Oliver Stone on the Japanese Surrender
Not in this writer’s lifetime has a book challenging the central accepted tenets of U.S. history received so much publicity as Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, now being serialized in reduced form in ten weekly parts on the CBS cable subsidiary Showtime. Search the authors’ names and book title with Google and on YouTube and you will find that almost everyone on the left has either given them a good review, a softball interview, or both. In the uncritical interview category, they have enjoyed the attention of Democracy Now, MSNBC, CNN, RT, C-Span, PBS, and one that goes beyond favorable to fawning on The Young Turks. You can doubtless find more. This positive attention is really quite remarkable considering not only the neo-Stalinist tint of their history, but also the fact that the authors flatly deny a core American historical belief. They assert that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not what caused the Japanese to surrender and to bring World War II to a close.
One can hear a full exposition of that thesis in Showtime’s “Episode 3: The Bomb.” Their central conclusion is that the real reason for the Japanese surrender is that, virtually simultaneous with the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, the Soviet Union broke its neutrality treaty with Japan that had been observed by both parties throughout the war and began a massive attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria. At this point, the Japanese knew that the game was up. A subordinate argument is that the atomic bombs then didn’t even serve a military purpose and that their use was opposed by various key military and political leaders in the U.S. government at the time and later. The contemplated costly invasion of the Japanese mainland would not have been necessary. The main reason the bombs were dropped, per Stone and Kuznick, was as a signal from the militarists in our government to the Soviet Union that we would not hesitate to use this new terror weapon to achieve our military and political objectives. It was, in effect, our firing of the first shot in the Cold War. Still more subordinate is the authors’ claim that if only Franklin Roosevelt’s hugely popular Vice President during his third term of office (1940-44), Henry Wallace, had not been replaced by Harry Truman, those unnecessary and reprehensible bombs would not have been dropped and, furthermore, there would have been no Cold War.
In support of their main conclusion, the authors point out that horrific bombing of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, had been going on for months causing massive civilian casualties. The fact that the Japanese government did not react in any way after the Hiroshima attack shows that they regarded it as simply more of the same, only a bit worse. Only the day after the second bomb was dropped—which also was the day after the Soviet entry into the war—did the Japanese send out a radio message suggesting that they were ready to surrender.
Readers might be surprised to learn that in many respects, Stone and Kuznick are not as far out on a limb as one might think. They are absolutely right that many important military and political leaders within the government disagreed with the decision to drop the bomb. A good collection of their views on the matter can be found on Doug Long’s web site. Furthermore, one can even find reinforcement for their position from the influential libertarian, Lew Rockwell, the editor of the popular LewRockwell.com web site. The following is from his December 7, 2012, interview of World War II scholar, John Denson, entitled “Learning the Historical Truth”:
ROCKWELL: Didn't the U.S. government, Roosevelt, Truman and the rest of these people, want the war to continue as long as possible? I mean, isn't this why they wanted unconditional surrender? They didn't want to end the war. They didn't want to accept the Japanese surrender. They wanted to keep killing and keep spending and terrorizing the world. And also, of course, they were planning to start the Cold War against the Russians. The Russians were not interested in the Cold War. They were, among other questions, were economically prostrate because of Socialism and because of all the deaths in World War II. So aren't these people just blood-thirsty war criminals, FDR and Truman?
Actually, Stone and Kuznick are a good deal more nuanced in their argument. They note correctly that the strongest advocate of the use of the bomb was Secretary of State James Byrnes. The former Senator Byrnes had been hand-picked for the job by his former Senate colleague and admirer Truman, not inherited from Roosevelt like his other main advisers, and therefore had the most influence with him. Byrnes was also the most rigid adherent among Truman’s key advisers to the unconditional surrender demand. Harder liners toward the Soviets like Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew who, ironically, like the unconditional-surrender demand, Truman had inherited from Roosevelt, all counseled a softening of the surrender terms as a means of accelerating the end of the war. Stone and Kuznick, understandably, manage to ease around this latter fact, however.
Mainstream Stone Reinforcement
More important in support of the Stone-Kuznick position on the Japanese surrender than Rockwell and assorted other historical revisionists is the Japanese-American professional historian, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. His widely acclaimed 2005 book, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan might very well be described as the latest word on the subject from the mainstream history community, if not the last. Hasegawa, who reads Russian as well as his native Japanese and adopted English, delved into the archives of the three countries involved to see what was going on from the perspective of the leaders of each. Favorable reviewer Gareth Cook of the Boston Globe, one of many on the Amazon.com page, sums up Hasegawa’s answer to the central question:
What ended World War II?...Tsuyoshi Hasegawa--a highly respected historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara--has marshaled compelling evidence that it was the Soviet entry into the Pacific conflict, not Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that forced Japan's surrender. His interpretation could force a new accounting of the moral meaning of the atomic attack. It also raises provocative questions about nuclear deterrence, a foundation stone of military strategy in the postwar period. And it suggests that we could be headed towards an utterly different understanding of how, and why, the Second World War came to its conclusion.
That certainly does sound authoritative, but is it? A very important reference missing from Hasegawa’s account is J. Robert Moskin’s 1996 book, Mr. Truman’s War: The Final Victories of World War II and the Birth of the Postwar World. As we pick up the Moskin narrative, it is the day after the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki.
At 7:33 A.M. the next day, August 10, in Washington, U.S. monitors picked up a shortwave message from Radio Tokyo addressed to the Swiss and Swedish governments for transmission to the United States, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union. The message said that at the command of His Majesty the Emperor and in the cause of peace, the Japanese government was ready to accept the terms of the joint declaration of July 26 “with the understanding that said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler.”
This was not quite the unconditional surrender that Truman had been demanding. And the Radio Tokyo broadcast was not an official communication of surrender. Truman told [Joint Chiefs Chairman] Admiral [William] Leahy to summon a meeting at 9 A.M. of Secretaries Byrnes, Stimson, and Forrestal. Should he regard this reply, he asked them, when officially received, as acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration? Should the Emperor be allowed to stay in office, or did this “condition” contravene unconditional surrender?
The President faced pressures to accept the Japanese “understanding.” The U.S. Army wanted to use the Emperor’s authority to control the occupation, and the Navy wanted to end the war before the Army could invade Japan. Some highly placed Americans, including Stimson and Grew, wished to keep the Emperor in place in any case. Political leaders were eager for an end before the Soviet army could stake out too large a claim in Manchuria. And everyone wanted to minimize American casualties.
But strong voices also spoke against acceptance. Not only many leaders but the vast majority of the American people wanted retribution and vengeance after the long, bloody, brutal war, and these voters had the power, if they wished, to make politicians who permitted the Emperor to stay pay a high political price at home.
Even before the official version of the Japanese petition was received, Stimson reminded Truman of the old adage that when you punish your dog, you do not stay sour on him all day after the punishment is over if you want “to keep his affection.” It was, he said, the same with the Japanese if you want their cooperation in the long run. Win the war, the elderly Secretary of War advised the President, and then be generous.
Just before noon, Byrnes brought Truman the official communication from the Japanese government; it followed the substance of the radio broadcast. Byrnes also carried a draft reply to the Japanese message.
Truman discussed the Japanese offer with Byrnes while they grabbed a bite of lunch at his desk. Again, he wanted to know: Did the Japanese proviso about the Emperor meet the American requirement for unconditional surrender? He called a cabinet meeting at 2 P.M. to review the Japanese message and the State Department’s proposed reply.
To Stimson it made “good plain horse sense” to accept the Japanese offer. It was to America’s advantage to retain the Emperor. Only the Emperor could insist on the surrender of the Japanese forces in Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia; and the longer the war lasted, the larger part the Russians would play. Leahy also wanted the offer to be accepted, and promptly.
Byrnes strongly opposed this course. He held out for strict unconditional surrender. Why, he asked, accept less than we had demanded at Potsdam before we had the atomic bomb and before the Soviet Union was in the war? “I do not see why we should retreat from our demand from unconditional surrender,” he said. “If any conditions are to be accepted, I want the United States and not Japan to state the conditions.”
Navy Secretary Forrestal came up with a shrewd and simple solution. Accept the offer and declare that it accomplishes what the Potsdam Declaration demanded. Say that the Emperor and the Japanese government will rule subject to the orders of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. This would imply recognition of the Emperor while tending to neutralize American public passions against the Emperor. Truman liked this. It would be close enough to “unconditional.”
That, of course, was not the end of the matter. The Japanese had to agree to these terms which, though leaving the Emperor in place, certainly did prejudice the prerogatives of the emperor as a sovereign ruler. Hasegawa is very good in furnishing us with the deliberations within the Japanese government at that point. Where he falls short is in his interpretation of those deliberations, a major shortcoming that is reflected in my December 29, 2012, email to him:
Dear Professor Hasegawa,
I am currently learning a lot from reading your very detailed Racing with the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. I must say, though, that I am extremely puzzled by the title you have chosen for Chapter 6 and some of your assertions you make in the chapter. "Japan Accepts Unconditional Surrender" reads to me almost like a misprint. Would the title not be more accurate if it read "Japan Accepts Conditional Surrender"? You talk, after all, about the four conditions that many within the Japanese government wanted to attach to the Potsdam Declaration, which were narrowed down to the crucial one, retention of the emperor. To be sure, the U.S. in its response watered the emperor's powers down, or, shall we say, intentionally muddied the waters concerning the emperor's powers and the kokutai, for the surrender to be sufficiently "conditional" for the emperor, himself.
"To the marshals' question of the preservation of the kokutai, the emperor responded that the enemy had guaranteed that the imperial house would be maintained," you write on page 242. That passage makes it very apparent to me that the message that Navy Secretary James Forrestal meant to be conveyed as a way of overcoming U.S. qualms about retaining the emperor as described below was successful where it counted: with the emperor:
Forrestal came up with a shrewd and simple solution: Accept the offer ["with the understanding that said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler."] and declare that it accomplishes what the Potsdam Declaration demanded. Say that the Emperor and the Japanese government will rule subject to the orders of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. This would imply recognition of the emperor while tending to neutralize American public passions against the Emperor. Truman liked this. It would be close enough to 'unconditional.'
J. Robert Moskin, Mr.
Truman's War: The Final Victories of World War II and the Birth of the Postwar
World, p. 313.
The Instrument of Surrender maintains the fiction of unconditional surrender in the second sentence, "We hereby proclaim the unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters and of all Japanese Armed Forces and all Armed Forces under Japanese control wherever situated."
But then in the concluding sentence it takes it back, "The authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the State shall be subject to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate these terms of surrender."
There he is, still on the throne and still ruling, the crucial person who had been missing from the moment that FDR proclaimed "unconditional surrender" as America's unwavering objective right through the Potsdam Declaration.
I can see why the various powers that be might want to keep up the fiction that the Japanese surrender was unconditional. I don't see why anyone committed to writing the truth about history would, though.
Professor Hasegawa has not responded, and I really can’t imagine what he could say. For all his scholarship, he has done nothing to overturn the conclusion reached by Paul Kecskemeti in his 1964 book, Strategic Surrender: The Politics of Victory and Defeat: “The American readiness to spare the Emperor's position alone induced Japan to surrender.” p. 198
Who Came to His Senses?
The general belief in the United States is that the dropping of the A-bombs forced the Japanese, who were long past any hope of anything but abject defeat in the war, to come to their senses and to accept surrender. Stone and Kuznick, and even Hasegawa, would have us believe that it was the Russian entry into the war that made them come to their senses. As we look at how matters unfolded, though, we can only conclude that it was Harry Truman who finally came to his senses.
Hasegawa gives little support to the Stone-Kuznick notion that the A-bomb use was really aimed at the Russians. Truman had little foreign policy experience; his experience was in domestic politics. That was also the primary experience of his chosen top foreign policy adviser, Byrnes. Their view of the situation was little different from that of the general public. They never even gave a second thought to not using the bomb. The military and bureaucratic momentum was all in favor of using it. We had bludgeoned the Germans into unconditional surrender and with this new weapon it would be all that much easier to do it to the Japanese. Byrnes continued with the same mind set—which no doubt reflected that of the average American—even after the Japanese offered their surrender terms. But Truman blinked. Immensely aided by Stimson, Leahy, Grew, and especially Forrestal (who strangely plays the role of the villain in the Stone-Kuznick morality play), he finally came to his senses and made the move that had been the primary stumbling block to bringing the war to a close. He agreed to leave Emperor Hirohito in place.
But the actual truth of what caused the Japanese surrender is even harder for our ruling opinion molders to share with us than is the alternative presented by Oliver Stone. Why should this be so? It means that the real foreign policy experts within the administration, the anti-Communists, the Joseph Grews and the James Forrestals were the wise ones. Had they been listened to, not only would the bombs not have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but very likely there would have been no Communist takeover of North Korea, China, and Vietnam and no Korea and Vietnam Wars. (See “Forrestal Ignored: China Lost to Reds, Korean War Fought.”) Hasegawa does make fleeting mention of the valiant effort of Forrestal, Grew, and Naval Intelligence Director Admiral Ellis Zacharias to end the war early, even referencing “How We Bungled the Japanese Surrender,” but he makes little of it, along the lines of no. 14 in the “Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression.” He puts the blame on the Japanese for failing to grasp the straw being offered them by people without the real power, rather than upon those counseling Truman to maintain the hard unconditional-surrender line. In point of fact, it was these hard liners toward the Japanese—and friends of the Russians—who were dragging out the war in the Pacific, just as they dragged out the war in Europe.
Henry Wallace, the Savior?
Where does this leave Stone’s thesis that his hero Henry Wallace would have been the man to deliver us from the horrors of the atomic bomb. Here’s what reformed Trotskyite Dwight MacDonald has to say about that:
May we conclude that, at least on the question of The Bomb, Henry Wallace has consistently stuck to humanitarian principles? Alas, no. He was, on the contrary, one of the godfathers of The Bomb. Early in the war, Roosevelt created a secret policy group to study the possible use of atomic energy as a military weapon. Its members included [Vannevar] Bush, [James B.] Conant, [George C.] Marshall, Stimson—and Wallace. In June, 1942, this group recommended a vast expansion of the work and the transfer of the bulk of the program to the War Department. This was the birth of the Manhattan Project…
It might be added that, far from feeling any guilt about his part in planning the atomic bomb, Henry seems to regard the whole business as a peculiar triumph of the New Deal. Writing in The New Republic’s commemorative issue on Roosevelt (April 15, 1946), he observed, in the course of an article entitled “He Led the Common Man”:
“Roosevelt was not a scientist, but he had an intuition which made him respond to the suggestions of scientists. The outstanding example, of course, was the way he acted at once on Einstein’s atomic-bomb suggestion in the fall of 1939. It took the highest sort of executive courage to pour more than two billion dollars into an utterly untried project. No President ever had such a remarkable combination of courage and imagination. Without that imaginative courage, America would not today be the world’s greatest democratic nation.” -- Henry Wallace, The Man and the Myth (1947), pp. 84-85
But should we take Wallace, as Stone does, at his later word that as President he would not have actually used the bomb? In the first place, from MacDonald’s splendid little book we also learn that even for an American politician, the gap between Wallace’s words and his actual deeds was enormous. There is a very good chance that as President he would have continued the role he had played for FDR during the war, that of chief vilifier of the enemy. Having for so long painted Hirohito and the Japanese as at least the equivalent in evil of Hitler and the Nazis, and having been an enthusiastic supporter of FDR’s war policies that targeted German and Japanese cities, he is very unlikely to have pulled back from those policies as President.
Furthermore, Hasegawa reminds us that the biggest opponents in the country to a policy that would have made the use of the bombs unnecessary for shortening the war, softer surrender terms for Japan, were the leftists and the liberals. The leader among them in the State Department was the up-and-coming Dean Acheson. In the leftist view, revenge had to be wreaked upon Japan for Pearl Harbor and for their unforgivable alliance with the hated Nazis.
If Wallace had not dropped the bombs, Soviet entry into the war along with U.S. invasion of the main islands of Japan would, indeed, have resulted in the Japanese surrender, but at what a price? We also learn from Hasegawa that Stalin requested that he be allowed to occupy Hokkaido and to share in the occupation of Japan in the fashion of the occupation of Germany. Truman had the good sense to deny those requests. A President as cozy with Stalin as Wallace demonstrably was would no doubt have acceded to them, and both leaders would have been about as generous in victory toward the Japanese emperor as the Bolsheviks were to the czar. Not only would all of Korea have fallen to the Communists, but Hokkaido and quite possibly the rest of Japan would have as well, not to mention what might have happened to Europe.
Now you know the real reason why Stone and his Strelnikov-lookalike co-author Kuznick love Henry Wallace so much.
January 22, 2013
See also “Oliver Stone on James Forrestal.”