan alone, without the atomic bombs, might have led to Japan’s surrender before November 1, but that the atomic bombs alone, without Soviet entry into the war, would not have accomplished this.”
The decisive factor, Hasegawa concluded, was the elite’s fear of Soviet influence on occupation policy and its well-founded belief “that under the circumstances surrendering to the United States would best assure the preservation of the imperial house and save the emperor.” Atomic bombs “injected a sense of urgency in finding an acceptable end to the war.” They helped to tip the balance in favor of the peace party, but “[i]t would be more accurate to say that the Soviet entry into the war, adding to that tipped scale, then completely toppled the scale itself,” Hasegawa wrote in a 2007 essay in The Asia-Pacific Journal.
This was a new paradigm. Racing the Enemy was accepted as important by both sides in the old debate. “Hasegawa has changed my mind,” declared Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb. “The Japanese decision to surrender was not driven by the two bombings.” Alperovitz called the book “the most comprehensive study yet undertaken of Japanese documentary sources.” John W. Dower, the author of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, called it “a tour de force—a lucid, balanced, multi-archival, myth-shattering analysis of the turbulent end of World War II.”
Ward Wilson, author of the bestselling Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, summed up Hasegawa’s case and his own research in a long article, “The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan… Stalin Did,” published in Foreign Policy on May 30, 2013. Wilson starts with “the problem of timing”: From the Japanese perspective, the most important day in August 1945 was not the 6th (Hiroshima) but the 9th, the day that the Supreme Council met for the first time to discuss surrender.
What made them do so at that particular moment? Wilson argues it could not have been Nagasaki, which was hit late that morning, after the Supreme Council had already started its fateful deliberations. Hiroshima isn’t a very good candidate either, Wilson continues, because it was bombed more than three days earlier. “Japan’s leaders knew roughly the outcome of the attack on the first day, yet they still did not act,” and the decision to surrender was not based on it.
As for the problem of scale, “from the contemporary Japanese perspective…it might not have been so easy to distinguish the Bomb from other events.” The destruction and casualties caused by conventional bombing was enormous. In the spring and summer of 1945, some 300,000 Japanese had been killed, 750,000 wounded, and 1.7 million made homeless; all this before Hiroshima. In the midst of this cascade of destruction, Wilson says:
it would not be surprising if this or that individual attack failed to make much of an impression—even if it was carried out with a remarkable new type of weapon…If Japan’s leaders were going to surrender because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you would expect to find that they cared about the bombing of cities in general, that the city attacks put pressure on them to surrender. But this doesn’t appear to be so.
What tipped the balance, Wilson concludes (in full agreement with Hasegawa), was the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island. It invalidated the military’s “decisive battle” strategy, focused on defending Japan’s southern islands from an American invasion. It also changed the calculation of how much time was left for maneuvering: “Japanese intelligence was predicting that U.S. forces might not invade for months. Soviet forces, on the other hand, could be in Japan proper in as little as 10 days.”
Against such persuasive evidence it is natural to ask what made the myth of the atom bomb ending the war so enduring, both in the United States and in Japan.
For the Japanese elite, it provided a welcome explanation to their own people for having to terminate an already-lost war. It helped preserve the legitimacy of the Emperor. It also appealed, vaguely at first and systematically later, to international sympathy. The latter was much needed in view of the fact that Japan had waged war aggressively and with extreme brutality toward conquered peoples and prisoners of war, such as in Nanking, China, and Bataan in the Philippines.
Last but not least, as Wilson points out, saying that the atom bomb won the war would please the victors. If the Americans wanted to believe this was so, the Japanese would not disappoint them. “If the Bomb won the war, then the perception of U.S. military power would be enhanced, U.S. diplomatic influence in Asia and around the world would increase, and U.S. security would be strengthened,” Wilson wrote.
In the fullness of time an entire strategic doctrine, that of nuclear deterrence, was based on the supposed psychological and strategic impacts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was argued the main purpose of strategic forces had shifted from winning wars to averting them. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction was its predictable offspring. Deterrence became more than a theory. It became the justification for developing and maintaining nuclear stockpiles.
The ideology of deterrence is not based on empirically verifiable assumptions. And yet in his 1989 classic, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Lawrence Freedman quipped that the Emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still Emperor. He remains “the bedrock of U.S. national security” to this day, according to the testimony of David Trachtenberg, then deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 1, 2019. “Our nuclear deterrent underwrites all U.S. military operations and diplomacy across the globe,” he said. “It is the backstop and foundation of our national defense.” If this is so, God help us!
There have been many enduring myths in history. Some proved difficult to debunk because they were, or still are, politically useful to some people.
For example, there never was any Golden Age of Islam, in Spain or anywhere else. The Dark Ages were not nearly as dark as is routinely claimed. Far from being wars of aggression, the Crusades were a belated military response of Christian Europe to four centuries of Muslim aggression against Christian lands and the systemic mistreatment of the indigenous Christian population of those lands. The Inquisition killed fewer people in three centuries than Stalin’s secret police did in three years. The Civil War was not fought to liberate slaves. Germany’s defeat in 1918 was not due to any “stab-in-the-back,” but to a flawed grand strategy. The Gulf of Tonkin was not an “incident,” but a false-flag operation. Likewise Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” were not the product of faulty intelligence assessments but the result of an inside-the-Beltway joint criminal conspiracy.
As for the proliferating myths in our postmodern academe, they are just too numerous to list. Most of them, especially in the field of misnamed humanities, are also too bizarre to be taken seriously by sane people; but we live in strange times. It is a somewhat comforting thought that truth does exist. Only lies need to be invented. Reasonable people of good faith should agree that “the bomb forced Japan to capitulate” is one of them.
above: representatives of the Empire of Japan on board the USS Missouri during surrender ceremonies, Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945: (US Army Signal Corps/Wikimedia)