Why did Japan surrender?

Fascinating piece in the Boston Globe about the work of American-based, Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa about what really caused Japan to surrender at the end of WWII.  He argues, persuasively enough to convince many a fellow historian, that the key precipitating event was not the atomic bomb, but rather the Soviet decision to invade Japanese-held Manchuria the day after Hiroshima.  For anybody with any interest in WWII, the whole article is quite interesting, but I found the argument that the atomic bomb was not really all that special, to be the most thought-provoking:

How is it possible that the Japanese leadership did not react more strongly to many tens of thousands of its citizens being obliterated?

One answer is that the Japanese leaders were not greatly troubled by civilian causalities. As the Allies loomed, the Japanese people were instructed to sharpen bamboo sticks and prepare to meet the Marines at the beach.

Yet it was more than callousness. The bomb – horrific as it was – was not as special as Americans have always imagined. In early March, several hundred B-29 Super Fortress bombers dropped incendiary bombs on downtown Tokyo. Some argue that more died in the resulting firestorm than at Hiroshima. People were boiled in the canals. The photos of charred Tokyo and charred Hiroshima are indistinguishable.

In fact, more than 60 of Japan’s cities had been substantially destroyed by the time of the Hiroshima attack, according to a 2007 International Security article by Wilson, who is a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In the three weeks before Hiroshima, Wilson writes, 25 cities were heavily bombed.

To us, then, Hiroshima was unique, and the move to atomic weaponry was a great leap, military and moral. But Hasegawa argues the change was incremental. “Once we had accepted strategic bombing as an acceptable weapon of war, the atomic bomb was a very small step,” he says. To Japan’s leaders, Hiroshima was yet another population center leveled, albeit in a novel way. If they didn’t surrender after Tokyo, they weren’t going to after Hiroshima.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Why did Japan surrender?

  1. Steve Saideman says:

    This is not a new argument. Does not make it wrong, just not the first time I heard it.

    • Steve Greene says:

      The article does mention he’s been talking about this since 2005. Of course most of us here are not scholars of international conflict and miss out on this stuff.

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