Wartime U.S. President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb remains controversial. Until Murray Sayle’s seminal article in the New Yorker (July 31, 1995), it was generally agreed that the atomic bombs were decisive in forcing Japan’s surrender. Sayle challenged this consensus, arguing that the Soviet blitzkrieg into Manchuria on Aug. 9 was the key factor compelling the Japanese government to surrender. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa confirms Sayle’s thesis, arguing that “the Soviet entry into the war played a greater role than the atomic bombs in inducing Japan to surrender.”
In Hasegawa’s view, Japan would have continued to fight despite the atomic bombs if the Soviets had not attacked, but would have surrendered without the atomic bombs soon after the Soviets attacked. Having watched more than 900,000 Japanese die in the fire bombings of most of the nation’s larger cities, the military leadership was not especially concerned about this new development in U.S. aerial attacks. But, suddenly faced with the world’s best tank army in Manchuria, and the threat of a Soviet invasion of the home islands, the military knew the game was up.
Aside from furthering the debate about why the Japanese surrendered, Hasegawa makes a major contribution to our understanding about why Truman did not modify the U.S. demand for unconditional surrender in the Potsdam Proclamation of July 26, 1945. Truman was well aware that uncertainty about the Showa Emperor Hirohito’s fate made it difficult for Japanese favoring peace to advocate surrender. Hasegawa suggests that Truman decided against softening the terms of unconditional surrender precisely because he wanted the Japanese to reject surrender. However, he concludes that it did not really matter whether Truman offered reassurance or not about the Emperor’s fate, since Japan would not have surrendered before the Soviet attack.
In Hasegawa’s opinion, “Truman issued the Potsdam Proclamation, not as a warning to Japan, but to justify the use of the atomic bomb . . . . The atomic bomb represented to Truman a solution to all the dilemmas he faced: unconditional surrender, the cost of Japan’s homeland invasion, and Soviet entry into the war.” He sought a pretext for using the atomic bomb because he wanted to end the war before the Soviets attacked in the Far East.
Why was the Soviet entry into the war such a decisive blow? By 1945, Japan’s military strategy depended on inflicting unacceptably high casualties on invading U.S. forces as a way to improve the terms of surrender. This plan was only plausible if the Soviets remained neutral. The 1941 Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact was set to expire in the spring of 1946. In April 1945 the Soviets notified the Japanese that they would not renew the pact, but this did not prevent Japanese officials from remaining optimistic about keeping the Soviets out of the war and possibly acting as mediators in ending the war. Some even dreamed of an alliance to defeat the Allies.
What they did not know is that at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 Joseph Stalin had promised Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Soviets would attack Japan three months after the defeat of Germany. On May 8 Germany surrendered, meaning a Soviet attack by mid-August. In exchange, the Soviets were promised various territorial prizes and concessions in the Far East.
This was a promise Stalin meant to keep even as the United States became increasingly leery about his intentions. There were growing frictions between the two victors in Europe and Truman was determined to prevent Soviet participation in the occupation of Japan. Stalin, no stranger to double-crosses, ordered an acceleration of Soviet deployments and battle preparations. “Racing the Enemy” is about this World War II endgame in the Far East between the Soviets and the Americans.
Despite massive troop movements, the Soviets managed to fool the Japanese about their plans, aided in no small part by Japan’s inept diplomacy and military fanatics. Diplomats trying to maneuver Japan toward peace had to contend with an “apocalyptic vision of turning the entire population of Japan into warriors on a suicidal mission, a vision based on the conviction that the annihilation of the Japanese nation and the Japanese race was better than acceptance of surrender.”
The shock of the unanticipated Soviet attack turned the tide for peace, but neither the Japanese nor Americans anticipated that the Soviets were not about to let surrender prevent them from seizing what they had come for. They continued the war into September, taking the Kuril Islands and driving the Japanese from Sakhalin. The triple betrayal — breaking the Neutrality Pact, refusing to honor Japan’s surrender and then using Japanese POWs as postwar slave labor in Siberia — still rankles.
Toward the end of this provocative discussion about the triangular machinations involving Japan, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Hasegawa laments that “Few in Japan have condemned the policymakers who delayed Japan’s surrender,” arguing that they “must bear the responsibility for the war’s destructive end more than the American president and the Soviet dictator.”