Classic Articles: A Different Theory of the Japanese Surrender

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Did the Soviet Union’s actions influence Truman’s decision-making? ~

Brant Guillory, 8 August 2017

Today is the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which is alternately considered both controversial and essential to ending the war.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to hear a talk at the Mershon Center at Ohio State by Dr. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, discussing the impact of the bomb on Japan’s decision to surrender.


I attend[ed] a weekly seminar series at the Mershon Center for Security Studies and Public Policy here at Ohio State University. On some weeks, the seminar coincides with guest speakers. Last week, Dr. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa came to talk, and this is a summary of his narrative. But first, it may be helpful to introduce Dr. Hasegawa by way of his Mershon Center bio:
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa is professor of Modern Russian and Soviet History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His current research interests include the political and social history of the Russian Revolution, focusing on crime and police in Petrograd during the Revolution, March 1917 – March 1918, as well as Soviet military history, collecting materials on V.K. Bliukher. Hasegawa is also studying Russian/Soviet-Japanese relations, especially the Soviet-Japanese War of 1945, Soviet policy toward the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, and the Soviet-Japanese Normalization Talks, 1955-56. Hasegawa has published widely on the Russian and Soviet history, his most major publications being The Northern Territories Dispute and Russo-Japanese Relations. Vol. 1: Between War and Peace, 1967-1985. Vol.2: Neither War Nor Peace, 1985-1998 (UC Berkeley, 1998), Russia and Japan: An unresolved Dilemma between Distant Neighbors, edited with Jonathan Haslam and Andrew Kuchins (UC Berkeley, 1993), and Roshia kakumeika petorogurado no shiminseikatsu [Everyday Life of Petrograd during the Russian Revolution] (Chuokoronsha, 1989). His most recent publication is titled Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Belknap, 2005). Dr. Hasegawa received his PhD from Washington University in 1969.


Following the fall of Germany in May of ’45, the Allies turned their attention to the three-year old Pacific War. To avoid continued American causalities and bring World War II to a close, Truman ordered the nuclear bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Conventional American wisdom is that the atomic bomb brought about the fall of Japan, and few American textbooks challenge this idea. However, a Japanese scholar, Dr. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa of UC-Santa Barbara, has published an new book, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, that re-examines the end of World War II through a new perspective on international diplomacy, and comes to the conclusion that although the atomic bomb was certainly a very important factor in ending World War II, it was not the most important one. In fact, it might have caused the U.S. to prolong the war longer than necessary.

Dr. Hasegawa’s book opens by addressing the inner workings of the Truman administration, a perspective with which Americans are most comfortable. Leading up to the conference in Potsdam, Truman was pulled in several different directions. First, he was fully aware that Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific would ease the burden on the U.S. Tying down Japanese units on mainland China would inhibit their evacuation to assist in the defense of the Japanese homeland. However, Truman was reluctant to encourage Soviet entry into the Pacific theater, wary of the promises made to Stalin by FDR at Yalta, where the Soviets had been promised certain territories, including warm-water ports. These territories would have enlarged the Soviet sphere of influence (and more importantly, introduced Communism) into an ocean thus far dominated by U.S., British, and Dutch interests. Additionally, Truman felt obliged to support FDR’s insistence on an unconditional surrender by the Japanese. However, within his own cabinet, there was support for including in the surrender documents a provision to allow the Japanese to maintain a constitutional monarchy, ensuring the continuation of the imperial line. Such language was even included in the original draft of the Potsdam Declaration, but excised before its eventual release. The inclusion of such language was intended to encourage Japanese moderates to push for a surrender before the eventual invasion of Japan.

Desperate not to be seen as a second Hitler, Stalin was loathe to violate a neutrality pact in the same way that Hitler had when launching Operation Barbarossa.

Shifting gear to Stalin’s Moscow, Dr. Hasegawa focuses on an oft-ignored (by American historians) theater of diplomatic shenanigans. The Soviet Union and Japan had a neutrality pact that pre-dated World War II. The pact was due to expire in April of 1946, but would be automatically extended unless one party notified the other of the intent to void the pact. Communication of that intent was required one full year in advance. Stalin notified the Japanese of the intention to void the pact, but it remained in force until April of 1946. This pact had an extraordinary effect on Stalin. Desperate not to be seen as a second Hitler, Stalin was loathe to violate a neutrality pact in the same way that Hitler had when launching Operation Barbarossa. However, if the U.S. were to invite the Soviet Union into the war, then of course Stalin could not abandon his allies. Stalin expected to receive such an invitation at Potsdam.

In Japan, the government was fractured into parties on either side of the war-peace divide. Those supporting a continuation of the war were determined to defend the Japanese homeland to the last man, in the hopes of bleeding the will to fight out of the Americans and their allies and eventually gain favorable terms for their eventual surrender. The peace party thought that national suicide was a bad idea, and that continuing the fight would only further anger the allies and reduce the likelihood that the imperial system would survive.

Under instructions from the Emperor, Japanese diplomats in Moscow approached the Soviet regime to begin discussing potential terms for a surrender. This contact was opened shortly before Potsdam. The Japanese understood the American demand for an “unconditional surrender” as the end of their imperial system; the goal was to work through Stalin to try preserve the emperor after the surrender.

The Americans intercepted these instructions and were well aware of the ongoing diplomacy in Moscow, but did not overtly tip their hand to the Soviets. Furthermore, it remains unknown if Stalin knew that Truman knew of the negotiations.

At Potsdam, Stalin was expecting to receive an invitation to sign the declaration insisting on Japanese capitulation. Once invited, Stalin would have the pretext for over-riding the neutrality pact with the Japanese. However, no invitation was forthcoming. Once the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Truman was well aware that the Allies did not need the Soviets to enter the war in the Pacific. Truman, in fact, seemed determined to keep Stalin out of the war. Moreover, there are interesting details from behind the scenes at (and before) Potsdam that Dr. Hasegawa has interpreted as having much greater significance than previously recognized.

First, it was known before Potsdam that Japanese hesitation over surrender was motivated primarily by the desire to retain the imperial system. Were the Allies to ensure the continuation of the monarchy, Japan might have agreed to terms on a surrender sooner. In spite of this knowledge, Truman insisted on including the term “unconditional surrender” in the Potsdam Declaration, knowing that the Japanese would reject it. Coupled with military communications indicating the preparations for dropping the A-bomb on Japan had begun before Truman departed for Potsdam, Hasegawa believes it is not unreasonable to conclude that Truman intended for, and expected, the rejection of the Potsdam Declaration, to justify the use of the atomic bomb.

Stalin, having been snubbed at Potsdam (but unaware of U.S. progress in deploying the A-bomb), ordered his military to speed up their preparations for entering the Pacific theater, starting with an invasion of Manchuria. The military resisted this pressure, given the massive amounts of men and material they had to move. However, on the 6th of August, they could no longer afford to wait.

Stalin’s appointment log shows a full day of meetings on the 6th of August. Following the news that Hiroshima had been leveled, Stalin withdrew into seclusion. His appointment log for the 7th shows not a single meeting. On the 8th, however, he sprung back into action, and Soviet invasion of Manchuria began on the 9th, three days ahead of schedule (and the same day as the Nagasaki bomb). Stalin’s eagerness to enter the Pacific theater led the Soviets to break their neutrality pact with Japan, and couch it in terms that left the public believing that the Soviets were invited to join the war. That evening (Moscow time), the American press conference in Washington congratulated the Soviets on entering the war. However, the American (and British) statements were intentionally mute about the “invitation” claimed by the Soviets. Sixty years later, we rarely see this distinction, given that the Allies (U.S., U.S.S.R., U.K.) had made numerous public statements about first defeating Germany and then turning on Japan. Today’s school children see the Soviet entry into the Pacific war as a natural extension of World War II. Today’s school children are also rarely taught about the Japanese-Soviet neutrality pact or the territorial implications of Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific.

Dr. Hasegawa’s conclusion, therefore, is that the threat of Soviet entry into the Pacific theater spurred the Japanese to hasten their surrender more than the atomic bomb did.

Dr. Hasegawa’s conclusion, therefore, is that the threat of Soviet entry into the Pacific theater spurred the Japanese to hasten their surrender more than the atomic bomb did. Japanese fear of territorial loss to the Soviets, and preference for dealing with Truman over Stalin, led to peaceniks in the Japanese government gaining the upper hand. Truman felt obliged to maintain FDR’s staunch position on “unconditional surrender” and expected the A-bomb to force the Japanese to surrender before the Soviets were prepared to enter the war in the Pacific. Therefore, he crafted the Potsdam Declaration such that the Japanese would reject it. The haste with which the Japanese government acted following the Nagasaki bomb was motivated by the Soviet entry into the war – coincidentally on the same day – more than the destruction of another one of their cities.


While this was written 5 years ago, very few of the key issues brought up by Dr Hasegawa have changed since then. What are your opinions on why the Japanese surrendered? Was the atomic bomb the key factor? Or were to Soviets a bigger issue than previously thought?

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