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The Greatest Hoax In American History: Japan’s Alleged Willingness to Surrender During the Final Months of World War II

A staple of Hiroshima Revisionism has been the contention that the government of Japan was prepared to surrender during the summer of 1945, with the sole proviso that its sacred emperor be retained.  President Harry S. Truman and those around him knew this through intercepted Japanese diplomatic messages, the story goes, but refused to extend such an assurance because they wanted the war to continue until atomic bombs became available.  The real purpose of using the bombs was not to defeat an already-defeated Japan, but to give the United States a club to use against the Soviet Union.  Thus Truman purposely slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Japanese, not to mention untold thousands of other Asians and Allied servicemen who would perish as the war needlessly ground on, primarily to gain diplomatic advantage.

One might think that compelling substantiation would be necessary to support such a monstrous charge, but the revisionists have been unable to provide a single example from Japanese sources.  What they have done instead amounts to a variation on the old shell game.  They state in their own prose that the Japanese were trying to surrender without citing any evidence and, to show that Truman was aware of their efforts, cite his diary entry of July 18 referring to a “telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.”  There it is!  The smoking gun!  But it is nothing of the sort.  The message Truman cited did not refer to anything even remotely resembling surrender.  It referred instead to the Japanese foreign office’s attempt (under the suspicious eyes of the military) to persuade the Soviet Union to broker a negotiated peace that would have permitted the Japanese to retain their prewar empire and their imperial system (not just the emperor) intact.  No American president could have accepted such a settlement, as it would have meant abandoning the United States’ most basic war aims.

An exchange I had with two revisionists, Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, is revealing.  In the December 2007 issue of Passport (newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations), I published a short critique of their Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus:  the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Among other things, I accused them of resorting to “semantic jugglery” in falsely equating Truman’s diary reference to “peace” with “surrender,” and pointed out that they had failed to provide “even a wisp of evidence” that Japan was trying to surrender.  In their response, Sherwin and Bird in turn accused me of dismissing a “huge body of distinguished scholarship,” but again failed to include a single example of such evidence.

In particular, Sherwin and Bird berated me for failing to refer to Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan.  “Hasegawa’s research into Soviet and Japanese archives,” they wrote, “is replete with massive new and important ‘wisps’ of evidence about the causes of Japan’s surrender.  It seems telling to us that his work is ignored.”  What Sherwin and Bird apparently did not know, or hoped their readers did not know, was that although Hasegawa agreed with revisionists on a number of issues he explicitly rejected the early surrender thesis.  Indeed, Hasegawa in no uncertain terms wrote that “Without the twin shocks of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war, the Japanese never would have surrendered in August.”  So much for the “massive new and important ‘wisps’ of evidence.”

Undeterred by this fiasco and still unable to produce even a single document from Japanese sources, Bird has continued to peddle the fiction that “peace” meant the same thing as “surrender.”  In a mostly contemptuous review of Sir Max Hastings’ s Retribution:  The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (Washington Post Book World, April 20, 2008), Bird professed to be “appalled by the critical evidence left out.”  In passing he cited what he referred to as Hasegawa’s “widely praised” book again, but only to note the latter’s claim that Soviet entry into the war rather than the atomic bombs caused Japan’s surrender.  There is no mention of the bogus “massive new and important ‘wisps’ of evidence” he and Sherwin earlier had claimed to find in Hasegawa’s work.  Bird castigated Hastings because he “can’t find the space to note that Truman, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and Adm. William D. Leahy, the president’s chief of staff, all reportedly agreed on Aug. 3, 1945—three days before 140,000 civilians were killed in Hiroshima—that Japan was ‘looking for peace.’ ” Readers of this sentence who were unfamiliar with the sources—meaning practically all of them—could be expected to reach the false conclusion that Japan was trying to surrender.

In the last sentence of his review, Bird wrote that “the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain a hot-button issue, something that can make otherwise responsible historian nose-dive into polemics.”  How true!

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