Did Truman Really Oppose the Soviet Union's Decision to Enter the War Against Japan?
D. M. Giangreco coauthored Eyewitness D-Day by Barnes & Noble Books (2004) and Dear Harry... Truman's Mailroom, 1945-1953: The Truman Administration Through Correspondence with 'Everyday Americans.' with Kathryn Moore. Mr. Giangreco's previous works include Delta: America's Elite Counterterrorist Force and War in Korea.
The following letter was sent to the Journal of Military History, which published a shortened version.
To the Editor:
The old saying tells us that “you’re never too old to learn” --- and it’s true! Reading David T. Fuhrmann’s review of Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (JMH 69, October 2005), I realized that my first impressions of the book were all wrong. Although the reviewer found Racing the Enemy “balanced and thoroughly documented,” I’d originally been appalled at the unnerving regularity with which Hasegawa’s copious footnotes implied that something exists in a document when it simply did not --- but that has all changed.
What I now realize is that I was expecting too much when I assumed that Hasegawa would actually produce real evidence that President Truman had embarked on a desperate race to defeat Japan with nuclear weapons before the Soviet Union could enter the Pacific War. Being overly picky, I was put off by what appeared to be gross misrepresentations of Truman’s words through use of ellipsis in accounts like the following of Truman’s first meeting with Stalin at Potsdam:
Truman noted in his diary: ‘I asked [Stalin] if he had the agenda for the meeting. He said that he had and that he had more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite --- but I have some dynamite too which I am not exploding now. . . . He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about.
Hasegawa goes on to explain that “Truman took Stalin’s announcement as ‘dynamite.’ It is clear that he saw Stalin not as an ally committed to the common cause of defeating Japan, but as a competitor in the race to see who could force Japan to surrender.”
How could I have been so obtuse? I’d thought that the 50 or so words replaced by the ellipsis implied that the president was talking about something completely different. The excised portion of the diary entry read:
He wants to fire Franco. To which I wouldn’t object, and divide up the Italian colonies and other mandates, some no doubt that the British have. Then he got on the Chinese situation, told us what agreements had been reached and what was in abeyance. Most of the big points are settled. [Emphasis added.]
It is here that Hasegawa picks up the comments on Stalin entering the war. Now, while it is true that ellipsis are often a revisionist’s best friend, perhaps Hasegawa just didn’t notice that he had utterly changed the meaning of Truman’s diary entry. In another passage, Hasegawa’s gives this account of Truman’s “laconic” response on 8 August to the news that the Soviets had entered the war:
A few minutes after 3:00, Truman held an impromptu press conference. Although he entered the Press Room with a smile on his face, he quickly assumed a solemn expression and read a statement to reporters: “I have only a simple announcement to make. I can’t hold a regular press conference today, but this announcement is so important I thought I would call you in. Russia has declared war on Japan.” Then he added laconically: “That’s all.” This was the shortest White House press conference on record.
This terse statement reveals the profound disappointment Truman must have felt over the news.
Foolishly, I had thought that the very sources Hasegawa’s cites, widely known eyewitness accounts by the New York Times’s Felix Belair, Jr, and Washington Post’s Edward T. Folliard that appeared on 9 August, directly refuted his depiction of Truman’s mood. The president did not walk into a room full of waiting reporters, he was seated at his desk flanked by Admiral Leahy and Jimmy Byrnes when the White House press corps was ushered in. Both reporters stated that Truman was smiling and both commented on his uncharacteristically casual behavior.
The president sat “with one leg thrown carelessly over the arm of his chair and his right arm stretched across the back,” according to the Times’s Belair, and “hid completely the importance of the information he was about to impart.” His “dramatic statement,” moreover, was “issued with all the casualness of a routine proclamation.” Folliard of the Post did say that Truman “assumed a solemn expression,” but only when “he rose to make his announcement.” The president then “rocked with laughter,” according to the Belair, when his concluding words sent reporters crowding the doors to file their reports.
While it may at first appear that even the most casual reading of these articles reveals that Hasegawa’s account might be construed as pure fiction, it seems more fair for me to admit that Hasegawa clearly displays a much better ability to read Truman’s mind than I. In fact, now that I have recognized my error, it is obvious that the president was determined to personally share his mortification --- what Hasegawa describes as his “profound disappointment” --- instead of taking the easy out by having press secretary Charley Ross routinely read a statement to the reporters.
In any event, I now have not the slightest idea what I was thinking when, before reading Fuhrmann’s review, I concluded that a close examination of Hasegawa’s own sources throughout the book either don’t support --- or in some cases, utterly demolish --- his contention that Truman had been “racing the enemy” and was crushed when he found out he had “lost” to Joe Stalin. But most fundamentally, I was wrong about how and why the war began. Thanks to Hasegawa, I have been forced to concede that the war did not begin until April 1945.
Hasegawa’s closing paragraph sets me straight that we are looking at simply “a story with no heroes but no real villains either --- just men. The ending of the Pacific war was in the last analysis a human drama whose dynamics were determined by the very human characteristics of those involved: fear, vanity, anger, and prejudice.”
It is now perfectly clear that any examination of these acts committed in the name of the Greater East Asian Coprosperity Sphere --- Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March; the 10 to 25 million Chinese who died between the Marco Polo Bridge incident and 1946; the death (according to the UN) of hundreds of thousands of Asian slave laborers and Allied POWs along the Burma Railway and in mines and factories scattered from Java to Hokkaido; the grisly biological warfare experiments of “Unit 731” in Manchuria --- any examination of these acts is nothing more than a cynical attempt to deflect guilt from the Allies in general, and America in particular.
No, Fuhrmann is quite right that Hasegawa deserves praise for “providing an international perspective lacking in previous studies,” and far be it from me to suggest that Racing the Enemy offers an extraordinarily biased and rather dishonest perspective that may appeal to neonationalists in Japan, but will not be useful to many others.
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
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Glenn Scott Rodden - 2/12/2006
Thanks for all the responses to my questions, but I would like to raise some issues with those responses.
First, Giangreco stated: "The short answer is that there were no surrender terms being sought by the Japanese."
Intercepted cables show that the Japanese Emperor had intervened to attempt to end the war and that he was seeking surrender terms based on the Atlantic Charter in July 1945. Those communications were taken seriously by the US.
The Atlantic Charter promised that every nation could choose its form of government, which would have allowed Japan to keep its emperor. The Japanese also did not want to be occupied. Truman did believe that the Japanese were attempting to negotiate a peace, but he feared that they would negotiate that peace through the Soviet Union and he did not want that to happen.
Giangreco: "But far from a coherent plea to the Soviets to help negotiate a surrender, the communication was hopelessly vague and viewed by both Washington and Moscow as little more than a stalling tactic to prevent Soviet military intervention."
Was the US position on surrender terms "coherent"? Truman was asked at least a dozen times by his top advisors to clarify what he meant by unconditional surrender, but he never did. Why not?
Second, Newgent writes: "The Japanese plan to resist Olympic was called Ketsu-go."
I would not argue with the fact that the Japanese had plans to defend their home islands, but my question is what resources did they have? The Japanese military was cut off from its fuel sources so how could they have flown the 13,000 planes that Newgent writes about. And did the 600,000 Japanese fighters exist?
By July 1945, the US Air Force had obliterated 60 Japanese cities. If the Japanese Air Force had 13,000 planes, why were they not defending Japanese cities under attack?
Newgent also wrote that: "Japan ready to fight it out to the last man and was prepared for the Olympic landings, which would have exacted near the “half a million men” that the US military feared."
The above half million men casualty figure is often cited as a rationale for the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski, but did Truman believe that number? Apparently not. On August 9th, 1945, Truman declared that the use of the A-bomb had saved THOUSANDS of American lives. On December 15th, 1945, he delcared that the A-bomb had save one-quarter million American lives. On April 29th, 1959, Truman said that the bomb had save MILLIONS (out-doing Newgent) of American lives. I cannot take any of these numbers seriously because they are justifications and not the causation for the use of the A-bomb.
Siegler: "Unconditional surrender doesn't necessarily mean that there are no conditions."
A post-modern statement if there ever was one.
Siegler: "only that the victor gets to dictate the conditions and the vaquished must accept them."
Which is, of course, the definition of unconditional surrender.
ES: "The Potsdam Proclamation (issued in late July) was in fact a list of conditions for a Japanese surrender."
Here we agree.
ES: "The continuation of the emperor as figurehead of Japan was never prohibited in this document, however this was not quite clear."
And that was a huge problem. As stated above, Truman never clarified his unconditional surrender policy even to his own staff.
"The Japanese essentially asked for clarification of this point, and the U.S. was planning on keeping the emperor anyway."
I don't know where you got this idea from. Which Americans? Truman?
"Japan wanted the emperor to retain actual authority over Japan, but he was allowed only to be figurehead - an essential condition that Japan agreed to. This communication by Japan prior to surrender does not make the surrender "conditional."
Then what does it make it? You just wrote that the Japanese wanted the Emperor to retain authority and then stated that the terms were not conditional. Which do you believe?
Furthermore, doesn't it bother you, or anyone else, that Truman made the decision to use the A-bomb BEFORE the Japanese had responded to the Potsdam Declaration?
Mark A Newgent - 2/8/2006
The Japanese plan to resist Olympic was called Ketsu-go or "Decisive Operation".
I found it ironic that Ketsu-go was never mentioned in any of my undergraduate texts nor was any book dealing with Ketsu-go or Japanese defensive plans in general ever assigned in any of my graduate courses on the subject.
Ketsu-go was to utilize over 600,000 troops and nearly 13,000 aircraft to resist the invasion. The Japanese strategy was to exact horrendous casualties on the American landing forces and force American public opinion against unconditional surrender, thereby allowing them to secure far better terms than what was in the Potsdam Proclamation. An officer in the Imperial General Headquarters summed it up best
“We will prepare 10,000 planes to meet the landing of the enemy. We will mobilize every aircraft possible, both training and "special attack" planes. We will smash one third of the enemy's war potential with this air force at sea. Another third will also be smashed at sea by our warships, human torpedoes and other special weapons. Furthermore, when the enemy actually lands, if we are ready to sacrifice a million men we will be able to inflict an equal number of casualties upon them. If the enemy loses a million men, then the public opinion in America will become inclined towards peace, and Japan will be able to gain peace with comparatively advantageous conditions.”
I will defer to Professor Giancreco on the matter of Japan seeking surrender terms. What I should have written was that the conditions (retaining their military and retaining wartime territorial gains) on which Japan would have ceased hostilities surpassed what Truman and the American people would have offered.
Three sources I would direct you to are
Richard B. Frank’s Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.
Major Mark P. Arens’ V Marine Amphibious Corps Planning for Operation Olympic and the Role of Intelligence in Support of Planning. Available at http://fas.org/irp/eprint/arens/ The quote I used above is from this paper.
Professor Giangreco’s paper on casualty projections is also a valuable resource.
Casualty Projections for the US Invasions of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications, Journal of Military History, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jul., 1997) 521-581
Edward Siegler - 2/6/2006
Unconditional surrender doesn't necessarily mean that there are no conditions - only that the victor gets to dictate the conditions and the vaquished must accept them.
The Potsdam Proclamation (issued in late July) was in fact a list of conditions for a Japanese surrender. The continuation of the emperor as figurehead of Japan was never prohibited in this document, however this was not quite clear. The Japanese essentially asked for clarification of this point, and the U.S. was planning on keeping the emperor anyway. Japan wanted the emperor to retain actual authority over Japan, but he was allowed only to be figurehead - an essential condition that Japan agreed to. This communication by Japan prior to surrender does not make the surrender "conditional."
The "negotiations" with the Soviets and the "peace feelers" were never authorized by the Japanese government. They were freelance efforts pursued in a half-hearted fashion. Thus there is no evidence of any real surrender negotiations prior to Nagasaki.
As far as Japan's ability to continue the war, consider Japan's military, which was preparing for the expected invasion at the time the bombs were dropped. The Battle of Okinawa, which ended only weeks before Hiroshima, was one of the costliest battles in American history. The Japanese army could only be expected to fight even harder to defend the mainland, with all the suicidal ferocity that this implies.
Glenn Scott Rodden - 2/5/2006
Thanks for your response. My original post was a response to Mr. Newgent's claim that "Japan was not seeking to surrender under any terms short of unconditional that were acceptable to the United States." If unconditional surrender was the key issue for both sides, why did the US accept conditional surrender after two atomic bombs were dropped?
Your answer to my question was "The short answer is that there were no surrender terms being sought by the Japanese." You find no evidence that the Japanese were negotiating with the Soviets and the Americans before the atomic bombs were dropped?
Newgent then goes on to repeat the much-traveled argument that "Japan ready to fight it out to the last man and was prepared for the Olympic landings, which would have exacted near the “half a million men” that the US military feared." My questions is resources did the Japanese have to fight with?
D. M. Giangreco - 2/3/2006
Although the question was directed to Mr. Newgent, I hope you don’t mind if I jump in.
The short answer is that there were no surrender terms being sought by the Japanese.
Some historians have made much of Emperor Hirohito’s request that the Soviets accept Prince Fumimaro Konoye as a special envoy to discuss ways in which the war might be “quickly terminated.” But far from a coherent plea to the Soviets to help negotiate a surrender, the communication was hopelessly vague and viewed by both Washington and Moscow as little more than a stalling tactic to prevent Soviet military intervention, an intervention that Tokyo had known was coming ever since the Soviets’ recent cancellation of their Neutrality Pact.
The subsequent exchange of diplomatic communications between Japan’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the Soviet Union has been characterized by authors such as Gar Alperovits, and most recently Hasegawa, as evidence that Japan was on the brink of calling it quits. American officials reading the intercepted messages, however, could not help noticing that the defeatist ideas of the ambassador received nothing more than a stinging rebuke from Tokyo. Moreover, it was the fanatical Japanese militarists who were fully in control of the decisionmaking process until the combined shocks of the of the atom bombs in August 1945 and Soviet entry into the war stampeded Japan’s leaders into an early capitulation.
If you are interested in further readings on this question, significant portions of the following works deal with the confusion and indecision of the Japanese government at that time and/or what the Allied governments knew of it through communications intercepts:
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix (HarperCollins, 2000).
In the Service of the Emperor by Ed Drea (University of Nebraska Press, 1998), and also his MacArthur’s ULTRA: Codebreaking and the War Against Japan (University Press of Kansas, 1992).
Highly recommended is Sadao Asada’s “The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender -- A Reconsideration” in the November 1998 Pacific Historical Review, and Robert P. Newman’s recent Enola Gay and the Court of History (Lang, 2004) is an extremely useful work.
You might also find my “Operation Downfall: US Plans and Japanese Countermeasures” of some interest. It was presented at the KU symposium Beyond Bushido: Recent Work in Japanese Military History, and is available at http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/giangrec.htm .
Glenn Scott Rodden - 2/3/2006
What were the terms of surrender that the Japanese government was seeking in 1945? What did the Japanese have to fight with in 1945?
Mark A Newgent - 1/31/2006
The debate over the atomic bombing of Japan has taken a historiographical turn that Dr. Haynes should be quite familiar with. Like the Soviet apologists who futilely clamor for some magic bullet that will exonerate Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, or any of the other proven Soviet spies. The atomic bomb revisionists also flail about in search of “evidence” that will overturn, what both American and Japanese sources conclusively prove. Japan was not seeking to surrender under any terms short of unconditional that were acceptable to the United States. Japan ready to fight it out to the last man and was prepared for the Olympic landings, which would have exacted near the “half a million men” that the US military feared. MAGIC decrypts tell us that Truman knew all of this. Fat Man and Little Boy forced the Japanese hawks to give into the doves and accept surrender.
John Earl Haynes - 1/30/2006
You checked footnotes! Is that ethical? Isn't it a rule that the documentation of revisionists is not only to be taken on faith but praised?
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