by James L. Abrahamson and Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr.
I. Potsdam Spurned
The documentary record gives only debatable support to the interpretation of the atomic bombs’ critics, and a careful study of the available evidence indicates that, even from the Japanese perspective, the bombs ended the war with the loss of fewer lives than would have been incurred with continued bombing, a naval blockade, and an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Even so, the revisionists’ interpretation of Truman’s action reigned supreme within many university history faculties.
In the 1990s, however, the U.S. government began to release the records of the armed forces’ wartime interception and translation of Japanese radio traffic. These made clear that Japan in the summer of 1945 had no intention of surrendering, at least not on terms that the Allies would accept, and that the leaders of Japan’s armed forces believed they could defeat any Allied invasion of their homeland. Aided by a civil population trained for suicide attacks on American and Commonwealth soldiers, Japan expected either to turn the invaders back on the beaches or impose so many casualties on Allied ground forces that the American public would demand withdrawal and a negotiated settlement. That recent evidence should, but probably will not, end speculation about Truman’s alleged ulterior motives in dropping the bombs.
All that debate has unfortunately obscured the terms previously offered the Japanese by the 26 July 1945 Potsdam Declaration. Despite what Japan’s government told its people, the Allies had pledged that the Japanese would not be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation. Though those guilty of war crimes would be punished, Japan’s disarmed soldiers could return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful land productive lives. So long as Japan did not attempt to rearm, it could rebuild its industries and resume international trade.
The Allies would, however, occupy Japan, although only for the purpose of eliminating its militaristic social order and introducing a new order of peace and justice. To do so, they would strengthen democratic tendencies and the establishment of basic freedoms and fundamental human rights. With the accomplishment of those social and political objectives and the establishment of a responsible, freely elected government, the Allied occupation would be withdrawn.
In the end, however, it was the atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria that forced the Japanese government to accept surrender. Two hundred thousand lives and immense destruction of property might have been avoided had Japan responded positively to the Potsdam Declaration.
The question considered from another angle—the reflection that follows—adds to our understand of why the Potsdam terms were summarily rejected, thereby adding further evidence that Japan had no interest in surrender-unconditional or even something well short of that position.
II. Idealism Reborn
The ancient code of the Samurai was the problem. The Samurai leadership was in control and the code was immutable. The Potsdam Declaration required compromise and a surrender of control by the Samurai, which was totally incompatible with their concept of honor. The only option was death for the Samurai because to surrender was the equivalent of dying under that code. And if the Samurai no longer controlled the nation, it was in a sense the death of the Samurai.
The atomic bombs broke the bonds that fused the national unity under military authority. It allowed the emperor to break free of the yoke of military leadership—or so it seems in retrospect. In the end, the Emperor was liberated from the Samurai warriors who reigned in his name. A new era dawned permitting the ideals of democratic rule, which was made possible by the awful rising sun of nuclear fission.It is an interesting juxtaposition of two very different societies wedded to pure idealism. The warrior code surrendered to democratic rule. The single constant was idealism; one ideal was feudal self-sacrifice to protect the empire, and the other ideal was self-rule by free men—a product of the Western Enlightenment. In the end, the Chrysanthemum Empire of the rising sun was reborn in the rising sun of nuclear warfare. Ancient idealism was reborn in modern form through sacrifice to redeem a failed militarized culture, one that had no place in the modern world. A new rising sun would liberate Japan and usher in the rebirth of the nation in freedom and democracy.
Col. Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr., also is a retired U.S. Military Academy graduate, with thirty years service. He has published four books, including Only the Dead Came Home.