It is the 70th anniversary of the first and only military use of the atomic bomb. The established story about the U.S. using the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it was necessary to avoid a planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. The U.S. military had encountered fierce resistance and tens of thousands of casualties during the invasion of the island of Okinawa and were anticipating hundreds of thousands while attacking the mainland. As is often the case, the established story is false. Not long after the Japanese surrender, several high ranking military officers went public with their opinions.
"The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into war. ... The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan." - Adm. Nimitz
"The Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. … I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon." -Dwight D. Eisenhower
"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons... My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children." - Admiral William Leahy
(With a hat-tip to Paul Bibeau at Goblinbooks for the quotations. Really, you should go read his stuff. He's brilliant, pointed, and funny.)
Perhaps you suspect these men of merely distancing themselves from an atrocity after the fact. Let me fill in the story from the perspective of a relatively unknown player in this story, one Ladislas Farago, an operative of the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, Special Warfare Branch, also known as Op-16-W. Farago wrote a history of WW2 espionage titled “Burn After Reading.” It is an interesting survey of the operations of various intelligence and counterintelligence operations before and during that war. The last chapter is what interests me now. Titled “The Surrender of Japan”, it chronicles the efforts of Op-16-W to open a path to a negotiated surrender through diplomatic back channels and psychological warfare.
(Farago is better known as a military historian and author. He wrote “Patton: Ordeal and Triumph”, on which the Patton movie was based, and “The Broken Seal”, which was part of the basis of the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” about Pearl Harbor.)
Farago wrote the “Appeal to Japan” that President Harry Truman read on the radio on May 8, 1945, telling the Japanese that 1) Germany was defeated, 2) that Japan would get no relief from attack until it surrendered, and 3) that surrender did not mean extermination or enslavement. The appeal was based on intelligence gathered by Op-16-Z, the signals intelligence branch that worked alongside Op-16-W.
In December 1944 Op-16-W received a report originating from an asset code named “Shark”, a Turkish diplomat in Tokyo. The substance of the report was that the present Premier of Japan would resign in favor of a confidant of Emperor Hirohito, in order that a “peace party” would have the power to negotiate a surrender. Hirohito was only concerned that he would retain his own position as the symbolic and spiritual leader of the nation. With that concern addressed, he would put the entire weight of his authority behind peace negotiations.
On March 19, 1945, Op-16-W proposed a plan of psychological warfare aimed at high level Japanese officials “in order to accelerate and effect the unconditional surrender of Japan without the necessity of an opposed landing on the Japanese main islands.”
In the meantime, Japan was extending feelers through various channels. Jiri Taguchi, an agent who reported directly to Japanese Foreign Minister Togo, went to Berne, Switzerland and requested a secret meeting with the American diplomat Leland Harrison. The approach was dismissed. Hirohito himself approached the Cardinal of Tokyo to ask the Vatican to act as a go between, and this request was forwarded through the American representative to the Vatican to the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. The State Department waffled on this approach due to political considerations about the Vatican. American signals intelligence units picked up and decrypted communications between Togo and an ambassador, Sato, stationed in Moscow. Togo explicitly asked Sato to ask Stalin to be a go-between in surrender negotiations. Stalin rejected this, and the U.S. couldn’t use the intel because it would have revealed our ability to break Japanese diplomatic codes. Nevertheless, U.S. officials knew that Japan was desperate for a negotiated surrender months before the dropping of the atomic bomb.
In the spring of 1945 Op-16-W made propaganda transmissions that assured Japanese officials that unconditional military surrender did not ultimately mean loss of national sovereignty. The emperor’s position would be assured. There followed an odd conversation over the public airwaves and in the press between Japanese propagandists and American ones, with subtly coded references to negotiation. A Japanese government spokesman, Dr. Isamu Inouye, made a broadcast in April 1945 that included: “Japan would be ready to discuss peace terms provided there were certain changes in the unconditional surrender formula.” On July 24 he was more explicit: “Should the United States show any sincerity of putting into practice what she preaches, as for instance in the Atlantic Charter excepting its punitive clause, the Japanese nation, in fact the Japanese military, would automatically, if not willingly, follow in the stopping of the conflict.”
In the latter half of July 1945 the Office of Naval Intelligence had plans for direct meetings with the Japanese. They were flying the recently captured Japanese ambassador to Germany to the Pacific in preparation for secret meetings. They expected the Japanese surrender by September 1st.
Of course, on August 6, 1945, the bomb dropped. There has been much speculation by historians as to why the U.S. government chose that action over a week of negotiations. Some say that Truman, negotiating with the Soviets in Potsdam, saw it as a move to keep the Soviets cautious. Some argue that U.S. politicians had backed themselves into a corner of unconditional surrender and feared that negotiations would make them look weak. There is a thread of opinion that the U.S. military saw atomic weapons as a determinant of future U.S. power and required a real world test.
Whatever the matrix of motivations, the historical record reveals the standard myth as just that. U.S. military decision makers were not faced with a choice between an invasion and a mushroom cloud.
We should remember this when the politicians of our time present us with a military option that they deem inevitable.