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Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership
Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership

The Least Abhorrent Choice?

  POSTED ON: Sunday, March 21, 2021 12:00 AM by Shaun Baker


The Least Abhorrent Choice?

 When gaging the morality of the use of atomic weapons to end the Asia Pacific War, one of the things we are obliged to consider is the likely consequences of other options available at the time. We should project their likely efficacy with regard to bringing about timely capitulation with a minimum of casualties in all theaters. Given space limitations, I’ll attempt this with regard to the most likely non-nuclear option, (or rather, the most plausible train of events if Truman had chosen to forgo use of the ‘gadgets’); continuation of conventional operations. I will consider a plausible sequence of events, and consider what the results might have been at several different ‘termini’ or stopping points that could have interrupted that chain. The full chain of events would probably have included Russian entry sometime mid-to-late August of 1945, as Stalin had promised at Potsdam.  It would also likely include continued naval blockades of Asia and Japan, bombing of the home islands, mining of harbors and waterways, eventual invasion of Kyushu early November 1945, and a larger landing on the Kanto Plain, March of 1946.  A question we need to ask, as we speculate as to what might have happened, and attempt reasonable projections, is whether or not the likely consequences at the several possible termini would have been more costly than the strategy that included use of the ‘gadgets’. This speculation and guessing is evaluated through a utilitarian lens, focusing on non-combatant casualties.  The scenario will also include a guess as to the likely prospects of negotiated settlement.  So, on to the speculation!

The situation in July and August of 1945: According to Richard Frank, by this point in the Asia Pacific War, approximately 25 million lives had been lost in all areas of conflict.  Of the 25 million, 6 million were combatant casualties. 19 million were non-combatants. Around 12 million of those deaths occurred in China alone. About 1 to 1.2 million of these non-combatant deaths were Japanese. The ratio of non-combatant casualties was one Japanese non-combatant death for every 17 or 18 allied non-combatants, a large majority of these 17 or 18 were Asians (the Chinese accounting for the lion’s share). By this stage in the war, 8 to 14 thousand non-combatant deaths were occurring each day; 240 to 420 thousand per month. This was an overall increase in rate from previous years of the war. Things were truly coming to an awful climax. (It should be noted here that there are higher estimates. Frank discusses these here).

The most recent amphibious invasions, on Saipan, Iwo, Peleliu, and Okinawa indicated a fantastic will to resist, and showed Japanese military leadership, (in particular army leadership), that they could exact a tremendous toll on allies, even though significantly outnumbered, out-gunned and short of materiel. When not under the illusion that they would win the war, they had good reason to believe they could make the conflict so costly for the allies that they would negotiate cessation with significant concessions.  

In Tokyo, the decision to end the war, or continue, rested with the so called ‘Big Six,’ the ‘Supreme Council for the Direction of the War,’ headed by Admiral Kantaro Suzuki. He was the titular head of the latest of several such cabinets. They rose or fell by favor of the military figures in the cabinets. Only one member had to resign to force the formation of a new cabinet. The Suzuki cabinet had been installed in early April. Suzuki was brought in only after he had agreed to conditions set forth by the army:

  1. Prosecution of the war to the finish. 2. Formation of a cabinet such as to assure the earliest possible unification of the Army and Navy. 3. Prompt execution of measures desired by the Army to assure victory in the decisive battle of the homeland.

These conditions were intended to prevent the Prime Minister from making peace moves. They were given to Admiral Suzuki on 6 April, when he asked for the Army's cooperation in forming the new cabinet. He assented to them. Public statement he made reinforced at least the appearance that he was fully behind the idea of a decisive battle on the home islands. According to custom, any action taken by the War Cabinet must first gain unanimous support from all members. (This inhibitory was a decisive factor in the tragedy that unfolded as the war came to its end.)

This war cabinet was split between a ‘peace’ faction and hard-liners. The hard-liners thought it was best to (and fully intended to) resort to diplomacy only after a decimating and demoralizing blow had been dealt to allied forces as they invaded Southern Kyushu. Peace party individuals differed in their opinions of how best to end the conflict, and under what conditions, but all agreed that the preservation of the kokutai (the imperial system, not merely the ‘imperial person’ or ‘house’) was an essential minimum, (although, we’ll see that even this general statement requires qualification or clarification in light of the actual events. Retention of the ‘system’ meant different things to different people). This split reflected a similar lack of unanimity in the larger cabinet, the Privy Council of elder statesmen, and the various functionaries at the palace. 

ULTRA intercepts during the summer indicated extensive defensive preparations for the Kyushu invasion. The Japanese had guessed, correctly, that this was the spot for invasion. They did not know exactly when it would be undertaken, but were aware that the allies would want to avoid the typhoon season, which typically peaked in September and October. Consequently, work intensified on defensive works and collection of what would eventually be over 10,000 kamikaze craft, in anticipation of an invasion before that time period, but with the probability in mind that it would not occur until November or later. (The planned invasion day, “X Day” was in fact November 1.)  By surrender day, the Japanese had over 900,000 combatants in southern Kyushu, among a perhaps equal number of members of the so-called Civilian Volunteer Corps (all men 15 to 60 year of age and all and women 17 to 40, except for those deemed unfit for service). The allies planned to land around 680,000.

In the interim, a skeptical Supreme Council agreed to allow overtures to Russia, seeking information as to what she would expect in return for mediating negotiations with ‘the Anglo-Americans’ for cessation of hostilities. This was not an offer of surrender, but a probing (at first tentative, but growing in urgency over the course of the two months) of Soviet willingness to play this role. The Soviets themselves had already abrogated the 1941 non-aggression pact, and preparations were well underway for their eventual entry into the conflict, along the Manchurian border.  Additionally, Tokyo was aware of several independently and locally initiated “peace feelers” that had occurred in Europe after the fall of Germany. These moves did not have official sanction. They did not emanate from Tokyo. Each of them petered out due to an inability of the Japanese in question to show they had Tokyo’s sanction. Joseph Grew and others felt they might have been attempts at psychological operations and misdirection similar to those that had occurred in the weeks leading up to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Singapore, the Philippines, and other areas December 7 and 8 of 1941. Silence from Tokyo was telling. All the while, it was clear from MAGIC intercepts that the sanctioned diplomatic effort was via Ambassador Sato in Moscow.

There was a chronic food shortage in Japan and all over the Asia Pacific Theater by this date. There was some concern in Japan’s ruling circles that this would lead to domestic social unrest and communist revolution. By the same token, substantial reserves had been set aside for defensive forces both in Kyushu, and around Tokyo. In any case, priority would be given to feeding Japanese. Asian peoples and allied POWs were already notoriously neglected, and around 100 to 150 thousand allied POWs, both civilian and military, languished in various areas of Asia and Japan, and were being systematically starved to death, many after being used as slave labor, alongside captive Asians. By August many were on the verge of death, and would have perished had the war continued a few more weeks or into November. There were also orders afoot to execute any survivors in the case of invasion, and dispose of the evidence.

Among ongoing operations would be an invasion of Malaya (Operation Zipper) with the intention of recapturing Singapore, slated for Sept. 9. This would be British led.

Projection of likely chain of events: Let’s assume the allies let it be known that they would accept capitulation allowing retention of the emperor as something like a constitutional monarch, with some semblance of the ‘imperial system’ (kokutai) intact. Suppose the terms also allowed no retention of territory obtained through the aggressions of 1931-45. What would the likely reaction have been?

 To estimate, we can look to the situation in Tokyo August 9, during the first of two extraordinary meetings of the Supreme War Council. This occurred three days after the first bomb, and roughly concurrent with the second atomic attack and Russian moves into Manchuria. Even under these intense pressures, three of the big six were insistent that the ‘decisive battle’ be engaged, and these same three very strongly insisted that any negotiation contain four conditions: 1. Retention of the Emperor and the kokutai; 2. No occupation; 3. War crimes trials only held by the Japanese, and 4. Disarmament to be conducted internally, only by the Japanese government. These demands were probably intended to be deliberate poison pills. General Anami was under no illusions that the allies would accept. He wanted the Kyushu invasion. Umezu and Toyoda agreed. Their views were reflective of a significant portion, if not most, of the military. Notes concerning this meeting also report that Anami would not consider letting go of Manchuria as a condition.

During his tenure as Prime Minister, Suzuki voiced support for such a hard line several times. He was known for vacillation even as late as August. By the time of this meeting, especially after word of Nagasaki arrived, he strongly sided with the others. In the end, though, the Emperor made the call. Even after that call had been made, two major theater commanders, one in China, the other in Southeast Asia refused to comply. A less well known fact that reflects the military attitude: Japanese forces fought Russian forces in the Kurils from August 18 to September 1, in direct defiance of the surrender rescript.

It is likely that a similar response would have been forthcoming if the allies made an overture of the nature described, but earlier in the summer. We have good reason to believe this, because, in essence, the Potsdam Declaration left room for this as a reasonable reading. I won’t go into the disagreements and discussions that went into the final wording of that ultimatum, but note that the Japanese players’ own accounts show they were well aware of the Grew and Stimson wing’s influence in the specific wording with regard to ‘unconditional surrender’ to wit:

“We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action.”

And, in another portion we also see room for retention of the Emperor, and perhaps the kokutai, provided those systems were freely chosen by the people, and were such that they respected human rights, and ‘strengthened democratic tendencies’:

“We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners. The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established.”

” The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established, in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people, a peacefully inclined and responsible government.”

Germany was given no such concessions. Japanese leaders noted this. Despite awareness of this opening, the Japanese conspicuously made no moves to offer a counter-proposal, but redoubled their futile efforts to enlist Russia’s ‘good offices.’ Suzuki publically repudiated the Declaration, using a term, ‘mokusatsu’ that translated literally, means ‘kill with silence.’

We also have good reason to believe rejection would have occurred given the series of communications that occurred between Ambassador Sato and Foreign minister Togo in the attempt to wrangle the Russians into a mediator’s role. These occurred in July and early August, before the bombs and Soviet invasion of Manchuria. Sato became exasperated with the stubbornly unrealistic attitude in Tokyo, pleading that unconditional surrender was the only realistic option. During the back and forth, he modified this, saying he meant to include retention, not only of the emperor as constitutional monarch, but of the imperial system, the kokutai, meaning something more robust (and something more troubling from an allied perspective). Togo was very clear that, even upon this reading, such terms would be completely unacceptable.  Looking retroactively, this does not auger well for a quick negotiated end in any case, including our counterfactual.

In the actual world, August 10, after that first of two extraordinary imperial conferences, Tokyo responded to the Potsdam Declaration by clarifying what it wanted viz the emperor. They attempted to establish a reading of the agreement that would not have surrender ‘in any way prejudice the prerogatives of the emperor as a sovereign ruler.’ In other words, they wanted to give him veto power over the occupation authorities. The response, (and a proper yet admirably restrained one, I believe, given the level of culpability that Hirohito had for the 14 years of Japanese depredations):

” From the moment of surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate the surrender terms.”

That is the wording of the Byrnes response sent August 11.  No word would be forthcoming from Tokyo for 5 days. After a second imperial intervention and a coup attempt, the acceptance and Emperor’s rescript finally came August 15.

The total number of days from the Declaration to Tokyo’s acceptance of the conditions on August 15, 1945: 21. These 21 days included use of two atom bombs and initiation of Russian offensive operations. The controversy over the relative impacts of these three events on the Japanese capitulation decision will not be resolved, and very well researched and sourced arguments have been made for the primacy of one or the other or both. The now generally suspect USSBS even claims the Japanese would have capitulated before November 1 and, at the latest, prior to December 31, absent either eventuality. I doubt this is the case, but will assume it is true, for the sake of the argument.   

What we know about the atomic option, which, for purposes of argument, we are taking off the table: The two ‘gadgets’ took about 200 thousand non-combatant lives.

We can surmise how the Russian ‘option’, might have developed by looking at the August 8/9 Manchurian invasion. In Frank’s estimation, the Russians captured somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.6 to 1.7 million Japanese nationals in that relatively short operation. At completion of repatriation, in 1956, 1.2 million had returned. 400 to 500 thousand Japanese nationals never returned. We can reasonably assume many of these died, and many languished in the gulag system. What is more, according to Soviet military archives, 61 thousand of these were Japanese combatants. That leaves somewhere between 340 and 440 thousand non-combatants who were never accounted for due to Soviet operations in Manchuria. This number would have been inflated if operations went on longer than a few days and moved into Hokkaido, via the Kurils.

Absent use of the ‘gadgets’, would the Soviets have entered Manchuria on or about the 8th? Perhaps, but I believe they would have preferred to bolster their positions before launching the operation. If so, it’s more likely that they would have waited another week. The Soviets would enter Manchuria August 15, as Stalin had specifically promised Truman in Potsdam.  Also, let us assume that the Japanese would have received, and responded negatively to, a communique in regard to the status of the Emperor which, in import, gave the essence of Byrne’s reply of August 11. Set the date for this receipt at July 26, the day of the Potsdam Declaration. Set the date for response at a week later, August 2.

More than likely, absent the pressure of Russian intervention or the two bombings, the Big Six would have countered with Anami’s four conditions. Obviously, this would not have been acceptable. War would continue as negotiations (if they were to occur at all) continued. Let us assume that the U.S. and UK forces would have continued blockade, and conventional operations around Japan, in Korea, and in Malaya. The Chinese, too, would be fighting. It seems likely that the confluence of the continued allied operations, famine and eventual Russian moves into Manchuria would have worked to maintain the rate of non-combatant losses noted earlier. Again, the rate, as given by Frank, was between 8 and 14 thousand a day. It is not beyond the realm of the probable that rates would have increased beyond this range once all of these factors ‘kicked in,’ but we’ll work with this range as a conservative base estimate.

Now, assuming that Russian entry alone would have forced surrender, and assuming Soviet forces would have worked their way into position for amphibious operations into Japan proper by mid-September, and that this would have been the precipitating event, we can estimate non-combatant losses for 51 days as falling in a range of between 432 and 714 thousand.

If we take the USSBS date of November 1 as the time of surrender this yields a range of 784 thousand to 1.372 million during the 98 day period.

To make a more conservative estimate, let’s consider the losses as only occurring between the initiation of Russian operations on August 15 and surrender September 15.  That is 31 days, and yields a range of between 248 and 434 thousand.

Now, assuming Operation Downfall had commenced, as seems plausible, and assuming, again conservatively, that it terminated March 1 of 1946 (the projected day of the initiation of the second phase, ‘Coronet’), the figures are as follows:  1.744 to 3.052 million, for 218 days.

This does not include combatant deaths. In the eventuality of invasion of the home island by any combination of American, UK and Soviet forces, the experiences at Saipan, Iwo and Okinawa suggest that over 85% of Japanese combatants would have died, along with allied deaths at a minimum of 31 thousand for the first 30 days in Kyushu alone, according to what is considered a conservative, and, by early August, outdated estimate given to Truman June 18. As we saw above, actual Japanese defensive forces on Kyushu far outstripped figures in that estimate. The numbers involved in Operation Zipper, the British led invasion of Malaya, could have been as grim.

Finally, concurrent with any Soviet involvement, one must take into account what might have occurred in Occupation Zones administered by Russia, not only in Japan proper, but Korea.

All of this bears out the words of Henry Stimson in 1947:

“As I read over what I have written I am aware that much of it, in this year of peace, may have a harsh and unfeeling sound. It would perhaps be possible to say the same things and say them more gently. But I do not think it would be wise. As I look back over the five years of my service as Secretary of War, I see too many stern and heartrending decision to be willing to pretend that war is anything else than what it is. The face of war is the face of death; death is an inevitable part of every order that a wartime leader gives. The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese. No explanation can change that fact and I do not wish to gloss over it. But this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Japanese war. It stopped the fire raids, and the strangling blockade; it ended the ghastly specter of a clash of great land armies.”







Category: Academics