The unconditional surrender of Japan was brought about by nuclear attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The common justification is that U.S. President Harry S. Truman opted for the least worst of his two available choices: to force a surrender through the use of nuclear weapons or order an invasion in which the casualties incurred would have been greater than the collective human toll that those two cities sustained.
The failing in this argument is that there were never two options, there were three. The third was to replicate that which was concluded between America and Spain in 1898, Japan and Tsarist Russia in 1905, Britain and Argentina in 1982, and what multiple European powers contrived to obtain from 19th-century China. It was to pursue, in fact, what the vast majority of commanders have sought throughout the history of warfare: a negotiated settlement.
The argument against unconditional surrender was best laid out by legendary U.S. “China hand” John Paton Davies Jr. “Unconditional surrender made little sense in an infinitely conditional world,” Davies claimed. “It excluded compromise, it barred a negotiated peace,” while assuming that the Soviet Union and China would concur with America on the makeup of the postwar world. Davies’ words ring true, as the primary implication of America’s insistence upon the unconditional surrender from Japan was the advance into Asia of the Soviet Union, a communist U.S. ally whose plans for the postwar world were dissimilar indeed.
The Soviet Union agreed to enter the Pacific War as a result of persistent lobbying by the U.S. It gave its undertaking in February 1945 at the Yalta Conference, a high-level meeting that was held by the soon-to-be-victorious powers of the U.S., the Soviet Union and Britain to map out the postwar world. The Soviet Union consented to join the fight within 90 days of the fall of the Nazi regime, and this it proceeded to do on Aug. 8, 1945, three months to the day after the documents of German surrender were signed.
Allowing Russia into Asia was an enormous geopolitical blunder, and what exactly was gained? In Occupied Japan, the overwhelming concern soon came to be the unquestioned support of anti-communist elites — the same breed of man who would have governed Japan if the Occupation had never taken place.
Would the postwar era not have been considerably less disquieting, therefore, if America had pulled back from its hard-line demands and kept the Soviets on the northern side of the Manchuria-Siberia border? One man who pondered this question was wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. In his final testament for posterity, Tojo proposed that destroying Japan as a bulwark against communism — especially in respect to the Korean Peninsula — was an act that the U.S. and Britain were destined to regret. These thoughts were prophetic, coming as they did a mere year and a half before the start of the Korean War.
While the merits behind the decision to pursue unconditional surrender are debatable, what should not be in contention is that an unusual decision was made — a policy determination patently at odds with war as it had been fought in Asia since the arrival of the West. Regrettably, such recognition does not exist. Unconditional surrender has become etched into American consciousness as the norm rather than the exception. It has largely been lost to history that the decision to pursue an unconditional surrender against Japan was just that — a decision.
Decisions have also been made by U.S. President Barack Obama in recent weeks in respect to the remarks he will make on his historic visit to Hiroshima, the first by a sitting U.S. president. While eschewing apology, he will most likely claim that humanity should take heart that subsequent attacks have failed to occur. Granted, but the past 70 years have hardly been an era of peace. The U.S., in particular, has found itself embroiled in innumerable military altercations, the origins and excessive durations of which have been significantly grounded in this sense that unconditional surrender is the habitual conclusion to war.
The first major war of the post-World War II era was the Korean War. A ruinous quagmire that dragged on for years, it subsequently became known as the “forgotten war.” The American public was in no mood for a negotiated conclusion. It wanted total victory. It responded by exorcising the war from its collective memory.
The Vietnam War was a confused affair in which the U.S. was continually unclear about its strategic objectives but could never bring itself to set or fight for limited goals. The Tet Offensive of 1968 is widely seen as the turning point. While constituting a military defeat for the armies of North Vietnam, it confirmed that the political will of the North Vietnamese outweighed that of their American foe. The year that postdated Tet was an obvious time for a negotiated resolution, yet the war dragged on for a further seven years.
The Gulf War of 1991 achieved all of its objectives for minimal loss of life and was largely paid for by Japan, Germany and the oil-rich states of the region. It should have been recorded as a military and diplomatic masterpiece, yet this did not transpire. While the threat of Iraq had been neutralized, the retention of power by Saddam Hussein was a reality with which the American public could never come to terms.
The ill-fated Somalia mission of 1993 was a case in which descent into quagmire was mercifully cut short. The Somalia operation contained both failure and success. The failure was the attempt to foist a political solution on the people and tribes of Somalia that followed the accomplishment of the initial humanitarian goals. The success was the damage control enacted after the implications of the “mission creep” became unmanageable. While leaving a sour taste in the American mouth, it was looked upon favorably by the ghosts of leaders of empires past, for whom the ability to cut one’s losses was considered a valued skill.
Then came Iraq — an opportunist ploy at “finishing the job” for which the American public proved uniquely receptive. The case for the total defeat of Saddam’s regime was made by the George W. Bush administration in 2002 and early 2003. It was met with wide support within the U.S. while provoking massive demonstrations in the capitals of both its allies and adversaries alike.
That the Gulf War, Korean War and Somalia mission are held in such low regard in the U.S. is largely due to perceptions related to the A-bomb-triggered ending to the Pacific War, as was the excessive duration of the Korean and Vietnam wars and the ardor to return to Iraq. The American public has become burdened with a concept of war in which nothing less than a repeat of the Japanese precedent is acceptable. It views unconditional surrender as a war’s natural outcome and anything less as a compromise of ideals.
As to the question of why: If the pursuance of the unconditional surrender of Japan is seen as a decision and therefore option, the A-bomb attacks become options as well. And the magnitude of what that implies is perhaps reason enough to surmise that during his much-anticipated remarks, President Obama will not make note that war typically ends with a compromise.
Paul de Vries is a long-term resident of Japan. His new book, “Remembering Santayana: The Lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan” will be released on Amazon Kindle in July. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and ideas: email@example.com