Only atom bombs could end WWII


DOWNFALL: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, by Richard B. Frank. New York: Random House, 1999, 484 pp., $35 (cloth).

The tragic folly of the war-mongering leaders of Imperial Japan and their casual disregard for the welfare of their fellow citizens seem almost forgotten because the end of the Pacific War is controversially tied to the atomic bombs that halted the savage conflict. Richard Frank persuasively argues that this vainglorious elite deserves blame and condemnation for the suffering endured by Japanese civilians and soldiers during World War II. He is especially critical of their obdurate stance in the closing months of the war, when the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

In “Downfall,” revisionist critics of U.S. insistence on unconditional surrender and the decision to use the atomic bomb are found guilty of ignoring substantial evidence that refutes their analysis. Frank asserts that the focus on what U.S. leaders did and why they did it deflects attention from the fact that it was Japanese leaders who rejected opportunities for a cessation of hostilities and forced their nation to keep waging a relentless war of attrition.

The cynical sacrifice of so many Japanese (and Okinawans and other Asians) by hardline military leaders eager to salve their wounded pride and improve Japan’s negotiating position extended the war and led to the cataclysmic atomic bombings. As late as June 1945, an Imperial Conference confirmed the government’s commitment to waging war and revealed just how delirious the military leadership was at the prospect of a glorious fight to the finish. The government was committed to the “ketsu-go” strategy of waging a battle on the home islands that would prove costly enough to get the war-weary Americans to the negotiating table and secure more favorable terms. To this end, the military had prepared a slaughterhouse in Kyushu in anticipation of a planned U.S. invasion.

Revisionists have long argued that Japan was both unable to continue fighting and ready to surrender, and that U.S. leaders knew it was only a matter of time before the war ended. Thus, there was no pressing military need to drop atomic bombs to end the war. Frank argues that it is impossible to determine that U.S. leaders knew surrender was imminent.

He marshals considerable evidence to the contrary, arguing that U.S. planning for a sustained invasion and the views of Japanese military and government leaders culled from decoded cables indicate that surrender was not imminent when the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration (July 26) calling on Japan to surrender or face destruction. The “mokusatsu” (ignore with contempt) reply of Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki was consistent with prevailing views about surrender among the Japanese military and political elites.

Frank points out that revisionists tend to seize on a small number of decoded cables to show that the Japanese government was ready for peace and to ignore the vast majority of decoded cables indicating widespread support for a fight to the finish and a glorious last-ditch stand on the home islands.

There were two groups of decoded material, the “Magic” summaries of diplomatic traffic and the “Ultra” material that was culled from military communications. In Frank’s view, revisionists have relied too heavily on the Magic material and have ignored the inconvenient Ultra material that shows a persistent resolve to stay the military course. He argues that because the military leadership had such decisive political power, and there was no certainty that it would submit to a decision for surrender made by the government, U.S. leaders could not ignore the tenor and implications of Ultra.

Would Japan have surrendered sooner if the U.S. had pursued a different policy and modified its insistence on unconditional surrender? If so, was the U.S. wrong to insist?

Revisionists often argue that the refusal to make guarantees about the Emperor inadvertently provided the hardliners with a reason to fight on and undermined the peace faction. Frank cites a July 22, 1945 communication between Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo and Ambassador Naotake Sato, Japan’s representative to the Soviet Union, that he offers as proof that unconditional surrender was not an obstacle to peace. When Sato told Togo that the best that could be hoped for was a peace deal that would protect the Imperial institution, Togo rejected it out of hand. “If Togo, the most vigorous advocate within the inner eight of ending the war promptly, dismissed such a proposal, there is no rational prospect that it would have won support from any of the other members of the Supreme Council.”

An early 1946 statement dictated by the Showa Emperor, but not released until after his death in 1989, also suggests that the main obstacle to peace was not the U.S. insistence on unconditional surrender.

Frank makes a revealing and disturbing retroactive case for unconditional surrender, pointing out that “it was not just a handful of men in rogue governments who flaunted vile ideologies; whole populations imbibed these beliefs and acted as willing acolytes. Unconditional surrender and vast physical destruction would sear the prices of aggression into the minds of the German and Japanese peoples. No soil would be left from which myths might sprout later that Germany and Japan had not really been defeated. These policies would assure there would be no third world war with Germany, nor would Japan get a second opportunity.”

It is important to bear in mind that even after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, the eight members of the Supreme Council that governed Japan were evenly divided about continuing the war. Whether or not Japan should have been ready to sue for peace, its leadership was not inclined to do so and willing to risk millions more lives in a doomed effort to turn the tide. It took the intervention of the Emperor to break the deadlock and avert further catastrophe.

Frank suggests that the Emperor was involved in the planning and execution of war and also exhibited “pugnacious” inclinations in lending his support to the ketsu-go strategy right up until the debacle on Okinawa; he, too, spoke in favor of fighting a decisive battle rather than suing for peace from a position of weakness. His conversion to peace is attributed to concerns among his advisers that the deteriorating domestic situation might render the Imperial institution the target of public ire and lead to its downfall.

Did the atomic bomb save lives and end the war? The controversy over casualty estimates and what U.S. President Harry Truman knew — and when — has raged inconclusively for years, as revisionists and defenders of historical orthodoxy trade salvos over new information and interpretations. Frank limns this debate and offers some fresh insights, but produces nothing that will end it.

At one point, Truman claimed that the atomic bombs averted a million casualties; ever since, critics of using the bomb have claimed that this is an exaggeration unsupported by contemporary estimates and insist that there is no proof that he ever heard such an estimate. In “Downfall,” readers learn about the politics of estimates and how they were presented and shaved to fit agendas. The picture that emerges is one of great uncertainty about how heavy the casualties might be for a U.S. invasion force.

Projections based on the carnage of Iwo Jima and Okinawa suggest a grim outcome, and even the lower estimates — for the first 30 days of the war and not including navy or air force figures — ranged from 31,000 to 41,000. In a decisive meeting on June 18, 1945, Truman never did get an unambiguous answer to his request for a projection of casualties. The casualty debate also needs to take account of what would have happened after the first month and also later, when a planned second invasion, Operation Coronet, was launched on the Kanto Plain.

Frank points out that the various casualty estimates bandied about in the debate fail to take account of the radically different perceptions that emerged in mid-July 1945, based on Ultra intercepts. The newly decoded communications relating to preparations for defending Kyushu from attack indicated that U.S. military planners had grossly underestimated the strength of Japanese forces on Kyushu. Ultra destroyed the assumptions of the lower casualty estimates because it “demonstrated that the Japanese defenses of Kyushu exceeded the original estimates by more than three times in combat divisions and two to four times in aircraft. As (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur’s intelligence officer phrased it, the Americans would be going in at odds of one to one, which assured very high casualties.”

The trouble is in proving that Truman knew about the new information and the far higher casualties they implied. It is very plausible that Truman would have been briefed at Potsdam, but there is no direct evidence that he was, nor is there evidence that Truman saw the recent Shockley study commissioned by Secretary of War Henry Stimson that suggested half a million deaths in an invasion.

Whatever the number of casualties, it is difficult to imagine Truman not using a weapon that he believed would save many soldiers and end the war sooner. Following the capitulation of the Nazis in May, there was a growing public clamor to bring the boys home, especially after the blood bath of Okinawa during June. In addition, developing strains between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Europe after victory added an urgency to ending the war before the Soviets planned entry on Aug. 8; the U.S. did not want a joint occupation of Japan.

Frank argues that the atomic bombs did end the war because they gave the Japanese military a face-saving way to accept surrender without admitting defeat. He quotes Prime Minister Suzuki, who pointed out that the military had to relent because with the atomic bomb the U.S. forces did not need to invade and thus could avoid the decisive battle Japanese generals had pinned their hopes on.

The atomic bombings were extraordinary tragedies in a horrific war, but the author insists that they were the lesser of evils because there was no prospect of an imminent surrender. The military had stockpiles of food and munitions and was prepared to dig in and wait for the anticipated invasion. For the Japanese public, the specter of famine was very real, because the blockade had cut Japan off from food supplies it relied on from Taiwan and Korea. In addition, the decimation of Japanese ships had nearly eliminated the intercoastal shipping that played a crucial role in distributing rice around the archipelago.

As U.S. bombers targeted the vulnerable rail network, the devastation of transport meant that food supplies could not be distributed from rural to urban areas. The prolonged conflict entailed in an invasion would also mean that POWs and Asians in occupied areas would face heavier losses.

This is a meticulously researched and stringently argued book that carefully examines what the record tells us about the whole callous calculus of destruction that marked the final months of the Pacific War. This is an exonerating history that at times seems to convey the transmogrifying impact of war, even decades later. Perhaps only a military historian could describe a change in firebombing strategy that led to less destruction than anticipated as a “major mistake.”