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Did the atom bombs end the war with Japan?

Many historians assert that the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945 forced Emperor Hirohito to surrender – thus saving tens of thousands lives that would have been lost had the war continued for longer. This argument, that has been reiterated time and again, provides a moral justification or rationale for the use of these new weapons to murder civilians.

In the ruined German city  of Potsdam, six thousand miles from occupied Southeast Asia, American President
Truman had something important to tell his Soviet counterpart: ‘On July 24 I
casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive
force. The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he
was glad to hear it and hoped we would make ‘good use of it against the
Japanese.’’ His apparent indifference to the new American weapon was, of course,
a sham.  Stalin had already made plans to
abandon the ‘Neutrality Pact’ signed in 1941 and join the war against Japan. He
had in fact promised to ‘come in’ two years earlier at the Tehran Conference.  At the same time, Soviet diplomats continued
to hold out the possibility that they would help mediate in negotiations to end
the war and save Japanese face. This was the principal reason why the Emperor
was so reluctant to consider unconditional surrender terms. Soviet strategy was
pure Machiavelli. Behind the smoke and mirrors of Potsdam, the United States
and the Soviet Union maneuvered to control events in the Far East for their own
ends. The chronology is revealing. On 6 August, the first atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ exploded
above the city of Hiroshima. On 8 August, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov informed his Japanese counterpart that the Soviet Union declared
war on Japan. The following day, ‘Fat Man’, a more powerful implosion bomb fell
on Nagasaki and Soviet troops commanded by Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky marched
into Japanese occupied Manchuria (Manchukuo) on three fronts. In the United
States, plans were made to assemble and deliver more ‘Fat Man’ weapons to
attack Japan.
Historian TsuyoshiHasegawa has convincingly argued that it was the Soviet intervention that
played the greater role inducing Emperor Hirohito to surrender. Stalin was an
active, indeed aggressive, participant not a secondary player in the drama of
the Japanese surrender. Three months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the
world’s two superpowers were jockeying for position on a global scale. It was
the interlaced shockwaves of the atomic bombs and the Soviet attack persuaded
Emperor Hirohito on 14 August to decide, despite the threat of a coup d’etat by
a ‘war party’, that Japan had run out of options and must capitulate. He
insisted on one condition – that the declaration would acknowledge ‘the
prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign ruler.’ According to Japan’s Meiji
Constitution of 1889, the Emperor was ‘sacred and inviolable’: this principle
of ‘Kokutai’ would have to be respected. Hirohito confided to his uncle Prince
Asaka that if the Allies refused to accept this condition, Japan would have no
choice but to fight on. 
The Emperor’s notorious broadcast made on 15 August was
a slippery and devious acceptance of defeat. The ‘Imperial Rescript’ as it was
called admitted that the war situation had ‘not developed necessarily to
Nippon’s advantage.’ The Emperor defended the war as the expression of a
‘sincere desire to ensure Nippon’s self-preservation and the stabilisation of
East Asia’. As it turned out, the Americans appreciated the political value of
upholding the Emperor’s sovereign status. In Tokyo, the ‘war party’ had been
preparing for a ‘kamikaze’ last ditch defence of the homeland. The Americans
would exploit the Emperor’s semi divine status to enforce compliance.  After 1945, Hirohito would assume the same kind
of role under American occupation that the Japanese had allotted to the last
Chinese emperor Pu Yi when he was appointed ‘ruler’ of the puppet state of Manchukuo
in 1932. 

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