August 15, 1945, is the much-remembered date of Japan’s surrender in World War II. But that date could have been much later. On a recent visit to Australia, I discovered an act of Stalinist perfidy that could easily have delayed that war end and have left much of Japan subject to Soviet occupation.
This was the fact that in 1945 Soviet leader Josef Stalin was passing on to Tokyo information from unsuspecting Australian sources that would allow the Japanese military to resist the Allied invasion from the south and provide time for a Soviet invasion into Japan from the north.
If the Soviet plan had succeeded, many more Americans, Australians and Japanese would have died as a result, and much of Japan would have come under Soviet occupation or control.
For pure ugliness and perfidiousness it rates with the Warsaw Ghetto affair when Stalin’s refusal to help the 1943 uprising there did much to allow Moscow later to take over the country and impose communist rule.
The story begins in the later stages of the Pacific War against Japan when Australia had become the base from which U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur hoped to launch his final attack from the south. In a collection of dilapidated shacks near Melbourne a small group of cryptographers were working with the British to decode intercepted Japanese military and diplomatic messages, many from the Japanese consulate at Harbin far away in northern China but sharing the same longitude as Melbourne.
(Details of this remarkable decoding operation can be found in a recently published book news.anu.edu.au/2013/10/29/australias-secret-history-of-decoding-diplomatic-cables/)
From some of the painfully decoded messages the decoders had discovered that somehow the Soviets had got their hands on the detailed U.S. plans for the invasion of the Philippines and were passing them to that Harbin consulate, which was then passing them on to Tokyo where they could be used to prepare defenses against the planned Allied attacks through the islands of the western Pacific and into the Philippines.
At the time the Soviets were supposed to be cooperating with the Allies to defeat Japan. Yet here they were trying to help Japan resist the Allies. Some background is needed.
In February 1945 the Allied powers had met at Yalta and had gained Soviet agreement to prepare for an attack on Japan once Nazi Germany had been defeated. A Soviet attack from the north was seen as crucial in bringing about Japan’s early surrender and avoiding the dreadful casualties that would follow an Allied invasion of Japan.
But in July 1945, the U.S. successfully tested an atomic bomb. It realized it no longer needed that promised Soviet attack to defeat Japan. It could do so itself, after it had defeated the Japanese in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, with Germany defeated, Moscow was moving troops eastward in preparation for its own attack on Japan. But those preparations would take time. Unless Moscow could find some way to delay Japan’s defeat at U.S. hands, the Japanese prize would slip from its hands.
One tactic was falsely to seem to go along with Japanese hopes that the Soviets would remain neutral and might even broker a deal that would save Japan. The other was to pass on those secret U.S. plans for the Philippines invasion in the hope this would strengthen Japan’s resistance and delay any surrender to the U.S.
How could it get those plans? As in much of the West, Moscow was gaining friends in Australia thanks to the incredible sacrifices the Soviet peoples had made to resist and finally defeat Nazi Germany (anyone who believes the West also did much to bring about that defeat has been watching too many Normandy documentaries and “Saving Private Ryan” films).
In Canberra, a Labor government was in power. Since Australian troops would join with the U.S. in the planned attacks northward to Japan, details of those plans had to be shared. Some on Left could easily gain access to those plans; one of them, we discovered later, was the private secretary to the then very leftist foreign minister, H.V. Evatt.
These plans then found their way to the Soviet Embassy in Canberra only to end up in the messages from that Japanese consulate in Harbin, where they were intercepted, decoded and finally ended up back in Australia.
But the identities of the Australians involved in all this were only discovered postwar, thanks to the U.S. Venona decoding operation against the Soviet wartime cable traffic. Nor at the time could there be a witch hunt against them since this would have revealed the existence of the ultra-secret Venona operation. It only came out later during Canberra’s Petrov affair inquiries.
Petrov was a 1954 defector from the Soviet embassy in Canberra, who allegedly brought with him documents that allowed names and sources to be revealed. None of the alleged Soviet collaborators were brought to trial; one of them, Ric Throssel, was still at his desk in Canberra’s External Affairs department when I joined in 1956.
But the lurid details of those 1945 events were enough to discredit the Labor Party and guarantee a succession of conservative governments through to 1972 when thanks largely to the ping-pong diplomacy and the recognition of China, a Labor government under Gough Whitlam could finally regain power.
Like Throssel, whom I came to know and like, most were concerned pacifists who thought they could assist the war effort by helping the Soviet ally (Throssel had done no more than casually pass on information to his mother, a well-known and strongly pro-Soviet author.)
But their actions were not only to discredit Labor government in Australia. They could well have changed the final stages of the war against Japan, and in a direction exactly to opposite of what they had wanted.
As the U.S. tried to deal with the fierce Japanese resistance to its move northward — a resistance that was no doubt greatly helped by information passing through that Japanese consulate in Harbin — the decision was made to use atomic weapons against Japan.
Many assume that this succeeded in forcing Japan’s early surrender. But various studies have shown us that the fanatical militarists largely in control of Japan’s war policies were still at the time determined to force a fight to the end regardless.
Thanks to detailed research by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa in his 2005 book “Racing the Enemy,” it seems very likely that the deciding factor forcing that surrender was not so much the threatened destruction of Japanese cities as the hasty post-Hiroshima Aug. 8, 1945, Soviet declaration of war against Japan and invasion of Manchuria.
A Soviet attack on Japan proper leading to the destruction of the Emperor system and establishment of a communist government frightened the militarists even more than atomic bombings.
Even so the Soviets found time to invade Japan’s northern and central Kuril Islands. They also sent troops intended to occupy all of Hokkaido north of a line between the towns of Rumoi in the west and Kushiro in the south, probably under one of the secret agreements made at Yalta to encourage Soviet war participation.
One report says the Soviet troop ships were only two days from Rumoi when U.S. President Truman warned them off, saying the troops should be used instead to occupy the southern Kuril Islands, now claimed by Tokyo as its Northern Territories.
How much more could they have taken if Moscow had been able to delay Japan’s surrender?
And, is it just possible that the U.S. would have decided it did not need to rely on atomic weapons if Japan had not been able to stage fierce resistance in the islands to its south?
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and long-time resident of Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net
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