This is part one of a series of two posts on this topic.
Click here for part two.
One of the most common invocations made in the service of “the atomic bombs weren’t necessary” argument is that the Japanese offered to surrender well before Hiroshima, and that this was ignored by the United States because they wanted to drop the bombs anyway (for various other asserted reasons). It’s one of those things that has a grain of truth to it, but without a heaping of context and interpretation is misleading by itself.
The Suzuki Cabinet, who held the fate of Japan in their hands in the summer of 1945. Photograph is from June 9, 1945. Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki is front and center. Of note, second to Suzuki’s left, looking downward and glum, is Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, one of the only members of the “peace party” actually on the cabinet. Contrast his expression with that of War Minister Korechika Anami (back row, two behind Yonai), who was, until very close to the end, one of the most die-hard supporters of a continued war. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons, somewhat touched up. A captioned overlay is here.
That there were “peace feelers” put out by some highly-placed Japanese in mid-1945 is well-known and well-documented. Specifically, there were several attempts to see whether the (then still-neutral) Soviet Union would be willing to serve as a mediator for a negotiated peace between the US and Japan. This story is the heart of Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s justly influentialRacing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (2005), and he goes over, in great detail, how these approaches worked (one in Japan, with the Soviet ambassador there, another in Moscow, with the Japanese ambassador there). Hasegawa’s argument isn’t about Japan being ready to surrender, though; he uses this account to show how dependent Japan’s ideas about the war’s possible ends were on a neutral Soviet Union.1
The distance between these “peace feelers” and an “offer” or even “readiness” to surrender is quite large. Japan was being governed at this point by a Supreme War Council, which was dominated by militarists who had no interest in peace. The “peace party” behind these feelers was a small minority of officials who were keeping their efforts secret from the rest of the Council, because they clearly feared they would be squashed otherwise. The “peace party” did appear to have the interest — and sometimeseven the favor — of the Emperor, which is important and interesting, though the Emperor, as Hasegawa outlines in detail, was not as powerful as is sometimes assumed. The overall feeling that one takes away from Hasegawa’s book is that all of these “feelers” were very much “off the books,” as in they were exploratory gestures made by a group that was waiting for an opportunity that might tilt the balance of power their way, and certainly not some kind of formal, official, or binding plan made by the Japanese government.
Furthermore, the surrender that the “peace party” was contemplating was still miles away from the “unconditional surrender” demanded by the United States. There were conditions involved: mainly the preservation of the status and safety of the Emperor and the Imperial House, which they regarded as identical to the preservation of the Japanese nation. But as Hasegawa points out, they were so unclear on what they were looking for, that there was contemplation of other things they might ask for as well, liking getting to keep some of their conquered territories. Again, this was not a real plan so much as the feelers necessary for forming a possible future plan, and so we should not be surprised that it was pretty vague.
General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito at Allied General Headquarters — a picture deliberately mean to contrast the 5’5″ Emperor with the six-foot American general. Photograph by Gaetano Faillace, via Wikimedia Commons.
One can argue, and people who argue against the necessity of the bombings do, that since the United States ultimately agreed to preserve the Emperor and Imperial House, that the US could have accepted such a condition earlier on if it had wanted to shorten the war. But this is not very compelling: it is a different thing to decide, after a war, that you are willing to cut your former enemy a break, versus cutting them that break while they are still your sworn enemy. The counter-argument, which even as someone who is not a die-hard “unconditional surrender was necessary” person I find somewhat compelling, is that if the US had modified its already-stated demands at that point, that it might have ultimately led to the Japanese making more demands, as part of the classic “give them an inch and they’ll ask for a foot” scenario. In any event, I doubt the Japanese would have been willing to accept the specific condition that the US ultimately ended up imposing during the occupation: that the Emperor had to publicly renounce his divinity. That’s a big “ask” to contemplate prior to surrender.
Anyway, whatever one thinks about the requirement of unconditional surrender and whether it prolonged the war — and it has been argued over since the 1940s — we can all agree, I think, that what the Japanese were unofficially “offering” was not what the US was demanding. And it is important to note that this was never actually offered to the US anyway: the Japanese were probing Soviet willingness to support them as a neutral party for a negotiated peace. So it was all a prelude to a negotiation of an offer. As it was, the Soviets weren’t interested (they were eager to declare war against Japan and seize promised territory as a consequence), and just strung them along. So the entire thing never got off the ground.
Cover sheet for a “MAGIC” intercept summary of cracked Japanese communications, classified ULTRA TOP SECRET, which was looked at during the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. From the National Security Archive.
The US was aware of these efforts by the Japanese, because it had cracked the Japanese diplomatic codes (the MAGIC intercepts), but it was never a formal “offer” for them to accept or reject.The general interpretation of the intercepts at the time was that Japan might be on the road to surrender, and they perceived there was a sympathetic “peace party” in their high command, but that Japan was ultimately not yet ready to accept unconditional surrender. Which I don’t think is really wrong, though of course one could debate about what one could do with that information.
At this point, I feel I should emphasize, that I don’t think the use of the atomic bombs the way they were used (two bombs on two cities in three days) was the only possible way to achieve the aims of the United States in World War II, or even that the goal of “unconditional surrender” was unambiguously the best thing to pursue. (See my article on the possible alternatives, for example, as to other possibilities that were on the table at the time.) I am saying, rather, that I think the argument offered up by those who would use the MAGIC intercept situation as an argument that the Japanese were “ready to surrender” prior to Hiroshima is not very compelling. It wasn’t an offer, it wasn’t unconditional surrender, and it wasn’t something the majority ruling the Japanese government had even approved or would support. It’s an important historical event that is crucial to understanding the end of the war (as Hasegawa makes quite clear), and one that complicates the “they all fanatics willing to fight to the death” argument that is used to justify using the atomic bombs, but it wasn’t anything like a surrender offer. I don’t have any problem with people making sound arguments either for or against the use of the atomic bombs — there are strong arguments on both sides — but they shouldn’t be based on myths. Unfortunately, many arguments in the popular sphere are.2
OK, but what if the above wasn’t the whole story? What if the Japanese did offer up a full, binding terms of surrender to the US directly, and those terms were exactly what the US ended up settling on with Japan after the war? I’m not sure that would change all of my analysis above (you would still have the issue of whether the US ought to have accepted the postwar terms before it was the postwar), but it would certainly complicate the situation! There has been an account of Japan doing just that, which has circulated for over 70 years. In part 2 of this series, I’ll be exploring that — the case of the enigmatic “Trohan memoranda.” The ultimate conclusion spoilers! — is that it is likely bunk, but there’s a story in the telling…
Click here for part two of this series.
- At some point in the future, I would still like to write a longer post about Hasegawa’s book and arguments in general, because it is one of most frequent questions I get online. One of these days I will get around to it — the summary version is that I find much of his argumentation persuasive, though I think the ultimate question of “how much weight should we give the atomic bombs, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, internal Japanese pressures, or other factors in accounting for their unconditional surrender agreement?” is ultimately unanswerable in any satisfying way. [↩]
- The most pernicious myth in the “for” category remains, in my mind, the idea that the Japanese people were warned about the atomic bombings before their use — which to my mind is clearly not true, but gets a lot of traction on Internet forums and the like. [↩]
Tags: 1940s, 1950s, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hiroshima, Japan, Soviet Union, World War II
This entry was postedon Monday, May 2nd, 2022 at 10:59 amand is filed under Redactions.You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Citation: Alex Wellerstein, "Did the Japanese offer to surrender before Hiroshima? (Part 1)," Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, May 2, 2022, accessed August 6, 2023, https://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2022/05/02/did-the-japanese-offer-to-surrender-before-hiroshima-part-1/.
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But, in 1965, historian Gar Alperovitz argued that, although the bombs did force an immediate end to the war, Japan's leaders had wanted to surrender anyway and likely would have done so before the American invasion planned for Nov. 1.Was Japan willing to surrender in ww2? ›
On August 10, 1945, Japan offered to surrender to the Allies, the only condition being that the emperor be allowed to remain the nominal head of state. Planning for the use of additional nuclear weapons continued even as these deliberations were ongoing.Did Japan offer a conditional surrender? ›
Japan proposed a conditional surrender on August 10, 1945, to the U.S., saying it would do so only if the Emperor could remain the symbolic head of Japan. The U.S. rejected this proposal, demanding an unconditional surrender from Japan. Eventually, Japan accepted defeat.Did Japan immediately surrender after Hiroshima? ›
A: At noon on Aug. 15, days after the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9, Japanese Emperor Hirohito broadcast a surrender message to his people on the radio.What pushed Japan to surrender the war? ›
The Pacific War came to an end with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively. There are many theories about what caused Japan to surrender. According to the 'traditional narrative', the atomic bombs were the cause of the Japanese surrender.When did Japan want to surrender? › Why didn t Japan want to surrender ww2? ›
With defeat imminent, Japan's leaders feared that without the imperial house, the state and their own power would be devalued and diminished in the eyes of the people, and that the state would ultimately disintegrate. Thus for them, the kokutai was always more than a mere slogan for unifying the nation.Why did the US want Japan to surrender unconditionally? ›
President Harry Truman believed unconditional surrender would keep the Soviet Union involved while reassuring American voters and soldiers that their sacrifices in a total war would be compensated by total victory. Disarming enemy militaries was the start; consolidating democracy abroad was the goal.Why did US choose to bomb Hiroshima? ›
Hiroshima was a major port and a military headquarters, and therefore a strategic target. Also, visual bombing, rather than radar, would be used so that photographs of the damage could be taken.What is the alternative if Japan refuses to surrender? ›
We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.
17 July–2 August: Potsdam Conference (Truman, Attlee, Stalin), held in Berlin, Germany; the joint declaration reiterates the call for Japan's unconditional surrender. Specific terms include the loss of all Japanese territories outside the Home Islands, complete disarmament, and Allied occupation of Japan.Did President Truman make the correct decision in using the atomic bomb? ›
Although in later decades there was considerable debate about whether the bombings were ethically justified, virtually all of America's political and military leadership, as well as most of those involved in the atomic bomb project, believed at the time that Truman's decision was correct.Was it wrong for the US to drop the atomic bomb? ›
The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was justified at the time as being moral – in order to bring about a more rapid victory and prevent the deaths of more Americans. However, it was clearly not moral to use this weapon knowing that it would kill civilians and destroy the urban milieu.Why was Nagasaki chosen? ›
The third choice, Nagasaki was a port city located about 100 miles from Kokura. It was larger, with an approximate population of 263,000 people, and some major military facilities, including two Mitsubishi military factories. Nagasaki also was an important port city.How long did it take Japan to agree to surrender after the atomic bombs were dropped? ›
Eight days later, on August 6, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; the second was dropped on August 9 on Nagasaki; on the following day, August 10, Japan declared its intention to surrender, and on August 14 accepted the Potsdam terms.Why did the United States decide to drop the bomb rather than invade Japan with soldiers? ›
Truman was afraid that an invasion of Japan would look like "Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other." Casualty predictions varied, but all were high. The price of invasion would be millions of American dead and wounded. Estimates did not include Japanese casualties.Why did the US bomb Japan instead of invading? ›
It looked increasingly likely that the United States would have to commit itself to a land invasion, which could have claimed many American lives. Instead, the atomic bomb served as a tool to bring the war in the Pacific to a close sooner.