11 August 2011

Were the nuclear bombs irrelevant to Japan's surrender in WWII ?

Excerpts from an interesting article at Boston.com:
For nearly seven decades, the American public has accepted one version of the events that led to Japan’s surrender...

In recent years, however, a new interpretation of events has emerged. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa - a highly respected historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara - has marshaled compelling evidence that it was the Soviet entry into the Pacific conflict, not Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that forced Japan’s surrender. His interpretation could force a new accounting of the moral meaning of the atomic attack. It also raises provocative questions about nuclear deterrence, a foundation stone of military strategy in the postwar period...

“Hasegawa has changed my mind,” says 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.”

Hasegawa and other historians have shown that Japan’s leaders were in fact quite savvy, well aware of their difficult position, and holding out for strategic reasons. Their concern was not so much whether to end the conflict, but how to end it while holding onto territory, avoiding war crimes trials, and preserving the imperial system...

As Hasegawa writes in his book “Racing the Enemy,” the Japanese leadership reacted [to the bombing of Hiroshima] with concern, but not panic... The bombing added a “sense of urgency,” Hasegawa says, but the plan remained the same... Very late the next night, however, something happened that did change the plan. The Soviet Union declared war and launched a broad surprise attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria. In that instant, Japan’s strategy was ruined.

Better to surrender to Washington than to Moscow... By the morning of Aug. 9, the Japanese Supreme War Council was meeting to discuss the terms of surrender. (During the meeting, the second atomic bomb killed tens of thousands at Nagasaki.) On Aug. 15, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally...
Those with an interest in military history will find much more at the Boston.com link.


  1. When I visited Hiroshima in May last year we got a free guide from an actual survivor (IIRC). He said that Japan had been prepared to surrender even before the first bomb, but that politics made the USA drop them anyway primarily (or solely?) to intimidate USSR. I wish I had recorded the entire conversation but at the time I did not know if it was ok or not. (In japan filming or even photographing people you don't know personally is a big no-no) Also, I have no idea if what he said is actually true, but he made a convincing case with what appeared to be very old newspaper clippings etc, it was a _very_ interesting lecture, given to us on the pavement next to the A-Bomb Dome. As a bonus he also brought us to a graveyard just next to the hypocenter where the gravestones had been expoed to immense heat radiation, so much that the top surfaces had risen and were no longer smooth.

  2. This will interest Andreas: http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/08/hiroshima_hoax_japans_wllingne.html

    I personally find it amazing that Japan considered the USSR a serious threat, considering how rough things still were in Europe on the other side of Asia. It is difficult for Americans to understand the degree of slaughter and destruction that occurred in Central Europe/West Asia toward the end of WWII.

    I think the truth is somewhere in the middle of all the stories -- if Japan saw the USSR as a valid threat, then Japan clearly had to be feeling vulnerable. Which supports the idea that Japanese leaders were considering surrender already, although the exact timing and terms were debated. Then it took the atomic attacks and the opening of a new Western front by the USSR to really make Japan give up.

  3. That link didn't post in entirety. I will break it up into two lines...


  4. There is one thing about the Japanese that I think even Hasegawa would agree with: the Japanese see themselves as victims - they are not. And a fine parsing of incomplete data filtered through an intellect colored by powerful personal beliefs is not so much refutation as it is an intellectual way out of what must be a challenging personal and national dilemma. Did the bombs convince the Japanese leadership? Does the answer even matter? Does Hasegawa theory even matter? In the context of WWII, the horror was sufficient enough to convince western civilisation that the concept of war crime should exist. And the narrative around the bombs' effect illustrative enough to quell the desire for empire through conquest. The pursuit of truth through historical revision although interesting and sometimes stimulating seems to me to be rarely a search for truth per se as it is a search for validation of one's own ideas and beliefs.

  5. Re: The Japanese not being afraid of a weary Soviet bear, read about the Soviet invasion of Japanese Manchuria. They crossed the border with 1.5 million men, 27000 artiller, 5500 tanks and swept the Japanese before them, taking North Korea, not getting South Korea only because the US landed troops after the Japanese surrender.


  6. The argument has two components: whether using the bomb was moral and it was necessary to force the Japanese leadership to surrender.

    The latter question seems like it has been answered: the USSR was relocating massive amounts of machine tool and manufacturing equipment from its sector of Germany so they would be able to give Japan a bad time if they were allowed to. It's a big country, even now, with huge resources to allow it to recover.

    The former question will remain open as long as there are two people to take sides. If we agree that the entry of the USSR to the Pacific theater forced Japan's hand, the bombs were unnecessary. A week or two more of patience might have yielded the same result. But someone would have found a reason to use one, and that initial use would have been far more powerful and would perhaps have prompted a similar response (say, in Korea or Vietnam).

  7. "The former question will remain open as long as there are two people to take sides."


    "If we agree that the entry of the USSR to the Pacific theater forced Japan's hand, the bombs were unnecessary. A week or two more of patience might have yielded the same result."

    It gets even more complicated when you consider that necessity and morality are not the same thing. The US Command could only act on the information they had at the time, which was presumably limited. There's also the consideration that we were firebombing Tokyo and other cities, and killed more there than in both nuclear attacks put together. It says something interesting about human psychology that we're terrified of atomic weapons and debate their use incessantly, but ethically similar attacks with conventional weapons go more or less unremarked.

    Interesting idea about the possibility of the bomb not being used during WW2 and instead making its first horrible appearance in a later conflict. That could make a fantastic alternate history premise.

  8. Why no mention of Emperor Hirohito's Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War?

    "The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon, with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do
    incalculable damage... Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in a ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers."

  9. What hasn't been mentioned yet is that as a result of the U.S. dropping the first bomb, the USSR jumped into the war against Japan so that they would be "entitled" to some of the spoils of victory, such as reclaiming territory they lost to Japan from the 1904 war and additional gains on the Asian continent before Japan would accept
    Allied terms. The Japanese were rightly fearful of a Russian occupation of their home islands and an introduction of communism to their society which was an alien
    ideology to their culture. Without studying Soviet records, I don't know how soon the Soviets would have attacked Japan, but I think it is safe to assume that the USSR
    thought Japan would accept defeat by the dropping of the atomic bomb
    and so hastened their plans to attack Japan.

  10. Interesting. But Russia was aware to some extent of "the Bomb" (come to that, I have read elsewhere that via neutrals an invitation to watch testing of "a powerful new weapon" was extended to the Japanese, who dismissed it as propaganda), possibly including the intent to drop one of those first two bombs in Germany. But Germany had already fallen a few months beore the bombs were ready. While the Soviet Union may have been the first to shift armies toward the Japanese the rest of the Allies were sure to do the same. American troops in Europe had been told that many would be shifted to the Pacific.

    I do not doubt that there was serious consideration of ending the war. But reading between the lines, the Japanese were considering something more akin to a cease-fire, or "we will stop fighting if you let us keep everything we have taken and still hold." Would the Allies have accepted that? Perhaps, but I do not think it likely.

  11. While recently studying the period, my instructor stated that the US dropped the bomb on Japan to show the Russians the true destructive nature/American power. (Although later information showed that the USSR had pretty nearly full knowledge of the bomb and the potential power.) The prof concluded that it was really the opening move in the Cold War chess game.

  12. It is important to remember that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were done not just to terrify civilians, but as part of preparations for an anticipated invasion. Hiroshima was a key shipping center, a military supply depot and the headquarters of the regional army. Nagasaki was another important port and armaments manufacturing center.

    If you want to get pissed off about the Allies bombing civilians for no military gain whatsoever then Dresden is a much better choice.


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