t_h_s t_h_s t_h_s
ths ths


Joseph S. Lucas and Donald A. Yerxa, Editors
Randall J. Stephens, Associate Editor
Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

January/February 2006

Volume VII, Number 3

Racing the Enemy: A Critical Look

Michael Kort

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Harvard University press, 2005) has received a great deal of favorable press since its publication last year. Reviewers in leading newspapers have called it “brilliant and definitive,” “a landmark book,” “the definitive analysis” of the American decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan, etc. Hasegawa’s extensive use of Japanese and Russian sources has added to the book’s luster. His multilingual source base is what presumably gives his book the vital “international context” allegedly missing from earlier volumes on the American use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender that finally put an end to World War II.

Racing the Enemy is an opportune arrival for the increasingly beleaguered critics of the American use of atomic weapons against Japan, who, in the historians’ debate over the bomb, usually have been classified as “revisionists” (as opposed to “orthodox” or “traditional” historians who have evaluated the atomic bomb decision as necessary to end the war). As made by Gar Alperovitz more than forty years ago, the original revisionist argument maintained that the atomic bomb was used primarily to intimidate the Soviet Union in order to gain the upper hand in Eastern Europe and to keep Moscow out of the war in the Far East. While the whole cloth of this “atomic diplomacy” thesis was too extreme for most revisionists, they wove bits and pieces of it into their own critiques of the bombing of Hiroshima. 

Revisionism’s heyday lasted until the 1990s. Then the historiographical ground began to shift. A new body of scholarly work emerged, often based on hitherto unavailable documents, which countered revisionist arguments that the atomic bomb was primarily a diplomatic weapon in 1945, that Japan would have surrendered prior to the planned U.S. invasion had the bomb not been used, and that projected casualty figures for the anticipated invasion of Japan were far lower than those cited by supporters of the decision to use the bomb. The scholars producing these books and articles provided powerful support for Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. Thus Edward Drea’s MacArthur’s Ultra: Codebreaking and the War against Japan (1992) chronicled how Allied intelligence tracked the Japanese military buildup on the southernmost home island of Kyushu in the months prior to Hiroshima, a buildup that demonstrated Tokyo’s intent to fight to the bitter end and rendered all “low” casualty estimates dating from the spring and early summer of 1945––the estimates relied upon by revisionist historians––obsolete and irrelevant months before American soldiers were scheduled to land in Japan. In 1995 Robert P. Newman’s Truman and the Hiroshima Cult demolished the credibility of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey’s claim that Japan would have surrendered in the fall of 1945 absent both the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war, while Robert James Maddox’s Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later effectively dismantled what was left of the “atomic diplomacy” thesis. Two years later, in “Casualty Projections for the U.S. Invasion of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications” (The Journal of Military History, July 1997), D. M. Giangreco conclusively documented the existence of enormous casualty projections, some of which undeniably reached Truman and his top advisors. The next year, in “The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender––A Reconsideration” (Pacific Historical Review, November 1998), Sadao Asada, relying on a thorough review of Japanese-language sources, exposed as untenable the contention that Japan was prepared to surrender before Hiroshima or that a modification of the Potsdam Declaration guaranteeing the status of the emperor would have produced a Japanese surrender. 

These and other works culminated in Richard B. Frank’s Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, published in 1999. Frank brought together the evidence already mentioned and a great deal more, including crucial Japanese-language sources, leaving virtually every aspect of the revisionist case in tatters. It was not long before Downfall gained widespread recognition as the definitive work on the subject. Against this background, the cancellation of the Smithsonian Institution’s proposed exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which relied almost exclusively on revisionist scholarship, was only the most publicized setback suffered by proponents of the revisionist case during the 1990s. 

Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy runs counter to this scholarly current.  Racing the Enemy, however, is not all good news for revisionists. Hasegawa rejects some parts of the revisionist case, including the critically important thesis that Japan could have been induced to surrender prior to the events of August 6-9, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan (August 8). Instead, Hasegawa attempts to resuscitate the revisionist critique of Truman by arguing that the United States wanted to use the atomic bomb against Japan prior to the Soviet entry into the war in order to thwart Moscow’s ambitions in the Far East. This in turn created a race to use the bomb and get Tokyo to surrender before the Soviets declared war on the beleaguered empire. That race, of course, was lost, for although Hiroshima preceded the Soviet entry into the Pacific War, the Japanese surrender did not. Beyond that, Hasegawa argues, Japan surrendered not because of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but because of the Soviet declaration of war that took place between those two dreadful nuclear explosions. 

Despite Hasegawa’s sources in three languages, his evidence does not back up his claims. Furthermore, at times his methodology is faulty. In particular, Hasegawa at key points in his narrative takes excessive liberty in interpreting his sources.

It certainly is true, as Hasegawa points out, that Truman and his advisors wanted to get the bomb ready and to use it against Japan as soon as possible. After all, as leaders of a democratic and war-weary country, they were in a great hurry to end the war. Both General George Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson were deeply worried about the state of public and military morale. Hasegawa transforms that well documented concern into a race to keep the Soviet Union out of the Pacific War, with the key planning in that race being done at Potsdam. But the American (and Anglo-American) discussions at Potsdam regarding their difficult communist ally were not about keeping the Soviets out of the Pacific War. They were about the postwar price the U.S. would have to pay to get the Soviets into the war, and the problem was that Stalin’s price was turning out to be too high. That is why after he received the report from General Leslie Groves about the successful atomic bomb test, Truman had Stimson ask Marshall if the American military could do without the Soviets. (Marshall’s response was that the Soviets were in a position to take what they wanted in the Far East, with or without a declaration of war.) The president wanted Soviet military help, but he did not want to pay Stalin’s rising price. For example, as Maddox points out in Weapons for Victory, Truman’s intent to have the Soviets enter the Pacific War is demonstrated by what he wrote to his wife on July 18 (“I’ve gotten what I came for––Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it”). 

At times, Hasegawa attempts to create his American race against the Soviet entry into the war by implying that something is in a document (or documents) when in fact it isn’t. On page 141, for example, he focuses on the Truman-Churchill discussion of July 18 regarding if and when to tell Stalin about the successful A-bomb test. Hasegawa writes: “The danger was that if they told Stalin about the bomb, it might trigger immediate Soviet entry into the war.” Yet none of the sources Hasegawa cites even remotely suggests such a concern. In making his point, Hasegawa correctly quotes Churchill: “It is quite clear that the United States does not at the present time desire Russian participation in the war against Japan.” This statement comes from page 639 of Triumph and Tragedywhere Churchill quotes what he wrote in a “Minute” dated July 23, 1945. A review of the actual “Minute” to Anthony Eden (which Hasegawa does not cite and therefore presumably did not consult) reveals something interesting, and crucial. The basis of Churchill’s judgment was Secretary of State James Byrnes, who had told Churchill he hoped that Chinese foreign minister T.V. Soong would not “give way on any point to the Russians.” Yet, as Maddox points out in Weapons for Victory, Byrnes’s “musings” during the course of a few days in July about keeping Russia out of the war “were not translated into policy.” Instead, on July 28 Truman pointedly instructed Byrnes to tell the Chinese that discussions with the Soviets should resume as soon as possible “in the hope of reaching agreement.” 

The same problem arises on page 150, where Hasegawa writes that Truman was “delighted to know that the atomic bomb would be available for use before the Soviets joined the war.” The relevant footnote cites three contemporary sources: a cable from George L. Harrison (Stimson’s assistant) to Stimson, July 21, 1945; Stimson’s July 22 diary entry; and a notation in Foreign Relations of the United States, Potsdam, 2: 1373. None of them refers to dropping the atomic bomb before the Soviets enter the war. Stimson does say that Truman was “intensely pleased with the accelerated timetable,” but that was to be expected, given the long-established American objective of ending the war as soon as possible.

The spuriousness of the “Truman did not want the Soviets to enter the war” thesis emerges even more clearly when one considers Truman’s reaction to Stalin’s demand (through Foreign Minister Molotov on July 29) that the Soviets receive a formal request to enter the Pacific War. Lisle Rose’s Dubious Victory provides an excellent analysis of this incident. As Rose correctly points out, “Here, in fact, was the perfect opportunity for the Americans to tell the Russians that they were no longer needed or wanted.” Of course, the Americans did no such thing; rather, on July 31, Truman, in a draft letter prepared for Stalin, insisted that Moscow already had pledged to enter the war and that the time had come to honor that pledge. This does not sound like a president trying to delay the Soviet entry into the war. 

What is strange about all of this is that Hasegawa explicitly debunks revisionist historians who argue that the U.S. pressured the Chinese “to hang tough in order to prevent the Soviets from entering the war” (174). How Hasegawa can write this and still say we were racing the Russians in our use of the bomb is a mystery. It appears the right hand does not know what the left one is doing. More evidence on this point comes from Maddox, who writes that on August 9 Truman told aides he went to Potsdam to get the Soviets into the war. The president then added that the Hiroshima bombing had pushed the Soviets to get into the war earlier and, as Maddox puts it, Truman then “gave no indication this move displeased him.” 

Indeed, it did not displease him, as is incontrovertibly clear when one looks closely at Truman’s brief press conference that day, where he announced the Soviet entry into the Pacific War.  According to Hasegawa, Truman began the press conference “with a smile on his face” but “quickly assumed a solemn expression.” He then spoke four sentences and added, “That’s all.”  Hasegawa comments, “This terse statement reveals the profound disappointment Truman must felt over the news” (193). But does it? Hasegawa’s sources include the New York Times and Washington Post. Here is how Felix Belair, Jr., of the New York Times reported it. The president, who was holding his first news conference in more than a month, was seated at his desk “with one leg carelessly over the arm of his chair.” He gave no hint of the “importance of the information he was about to impart.” Truman then stood up and made his announcement:

His concluding words, “That is all,” were all but drowned out by the scramble of news and radio reporters for the nearest exit to rush to their telephones. Mr. Truman and White House officials present rocked with laughter at the sensation his “simple announcement” had precipitated.
All of this is extremely unlikely behavior for a president who was suffering “profound disappointment.” The same can be said for the aides, who would be most unlikely to “rock with laughter,” in public no less, if their president were upset about what he just had announced.

To be sure, Edward T. Folliard of the Washington Post reported that Truman, who had previously been smiling, “assumed a solemn expression” when he stood up to make his announcement. Is that surprising? How would it look for a president to be smiling when he announces a country, any country, is going to war? But what is most interesting about Folliard’s coverage is that he included a detailed description––fully three paragraphs, with direct quotations––of the draft letter (Folliard calls it a memorandum) Truman handed to Stalin on July 31 at Potsdam that in effect told the Soviets the time had come for them to enter the Pacific War. Hasegawa does not mention that part of Folliard’s article. 

Nor are these the only contemporary accounts regarding Truman’s attitude toward the Soviet entry into the Pacific War. Ernest Vaccaro, a New York Times reporter who accompanied Truman back and forth across the Atlantic aboard the cruiser Augusta when the president went to the Potsdam Conference, reported on August 9 that Truman had “repeatedly told newsmen” en route to Europe that his main concern was to end the Pacific War with the minimum cost in American lives. According to the president’s reasoning, a Soviet declaration of war might save “hundreds of thousands of Americans from injury or death.” And what did the president think after Potsdam? According to Vaccaro, “The results were evident in his demeanor . . . . He could not confide in reporters but his pleasure was evident.” That pleasure, Vaccaro suggested in his article, may have been the reason “Mr. Truman personally announced the war declaration at a news conference today.” 

Meanwhile, upon hearing about the Soviet entry into the war, General Marshall on August 8 sent a personal message to Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, which reads as follows: “My congratulations and thanks to you for your great part in bringing about the events of the day.”  It is inconceivable that General Marshall would have sent this message had the “events of the day” not been in accord with the president’s wishes. 

In the end the whole “racing Moscow” thesis rests on the assumption that Truman and his advisors were sure, or at least very confident, that one or two bombs would do the trick. Otherwise, from Hasegawa’s perspective, there was no point in being in such a hurry to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the assumption that there was any certainty about one or two bombs ending the war immediately defies the available evidence. There might have been some hopes that one or two bombs would do it, but a huge pile of evidence makes it crystal clear that even with the atomic bombs nothing was certain to Truman and his advisors. 

Hasegawa is even less convincing when he turns to Byrnes’s memoirs to suggest that Byrnes’s first priority, like Truman’s, was to use the atomic bomb rather than end the war.  Hasegawa builds his case by asking why Byrnes, who was “not as ideologically committed” to removing the emperor as some State Department hardliners, nonetheless insisted on unconditional surrender. The “clue to this puzzle” comes from Byrnes’s memoirs, where he writes that “had the Japanese government surrendered unconditionally, it would not have been necessary to drop the atomic bomb.” Hasegawa can’t make much use of this, so he suggests that “perhaps this statement can best be read in reverse: ‘if we insisted on unconditional surrender, we could justify using the atomic bomb’” (135). If Hasegawa is going to read Byrnes’s memoirs “in reverse,” which is a highly dubious analytical technique at best, he certainly must provide solid supporting documentation from the summer of 1945. This he does not do. 

Many of the same problems of evidence arise when one considers Hasegawa’s discussion of the atom bomb versus the Russian entry into the war as the primary cause of Japan’s surrender. To give the Soviet entry primacy, Hasegawa must ignore everything covered by Asada’s “The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender—A Reconsideration,” Newman’s Truman and the Hiroshima Cult, and Frank’s Downfall about testimony given by Japanese officials from Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki on down. Beyond that is a matter of methodology that emerges in what may be called the document count on pages 297-98. Hasegawa counts contemporary Japanese sources on the surrender decision, some of which mention the atomic bomb, some of which mention the Soviet declaration of war, and some of which mention both. He reports the score as atomic bomb 2, Soviet entry 3, and both 7. Therefore, Frank is wrong to stress the bomb as the most important factor, since the Soviet entry won three to two. In this mechanical calculation Suzuki’s offhand comment to his doctor (which comes from Japan’s Longest Day, a volume based primarily on postwar interviews conducted by the historians of the Pacific War Research Society) is historically equal in value to the August 14 Imperial Rescript, the most important statement of Hirohito’s life and the one he personally read to tens of millions of his subjects, who at noon of August 15 were glued to their radios to hear their emperor’s voice for the first time. This “all documents are equal” approach obscures rather than clarifies. Whatever the problems with the Imperial Rescript in terms of veracity on a number of key points, it certainly has more probative value than an offhand comment Suzuki made to a Navy doctor. But simply adding up the documents on each side without evaluating their significance does not constitute a credible argument. In any event, as Asada has demonstrated, there is compelling testimony from Japanese leaders to suggest the primacy of the Hiroshima bomb in producing Japan’s surrender. 

Hasegawa fails to sustain his main arguments with the necessary evidence. At best, he leaves the revisionist case as he found it, in ruins. Indeed, he makes the rubble bounce by convincingly demonstrating that the Soviet Union very much was racing to get into the Pacific War in order to facilitate its expansionist policies in the Far East. Those who seek the definitive analysis on the end of the Pacific War will have to look elsewhere. A good place to begin is Frank’s Downfall.

Michael Kort is professor of social science at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has written several books on the Cold War and the Soviet Union, including The Columbia Guide to the Cold War (Columbia University Press, 1998). 
Join the Historical Society and subscribe to Historically Speaking
The Historical Society, 656 Beacon Street, Mezzanine, Boston, MA 02215 | Tele: (617) 358-0260, Fax: (617) 358-0250
                                                         © The Historical Society | web design by Randall J. Stephens | v. 10/26/05