Ending the Pacific War: The Revisionists have it all wrong...again

The following is an excerpt from an essay by Richard Frank at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

I read Downfall a few months ago...really scary book. You will know why all those Pacific War vets continue to stand by the decision to drop the bomb. It's pretty easy 60 years later to condemn those who had to make tough decisions when lives were on the line. I have highlighted some major points if you just want to skim.

Kinda makes the whole "torture memo" bruhaha kinda silly doesn't it?

It's either us or them and until Nancy and Harry and Obambi and all their ilk wish to grab a rifle and stand a post, I would recommend they shut the hell up.

Ending the Pacific War: Harry Truman and the Decision To Drop the Bomb

By Richard B. Frank

April 2009
Vol 14, No 4

Richard B. Frank is the author of Downfall: The End of Imperial Japanese Empire. This essay is based on his talk at the FPRI Wachman Center’s History Institute for Teachers on Teaching the Nuclear Age, held March 28-29, 2009. The Institute was cosponsored by the American Academy of Diplomacy and cosponsored and hosted by the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. See www.fpri.org/education/ nuclearage for videofiles, texts of lectures, and classroom lessons.

Most Americans today are surprised to learn that in 1945 and for approximately two decades thereafter no significant controversy accompanied the use of atomic weapons to end the Pacific War. A broad national consensus formed around three basic premises: 1) the use of the weapons was justified; 2) the weapons ended the war; and 3) in at least a rough utilitarian sense, the use of the weapons was morally justified as saving more lives than they cost. One later historian branded this as “The Patriotic Orthodoxy.”

Beginning in the mid-1960s, challenges appeared to the “Patriotic Orthodoxy.” The pejorative label “revisionists” was sometimes attached to these challengers, but a more accurate term is just critics. The critics developed a canon of tenets that in their purest incarnation likewise number three: 1) Japan’s strategic situation in the summer of 1945 was catastrophically hopeless; 2) Japan’s leaders recognized that their situation was hopeless and were seeking to surrender; and 3) American leaders, thanks to the breaking of Japanese diplomatic codes, knew Japan was on the verge of surrender when they unleashed needless nuclear devastation. The critics mustered a number of reasons for the unwarranted use of atomic weapons, but the most provocative by far carries the banner of “atomic diplomacy”: the real target of the weapons was not Japan, but the Soviet Union.

What follows here is an admittedly brief exploration of the new and much more complex history of these events.

The then newly created Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) bore the duty of devising a military strategy to secure the national war aim. For decades the JCS was depicted as forging a consensus, but it is now clear that the JCS achieved no more than an unstable compromise. The navy, led by the Commander in Chief, U.S. Navy, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, had studied war with Japan for decades. From that lengthy meditation emerged a number of key principles, but none was more deeply held than the conviction that an attempt to invade the Japanese Home Islands was the path of absolute folly. The navy concluded that the U.S. could never project a sufficiently large trans-Pacific expeditionary force to overwhelm the Japanese. Further, the alternately steep or soaked terrain of the Home Islands would negate American advantages in firepower and mobility. Any invasion thus would produce politically unacceptable numberless casualties.

While the navy concluded that casualties would be the factor determining the will of the American people to see the war through to “unconditional surrender,” the army, led by General of the Armies George C. Marshall, believed time was the critical element. Hence the army advocated an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands as the swiftest means of ending the war.

In April 1945, after nearly a year’s worth of bitter argument, the JCS reached an unstable compromise. The ongoing strategy of bombardment and blockade would continue at greater intensity until November 1945. At that point, it would merge with a two-phase initial invasion of Japan (Operation Downfall) aimed first at Southern Kyushu about November 1, 1945 (Operations Olympic) and second at the Tokyo region about 1 March 1946 (Operation Coronet).

The JCS formally adopted a paper providing the rationale for this plan. No Japanese government had surrendered to a foreign power in the 2,600-year history of Japan. No Japanese military unit had surrendered in the entire course of the Pacific War. Therefore, the JCS concluded that there was no guarantee the U.S. could find a Japanese government that would surrender, and even if it did, that Japan’s armed forces would comply with the surrender order. Accordingly, the JCS identified the ultimate American nightmare: it was not “the invasion of Japan,” but the prospect that there would be no organized capitulation of Japan’s government and armed forces. Indeed, “the invasion of Japan” only encompassed a fraction of the potential costs of finally subduing Japan if the U.S. and its allies had to defeat Japan’s armed forces, estimated at about 4.5-5 million strong, in the Home Islands, on the Asian continent and across the Pacific.

Unfortunately, in 1945, Japanese leaders did not regard their situation as catastrophically hopeless. On the contrary, they devised a military-political strategy they called the Ketsu Go (“Operation Decisive”) that they were confident would deliver what they regarded as a satisfactory end to the war, one that would preserve the ultranationalist and militarist old order in Japan. Ketsu Go contained a fundamental premise: Americans, for all their material power, possessed only brittle morale. Japanese leaders believed that by defeating or inflicting high casualties on the initial invasion of the Home Islands, they could break American morale and secure a negotiated end of the war to their taste.

Shrewd staff work deduced that the U.S. would choose to invade rather than only follow a strategy of blockade and bombardment. Since American combat power depended vitally on air and sea components, not massive ground forces, and as more than half the U.S. air strength was ground based, the Japanese calculated that an invasion must come within range of American land bases. Further appraisal projected that by midsummer 1945, the U.S. would occupy Okinawa. Simple calculations of American fighter plane range from Okinawa showed the target for the first invasion would be southern Kyushu. A glance at the topographic map of Kyushu readily yielded the likely invasion beaches. The Japanese conducted a huge build-up of forces in Japan, but concentrated their units to meet an invasion in southern Kyushu and around Tokyo—precisely the two initial American invasion targets. They were confident in the prospects for Ketsu Go.

This brings us to the role of Magic, the code name for the massive allied code-breaking industry. The products of code-breaking were delivered daily to senior leaders in two documents, one with the self-explanatory title of “The Magic Diplomatic Summary,” the other called “The Magic Far East Summary,” which addressed military developments. Magic not only shines light onto what American policymakers knew, but also provides a priceless source of authentic insight into Japanese diplomatic and military matters.Accompanying the release of the Magic intercepts was the revelation of their impact on senior American officers. General Marshall sent a message to the senior army officer in the Pacific, General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur, on August 7 basically asking whether Olympic still appeared viable in light of the new intelligence. MacArthur replied that he did not believe the intelligence and that therefore the invasion plan was still valid. [Kinda puts ol' Mac in a new light doesn't it..glory above all]
Admiral King seized upon this exchange to ask for the view of the senior naval officer in the Pacific, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. But King well knew that since a private message in May, Nimitz had withdrawn support for the proposed invasion. Thus, the plan to attack Kyushu in November was under siege in what proved to be the final days of the war—not because it appeared unnecessary but because it appeared unthinkable in light of Magic. And one must add that in light of these revelations, all the prior ruminations on casualties just for Olympic were totally invalid.

An atomic bomb virtually destroyed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In the early morning of August 9, the Soviet Union entered the war with a massive offensive in Manchuria. A few hours later a second atomic bomb inflicted tremendous damage on Nagasaki. The immediate and lingering effects of the two revolutionary weapons killed between 100,000 and 200,000 Japanese.

It took twenty-four hours for Tokyo to learn of the damage to Hiroshima and the American claim that it was inflicted by an atomic bomb. The militarists immediately erected two lines of defense: first, whatever struck Hiroshima, it was not an atomic bomb; second, even if it was an atomic bomb, the difficulty of manufacturing fissionable material to power the weapon meant the U.S. could not have that many bombs, or that the bombs would not be that powerful. These conclusions were the fruit of Japan’s own efforts to build an atomic bomb. These exertions provided no useable weapon, but did instruct Japan’s leaders in the difficulty of producing fissionable material. This revelation also demonstrates the futility of any single demonstration of an atomic weapon. Further, the news of Soviet intervention did not prompt Japan’s military leaders to call for an end to the war. On the contrary, the three top leaders endorsed plans to continue the war and even to abolish any vestige of civilian government—an extremely ominous development that leaves open the question of how the war might have ended absent that mechanism for intervention by the emperor.

Then the story took another twist exposed by the new history. As communicated to the United States and its allies, the condition was phrased as acceptance of the Potsdam declaration “with the understanding that the said declaration does not compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as Sovereign Ruler.” As Japanese historians pointed out, and American State Department officials immediately recognized, this was not just a request for maintenance of a constitutional monarchy. This language actually set as the condition precedent to surrender that the allies agree to the supremacy of the emperor not only over any Japanese government, but over the commander of the occupation. In other words, any proposed reforms would be subject to the emperor’s veto.

Moreover, as Tokyo and Washington had feared, compliance of Japan’s armed forces with the surrender was far from automatic. Much attention has been paid to a failed military coup d’etat mounted by mid-grade officers on the night of August 14-15 in Tokyo. Far more significant were two other events. Two of the three major overseas commands of the Imperial Army, one in China and the other in Southeast Asia, announced that they would not comply with the surrender order. Between them they controlled a quarter to a third of all Japanese military personnel. Then the Japanese defenders in the Kurils—who defied a direct order from the emperor to halt—came very close to crushing the initial Soviet landing. On August 19, there was near panic in Tokyo over the fear that news of such a “victory’ in the Kurils would cause an unraveling of compliance with the surrender. It was touch and go for at least five days after August 15 before it became clear that Japan’s armed forces would all surrender.

The conventional dispute over the causes of the Japanese surrender pits the atomic bombs against Soviet entry, but there was more at play than just these two events. After the war, preserving Hirohito’s seat on the throne animated a Japanese effort to conceal or downplay two other factors. The first was that the emperor, Kido, and others feared something more than atomic bombs or Soviet intervention. On August 13, Navy Minister Yonai labeled the bombs and Soviet intervention as “gifts from the gods,” because he disclosed, “this way we don’t have to say that we have quit the war because of domestic circumstances.” Yonai’s comment explains a telling but veiled admission by the emperor. In both the Imperial proclamations issued by the emperor—the famous one of the August 15 radio broadcast to the whole nation and the less well known one to the armed forces on August 17—he alludes to the “domestic” situation. These are all references back to the issue raised by Kido in June: that the deteriorating situation brought on by blockade and bombing could trigger an internal revolt that would topple not only Hirohito from his throne, but also destroy the whole imperial institution.

The second issue the Japanese leadership was eager to conceal was the uncertain compliance of the armed forces with the surrender. Keeping Hirohito on the throne postwar required that no doubts be admitted about the possibility of an internal revolt by disgruntled subjects or that the armed forces might have defied his word. It was only postwar evidence, developed by Japanese historians and from Magic, that dragged these factors into full light.

The next important point to understand is that the view—customarily shared by both sides in the conventional controversy—that ending the war required only one decision in Tokyo is wrong. Ending the war, or more precisely ending all combat, really required two steps: someone with legitimate authority had to make the political decision that Japan would surrender and then Japan’s armed forces had to comply with that decision. Finally, the surest guide to analyzing what ended the war is to look at the contemporary evidence, not recollections withered by time or distorted by postwar agendas.

Finally, there is one other dimension of this history that must be considered. Clearly the death of noncombatants is a critical issue. In approaching this matter it is only just to consider all, not just some, noncombatants at risk. The government of Japan bears enormous responsibility for its callous policy of wiping out meaningful distinctions between combatants and noncombatants in its national mobilization and its willingness to pursue a strategy certain to produce vast numbers of dead from starvation. The alternative of Soviet intervention as a means of ending the war is almost always presented without any mention of the enormous numbers of Japanese noncombatants who died in Soviet hands—and the still greater numbers who would have perished had the Soviets seized half or all of Hokkaido.

But what is deeply disturbing to historians from other Asian nations is the silence in the typical American debate on what the continuation of the war meant each day for their people. In China alone, the total number of war dead realistically numbers somewhere between 10-15 million, with some writers arguing still greater numbers. At least 80 percent of these deaths were civilians. This realistic range translates into an average of 3,000 to more than 4,500 deaths per day, or between 100,000-150,000 per month. Enormous numbers of other Asians were likewise dying. Then we come to Allied civilian internees and POWs at risk from abuse and starvation. In any debate over the morality or immorality of the use of atomic weapons in the context of obtaining Japan’s surrender, it is critical that all the noncombatant deaths be considered. If it is proper to weigh the costs in noncombatant lives in two cities in the aggressor nation, it is at least as proper to consider the lives of noncombatants in victim nations. And what sort of debate would omit such considerations?