Day 2

Question: With some 13 divisions of Japanese infantry on Kyushu why did we not drop the atomic bomb there, on what would have been a purely military target? Would not the loss of those divisions have been a far more serious blow to Japan than bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki? -G.F., San Francisco, CA

Answered by Edward Drea:

Edward Drea

Once it became apparent that the United States would have operational atomic bombs, a target selection committee comprising Manhattan Project military officers and civilians met to select possible targets. They knew that only a few bombs would be available and wanted to attack targets that would have the greatest impact on the Japanese will to continue the war. The target should be military in nature and, to enable U.S. authorities to make an accurate assessment of the new weapon's effect, the target had to be one that had not previously been damaged in air raids. Lieutenant General Leslie, director of the Manhattan Project, also wanted a target of such size that the damage would be confined within it, so that scientists could determine the power of the bomb. Given these criteria, the target committee felt that the optimum target would be what they called the "large urban areas of not less than three miles in diameter existing in the larger populated areas."

It correct that the loss of several of the 13 Kyushu divisions would have been a great blow to Japan, but in August 1945 only two bombs were immediately available, though several more would be in coming months. The technical problem (if that's the proper way to describe it) with using the atomic bomb on a division was that military units are highly dispersed. Division headquarters may be miles from main combat units and combat formations are intentionally widely separated in order to avoid mass casualties from a single attack. Military units are also mobile, they can pick up and move if they believe an attack is imminent. Unfortunately, a city is a concentrated, immobile target, and in the total war mindset of the summer of 1945 planners regarded cities as legitimate military targets.

General Marshall later in August, however, did ask about the possibility of using atomic bombs in November to destroy Japanese divisions along the invasion beaches in Kyushu.


Question: What is your judgment of General Marshall's vacillation and somewhat indecisive approach on the invasion of Japan? I was astounded to hear, for the first time, and I have read WW II history for decades, of Marshall's unbelievable request to change the invasion landing to the north. However, isn't this the type of audacious and swift invasion that MacArthur, himself, pulled off at Inchon? -Cory, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Answered by Edward Drea:

My personal opinion is that General Marshall had second thoughts about invading Kyushu once the full magnitude of the Japanese military buildup on the island became known through ULTRA, the deciphered Japanese military and navy messages. He probably wanted to make certain to let MacArthur know that if he wanted to change plans or targets, that he, Marshall, would go along. It's also been suggested, and I'm not sure I agree because I don't know enough about it, that Marshall was concerned about a possible Soviet invasion of northern Japan and wanted to land U.S. troops there to forestall a Soviet power grab.

You're right that the Kyushu landings would be in keeping with the audacious and swift amphibious maneuvers like the one MacArthur conducted at Inchon and also those he executed along the New Guinea coastline and the Philippines. MacArthur was determined to go ahead with the invasion of Kyushu and downplayed for Marshall the intelligence reports of Japanese massing along the planned invasion beaches.


Question: Being born just after the war ended and a thoughtful citizen of this country, I have always struggled with the decision to drop the bombs. Yes, I know that bombing Hiroshima saved many lives, both Japanese and American, by bringing the war to a quick conclusion. However, I have never heard a good reason for bombing Nagasaki as well. The Japanese had started negotiations to end the war; couldn't Truman have given it a little more time? Was there a real strategic reason for that second bombing, or did too much pride and revenge play into it? -Vivian Coulter, Cincinnati, Ohio

Answered by Richard Frank:

Richard Frank

Your question is very thoughtful and one that properly has concerned many Americans since 1945. Several other questions touch upon the same issues. I think the program illuminated many aspects about the realities of the summer of 1945 that bear upon your question. The following supplements the program to further set the context to address both your question and several others.

The answer requires first an appreciation of what were the real prospects for diplomacy and how they were perceived by Japanese and American leaders. The Japanese government retained two minimal war aims: preservation both (1) of the Imperial Institution and (2) of the old order in Japan in which the militarists were dominant. They were not just seeking a guarantee of the imperial institution with a figurehead emperor as is often argued. The U.S. war aim of "unconditional surrender" was not merely a hollow wartime slogan. By 1945, it formed an essential element in an overall vision for an enduring peace. "Unconditional surrender" meant the U.S. would secure the legal authority to conduct a complete renovation of Japan to eradicate the old order and assure that Japan never again launched a war of aggression.

Given these minimal war aims on both sides, diplomacy could not work because there was no common ground for compromise between the continuation and the extinction of the old order in Japan. As the program noted, even after the atomic bombs and Soviet entry, the Japanese cabinet deadlocked, with the hard liners still holding out for terms including no occupation -- and no occupation means no occupation reforms. As the program further highlighted, as late as the first Japanese peace offer of August 10, 1945, they were still demanding that the U.S. grant real, substantive power to the emperor so that he could veto occupation reforms and defeat the American aim of eradicating the old order in Japan. While critics speak broadly about backing away from or even dropping "unconditional surrender" they have not, to the best of my knowledge, set forth precisely how this could be accomplished and still allow the U.S. to conduct the occupation and the ensuing reforms that produced the peaceful Japan that has exited since 1945. Thus, insisting on "unconditional surrender" was not merely a matter of pride or some perverted American version of "face"; it was the key to the enduring peace.

That diplomacy offered no prospect of success was made clear to American leaders by the daily Magic Diplomatic Summary covering the decoded Japanese diplomatic communications. Copies of each day's edition were distributed to a select band of American policy makers, with the president at the top of the list. The intercepts first of all established that the diplomats of foreign (neutral) governments in Japan were reporting to their own governments by a three or four to one ratio that it was clear to them that the Japanese had no intention of surrendering and meant to fight on to the end. The intercepts next demonstrated that a half dozen or so Japanese diplomats, including military and naval attaches in Europe, who attempted to approach American officials to initiate negotiations all lacked actual authority from the Japanese government for their actions.

The Magic Diplomatic Summary demonstrated that the sole Japanese diplomatic effort that carried the actual sanction of any real authority in Japan was an effort to secure Soviet good offices to mediate an end to the war on terms acceptable to Japan. It was not, as it is sometimes represented, just an effort to have the Soviets act as a postman to deliver a "we surrender" note. The man who was supposed to present this proposal to the Soviets and secure their good offices was the Japanese Ambassador in Moscow, Sato Naotake. When you read as American officials did Sato's comments, you see clearly the diplomatic initiative was not serious. Sato immediately responded to the proposal by informing Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori in Tokyo that the Soviets would not bestir themselves on behalf of Japan. Sato demanded to know if the effort to secure Soviet mediation actually had official sanction since the Imperial Conference in June had adopted a fight to the finish policy. Therefore, Sato did not understand the legal basis for Togo's instructions. Most importantly, Sato demanded to know repeatedly if the Japanese authorities behind the effort had decided upon concrete terms to end the war. He stressed that without concrete terms, the Soviets would not take the effort seriously. Of course, American officials reading these messages also looked to see if Tokyo had formulated concrete terms that would signify it was actually contemplating ending the war. If the Japanese had not formed concrete proposals, then the effort would look like a fishing expedition, perhaps merely intended to play on war weariness in America with the false hope of peace.

Togo's replies were telling. He gave an evasive reply as to the authority behind the effort because it only represented a top secret effort by the inner cabinet, the Big Six. They, of course, knew they could not disclose the effort to the rest of the cabinet, least they trigger a military coup. (Initially, they did not even inform the emperor of their efforts!) Togo told Sato that they had not decided on terms, but added explicitly that they could not accept "anything like" unconditional surrender. Accordingly to Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, a member of the Big Six, this body attempted to even discuss "concrete terms" only once. It ended abruptly when the Army Minister, General Anami Korechika, insisted that the starting point for such discussion was that Japan had not lost the war. Since the Big Six could only act if they all unanimously agreed, they never got to "concrete terms" before Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Soviet entry.

When Sato got the message saying nothing like unconditional surrender was acceptable, he fired back a reply on July 18 telling Togo that the best terms Japan could hope for was "unconditional surrender" modified to the extent that the imperial institution was preserved. That this was Sato's proposal was made explicitly clear to American policy makers by the editors of the Magic Diplomatic Summary. On July 22, American policy makers could read for themselves in the Magic Diplomatic Summary that Togo flatly turned down such an arrangement. Thus, American leaders knew that an offer to preserve the imperial institution was not enough to secure Japan's surrender. This exchange has been in the public record since 1978. Why this exchange is ignored by critics who insist that an explicit American offer to preserve the imperial institution clearly or easily would have secured Japan's surrender is, in my view, inexplicable.

The Potsdam Declaration was, practically speaking, a set of terms consistent with the Atlantic Charter. It was "unconditional surrender" only in the sense that the Japanese were told this was the final offer, they must accept it forthwith, and there was no room for negotiation. The Potsdam Declaration made it clear that the Allies did not seek the extinction of Japan or the Japanese people. In fact, while it promised punishment for war criminals, it pledged that ordinary Japanese would not be held accountable and that the peace the Allies imposed would grant them many rights they never had before. It was far more lenient than the blank check the Germans got which guaranteed them nothing. The Potsdam Declaration only spoke of the "unconditional surrender" of the Japanese armed forces. It implicitly guaranteed continuation of the imperial institution because it promised that the Japanese people, once a peaceful government was established, could chose their own form of government. This, of course, allowed for continuation of the imperial institution as a constitutional monarchy-exactly what transpired. Undoubtedly the American people were furious about the Japanese (and with good reason), but the fact is that as a matter of statecraft, the Japanese got a much better deal guaranteed to them by the Potsdam Declaration than the Germans obtained. This rather clearly illustrates the idea that racism or revenge-however much such sentiments certainly existed--were the real driving forces behind American policy is not consistent with the facts. There were clearly Japanese officials who recognized how lenient the proposal was and that it allowed for continuation of the Imperial institution. The official Japanese reply, however, was to ignore it. This was despite the explicit demand for an immediate acceptance. Nor did the Japanese attempt to mount any diplomatic effort to signal to the Allies that they were prepared to serious consider it.

Joseph Grew was the Assistant Secretary of State. He was the former American ambassador to Japan, and the leading Japanese expert within the U.S. government. He had advised Truman that some guarantee of the Imperial Institution might be essential to obtain Japan's surrender. It is therefore tremendously significant that Grew joined in an assessment of the U.S. Army's chief intelligence officer that the Japanese diplomatic initiative through the Soviets was most likely just a ploy to play upon American war weariness. This assessment was passed to General Marshall at Potsdam. As late as August 7, the day after Hiroshima, Grew, who was clearly reading the Magic Diplomatic Summary, wrote a memo indicating that he hoped the proposals of Ambassador Sato would gain headway in Japan, but that at that time he did not see that the hold of the militarists to continue the war was broken. In other words, as late as this date even Grew did not see Japan as on the cusp of surrender.

Meanwhile, as the program recorded the ULTRA intercepts showed clearly and without exception that the Japanese planned to stage an Armageddon battle against the first invasion attempt against Southern Kyushu. The Japanese had massed forces four times heavier on the ground and two to four times greater in the air than American intelligence had predicted when the plan to attack Kyushu was approved.

An important analysis section appeared in the Magic Far East Summary on July 27. This summary covered military and naval development in the Far East. Like the Magic Diplomatic Summary, it was routinely distributed to senior American officials including the president on a daily basis. The analysis in the edition of July 27 stated that a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts indicated that "there is little likelihood that [the Japanese] will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies" so long as her "all powerful" military leaders believed they could repel the invasion. This is as succinct and accurate a summary as you can find of the realities when the atomic bombs were used.

Thus, it is not surprising that the order to employ atomic bombs issued on July 25 delegated authority not simply to drop the first bomb, but to keep dropping bombs as they became available to the officers in the field. That order starkly illustrates that American officials believed it would surely take more than one atomic bomb to convince the Japanese to surrender. (Another interesting piece of evidence along this line is that Secretary of War Stimson was about to go on vacation on August 10, a pretty clear indicator that he did not expect a surrender soon even after two bombs.) That this appreciation was valid is confirmed by the reaction of the Japanese militarists to news of Hiroshima. That is discussed in the response to the question about the Japanese atomic bomb program from Luka Kalandarishvili of Tbilisi, Georgia above. Because it appeared that a period of bad weather would foreclose the opportunity to use a second bomb for days after August 9, the second mission was mounted hurriedly by the field commanders. The original target was the vast Kokura army arsenal, but weather and smoke prevented visual bombing there so the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

As the above indicates, American leaders rightly did not see Japan's diplomatic initiative as indicating that peace was near. They did correctly believe that Japan was not seeking any terms that would have guaranteed the enduring peace secured by "unconditional surrender." American leaders did see a horrifying picture of Japan determined to fight on and expressly prepared to meet the invasion of Kyushu with forces far beyond any prior U.S. estimate. American leaders did not believe that a single atomic bomb would secure Japan's surrender. Therefore, they authorized the use of more than one bomb and they saw no reason to change the authorization to halt the second bomb. That Hiroshima occurred on August 6, and the emperor announced the surrender on August 15 has prompted many people to imagine that the proximity of those dates was something known or anticipated by American leaders and that therefore they could have bided their time and perhaps not employed a second bomb. That was not the reality of events in 1945 nor was it how American-or Japanese-leaders foresaw it.

The now well known horrors of Nazi Germany have obscured for many Americans born since 1945 just how terrible the war Japan launched had been and the cost of every additional day. That war killed at least 17 million people. The vast majority of them were Asian noncombatant victims of Japan. The number of dead Chinese is not known precisely. At least ten million seems to be the floor with estimates ranging up as high as 22 million. Every day the war continued, thousands of Asian noncombatants were dying. Estimates run that these deaths alone total between 250,000 to 400,000 per month. I submit that any time someone suggests that there was no need to rush the bombs, or that additional days of effort on futile diplomacy would have been created a better record for history, you need to think of all the additional deaths such delay produces.

Question: In the Pacific, fighting Americans, the Japanese fought to the death, yet I've seen a film of thousands surrendering to the Russians in Manchuria. I may be wrong in this observation, if not, what caused them to surrender? -Alfred Basso, Charleston, South Carolina

Answered by Richard Frank:

You are correct that the Japanese routinely fought to the death throughout the Pacific War. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge you can search all of modern history and not find a parallel example where a nation state's combatants fought virtually to the last man on every battlefield of the war and the noncombatants of that nation state were prepared to commit suicide in huge numbers rather than surrender.

The Japanese fought that way because they were ordered and conditioned to do so by Japanese militarists. This was, in fact, a gross perversion of Japanese culture and not deeply rooted in the history of Japan or the warrior's code of Bushido. It was a complete reversal of the code of conduct Japan's armed forces had followed as recently as the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. As late as 1921, Japan was receiving top marks form the International Red Cross for its treatment of prisoners of war during its intervention during the Russian Civil War. During the 1920's and 1930's Japan's militarists changed all this. They dictated a new set of battle ethics that told the Japanese people that it was a horrible dishonor and unthinkable humiliation for a Japanese serviceman to be captured. Those few enlisted men who were captured, notably during clashes with the Soviets in the 1930's, were punished severely. The officers were forced to commit suicide. This in turn resulted in the savage treatment of prisoners of war during the wars Japan waged between 1937 and 1945.

The reason why so many thousands of Japanese surrendered to the Soviets rather than fight to the death was because Japan surrendered. The Japanese servicemen did not change their code of conduct or determination to fight to the death; their government changed its determination to continue the war. Even so, there was a very perilous passage of several days after the Emperor's surrender broadcast of August 15. Two of the three major overseas Japanese field commanders, one in China and the other in Southeast Asia, announced initially that they had no intention of surrendering. They commanded between them a quarter to a third of all Japanese service personnel. It took visits by Imperial princes with direct messages from the emperor and a further Imperial rescript like the one of August 15 by the emperor on August 17 highlighting the Soviet threat to convince these commanders to fall into line.

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