The Japanese Surrender in World War II
Oxford University Press, New York, 2020, 288 pages
Book Review published on: November 20, 2020
In the spring of 1945, Allied military victory was a foregone conclusion. Italy had been defeated, and its new government had joined the Allies. Surrender of Nazi Germany was imminent, and Japan was in a dire situation. The successful U.S. invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in early 1945 had brought the war to the Japanese archipelago. Devastating air raids razed population and industrial centers. Successful Allied submarine and aerial mining campaigns cut Japan’s sea lines of communication resulting in increased shortages of food, fuel, and other resources that left both the Japanese military and Japan’s civilian populace in dire straits. Japan’s defeat seemed inevitable to everyone but Japanese leaders. Marc Gallicchio, professor of history at Villanova University and coauthor of Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945, offers a fresh look at the drama that lay behind the end of the war in the Pacific in Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II.
Gallicchio begins by dispelling the historical narrative that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s demand for unconditional surrender of the Axis was purely for an American audience. Instead, he describes a far more complex strategic environment facing the Allies in spring and summer of 1945. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill attributed Germany’s militaristic aggression to failure to learn its lessons from its defeat in World War I. They believed one cause was that World War I ended in circumstances that allowed Germany to think that it had not been defeated on the battlefield. Unconditional surrender would eliminate any chance that Germany would misinterpret the results of the war this time.
Roosevelt believed a policy of unconditional surrender would assuage Joseph Stalin’s fears of the United States and Great Britain brokering a separate peace agreement with the Axis. Relations between the Soviet Union and its wartime allies had further eroded as Stalin’s designs for a postwar East Europe became evident to the United States and Great Britain.
President Harry S. Truman faced pressure at home from an American populace that had tired of the war and the sacrifices it demanded. With the pending defeat of Nazi Germany expected any day, Americans perceived Japan would quickly follow. Families were pressing their congressional representatives, demanding the demobilization and return of loved ones from overseas. American industry was already making plans to transition to building cars and appliances. Americans were ready to get back to life as they knew it before Pearl Harbor.
Gallicchio describes an equally divided Truman administration on the policy of unconditional surrender. Joseph Grew, undersecretary of state and former ambassador to Japan, supported removing unconditional surrender as a condition to support efforts of peace groups in Japan and to stop potential Soviet expansion in the Pacific. Henry Stimson, secretary of war, favored supporting the peace faction in Japan but was concerned any diplomatic initiatives would be perceived as a sign of weakness and emboldened Japanese militarists. The Navy considered Japan totally defeated and believed any land campaign would result in the loss of thousands of American lives. It favored a naval blockade that would continue pressure on Japan eventually forcing Japan’s surrender. It also believed the policy of unconditional surrender was the only obstacle preventing Japanese militarists from surrendering. Army leaders disagreed in the belief that the proposed naval blockade would lengthen the war while potentially losing the support of the American populace. Furthermore, there was disagreement between the parties regarding the emperor and his role, Allied occupation of Japan, and the treatment of alleged Japanese war criminals.
Japanese leaders watched the growing friction between the Allies and American domestic issues with interest. Realizing Japan’s military defeat was a foregone conclusion, they decided that a peace agreement on Japanese terms would be far better than surrender, and certainly better than unconditional surrender. They decided a war of attrition would strengthen Japan’s bargaining position by lengthening the war and increasing the cost for the Allies. Japan’s Imperial General Headquarters issued a new field manual on 6 June explaining its revised tactical doctrine for allowing American forces to come ashore where they would be decisively engaged before they could secure lodgments. This would negate Americans’ advantage in artillery and naval gunfire while attriting American forces. Japanese leaders further prepared a similar defense of attrition for Kyushu and Honshu through Operation Ketsu-Go. Japanese leadership intensified its propaganda campaign, encouraging armed resistance by Okinawans and Japanese civilians against American forces.
The real value of Gallicchio’s work beyond describing events leading up to Japan’s surrender are the numerous lessons for today. Most notable are two. First, policy makers should avoid unconditional surrender as a condition for conflict termination. Japan was militarily defeated and posed no further threat to the Allies. The policy of unconditional surrender would only lengthen the war by giving Japanese leaders no other viable options than negotiated settlement through a war of attrition.
Second, policy leaders need to be flexible regarding conflict termination. The policy of unconditional surrender served the Roosevelt administration well in gaining domestic and Allied support. It became problematic the closer the Allies came to ending the war.
The unconditional surrender policy has been the subject of debate since the end of the war seventy-five years ago. It is wrapped tight in the use of the atomic bomb and Soviet Union entry into the war in the Pacific. The Pacific War could have dragged on for another couple of years at a tremendous cost for both Allies and Japan. In the end, the Allies revised its requirements for Japan’s surrender.
The strength of Unconditional is Gallicchio’s exhaustive research of events and debate leading up to Japan’s surrender presented in a highly readable style and prose. It is simply hard to put down. This would be a fine complement to Implacable Foes and an excellent addition to the library of any historian or student with an interest on the subject. It is a must for foreign policy makers and military strategists.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas