History01 Dec 2008 09:09 pm
One of the most controversial questions in any branch of history is whether it was necessary to use the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to force the Japanese Army to surrender in 1945. Some argue that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender already; other argue that, were it not for the bomb, the Japanese would only have surrendered after an unimaginably costly battle for the main island of Honshu that could have cost millions of lives; still others say that atomic bomb may have hastened the Japanese surrender, but that it was a war crime nonetheless.
One of the most interesting contributions to this debate is hidden away in a back issue of an imposing historical journal called The Pacific Historical Review. In the November 1998 issue, a scholar named Sadao Asada contributed something that had been missing from the debate (on the Western side at least): a detailed description of the debates that went on within the Japanese war cabinet immediately before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and during the days between that event and the dropping of a second bomb on Nagasaki three days later. It’s a fascinating record.
Asada’s thesis is that the Japanese cabinet was divided at the time between two factions: a “Peace Party” that recognized the futility of the Japanese imperialist cause and wanted to hasten a speedy end to the war, and a “War Party” that wished to fight to the last man. The Allies had given the “Peace Party” an opening with the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945. At its simplest, the declaration simply said that if the Japanese didn’t surrender, they would face “prompt and utter destruction.” (This was no idle threat: the Japanese may not have known about the atomic bomb, but they did know that the Russian Army, having assisted in the defeat of Nazi Germany, would soon join the war against them.) The fourth point of the declaration made nearly direct reference to the “Peace” and “War” parties in Japan:
The time has come for Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers whose unintelligent calculations have brought the Empire of Japan to the threshold of annihilation, or whether she will follow the path of reason.
Many in the “Peace Party” saw this, and tried pushing it to their advantage. On August 10, they prevailed, and the Emperor of Japan surrendered. Some believe this was caused by the Russian invasion of Chinese Manchuria on that day, while Asada is among those who believe the impetus was provided by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by weaponry that the Japanese could not hope to match. The debate continues.
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