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The Trump Card

The Atomic Bomb and The End of World War II

by Herbert Feis
Princeton, 213 pp., $5.00

Herbert Feis, who comes close to being our official national diplomatic historian, has revised Japan Subdued, his 1961 study of the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Feis has served as Special Consultant to three Secretaries of War; he has had privileged access to important sources, such as the private papers of Averell Harriman, and his books often contain vital information not available to most historians. Those familiar with recently declassified materials on the Hiroshima decision, however, will not find much new in The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. What they will find is a sober but uncertain book by a scholar who has tried to fit new material into old molds, while avoiding serious criticism of the eminent officials he has known.

As early as 1961, Feis concluded, as have most informed observers, that the bombing of Hiroshima was by no means essential. He repeats this conclusion in The Atomic Bomb:

There cannot be a well-grounded dissent from the conclusion reached as early as 1945 by members of the US Strategic Bombing Survey “…that certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

His conclusion is almost word for word the same as it was in 1961, but not quite. Then he felt there could “hardly be” dissent from the view that the bomb was unnecessary; his shift to the unequivocal “there cannot be” illustrates a slight change of opinion. For the most part, however, this book duplicates the old one, although three chapters contain significant additions dealing with the now well-known fact that, in the decision to use the bomb in 1945, the effect on Russia was an important consideration. Precisely “how important” is the remaining issue.

The common ground of both books is a description of the different courses of action open to the United States as Japanese power crumbled in June and July of 1945—as well as an account of how these courses were viewed, from day to day, by American leaders. There were many options. The first was a diplomatic one: Since intercepted Japanese cables showed that the Emperor was actively trying to open a negotiating channel through Moscow, it seemed that a minor face-saving change in the Unconditional Surrender formula could have ended the fighting. The second option was military, but did not involve invasion. The Navy and Air Force felt that a blockade alone, or a blockade combined with conventional bombardment, might have ended the war. The third possibility was to await the Russian Declaration of War, which was expected in early August. With Japan tottering, US Intelligence estimated that the shock of Russia’s shift from neutrality to full-scale war might in itself end the war unconditionally. The fourth course was to test the potency of a specific advance warning of Russia’s intention to declare war. The fifth was to demonstrate the atomic bomb in an unpopulated area. The sixth was a specific advance warning that an atomic bomb existed and would be used unless Japan surrendered. The seventh was use of the weapon on a major urban center. The eighth was a landing on Japanese soil (not a full invasion of Japan, but a shock assault on only the island of Kyushu). The ninth possibility was a full-scale invasion aimed at Tokyo plain in the main Japanese home island.

It should be noted that Feis does not dissent in either version from the conclusion that Japan would certainly have surrendered before the end of 1945, and in all probability before November 1945, without the atomic bomb, without an invasion or even a landing, and without a Soviet declaration of war. This is a view now accepted by most experts. But the dates are crucial, and should be examined carefully. The atomic bombs were used on August 6 and August 9, 1945. As Feis admits, the full invasion of Japan, which might have cost between 500,000 and a million casualties, was not scheduled until the spring of 1946. What was scheduled for November 1945 was a landing on the island of Kyushu, with an estimate of 31,000 initial casualties. Planning for the contingency of a full invasion had to go forward, of course, and statements to the press, both for reasons of morale and to keep pressure on Japan, led the public to expect a long struggle, lasting a year and a half. But as we now know, and as Feis affirms, within the US government it seemed apparent by July 1945 that other courses of action could have ended the war before the spring of 1946. Thus, at most, the atomic bomb can be credited with having made a landing on Kyushu unnecessary.

THE REAL QUESTIONS about the bomb—“a cluster of worrisome queries,” as Feis puts it—were whether there were ways other than the atomic bomb to end the war before the November landing on Kyushu. In retrospect, there undoubtedly were. The Japanese were so badly defeated, both Feis and the Strategic Bombing Survey conclude, that even without exercising the available options, the war could have been ended, as the Bombing Survey put it, “in all probability prior to 1 November 1945.” The recent release of 1945 State Department documents shows this conclusion not only seems likely in retrospect, but seemed so at the time. The Japanese code had been broken early in the war. Until June, 1945, it may have been possible to believe an invasion was inevitable. In the middle of June, however, six members of the Japanese Supreme War Council authorized Foreign Minister Togo to approach the Soviet Union “with a view to terminating the war if possible by September.” At this time the Emperor himself became personally involved in the effort, and a stream of intercepted messages revealed that he was urgently trying to open a negotiating channel through Moscow. During the last days of July, for instance, a message instructed the Japanese Ambassador in Tokyo to arrange a Moscow visit for the Emperor’s personal envoy, Prince Konoye:

The mission…was to ask the Soviet Government to take part in mediation to end the present war and to transmit the complete Japanese case in this respect…Prince Konoe [sic] was especially charged by His Majesty the Emperor to convey to the Soviet Government that it was exclusively the desire of His Majesty to avoid more bloodshed….

This message was given directly to President Truman by the Russians. (The President has confirmed that at the time he also saw it and other key cables in intercepted form.) Although it was impossible to know precisely whether the messages meant what they said, they were significant evidence of the willingness of the “other side” to negotiate. Furthermore they showed that although the Japanese sought assurances that “our form of government” would be preserved, they were prepared to surrender on the basis of the Atlantic Charter. The “difficult point,” as the Japanese Foreign Minister stated in one intercepted cable, was the “formality of unconditional surrender.” 1

Feis reports on these messages in both books without adequately highlighting two crucial facts: President Truman, as the papers of both Acting Secretary of State Grew and Secretary of War Stimson show, had told both men even before the July messages that he had no serious objection to making the alterations in favor of the Japanese Imperial “form of government,” which the messages revealed were the only serious obstacle to surrender. Thus the two governments had by July apparently arrived at a basis for ending the war—and the President knew it. Feis also fails to stress the fact that Truman had several months before a landing to find out if the Japanese position was really as close to his own as the messages suggested. Instead of exploring why the obvious possibilities of this diplomatic option were passed up, Feis emphasizes an issue that is beside the point. Even if the US had altered the “formula of unconditional surrender,” he writes, the change would not have caused the Japanese to surrender before July 1945. On the vital issue of whether this alteration would have caused a surrender before the relatively small November landing, he is vague; and on the publicly debated issue of whether it would have ended the war before the full invasion (in 1946), he is noncommittal. In one of many strange contradictory asides, however, he does conclude that a surrender might have been arranged. Had the US made known its willingness to offer assurances for the Emperor and had both the US and the USSR warned that the Soviet Union would enter the war, Feis writes, an “earlier bid for surrender [might well have been] effective.”

This is a significant observation, but unfortunately Feis obscures it by quickly adding, “it is improbable that the Soviet Government could have been prevailed on to reveal its intentions….” The comment is odd. The Soviet Union had already given public notice of its intention to terminate its neutrality pact with Japan. Throughout May, June, and July, the US had no doubt that Russia intended to attack, and Japanese intelligence, as Stalin himself pointed out, could hardly miss the huge Soviet troop shipments to the Far East and the massing of the Red Army across the Manchurian border. In fact, Secretary of State Stettinius suggested at the time that the Russians be included in the warning to Japan, and, until the last minute, the Soviet Union appeared both in the text and as a signatory of the draft of the Potsdam Proclamation which warned Japan to surrender. At the last minute, the Russians were left out, but it was the US which decided to omit them.2

Even if Feis’s view is correct that the Russians may not have joined in a warning—although this is not suggested in the documents of the time—it is irrelevant. Feis stops his line of inquiry just when it gets interesting. By July 1945 there was little doubt within the US government that Russia would attack Japan in early or mid-August. If a warning and a modest change in the surrender terms “might well” have ended the war, the Russian Declaration of War itself—as US experts advised—would obviously have been much more potent. Could this declaration have ended the war before the atomic bombs were used? Feis knows of the experts’ advice, but does not pursue the issue. Could it have produced surrender before a November landing? Again, Feis is silent. Would it have stopped the fighting before the 1946 invasion? This is not discussed.

Such speculation is not just a matter of hindsight. The atomic bombs could easily have been held off while other courses were attempted. It was known at the time that the Japanese were desperately trying to keep the Russians neutral. US officials knew that when the Red Army marched across the Manchurian border, it would drive home—especially to the Japanese military—that Japan was defeated. Even without a modification in the surrender terms, the Joint Chiefs believed in early May 1945 that the mere threat of Soviet entry might produce surrender; on May 21, 1945, Secretary Stimson advised of the “profound military effect” of the Soviet Declaration; and by early June the War Department Operations Division judged that a Russian Declaration of War would produce unconditional surrender, either alone or when combined with a landing or “imminent threat of a landing.” In mid-June, General Marshall offered this advice directly to the President. By mid-July the Joint Intelligence Committee stated explicitly: “An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat.”

  1. 1

    For these and other intercepted messages, see Department of State, Conference of Berlin, Vols. 1 and 2 (1960).

  2. 2

    In deciding against Soviet participation, the US not only passed up a way to hasten surrender but apparently also helped to prolong the war. Intercepted Japanese cables indicate that the Proclamation issued from the Big Three meeting—but without Stalin’s signature—weakened the surrender drive inside the Japanese government by hinting at the hopeful possibility that Russia might not enter the war.

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