With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Response to Critics of My Book

This article was written in response to Robert P. Newman's"Has the History Profession Awarded a Prize to Another Flawed Book?"

Sixty years after the end of the Pacific War, the debate on the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bomb still touches the raw nerves of Americans, provoking a storm of controversy. This contentious, often acrimonious debate, however, has been parochial, concentrating almost exclusively on the American story, as in the case of Sadao Asada, whom Professor Newman considered to be “the most knowledgeable student of Japan’s surrender.” Two things are missing. First, the political process by which Japan came to accept surrender has not been sufficiently scrutinized. Second, the Soviet factor has been treated as a mere sideshow. My book, Racing the Enemy, is an attempt to rectify this situation by placing Japan’s surrender in the international context, and bringing the Soviet factor to center stage.

Although generally my book has been received positively, there are a number of critics who assail my book as “biased,” “one-sided,” work which “consistently misrepresents and distort sources.” In addition to Michael Kort, D. M. Giangreco, and now Robert P. Newman in HNN, Asada Sadao wrote a scathing review in the Journal of Strategic Studies (vol. 29, no. 1, February 2006). I have no intention to be drawn into acrimonious debate, impugning the ideological motivation of authors. But I am willing to accept that these critics raise two important questions that should be further debated and examined. These are the issues that are also raised in a more civil discourse in the H-Diplo Roundtable Discussions about my book, in which Richard Frank (38 page single-space pages), Barton Bernstein (equally lengthy review), David Holloway, Michael Gordin, and Gar Alperovitz participated and I rebutted their criticisms.

The first issue is whether or not there was a race between Truman and Stalin. Did Truman welcome Soviet entry into the war, and urge the Soviets to enter the war as quickly as possible? My critics argue that Truman believed that the Soviet entry into the war accrued certain benefits to the United States, sought it and welcomed it. But the evidence shows that Truman certainly did not do anything to “speed up” its entry into the war. At his first Stalin-Truman meeting on July 17, Truman did not solicit Stalin’s consent to enter the war. Despite Harry Hopkins’s pledge that the issue of a joint ultimatum against Japan would be placed on the agenda at the Potsdam Conference, Truman consciously excluded Stalin from deliberations on the ultimatum, and deleted any reference to the Soviet Union from the final text. Byrnes distributed the text of the Proclamation on July 26 to the press before he sent it to the Soviet delegation, and when Stalin asked Truman to invite him to append his signature to the Proclamation, Truman flatly rejected that request.

Stimson wrote on July 23: “[I] told him that I had sent for further more definite information as to the time of operation [of the atomic bomb] from Harrison. He [Truman] told me that he had the warning message [Potsdam Proclamation] which we prepared on his desk…and that he proposed to shoot it out as soon as he heard the definite day of the operation. We had a brief discussion about Stalin’s recent expansions and he confirmed what I have heard. But he told me that the United States was standing firm and he was apparently relying greatly upon the information as to S-1 [A-bomb] project.”

Stimson’s diary on July 23 seems to me a telling piece of evidence that Truman was connecting his policy to force Japan’s surrender with expected Soviet entry into the war. This is by no means the only evidence I rely on to support my contention about the “race.” Space does not permit me to quote extensively from Truman’s memoirs, Byrnes’s memoirs, Walter Brown’s diary, the Forrestal diary, and other sources. I encourage the readers to compare the critics’ argument and their sources with mine, and make their own judgment.

The second issue raised by my critics is the issue of which factor -- the atomic bombings or the Soviet entry into the war against Japan -- had a more decisive impact on Japan’s decision to surrender. Two historians, Asada and Richard Frank, have produced important works regarding this issue, using Japanese sources. I have critically examined the sources they used, I utilized additional sources they have not used, and I came to a different conclusion. I argue that of the two factors, the Soviet entry into the war had a far greater impact on Japan’s decision to surrender, although neither provided a knockout punch.

Newman claims: “Japan would fight to the finish until the Nagasaki bomb proved to Anami that the U.S. did have more bombs. Then, and only then, did Anami give in to the emperor and accept surrender.” He neglects to mention that between the Hiroshima bomb and the Nagasaki bomb, the Soviets entered the war, and that Anami’s resistance to surrender continued until the second imperial conference on August 14.

Asada contends that the Hiroshima bomb on August 6 immediately led the emperor, Togo, and Suzuki to accept the Potsdam terms. There is no evidence to support his contention, however. Asada cites Shusen shiroku as evidence to support his thesis, but the view given by the editors of the collection of documents, not from primary sources. The Big Six meeting was not even held until the Soviets entered the war on August 9. It was in the middle of this meeting that the news of the Nagasaki bomb was reported, and despite the news, the Big Six and the cabinet continued to be divided. On August 7, Togo sent an urgent dispatch to Sato, urging the ambassador to meet Molotov to obtain the answer from the Soviet government about Japan’s request for Soviet mediation. If, as Asada claims that Japan had already accepted surrender on Potsdam terms immediately after the Hiroshima bomb, how could one explain Togo’s telegram?

Contrary to Newman’s contention that after the Nagasaki bomb, Anami gave in to the emperor and accepted surrender, Anami’s resistance was renewed by the Byrnes note, and continued until the imperial conference on August 14. In fact, Anami’s revelation, made on August 9, that the United Stated had more than 100 atomic bombs and that the next target might be on Tokyo, did not have much influence on the Big Six discussions and the cabinet discussions.

If Newman and Kort think my argument outlined above and developed in detail in my book is false and that it “consistently” misrepresents and manipulates the sources, then, it is incumbent upon them to present the evidence from the Japanese sources that I allegedly intentionally ignored and misrepresented, instead of relying on Asada and Frank as a holy writ. Frank’s and Asada’s works are important landmarks for raising the debate on Japan’s surrender to a higher level, but they are by no means definitive accounts on the subject. Did Newman and Kort compare Takeshita’s record of the Imperial Conference on August 9 with those given by Togo, Sakomizu, Hoshina, Ikeda, and Suzuki, who actually participated in the conference? (Takeshita was not a participant in the conference.) Is Asada’s and Frank’s assertion that Takeshita’s record refers to the emperor’s concern with the atomic bomb plausible in view of the absence of such reference in all other records? How do Newman and Kort evaluate the view expressed by Shigeru Hasunuma, the emperor’s aide-de-camp, who shadowed the emperor wherever he went during these crucial days, that the atomic bomb had little impact on the emperor’s decision?

I do not have any ideological axe to grind. The concluding sentence in the book, “Thus this is a story with no heroes but no real villains either—just men,” seems to anger my critics, because I did not assign moral condemnations of the Japanese militarists and/or Stalin. What I meant is that those men -- with their own ideas of national interests, perceptions, and misperceptions about the others -- were engaged in the decision of how to end the war within the historical framework in which they lived. If I am critical of Truman, I am equally critical of Stalin. Despite Giangreco’s claim that I am lending support for Japan’s neo-nationalists, my greatest criticism is reserved for Japan’s policymakers, including the emperor, for delaying surrender. I have strong opinions about Japan’s responsibility for committing atrocities and war crimes, and I stated my view on this clearly in Racing the Enemy, but this book is not about that issue, but the issue of political decisions on ending the war.

My critics are not happy with the fact that my book received SHAFR’s Robert Ferrell award. But I am grateful to SHAFR for recognizing that my book, even though not all can agree with my conclusions, will raise the level of discussion on this contentious issue in a constructive way.