Sunday, February 9, 2020

Did the Atom Bombs Cause Japan to Surrender?

The Japanese Were in No Mood to Surrender

Japanese surrender delegation at Ie Shima
The Japanese peace delegation arrives on Ie Shima on 19 August 1945.
The question of whether Japan was ready to surrender before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima has been around ever since the end of World War II. This didn't even seem debatable at first. It was so obvious at the time that the Japanese were losing and were about to get devastated. This was the accepted viewpoint for many years. However, detailed information that came out long after the war revealed that the Japanese did not see it that way. Not at all.

Not only was Japan not about to surrender when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but the bomb appears not to have been the cause of the Japanese surrender afterward, either. To believe that the Japanese surrendered because of the devastation in Hiroshima reflects a U.S.-centric viewpoint. We dropped the bomb, and then another on Nagasaki, and so that overwhelming demonstration of United States power forced the Japanese surrender. Right?

Well, not so fast. Let’s look at what really happened in the sequence that actually took place. In other words, let's start at the beginning and see how each event changed things.

The atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima
The Hiroshima blast, taken a few minutes after the explosion.
United States Army Air Force B-29 “Enola Gay” dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. This only *began* the Japanese surrender process, it did not *end* it.

The Japanese at the time weren’t sure about the new bombs or what they really meant. There was just a report of a massive bombing raid, but there had been a lot of those. It took some time to figure out that this one was completely different than previous ones.
There was nobody left on the ground to give a reasoned analysis of what had happened and all communications were out, so somebody had to go and learn the facts. The Japanese had no idea about the effects of radiation (neither, really, did anyone else), so they assembled a team to investigate. This team led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the hero of Pearl Harbor (he led the first wave), flew to Hiroshima to report from the scene. He and the others retrieved a metal cylinder full of scientific instruments that the Americans had dropped along with the bomb and observed the devastation from the nearby mountains.

Devastation in Hiroshima following the atomic bomb blast on 6 August 1945
Commander Fuchida flew to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped and found a wasteland of ruins and charred trees.
This was an incredibly hazardous Japanese mission because Hiroshima and the surrounding area was still full of deadly radiation from the atomic bomb. Almost all of this team (aside from Fuchida himself, who somehow showed no ill effects) perished from radiation sickness, some within weeks. Even Fuchida’s report, however, did not decide matters because everything was uncertain. Japan had survived mass bombing raids for many months and this looked like just another one. They did not even know it had only been one bomb.

What the Japanese *did* know for a fact, however, was that the Soviet Union invaded Japanese-occupied territory in Manchuria during the early morning hours of 9 August 1945 (the same day as the Nagasaki atomic bomb, which happened many hours later). This invasion was something that could not be brushed off as “just another bombing.” It appeared unstoppable.

Soviet ground troops in Harbin, China
Soviet troops in Harbin, China, during the 9 August 1945 invasion.
Even after all this, many in the Japanese high command did not want to surrender. After news came of the second nuclear attack on Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion, the Japanese high command - the people that actually decided what to do regardless of “public opinion” or anything like that - took a vote. The vote was evenly split at 3–3, meaning no surrender. Think about that - even after two nuclear attacks and an invasion they could not possibly resist, the Japanese still were not willing to surrender. These were some true bitter-enders. It was not until the next day, 10 August 1945, that Emperor Hirohito did the unthinkable. He stepped in and, in a dramatically unique Imperial intervention into public policy, broke the tie. He commanded his government to accept the Allied surrender proclamation. This had never happened before.

Japanese surrender delegation at Ie Shima
The end of the war is in sight as the Japanese peace delegation is about to touch down on Ie Shima on 19 August 1945.
The military was unhappy with this and struggled to resist even the Emperor’s command. Negotiations within the government dragged on for days. There was even an abortive coup attempt on 14 August 1945. Meanwhile, the Japanese received the one assurance from the Allies that they needed - that the Emperor would remain in place under the Occupation, even if he was powerless. It was not until noon on 15 August 1945 that Emperor Hirohito put the matter to rest with an extraordinary radio address to the nation. This settled matters once and for all. On 19 August 1945, a Japanese peace delegation finally flew to Allied-controlled Ie Shima in a specially painted Mitsubishi G4M-1 “Betty” bomber.

Japanese surrender delegation on board USS Missouri
The Japanese sign the surrender declaration aboard the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.
So, the bottom line is that, no, the Japanese were not ready to surrender before the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. In fact, they were not ready to surrender after the *second *nuclear attack on Nagasaki three days later. It took both of those attacks and the Soviet invasion of Japanese territory to compel the Japanese surrender, which formally occurred aboard the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.


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