Day 4

Question: Great show! During the Potsdam meetings was there any known discussion about the Soviets having a more direct role in the occupation of mainland Japan in exchange for their participation in the war? Why did they just settle for the northern part of the Korea as well as Manchuria? Given Stalin's ways I'm surprised that this didn't happen.

Answered by Austin Hoyt:

Austin Hoyt

At the Potsdam Conference, the U.S., the U.K. and the Soviet Union, the "Big Three" allies in the war against Nazi Germany, met to discuss post-war Europe. There was, however, some talk about the ongoing war against Japan. It was important for President Truman to get Joseph Stalin to keep the promise he made to President Roosevelt at Yalta in February 1945 to enter the war against Japan three months after the war against Hitler ended. Stalin had been promised territory and concessions that Russia had enjoyed before losing a war to Japan in 1904. They included access to Port Arthur and the port city of Darien, some railway rights, Southern Sakhalin island and the Kuril islands. Truman was pleased that early in the conference, Stalin agreed to keep his promise. But the alliance with the Soviet Union was a marriage of convenience. The tensions that existed before the war emerged when Germany was defeated. At Potsdam Truman grew frustrated with Stalin's intransigence over Poland and Eastern Europe. Buoyed by the successful test of the atomic bomb, he asked Henry Stimson, his secretary of war, if the United States needed the Red Army in the war against Japan. The answer, fromArmy Chief-of-Staff George C. Marshall, was that the U.S. did not need Soviet intervention, that the Red Army, poised along the border of Manchuria, was playing a useful role tying down the Imperial Army and preventing it from reinforcing the defenses of the Japanese main islands.

Given this atmosphere of increasing tension, Truman would not have made concessions to Stalin on the occupation of the main Japanese Islands. There is also no evidence that at Potsdam Stalin asked for a stake in the main Japanese islands. It was in his interest to adhere to the terms of the Yalta agreement because it promised him a zone of occupation in Germany.

After the Japanese surrendered, Truman did not challenge the Soviet Union's claims to the territories it had been promised at Yalta. Stalin did try to grab a part of the main island of Hokkaido, but Truman resisted and forced Stalin to back off.

Although Soviet forces entered northern Korea, Stalin did not try to claim the entire peninsula. He did not object when the U.S. proposed that the Soviet Union repatriate the Imperial Army north of the 38th parallel and the United States repatriate Japanese troops south of the 38th. Thus Korea was divided. It was not the Red Army but the Communist government of North Korea, with military backing from the Soviet Union, which tried to solidify control of the peninsula when its forces attacked South Korea in June 1950.


Question: I thought your program was great, but I was puzzled by its assertion that the invasion of the Soviets was a co-equal factor in Japan's decision to surrender. I recall reading one book by a panel of Japanese historians stating that the Emperor confided to his Lord Chamberlain that he would accept American terms -- this being on August 8, before the Nagasaki bomb and hours before the Soviet attack on Manchuria. If true, this would seem to indicate that the Hiroshima attack was the primary, or even sole, reason. But is it true? -D. L., Chicago, Illinois

Answered by Richard Frank:

Richard Frank

There is a major problem with Kido's statement that on August 8, or at least before Nagasaki, the Emperor informed Kido that he was prepared to accept the American terms. The problem is that Kido's contemporary diary does not reflect any such clear statement by the Emperor. His diary does seem to record faithfully major decisions by the Emperor. Thus, the omission of anything in the contemporary diary that sounds so decisive is inconsistent with the rest of the diary. Kido came up with this account later. Accordingly, I am among the many historians who doubt that Kido's later statement is more likely to mirror accurately the Emperor's state of mind than his contemporary diary. While I believe that the atomic bombs were keys to the Emperor's decision, this is not evidence upon which I rely.


Question: This question by historian Howard Zinn summed up my problem with the thesis of this program that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary.

Imagine a situation in which we were in a brutal war, coming to its end soon but we knew not when, and we were told that by killing 100,000 American children we would "perhaps" or "probably" (none of the evidence produced by Frank can lead us to use the word "certainly") bring the war to an immediate end and save many more lives than that l00,000. Would we agree to it?

And if we would react to that suggestion with horror, as I am supposing, does it not mean that the lives of Japanese children are less valuable to us than the lives of American children? And does not the bombing, not only of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of any civilian population, anywhere, depend on the same morally unacceptable judgment? -L. Rudnick, Columbus, Ohio

Answered by Richard Frank:

There are a number of threads within the question and its premises, each of which warrants some comment.

The first thread is the contingency of events. Most people, as well as an unfortunately great many historians, take it for granted that the war ended as it did with a surrender of Japan's government and all of its armed forces. They also take for granted that this surrender occurred on August 15, 1945 (with the surrender of the armed forces stretched out over several more days, or in some cases about two weeks). There was nothing certain about either of these events. In fact, I believe it was extremely fortunate that the war ended when and how it did. Events were replete with turning points where history's course could have been altered. For just one example, had the Imperial Army had time to implement its reaction to Soviet entry of abolishing the civilian government, we can not say how, when or even if the emperor could have made his key intervention. Thus, not only the use of the atomic bombs, but all the other events surrounding the surrender can not be pronounced to have had certain outcomes. One of the premises of the question which is common in discussion of these events is that the contemporaries knew of the proximity of the end of the war and the certainty of how events would play out when they made their decisions. This, I believe is quite mistaken.

The second thread concerns morality. The moral justification for the atomic bombs, such as it is, is purely utilitarian. Those killed by the bombs numbered vastly fewer than those who would have died under any other scenario for ending the war. Zinn insists that we consider not only the numbers, but also the innocence, or relative innocence of the victims of the atomic bombs or bombing in general. This is a fair proposition. But I think it cuts in ways that Zinn as well as other critics do not address, and in some cases apparently do not even consider.

The American participation in the war was based on utilitarian, not absolute moral judgment. The great Rubicon came even before formal American entry into the war with the decision in the summer of 1941 to become an ally of the Soviet Union -- indisputably the only rational, pragmatic choice available.But there was choice as to how that alliance would be presented to the American people. The decision was to hold out the alliance as not simply a matter of shared goals, but of shared goals and values. I do not think it is feasible to maintain from an absolutist stand point that the difference between Hitler and Stalin was one between stark evil and pristine good. Once you chose to accept as your moral peer an ally who had already killed many millions of human beings and was running a vast system of repression and slaughter, you have embedded yourself in the utilitarian camp. It certainly makes it easier to pursue bombing and atomic bombing where the deaths are in units of less than millions.

Moreover, as the program deftly indicated, those deciding to use the atomic bomb lacked a sense that they were vaulting over some great moral divide. Here again the limits of time precluded extended exploration of this point. A number of historians have made a case I find compelling that the whole pattern of evolution of strategic bombing in Europe and then the Pacific was critical. It is the underlying reason why the decision to employ atomic bombs did not strike the vast majority of American policy makers as a tremendous shift.

This brings us to numbers and innocence. One of the pervasive flaws that appears in arguments of critics is a failure to confront the fact that alternatives to the atomic bombs had costs. Some of these costs actually occurred at that time. Other costs from alternative paths can be projected with reasonable confidence from the facts.

Soviet attacks in Manchuria and elsewhere killed tens of thousands of Japanese combatants. The Soviets captured about 2.7 million Japanese. Of these latter, between 340,000 and a half million disappeared in Soviet custody or were killed by the Soviets. The great majority of these were noncombatants, obviously a great many were children. We now know the Soviets were poised to attack Hokkaido, the main northern Home Island, when the war ended. While Hokkaido was second only to Honshu in area, it only held about five percent of Japan's population in 1944. The Soviets very probably (though not certainly) could have succeeded because Japanese defenses there were feeble compared to elsewhere in the Home Islands and the Japanese expected an attack from the Pacific, not via the back door across the Sea of Japan. Had the Soviets overrun Hokkaido and exacted the same penalty on the Japanese population they did on the Asian mainland, then the death toll of noncombatants would have easily increased by another 400,000 plus.

What conclusion do we draw about morality of the atomic bombs that killed between 100,000 and 200,000 the cost of Soviet entry? Even disregarding Hokkaido, the toll among noncombatants was higher. Do we consider these costs when we ponder whether it would have been "better" to wait to see if Soviet entry alone produced surrender? To use the bench mark Zinn proposes, why do the deaths of Japanese children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki count, and not the lives of Japanese children killed by the Soviets?

The strategy of blockade and bombardment looked to end the war by starving the Japanese population and trusting that the emaciated survivors surrendered. This strategy was supported by naval and air officers who later claimed it could have ended the war without the atomic bombs. While General Marshall told Truman in June 1945 that the air campaign could not end the war with Japan, I believe that there is good chance (though not certainty) that the advocates of bombardment and blockade were correct. There is no absolute certainty as to when the war might have ended under this strategy given the contingency of so many events and the belief among many Japanese officers that it would be better for the Japanese people to perish than to surrender.

Japanese historians maintain that ten million Japanese were on the edge of starvation when the war ended. Certainly the records of the early occupation period I examined brought home forcefully an extremely dire food shortage that lurched very close to a famine during 1946. Had the U.S. chosen to rely simply on the blockade and bombardment strategy and not use atomic bombs or an invasion, it would have killed a great many of these ten million starving Japanese, if not all. Would we be morally more at ease with this outcome? How many of them were children? I believe for reasons I set out in my book that had the war gone on for only days after August 15, the revised targeting directive aiming the B-29s at the Japanese rail system and the food shortage would have locked Japan on a course to a mass famine regardless of whether the war ended shortly after the rail system was destroyed or not. Thus, it was far more imperative for the Japanese that the war end abruptly in August 1945 than they have appreciated. And it was far more fortunate that events worked out that they did surrender then.

I will not even bother in detail with the invasion option. I think it is about as clear as it can ever be absent the actual play out of real events that the initial invasion scheduled for November on Kyushu was not going to take place. There does remain the possibility of a U.S. landing on northern Honshu if the Soviets seize Hokkaido.

Then there is the great overlooked issue about the end of the Pacific War. Simply waiting for the Japanese to decide to surrender for days or months was not cost free. As Robert Newman had pointed out, every day the war continued involved vast numbers of deaths among other Asians trapped in the empire created by Japan. Some died directly of Japanese repressions. Most died from the effects of the blockade the Japanese effectively imposed on China and elsewhere the disruptive effects of Japanese military actions. Newman has offered numbers of between a quarter million and 400,000 per month. The overwhelming majority of these were noncombatants, including vast numbers of children. While you might quibble with some of his numbers, the low end of this range seems to me to be very hard to dispute. Does the omission of consideration of these deaths prove that the critics value the lives of some Asian children less than those of Japanese children, or American children? Indeed, do the critics of the atomic bombs in general manage to get themselves into the position where they are insisting effectively that the lives of the innocent noncombatants of the aggressor nation must enjoy a higher value than the lives of the innocent noncombatants in the victim nations?

The more I have reflected on these events, the more I think Secretary of War Henry Stimson was correct when he termed the use of atomic bombs not the morally superior choice but the "least abhorrent" choice.

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