Former Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma discovered to his regret that public discourse in Japan concerning the atomic bombings does not accommodate dissent or nuance. The media credited him with justifying the bombings following his remarks that their use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not have been helped. He was suggesting that the bombings hastened the end of the war and prevented a joint occupation with the Soviet Union. It is a fairly common perspective in academic circles, but for a politician representing Nagasaki, this A-bomb gaffe effectively ended his political career.
In “The End of the Pacific War,” five scholars from the United States, Japan and Britain argue about the reasons for using the atomic bombs and their impact on Japan’s decision to surrender. This remarkable collection of essays exposes readers to a range of views with an engaging repartee among the writers about evidence and competing interpretations. One of the many strengths of this book is the focus on the trilateral- U.S.-Japan-Soviet- nexus of decision-making and the dynamics of the endgame.
Arguments focus on whether Japan would have surrendered in the absence of the atomic bombings and whether the atomic bombs or the Soviet conventional attack had a greater influence on Japan’s decision to surrender. There is also disagreement about the Emperor’s role and views regarding the war and surrender.
Barton Bernstein provides an excellent critical overview on the relevant literature, setting the context and helping readers understand the fault lines of the debate and how it has evolved. The orthodox school, represented here by Richard Frank, argues that the atomic bombings were necessary to force Japan’s surrender, did hasten the end of the conflict and prevented many U.S. casualties. Frank stresses evidence that suggests there was scant inclination to surrender in Japan and that the bomb forced the Emperor to intervene and convince the Supreme War Council to accept surrender.
The revisionists target the orthodox position and argue that the United States inflicted needless nuclear devastation because Japan would have surrendered anyway. They stress other agendas such as sending a message to the Soviet Union or justifying the massive budget outlays on the Manhattan Project. Bernstein reminds us, however, that revisionists are also divided and provides an extensive critical commentary on Gar Alperowitz, the most famous of the revisionists, one who has had considerable influence in shaping public discourse in the U.S.
Counterfactual arguments — what would have happened if such and such didn’t or did happen — are weighed by the contributors and not surprisingly there is little consensus. Bernstein argues that “a Soviet entry, without the bomb, might reasonably have produced a pre-November (1945) surrender,” meaning that the planned U.S. invasion of Kyushu would have been unnecessary. Thus, he asserts that the bombings were not necessary to end the war and did not save many U.S. lives.
The surrender debate has evolved considerably in line with reassessments of Hirohito’s wartime role. Since his death in 1989, some scholars have depicted him as a leader in the loop who exercised considerable influence over Japan’s military actions. Previously he was usually portrayed as a relatively powerless figure desiring peace who was unable to promote his views until the bombs gave him an opportunity to break a deadlock in the Supreme War Council. These days some scholars argue that the Emperor Showa was willing to sacrifice his people and only belatedly came around to favor surrender as a way to prevent the Soviets jointly occupying Japan, fearing they might eliminate the Imperial institution. It is also apparent that Hirohito and his close advisers worried about a growing popular unrest and the potential for an anti-Imperial revolution.
Sumio Hatano argues that the double shocks of the atomic bombings and the Soviet attack in Manchuria were equally important factors in forcing Japan’s surrender and ensuring the military’s compliance. He argues that “the leadership had been facing the dilemma that a hasty termination of the war might invite an army rebellion, while the protracted continuation of the war would provoke public hostility to the emperor system.” There was considerable anxiety about a military coup against surrender, and it is telling that in his speech to the troops on Aug. 17 Hirohito emphasized the Soviet entry in the war. For the army, this was considered a more devastating strategic development.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa contributes two essays that focus on how the Soviet entry affected the end of the war, while Soviet Union specialist David Holloway assesses Stalin’s perspectives and goals, taking issue with Hasegawa on a number of points. Hasegawa, among other things, argues that the Soviet attack had a far more decisive influence on Japan’s decision to surrender than the atomic bombings.
This excellent volume is essential and rewarding reading because it fundamentally reorients the debate by firmly embedding the history of Japan’s surrender in a broader analytical framework and forcing a thorough reappraisal of the Asian endgame in World War II.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.
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