We’ve heard the story many times. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the reason for Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. But what if that explanation is too simple? What if there were other factors in Japan’s decision to surrender?
On August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Due to the constant bombing raids in Japan, communication lines were destroyed all throughout the country so it took a few days for word about the bombing to reach the capital. Once Emperor Hirohito was briefed on the situation, he was deeply troubled.
Japan was holding out hope that the Soviet Union could help them negotiate something less than surrender. Then on August 9, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan dashing hopes for a mediated peace.
After the Soviet declaration of war and after the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the Japanese Supreme Council met to discuss surrender. The Council was deadlocked on the decision to surrender. Emperor Hirohito broke the tie, deciding it was time for Japan to end the war. Japan proposed a conditional surrender on August 10, 1945, to the U.S., saying it would do so only if the Emperor could remain the symbolic head of Japan. The U.S. rejected this proposal, demanding an unconditional surrender from Japan. Eventually, Japan accepted defeat. Emperor Hirohito broadcasted Japan’s surrender over the radio on August 15, blaming the atomic bombings.
An early narrative that emerged after the war was that the atomic bombs were so devastating that Japan had no other choice but to surrender. The atomic bomb was called “the winning weapon,” cementing the notion that nuclear weapons are key to ending wars.
A similar theory posits that the atomic bombings were influential in Japan’s surrender, but for a different reason. There was fear that there could be an uprising resulting in the unseating of the Emperor. The bombings allowed the Emperor to push off the blame of losing the war on these new and unexpected weapons, not on any failure of his own. Similarly, Japan was able to play the victim card by touting how destructive these new bombs were to distract the international community from the crimes against humanity Japan had committed during the war.
But, there’s probably more to the story. There is general agreement that the bombing of Nagasaki did little in the way of changing the hearts and minds of the Japanese military. By blaming their surrender on the atomic bombs, Japan avoided the Soviet Union having a hand in the post-war reconstruction process. Japan was afraid that the Soviet Union might try to push a communist regime onto the country. It was also very convenient for the U.S. that Japan attributed their surrender to the atomic bombings.
Perhaps more importantly, the popular narrative conveniently leaves out the role of the Soviet declaration of war against Japan and its subsequent invasion of Manchuria mere hours before the U.S. bombed Nagasaki. Being hit with another ruinous bomb was nothing new for Japan. While the atomic bombs were something the world had never seen before, Japan proved throughout the war that it was not one to shy away from devastating destruction. What did shock Japan, though, was the Soviet Union’s actions. Japanese soldiers could not fend off the Soviets in the north and a looming U.S. invasion in the south.
Another theory suggests that Japan was actually planning on surrendering, but the U.S. bombed it anyway. This school of thought asserts that Japan was already trying to negotiate with the Soviet Union to mediate a surrender deal between the U.S. and Japan, showing that it was acting in good faith to end the war. But, the U.S. supposedly had another plan in mind. This theory also posits that the U.S. could have achieved a Japanese surrender if it had been more lenient with its demands for unconditional surrender. The main reason Japan would not surrender was that it did not want to get rid of the Emperor, a seemingly non-negotiable term for the U.S.
There are many competing theories about why Japan surrendered. We may never know which one is correct. But, one thing is for sure: if the traditional view that nuclear weapons end wars is incorrect, then it has woven lies deep into the fabric of our history.