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Researcher: U.S. Atomic Bombs Not Main Cause of Japan’s Surrender

By Bill Schlotter

UCSB historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa

For almost 60 years, the view of many Western historians has been that World War II ended in the blinding flashes of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Compared to such a show of force, these historians said, how could other factors—the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, a confused and divided Japanese leadership—be seen as anything but footnotes
But in his new book, “ Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan,” Tsuyoshi Hasegawa claims the bombs had little effect on a Japanese leadership squabbling over how to end the war with their honor, their monarchy, and their privileged positions intact. It was only when the Soviets, jockeying with the United States for post-war influence in Asia, declared war and invaded Japanese-held Manchuria that Japan’s leaders capitulated to prevent falling under Soviet dominance.
“The Soviet factor has been treated as a side show by traditional history,” said Hasegawa, who is fluent in Japanese, English, and Russian. He studied documents and conducted interviews in Japan, the United States, and Russia in researching this book. “I bring it to center stage. I think the Soviet presence was crucial.”
By August of 1945, Japan’s leaders knew the war was lost, but they split on whether to surrender immediately or hold out in hope of negotiating peace conditions favorable to maintaining the imperial system of government. Both sides in the dispute hoped to petition the Soviet Union to mediate peace with the United States and its allies.
Even before the Soviets abandoned their neutrality pact with Japan in May 1945, they had “lulled the Japanese to sleep,” as Soviet ruler Josef Stalin put it, with assurances of neutral intention. Secretly, the Soviets wanted to join the war in hope of taking Japanese-held lands and becoming the dominant influence in post-war Asia.
The United States feared Soviet ambitions in Asia and was determined to block them. So when the Japanese, hoping for a better deal, rejected unconditional surrender at the end of July, the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. According to Hasegawa, the bomb was intended to force immediate, unconditional surrender. And it was intended to accomplish that before the Soviets could enter the fight.
But the Aug. 6 Hiroshima bomb failed in its mission, Hasegawa said. Japanese leaders continued to argue and to hope for Soviet mediation.
When the Japanese ambassador met with the Soviets in Moscow on Aug. 8, however, he got unexpected news. The Soviets declared war and within one hour invaded Manchuria. Several hours after the invasion, the United States dropped the second atomic bomb on Aug. 9 on Nagasaki. But Japanese authorities remained unswayed.
Despite the destruction visited on Nagasaki, it was the Soviet invasion that got Japanese attention, Hasegawa said. Finally, on Aug. 14, with the Soviets gobbling up Manchuria and fear of falling under the influence of the Communists high, Japan tendered its unconditional surrender.
“I think the use of the atomic bomb is an issue that still bothers the American conscience,” Hasegawa said. “We want to believe that they directly resulted in Japan’s surrender,” he said. “But if you look at the decision-making process, they didn’t.”
Hasegawa said the Japanese should have exited the war by accepting the Potsdam ultimatum, and Emperor Hirohito should have abdicated after the war. “After all, the war was fought in his name,” Hasegawa said.
Hasegawa said he expects to take some criticism of his own for his assertions.