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Downfall
Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire

(Richard B. Frank)

The very best book about how World War II ended.

How the war ended and
why it ended that way

Was Hiroshima necessary? What about Nagasaki? Would the invasion of Japan really have cost the lives of a million American soldiers, or were the Japanese eager to give up? And hey, what about those Russians?

People know amazingly little about the Pacific War, compared to the epic conflict between the white nations in Europe. Indeed, the first two weeks of August 1945 loom larger for the Good People than do the four years that preceded them--eight years if you date the war from the invasion of China proper--fourteen years if you consider that it started with Japan's annexation of Manchuria. I've been reading about the events of August 1945 for a decade, and I have to say that the analysis gets better as the years go by. Richard Frank's book is the best yet.

Olympic: First off, Frank gives a good capsule description of Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu planned for November 1, and Ketsu-go, the preparations being made to destroy the American invasion force at the beaches. (Click on the names for my own files on those subjects.) Frank then brings up evidence that during the summer of 1945, the Japanese reinforcement of Kyushu was so fearsome that American planners were beginning to turn against the invasion. By October 15, they now believed, 625,000 troops would be defending Kyushu. On Luzon, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima, the Japanese had shown their willingness to fight almost to the last man, with death tolls running as high as 97 or 98 percent. Meanwhile, they inflicted casualties at the rate of one American for every one or two defenders. To me, that suggests 600,000 Japanese soldiers dead on Kyushu, and upwards of 300,000 Americans killed, wounded, or missing. No wonder Truman wanted the Russians in the war, and no wonder he dropped the atomic bombs.

The Russians are coming! After stringing Japan along for several weeks--the Japanese foolishly hoped that the Soviet Union would broker a negotiated peace with the Allies--the Russians attacked on August 9. So poor were the communications that neither Tokyo nor the Japanese armies on the mainland were aware of how massive the onslaught would be. The battles continued to August 22 in Manchuria--a week after the Japanese surrender--and in Korea the Russians continued to advance until they reached the 38th parallel at the end of the month.

The third object of the Russian attack was Japanese-occupied Sakhalin, and from there an amphibious landing on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. As might be expected, the Japanese fought more ferociously in defense of the homeland than they did for their mainland possessions, and the Russian advance was slow. That resistance, plus an equally stubborn reaction by President Truman, prevented the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold on Hokkaido and thus a voice in the occupation of Japan. On August 22, Stalin halted operations in this area.

Frank estimates that 2.6 million overseas Japanese were captured by the Russians and sent into slave labor. Of this number, about 350,000 died or disappeared into the Gulag--a loss that probably exceeded all of Japan's losses to American air raids in the last year of the war, including the great Tokyo fire-bombing raid and the two atomic attacks.

National suicide: "Even though we may have to eat grass, swallow dirt, and lie in the fields, we shall fight on to the bitter end, ever firm in our faith that we shall find life in death"--so said General Anami, the army minster and one of three (possibly four) hard-liners in the Big Six war cabinet. Given the Japanese requirement for consensus, the military men held veto power over cabinet deliberations. They were backed by officers at all levels of the army and navy: on August 13, Admiral Onishi broke into a government conference to urge: "Let us formulate a plan for certain victory, obtain the Emperor's sanction, and throw ourselves into bringing the plans to realization. If we are prepared to sacrifice 20,000,000 Japanese lives in a special [suicide] effort, victory will be ours!"

Prime Minister Suzuki: "[T]he atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods." Lacking these new incentives, he feared a revolution that would topple the throne.

General Anami, by the way, wasn't just talking the talk. He walked the walk, committing suicide when the government finally agreed to surrender.

The atomic arsenal: Frank believes that "another bomb was not ready anyway" at the end of the war, because George Marshall and Leslie Groves had delayed transport of the core to Tinian, "making it impossible to ready a third bomb until about August 21." (See the third bomb on this site.) "Groves and Marshall took this action because they believed two bombs would move the Japanese to capitulation, concurring with [SecWar] Stimson's policy that [atomic] bombs should be used only to end the war." Elsewhere, Frank says that on August 13, Maj Gen John Hull telephoned an officer at the Manhattan Project on behalf of General Marshall, saying that the chief of staff wanted all future bombs reserved for tactical use in Operation Olympic.

The Manhattan Project officer estimated that seven bombs would be ready by October 31--the day before the projected invasion. Displaying the then-universal ignorance of long-term radioactivity, he advised a 48-hour "safety factor" before American soldiers advanced into areas hit by atomic weapons. (In an earlier report, the same officer had guessed that radioactivity could be lethal out to 3,500 feet from an explosion, but that the ground would be safe just one hour later.)

At noon on August 14 in Washington, President Truman met with the Duke of Windsor and British ambassador John Balfour. He told them that the latest Japanese message indicated no acceptance of the surrender terms, and that (in Balfour's words) "he had no alternative but to order an atomic bomb dropped on Tokyo." It was at 4:05 p.m. local time that he learned that the Japanese had indeed surrendered.

This is an extraordinary book that belongs on the shelf of anyone with an interest in how the Pacific War was concluded, and why. See it at Amazon.com.