“Would the Japanese have surrendered without Hiroshima?” is the question that opens Jonathan Mirsky’s review of Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa.
In some ways, such an opening is unfair to the book. First-hand accounts of Japanese civilian life during World War II have not appeared in English with much frequency, let alone narratives about Japanese civilians literally caught in the crossfire of combat on land. For this reason alone, Descent into Hell should attract the attention of anybody interested in the fighting that took place in the Pacific theater during this conflict. It does not, however, necessarily answer the question of whether or not the Japanese would have surrendered without the atomic bomb.
The connection between Descent into Hell and Hiroshima amounts to this: Mirsky claims that the book suggests Japanese civilians were devoted to the emperor and unwilling to surrender, so only the atomic bomb could have shaken their will to continue the fight. This argument does not seem to recognize the forces that truly led the Japanese government toward surrender in 1945.
In the last year of the war, the Japanese leadership clearly understood that the United States had obtained the upper hand in the Pacific. Japanese objectives had shrunk since the heady days of late 1941. As American forces began to close in on the home islands, the Japanese hoped to preserve their independence and avoid unconditional surrender by bringing the Americans to the negotiating table. The only way to to that was by inflicting heavy losses on the United States and making the war as terrible as possible. The Japanese no longer had a navy to speak of, and they had few trained pilots at their disposal, but they believed their willingness to take and inflict casualties would allow them to eventually demoralize the Americans. In other words, the Japanese leadership did not seem overly concerned about their own losses. And certainly, one part of this calculation held true: in the Pacific, American losses in 1945 rose dramatically. Once the United States became involved in large-scale ground combat in Normandy (June 1944), its casualties began averaging about 16,000 to 19,000 men per month. Large numbers of these casualties were suffered in the Pacific: Leyte (17,000), Luzon (31,000), Iwo Jima (20,000), and Okinawa (46,000). To put these losses in perspective, the first thirty days of the Normandy campaign, which was extremely hard fought by European standards, led to 42,000 casualties. (By way of comparison, it is interesting to note that American casualties in Iraq between 2003 and 2012 amounted to about 36,000.)
If the Americans were appalled by the obstinacy of Japanese resistance, they were still capable of applying enormous military pressure on the home islands. Their submarines continued to wipe out the Japanese merchant fleet, their planes had mined Japanese waters and brought the coastal trade to halt, and their bombers had started to lay waste to Japanese cities. Among other things, Japan was running out of food, and in October 1945, after the war was over, famine was only averted by massive American aid.
Yet the Japanese believed they had additional cards to play. The Soviet Union had remained neutral in the Pacific war, and the Japanese set great store on being able to use the Soviets as an intermediary in talks with the United States. There was even some hope that Japan could foment discord between the United States and the Soviet Union whose alliance had always been somewhat awkward. Such thinking was delusional, but it kept the Japanese leadership hanging tough.
At Yalta (February 1945), the Soviets agreed to join the Pacific war within three months of the conflict ending in Europe. As German resistance collapsed, the Soviets feverishly prepared to launch an invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria. They kept these plans secret, of course, from the Japanese. The Americans, for their part, had tested their first atomic bomb by mid-July and were now keen to end the war before the Soviets became heavily involved in Asia. The problem was that the Japanese showed little sign of wishing to surrender on terms that the Americans were willing to accept. The Americans wrestled with what kind of terms they might be willing to concede to the Japanese to bring them to capitulate, but the lure of a quick, unconditional surrender that would not cost many American lives, proved impossibly attractive. The Americans prepared for an invasion of the home islands, but they also deployed their atomic bombs.
The first atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on August 6, and a second bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9. On the latter date, the Soviets invaded Manchuria. Which of these events convinced the Japanese government to surrender has been at the center of a lively debate. On one side, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, author of Racing the Enemy (2005), has argued that the Soviet declaration of war played the preponderant part in the Japanese decision to capitulate. On the other, scholars like Richard Frank, who is perhaps best known for Downfall (1999), maintain the more traditional view that the atomic bombs brought the Pacific war to an end.
Of course, if one tends toward Hasegawa’s view, then Mirsky’s opening question is irrelevant because the atomic bombs did not really end the war. But even if one does not see eye-to-eye with Hasegawa, Mirsky’s question is still irrelevant. While they might disagree on what prompted Japan to throw in the towel, there is one thing on which all of these historians agree: the feelings of Japanese civilians did not enter into the matter. At the end of the day, it was the Japanese cabinet and emperor that made the decision. As Max Hastings has argued in several of his works about World War II, when it comes to waging armed conflict, authoritarian regimes have this great advantage over democracies: they can exert more coercion against their own people and need not engage in consultation. For that reason, they are capable of extracting more from their populations and suffering losses that more representative forms of government would never countenance. And so it was with the Japanese in August 1945. Read Descent into Hell, and read it for any number of reasons. But it won’t tell you if the atomic bombs were necessary.