This is second post of a two part series on this topic.
Click here for part one.
Did the Japanese offer to surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945? In my first post earlier this week, I gave what we might call the standard diplomatic history answer: no, they didn’t. There were “peace feelers” to the Soviet Union from an important minority of the Japanese government, which is quite interesting and complicates the overly-simple picture of Japanese fanaticism that is often told about their refusal to surrender, but they don’t constitute, in any meaningful sense, a real offer to surrender. And they were certainly not an offer of unconditional surrender.
But what if that 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?
General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito at Allied General Headquarters —a picture deliberately mean to contrast the diminutive Emperor with the American general. Photograph by Gaetano Faillace, via Wikimedia Commons.
I bring this up because my attention was not long ago directed to an article that came out recently in the (respectable) Asia-Pacific Journal that makes the argument that Japan was indeed ready to surrender. Most of it is very much the “standard revisionist” take on the end of the war, with a strong reliance on the postwar critiques of the atomic bomb by high-ranking military figures and a discussion of internal debates about whether unconditional surrender was a good idea or not.1 Overall I didn’t find it to contain much new, and the argument is still not compelling.2
But one part stuck out to me as something I wasn’t familiar with from the normal diplomatic historical literature, in a footnote:
Walter Trohan, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, reported that two days before President Roosevelt left for the Yalta conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in early February 1945, he was shown a forty-page memorandum drafted by General MacArthur outlining a Japanese offer for surrender almost identical with the terms later concluded by President Truman. Trohan related that he was given a copy of this communication by Admiral William Leahy who swore him to secrecy with the pledge not to release the story until the war was over. Trohan honored his pledge and reported his story in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald on August 19, 1945.
Now that is very interesting! But is ittrue? Because if so, this would be a very different situation than the MAGIC intercepts — a real, detailed offer (40 pages!) for surrender,well before the atomic bomb was ready to use (and before the Soviets had committed to entering into the war!), thatRoosevelt had rejected (more grist for the “what did Roosevelt think about nuclear weapons” mill)!One would assume that if this was the case, one would read about it in the many, many, many serious books that have been written on the end of World War II, including by people who have spent a lot of time in both the US and Japanese archives, like Hasegawa, or the hardcore revisionists, who would surely have leapt at such a thing… and yet, from what I can tell, that isn’t the case. The Trohan memorandum (as I’ll call it for brevity) isn’t in Hasegawa, or Alperovitz, or… really anybody serious. So I thought, “what’s up with that?”
Portrait of Walter Trohan, reporter for the Chicago Tribune, in 1964. From the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
So I looked at the linked-to source, an article for the History News Network, where it went into a little more detail:
Walter Trohan, a reporter for theChicago Tribunewith impeccable credentials for integrity and accuracy, reported that two days before President Roosevelt left for the Yalta conference with Churchill and Stalin in early February 1945, he was shown a forty-page memorandum drafted by General MacArthur outlining a Japanese offer for surrender almost identical with the terms subsequently concluded by his successor, President Truman. The single difference was the Japanese insistence on retention of the emperor, which was not acceptable to the American strategists at the time, though it was ultimately allowed in the final peace terms. Trohan relates that he was given a copy of this communication by Admiral Leahy who swore him to secrecy with the pledge not to release the story until the war was over. Trohan honored his pledge and reported his story in theChicago Tribuneand theWashington Times-Heraldon August 19, 1945. According to historian Anthony Kubek, Roosevelt, in the presence of witnesses, read the memorandum and dismissed it with a curt “MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician.”
Specifically, the terms of the Japanese peace offers of late January 1945 were as follows:
- Full surrender of the Japanese forces, air, land and sea, at home and in all occupied countries.
- Surrender of all arms and ammunition.
- Agreement of the Japanese to occupation of their homeland and island possessions.
- Relinquishment of Manchuria, Korea and Formosa.
- Regulation of Japanese industry.
- Surrender of designated war criminals for trial.
- Release of all prisoners.
Other than retention of the emperor these terms were identical to the final surrender terms. Harry Elmer Barnes, in his essay “Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten Foe,” published in the May 10, 1958 issue of theNational Review, tells the same story. Barnes said that the Trohan article was never challenged by the White House or the State Department, and says that after MacArthur returned from Korea in 1951, his neighbor in the Waldorf Towers, former President Hoover, took the Trohan article to General MacArthur and the latter confirmed its accuracy in every detail. The Trohan story was ignored by other news media and almost immediately dropped off the public radar.
So that’s kind of interesting, but also raises some serious concerns. First, the Eisenhower-eraNational Review is not where I would anchor a modern historical claim. Maybe there is something of truth in their pages, but I would bevery careful to support any claims like this with a less-partisan, better-cited source, and one that perhaps enjoyed access to the wealth of research resources now available to us about this topic.
Harry Elmer Barnes, left, and Anthony Kubek, right.
Second, the historians cited to back this up are, to say the least, problematic. Harry Elmer Barnes, for example, according to his Wikipedia entry, came out as a Holocaust denier in his later career (which is to say, only a few years after the National Review article). Even if one wants to make the argument that this particular article is not Holocaust denial, and is before he did that… it’s still a big oof, as the kids say.
As for “historian Anthony Kubek,” he was virulently anti-Communist, anti-Roosevelt, and anti-Truman, who, late in his career, gave at least one talk at an Institute for Historical Review conference and published an article in their journal that railed against the Morgenthau Plan as a Communist plot. The IHR is infamous for being primarily a forum for Holocaust denial. He doesn’t seem to have been an explicit Holocaust denier himself, from what I could tell, but his anti-Communism seems to have been of the sort that seems to have found easy company with anti-Semitic bigots.
So the confluence of “respected historians” who are supposedly backing this story up is… not so good. If anything, their endorsement makes this claim even more suspicious, and says much about the “kinds of circles” this claim is deployed within: far-right critiques of Roosevelt and Truman. Which is a kind of atomic bombing critique that is not very common today, as the politics of the bombings have shifted quite a bit over the years. The irony is not lost on me that the people who are deploying the Trohan allegation today are from the other end of the political spectrum!
(I would just like to note that it is not my goal here to heap scorn on the authors of the quoted pieces, so I have not engaged them by name or anything like that. From what I can tell they seem to be well-intentioned, but they are not well-known names in the fields of diplomatic history or atomic history. I suspect they fell into these claims somewhat unaware of their trickiness or the types of people who originated and supported them.)
Trying to corroborate any aspect of this story sent me down a rabbit hole. What I found was that where this story shows up, in almost identical language to the above, are various “revisionist” accounts. As one might expect from the above, these start as being right-wing revisionist accounts, but switch into left-wing revisionist accounts at some point. None of the places I have seen the Trohan story deployed in this fashion try to actually corroborate it with more evidence, which is a sign of something.
One doesn’t find the Trohan story or the alleged “offer” in it in more careful, academic histories of the end of the war. Even “revisionist” ones. It isn’t even refuted; it’s just not mentioned. There is no sign of the purported 40-page memorandum in the archives, in oral histories, in telegrams, nothing. At least, none that I could find through footnotes, finding aids, and other means at my easy disposal. I sent a draft of this post to a few scholars I respected in this field, and they hadn’t heard of any of this before. It seems relegated only to “fringe” sources. There is only one discussion of this issue in serious historical writing that I could find, which I will discuss in a moment, and it is essentially devoted to contextualizing how the story of the “Trohan memorandum,” as I will call it for brevity, became a talking point of the fringe-right in the 1940s and 1950s.
This does not mean that the “Trohan memorandum” might not be buried in some archival basement somewhere — it’s totally possible, there are lots of “lost files” out there. But one would think that something like this would have been discovered by an archivist or historian at some point, and made some deal of, given that it would play a big role in how we thought about the end of World War II, the atomic bombings, Roosevelt, and Yalta. None of these are exactly “unexamined” subjects. If anything, they have been pored over to a fault by scholars, and the importance of such a document would be obvious to anyone who stumbled across it. Which is for me pretty strong evidence that it isn’t in the archives.
The headline of the Trohan article in the Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1945.
Of course, I could easily look up the only cited source for this information: the front-page article by Chicago Tribune reporter Walter Trohan. It is basically similar to what is reported above, but has some additional details which are interesting. I am putting the entire thing (retyped by myself from the original) into a footnote here, because it would pretty long to just insert into the post directly. (Anyone who receives these posts as e-mails will, unfortunately, be seeing the entire thing right now! Sorry, my footnote plugin does not work with the e-mail plug-in.)3
There are a few things gained from the original article that are missing from its use in “revisionist” accounts. The most important in my mind is that in Trohan’s article, there is an explanation as to why Roosevelt would have rejected the alleged offer at the time: it wasn’t meant to be an official offer from the Japanese Supreme War Council; rather, it was from some kind of “peace party” minority of it. And as such there were fears that if the US pursued this, it would lead to a coup against said “peace party” (and the Emperor) by the dominant militarists. Which is pretty interesting, because it is not so far from what actually happened, of course, when Japan did offer a conditional surrender on August 10th, 1945, and suffered an attempted coup by junior officers. (The US refused the offer then, and the Japanese offered unconditional surrender on August 14th.)
Anyway, all sources of this claim go back to Trohan and Trohan alone. There are some other claims in other, later sources (also unsubstantiated) that the source of this information to Trohan was Admiral Leahy, and that, many years later, Herbert Hoover confronted MacArthur on this article, and that MacArthur said it was essentially accurate (and this claim, again, is hard to substantiate).
The only source I have seen that contextualizes all of the above is Marc Gallichio’sUnconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II (Oxford University Press, 2020). He spends part of chapter 6 discussing how the Trohan article was received (not it origins, which seem mysterious), and how it became pulled into the anti-Truman, anti-Communist, right-wing maw of the late 1940s and early 1950s that essentially saw Communist infiltration of the US as being behind the “loss” of China, the Korean War, and so on. He does a great job of showing how the Trohan memo became a sort of talking point of the anti-Communist Right, including Senate Republicans who were instead lionizing MacArthur (at the expense of Truman). The Trohan memo was just one of many “threads” in a growing conservative conspiracist argument that included, but was not limited to, the argument that the atomic bombs were not needed, and that Roosevelt had deliberately prolonged the war in order to allow the Soviet Union to enter into it.
Gallichio dismisses any reality of the Trohan memo pretty quickly:
The idea that, in January 1945, the emperor authorized his representatives to tell MacArthur that he was willing to have the Americans occupy Japan, liberate Taiwan and Korea, surrender war criminals for trial, regulate Japanese industry, and abandon all prerogatives of the throne was patently ridiculous. Not surprisingly, Trohan’s fantastic story received little attention when it was published amid the celebration of the war’s end. Republication in the Senate hearings gave it second life. In the crisis atmosphere of the Korean War, it quickly became an article of faith among conspiratorially minded critics of Roosevelt. According to this story, by failing to act on MacArthur’s recommendation and adhering stubbornly to unconditional surrender, Roosevelt had prolonged the war and opened northeast Asia to Soviet penetration. No evidence of MacArthur’s supposed report was ever found. That only confirmed critics’ worst fears about the lengths Roosevelt’s men would go to serve the Kremlin’s ends. The story survived for decades as part of the indictment against FDR.4
I find this pretty compelling, on the whole. It doesn’t tell us where the story of the Trohan memo originated, of course. I think itsuspiciously similar to the MAGIC intercept story (discussed in part 1 of this blog post), albeit transposed in time and with many details changed. So it could be a garbled version of the situation at Potsdam, with different people involved. That seems not entirely impossible to me, though it would be a big error on the part of Trohan, and involve him either deliberately fabricating some aspects (e.g., when he learned about it, the 40-page memoranda, etc.), or being duped by someone deliberately spreading misinformation to him. It could also be confused in other ways. For example, the 40-page memoranda might have been an offer prepared by some planners in the US to present to the Japanese (there were Americans working on “conditional” surrender possibilities before and at the Potsdam Conference, which Truman rejected), but the authorship got scrambled.
Another possibility is that it is entirely fabricated. This strikes me as not impossible — journalists do, sometimes, fabricate entire stories out of nothing, and there is something slightly too neat about this account. It might not have been fabricated by Trohan, of course; it could have been fabricated by someone feeding information to Trohan in some way. Remember how the Trohan story was used and understood in the 1940s and 1950s: as an attack on the necessity of the use of the atomic bombs. So it is possible that one of the people who had knowledge of MAGIC, and wanted to argue that the bombs weren’t necessary (Leahy? MacArthur? Eisenhower? Grew?) was behind a disinformation campaign. Stranger things have happened! Given the importance of MacArthur in this story, and his own well-established narcissism and conflicts with Truman, it is not entirely out of hand to wonder if he was himself the fabricator here.
The other option, of course, is that it is real or partially real — maybe there was some kind of “early peace-feeler,” in late January/early February 1945. This doesn’t strike me as at all impossible, either; again, we know the Japanese were interested in such “feelers” a few months later, so why not a bit earlier? The main argument against this is again, that there seems to be zero corroborating evidence of this being the case from either the US or Japanese sides. Which is pretty striking. Separately, from what we know, the “peace party” was not at all organized-enough to do this kind of thing in early 1945. The timeline is wrong, from what we know of what was going on in Japan at the time. I am inclined to go along with Gallichio in calling the sum of this “ridiculous” given the context of what was going on in Japan at the time.
One of the things that Gallichio does well in his chapter about this is show how this idea steadily regulated itself to the fringes of even conservative thought, so that we end up with the “chief spokesmen” of this argument being people who can only find audiences with places like the IHR. The politics of Hiroshima in the 1940s and early 1950s are not quite the politics they would become: it would instead become an article of faith of conservatism that the bombings were justified and necessary. That’s a story for another time, but it is what makes the very odd movement of this story from the far-right fringe to an anti-Hiroshima argument from the left very interesting. It’s kind of easy to see how this happened — an anti-Hiroshima argument is an anti-Hiroshima argument — but I think people on the left would be far more suspicious about using some of this evidence if they realized who had first developed it, why they had done so, and how it got deployed later.
“Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese Government, on board USS Missouri (BB-63), 2 September 1945. Lieutentant General Richard K. Sutherland, U.S. Army, watches from the opposite side of the table. Foreign Ministry representative Toshikazu Kase is assisting Mr. Shigemitsu. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.” Via Wikimedia Commons.
Anyway, I thought this made for an interesting little historical quandary. I try to keep an open mind on these things, though I (obviously) lean much more towards the “it didn’t exist” options than the idea that it did exist. It just doesn’t add up, and the burden of proof is going to be on those who assert it is real, because so much evidence points against it.
Circling back to our original question of whether the Japanese made an offer of surrender prior to the atomic bombings, it is very interesting to note that even if the Trohan article was 100% true, the memorandum it describes still wouldn’t constitute a real “offer to surrender” as most people understand it, because it wasn’t an official offer, and it did not represent the view of the Supreme War Council. All it would be was a more direct and concrete “peace feeler” than what would come later. It would be important to understanding the historical events, to be sure, but it wouldn’t actually change the overall conclusion.
In the end, the answer to the question motivating this series of posts — did the Japanese offer to surrender prior to Hiroshima? — remains a qualified no. There were elements of the Japanese high command that were looking for a diplomatic way out of the war, to be sure, and that does challenge the all-too-common narrative of the “fanatical Japanese” who left Truman et al. “with no choice” other than to use the atomic bombs. But it is not as easy as saying that the US deliberately foreswore credible surrender offers.
- These after-the-fact critiques existed, but need to be contextualized themselves, as well; the generals in question were offended that their conventional efforts were being overshadowed by the atomic bomb, and were concerned with attempts to use the atomic bomb as an excuse to cut conventional military funding. After the onset of the Korean War, they made their peace with the fact that the US was going to fund a nuclear and a conventional military. [↩]
- As an aside, I hate using the term “revisionist” to refer to heterodox historical arguments: it presumes that historical truth has been “settled” and that anything that suggests a new approach or conclusion should be viewed as part of a coordinated political agenda, essentially. This is an infantile way to think about history — and if it were true, there wouldn’t be any need for historians! (Imagine applying this standard to science: “I will never accept the revisionist theory of Isaac Newton, which goes against my beloved Aristotle!”) But I use it here, in scare-quotes, just because in this debate it is a common way to refer to the collection of historical interpretations, which have existed since the 1940s, that argued that the atomic bombs were not necessary to end the war, and were understood as not necessary at the time, but used just to scare the Soviet Union. For more on this, and my thoughts on it, see this older post. There are aspects of the “revisionist” view I find compelling, just as there are aspects of the “orthodox” view I find compelling. It is the work of historians to sort through different evidence, arguments, and interpretations and try to find something like “truth”; this is why I don’t find the blanket categories that helpful. [↩]
- The full article follows:
BARE PEACE BID U.S. REBUFFED 7 MONTHS AGO
BY WALTER TROHAN
Chicago Tribune Press Service
[Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 August 1945, page 1]
Washington, D.C., Aug. 18—Release of censorship restrictions in the United States makes it possible to announce that Japan’s first peace bid was relayed to the White House seven months ago.
Two days before the late President Roosevelt left for the Yalta conference with Prime Minister Churchill and Dictator Stalin, he received a Japanese offer identical with the terms subsequently concluded by his successor, President Truman.
The Jap offer, based on five separate peace overtures, was relayed to the White House by General MacArthur in a 40 page communication. The American commander, who had just returned triumphantly to Bataan, urged negotiations on the basis of the Jap overtures.
All Acting for Emperor
Two of the five Jap overtures were made thru American channels and three thru British channels. All came from responsible Japanese, acting for Emperor Hirohito.
President Roosevelt dismissed the general’s communication, which was studded with solemn references to the Deity, after a casual reading with the remark, “MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician.”
The MacArthur report was not taken to Yalta. It was preserved in the files of the high command, however, and subsequently became the basis of the Truman-Attlee Potsdam declaration calling for surrender of Japan.
News Kept Secret
This Jap peace bid was known to The Tribune soon after the MacArthur communication reached here. It was not published, however, because of The Tribune’s established policy of complete cooperation with the voluntary censorship code.
Now that peace has been concluded on the basis of the terms MacArthur reported, high administration officials prepared to meet expected congressional demands for explanation of the delay. It was considered certain that charges would be hurled from various quarters of congress that the delay cost thousands of American lives and casualties, particularly in such costly offensives as Iwo and Okinawa.
It was explained in high official circles that the bid relayed by MacArthur did not constitute an official offer in the same sense as the final offer, which was presented through Japanese diplomatic channels in Bern and Stockholm for relay to the four major allied powers.
War Lords Feared
No negotiations were begun on the basis of the bid, it was said, because it was feared that if any were undertaken the Jap war lords, who were presumed to be ignorant of the feelers, would visit swift punishment on those making the offer.
It was held possible that the war lords might assassinate the emperor. Officials said Mr. Roosevelt felt that the Japs were not ripe for peace, except for a small group, who were powerless to cope with the war lords, and that peace could not come until the Japs had suffered more.
The offer, as relayed by MacArthur, contemplated surrender of everything but the person of the emperor. Japanese quarters making the offer suggested that the emperor become a puppet in the hands of American forces.
Full Surrender Offered
Jap proposals in the MacArthur communication contemplated:
- Full surrender of Jap forces on sea, in the air, at home, on island possessions, and in occupied countries.
- Surrender of all arms and munitions
- Occupation of the Jap homeland and island possessions by allied troops under American direction.
- Jap relinquishment of Manchuria, Korea, and Formosa, as well as all territory seized during the war.
- Regulation of Jap industry to halt present and future production of implements of war.
- Turning over of Japanese the United States might designate war criminals.
- Release of all prisoners of war and internees in Japan proper and in areas under Japanese control.
- Gallicchio, Unconditional,194-195. [↩]
Tags: 1940s, 1950s, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Japan, Soviet Union, World War II
This entry was postedon Friday, May 6th, 2022 at 12:25 pmand 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 2)," Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, May 6, 2022, accessed August 6, 2023, https://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2022/05/06/did-the-japanese-offer-to-surrender-before-hiroshima-part-2/.
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