Why did Japan surrender?

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Why did Japan surrender 66 years ago? Well, US forces gave them a whole host of reasons — with a couple atomic cherries on top:

After years of grueling battle, fighting island to island across the Pacific, Japan’s Navy and Air Force were all but destroyed. The production of materiel was faltering, completely overmatched by American industry, and the Japanese people were starving. A full-scale invasion of Japan itself would mean hundreds of thousands of dead GIs, and, still, the Japanese leadership refused to surrender.

But in early August 66 years ago, America unveiled a terrifying new weapon, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a matter of days, the Japanese submitted, bringing the fighting, finally, to a close.

On Aug. 6, the United States marks the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing’s mixed legacy. The leader of our democracy purposefully executed civilians on a mass scale. Yet the bombing also ended the deadliest conflict in human history.

UC Santa Barbara’s Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues that it was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria that forced Japan’s surrender. Like Steve Sailer, I assumed it was a combination of atomic bombings, fire bombings, Soviet invasion, naval blockade, etc. They had every reason to surrender; what their leadership needed was a face-saving way to surrender:

The Japanese were nuts in WWII. The rulers had largely risen up through a system in which the non-nuts were assassinated, so their grip on reality was shaky. Their strategic planning boiled down to asserting that the bravery of Japanese soldiers would make Japan win in the end.

Imperial Japan was truly, truly foreign. Here’s their end-game:

The Japanese could still inflict heavy casualties on any invader, and they hoped to convince the Soviet Union, still neutral in the Asian theater, to mediate a settlement with the Americans. Stalin, they calculated, might negotiate more favorable terms in exchange for territory in Asia. It was a long shot, but it made strategic sense.

Sailer disagrees that it made strategic sense:

As opposed to Stalin just taking Japanese-held territory in northeast Asia with the world’s strongest army? The Japanese had been beaten bad up in the Manchuria-Mongolia-Russia border region by Gen. Zhukov way back in August 1939, and six years later, there was no evidence that a second Soviet-Japanese war would be less of a drubbing. So, what was in it for Stalin to step in on the side of Japan?

The Japanese high command was living in cloud-cuckoo land. And why, exactly, would you want to get Stalin involved in a war you are losing? In contrast, during the last weeks of the war in Europe, everybody in Germany with half-a-brain (e.g., Werner von Braun) had been climbing in their Mercedes and driving west as fast as they could to surrender to Americans or Brits rather than to the Soviets.

How is it possible that the Japanese leadership did not react more strongly to many tens of thousands of its citizens being obliterated? Gareth Cook summarizes Hasegawa’s point of view:

One answer is that the Japanese leaders were not greatly troubled by civilian causalities. As the Allies loomed, the Japanese people were instructed to sharpen bamboo sticks and prepare to meet the Marines at the beach.

Yet it was more than callousness. The bomb — horrific as it was — was not as special as Americans have always imagined. In early March, several hundred B-29 Super Fortress bombers dropped incendiary bombs on downtown Tokyo. Some argue that more died in the resulting firestorm than at Hiroshima. People were boiled in the canals. The photos of charred Tokyo and charred Hiroshima are indistinguishable.

In fact, more than 60 of Japan’s cities had been substantially destroyed by the time of the Hiroshima attack, according to a 2007 International Security article by Wilson, who is a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In the three weeks before Hiroshima, Wilson writes, 25 cities were heavily bombed.

To us, then, Hiroshima was unique, and the move to atomic weaponry was a great leap, military and moral. But Hasegawa argues the change was incremental. “Once we had accepted strategic bombing as an acceptable weapon of war, the atomic bomb was a very small step,” he says. To Japan’s leaders, Hiroshima was yet another population center leveled, albeit in a novel way. If they didn’t surrender after Tokyo, they weren’t going to after Hiroshima.

That really misses the point. The point is not that an atomic bomb demolishes a city more thoroughly than thousands of conventional bombs; it’s that one bomb carried by one bomber can do the work of thousands of bombs carried by hundreds of bombers.

As Sailer puts it, it was not the Hiroshima bomb but the Nagasaki bomb that demonstrated that the U.S. could now vaporize cities at will, because Nagasaki convinced them that we didn’t have just one atomic bomb.

As a patient, logistics-oriented type, I would’ve let the blockade do its job quite a while longer.


  1. Buckethead says:

    Given the success the US Navy had had essentially destroying Japan’s merchant fleet, prolonging the war would have had hit the Japanese population even harder than just the continued destruction of cities. Without shipping, no food could be imported — and I remember reading that there were estimates that upwards of 5 million Japanese would have starved if the war had continued into ’46, on top of any military casualties from bombing raids or an invasion of the home islands.

    You’ve hit it, too, on the atom bomb thing. The key advantage of the atom bomb is not its destructive power per se, but its logistical effectiveness. A three-bomber raid is much easier and cheaper to mount than a thousand-bomber raid.

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    And even when they did surrender it was all wishy washy, from Wikipedia:

    The termination of the war speech made no direct reference to a surrender of Japan. This created confusion in the minds of many listeners who were not sure if Japan had surrendered or if Hirohito was exhorting them to resist the enemy invasion.

    Many elements of the Japanese military were extremely opposed to the idea that Hirohito was going to end the war, as they believed that this was dishonourable. Consequently, as many as one thousand officers attempted to raid the Imperial palace on the evening of August 14, to destroy the recording. The recording was successfully smuggled out of the palace in a laundry basket of women’s underwear and broadcast the following day, although another attempt was made to stop it from being played at the radio station.

    In fact the announcement put a humanitarian spin on the whole thing:

    Should we continue fighting in the war, it would cause not only the complete Annihilation of our nation, but also the destruction of the human civilization. With this in mind, how should I save billions of our subjects and their posterity, and atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why I ordered the Imperial Government to accept the Joint Declaration.

    People don’t know that a third device was en route to Japan, they were a month away from losing another city, it was high noon:

    Then I got a phone call from General Curtis LeMay [chief of staff of the strategic air forces in the Pacific]. He said, “You got another one of those damn things?” I said, “Yessir.” He said, “Where is it?” I said, “Over in Utah.” He said, “Get it out here. You and your crew are going to fly it.” I said, “Yessir.” I sent word back and the crew loaded it on an airplane and we headed back to bring it right on out to Trinian and when they got it to California debarkation point, the war was over.

    That’s from a Paul Tibbets [the B-29 pilot] interview back in 2007.

  3. I’d agree the cause was a combination of factors. The combination of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki which demonstrated 1) that we had more that one bomb and 2) that we had the gumption to use it, the prospect of Russian occupation troops, and fear of a socialist revolt among the Japanese people drove the (slightly) more reasonable faction, backed by Hirohito, to turn to the Americans because there was some prospect of maintaining part of the Meiji institutions under American occupation and none under Russian occupation. After the Tokyo firebombing, Hirohito was being driven through the streets and he sensed a subdued revolutionary mood among the “dehoused” residents. This prospect of popular revolt may have been a figment of Hirohito and his entourage’s imagination but it spurred them on to come to terms with the Americans.

    Even then some ubiquitous crazy junior officers of the Japanese Army launched a coup attempt to stop the Emperor’s surrender message from being broadcast. They stormed the imperial palace, killed the general commanding the imperial guard, ransacked the imperial palace looking for the vinyl record of the surrender message that Hirohito had already recorded, and almost assassinated the prime minister. Though some of the senior generals of the Army had given these officers mixed signals upon whether they’d support a coup or not, in the end enough senior leaders decided to follow Hirohito’s order that the coup collapsed and the surrender message was transmitted to the Japanese nation and armed forces.

  4. Todd says:

    Indeed, a prolonged blockade could have avoided the whole thing eventually. Or it would have been nice if we’d shipped them a can of film of the May 1945 Trinity test.

    Great Netflix movie: Trinity and Beyond.

    Guess before you get to the end: how many nuclear tests did the US explode in the Pacific? The number is unbelievable.

  5. Buckethead says:

    I don’t know how many times we nuked the Pacific, but we really hated Nevada a lot more than the Japanese. We nuked them something over 900 times.

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