June 18, 1945 U.S. President Harry S. Truman Authorizes “Operation Downfall” to End WWII in the Pacific

Monday, June 18, 1945 at the White House in Washington D.C.

At 3:30PM Truman called a meeting to order with his Joint Chiefs and other top civilian cabinet advisors from the War Department. Among those in attendance was U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall who spoke up immediately after the meeting got underway and claimed that the only course to defeat Japan was to embark on the same kind of ground invasion that had brought the Nazis to their knees in Europe. He presented a two-phase invasion that would begin at the island of Kyushu at the southern end of Japan’s mainland, just 350 miles from Okinwa.

Kyushu, indicated in red, would have been the striking point of Operation Downfall on November 1, 1945

The Allied Expeditionary Forces would strike on November 1, 1945 (D-Day in the Pacific).

When it came to predicting Allied casualties, there was no way to exactly estimate the true number, but Marshall believed that the invasion would be as difficult as Normandy. The General estimated American casualties to be around 30,000 in the first 30 days of Operation Downfall. Another estimate at the Pentagon included the invasion of both southern and northern Kyushu, as well as Japan proper, to be around 220,000 casualties. And finally, in a memorandum on June 4, 1945, written by General Thomas Handy of Marshall’s staff, it stated that the United States would save no less than 500,000 to 1 million lives by avoiding the invasion all together (showing that figures of such magnitude were being discussed at the highest levels). 

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall who Truman would appoint Secretary of State in 1947

Whatever the outcome might be, Marshall summed up the situation by saying, “It is a grim fact that there is not an easy, bloodless way to victory in war.”

It was obvious to everyone in Truman’s cabinet that victory would come at a heavy price. They continued to fear that the Japanese would not surrender without a long and bloody struggle. By this point in the war they had already been severely punished, practically defeated, but they continued to show no signs of yielding – no signs of surrendering unconditionally to the Allies. If one looks at the Battle of Okinawa, for example, which was coming to an end at this time, the battle itself was painting a bloody portrait of just how ferocious Japanese resistance could be. The fighting had been raging on since the beginning of April, killing over 10,000 Americans in combat, wounding anywhere between 38,000 to over 55,000, and entrenched in the jungles and caves of the island more than 100,000 Japanese chose to perish over surrender. For Truman and his cabinet, these were startling figures and conditions since they continued to indicate how much of a last ditch battle the Japanese could put up, as well as the kind of battle they could put up on their home islands in man to man combat. Moreover, Okinawa could be taken as an indicator that Japan needed dyer measures to defeat it. 

Truman went around the room and listened to each man give his opinion about a course of action for a ground invasion. By the end of the meeting, there was a unanimous agreement that it should happen within the next four months.

The beaches of Okinawa saw some of the bloodiest fighting of WWII from 1 April – 22 June 1945

The most interesting moment of the meeting probably came at the end when Truman turned to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy who had pretty much let his boss, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, do all the talking during the meeting. “McCloy,” the President said, “Nobody leaves this room until he’s been heard from….Do you think I have any reasonable alternative to the decision (on the invasion) which has just been made?” McCloy then turned to Stimson, who said, “Say what you feel about it.”

“Well, I do think you’ve got an alternative,” McCloy said. And I think it’s an alternative that ought to be explored and that, really, we ought to have our heads examined if we don’t explore some other method by which we can terminate this war than just by another conventional attack and landing.”

McCloy began saying that he agreed with the topic of easing ‘unconditional surrender’ (something discussed earlier in the meeting) to let the Japanese retain their monarch, Emperor Hirohito. McCloy then brought up the Manhattan Project, the nearly three year old plan being carried out to develop a bomb out of the elemental forces of the universe – a nuclear weapon. He believed that the United States should tell the enemy of the bomb, and if Japan did not surrender, it would be used. He said, “I think our moral position would be better if we gave them a specific warning of the bomb.”

President Truman with Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy to his left

The response, as McCloy remembered the conversation: “We don’t know that it will go off; suppose it doesn’t go off; our prestige will be greatly marred.”

McCloy then responded by saying, “All the scientists have told us that the thing will go. It’s just a matter of testing it out now, but they’re quite certain from reports I’ve seen that this bomb is a success…”

Truman concluded matters by stating that this should be explored further, but decisions with regard to the bomb could not be made until it was tested successfully. Truman then ordered the Joint Chiefs to move ahead with plans for a ground invasion of Japan, an order that would begin the process of putting more than three quarters of a million Americans in man to man combat. 

 

Bibliography of Quotations

Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6

McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5

The Yalta Conference Ends On This Day 75 Years Ago

Sunday, February 11, 1945

The Big Three at the Livadia Palace at Yalta

It was 75 years ago today – February 11, 1945 – that the original “Big Three” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin – would meet together for the final time with the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, which was the second of three WWII wartime summits between the three heads of government of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

The key points on the agenda at Yalta were major questions related to military tactics in the Pacific War and post-war politics in Europe. The Soviets pledged to join the war against Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe, and Germany was to be divided into four occupation zones (which involved the French) and the establishment of a “United Nations” organization was also agreed upon.

Germany would be divided into four occupation zones at Yalta, with its eastern frontier and the Polish question remaining unanswered

Yet, the question of Poland and its borders would dominate much of the eight day summit, as it would five months later when the ‘new’ Big Three would arrive at Potsdam for their final wartime summit. At Yalta, Poland’s western frontier was left undefined, but it was agreed that it would receive “considerable” territorial compensation from Germany, while Stalin ‘pledged’ to permit free and democratic elections in Poland based on the Atlantic Charter that had been signed in 1941. Yet, as soon would become the case, massive intimidation, electoral fraud and a wave of persecution would be unleashed under communist cadres that had the protection of the occupying Red Army throughout Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Historians claim that it was finally made obvious to Churchill at Yalta that nothing could change the reality that Stalin had conquered Poland and would thus decide its future, realizing that it wouldn’t be long before it was a fully pledged Soviet satellite state.

Caricature poking fun at post-WWII Soviet expansionism published in the Daily Mail

After the final pictures were taken, Churchill would say goodbye to his close friend, President Roosevelt, whom he had a very special bond with, for the final time, and leave Yalta deeply embittered, realizing that the cause for which Great Britain had entered the war – a free Poland – had been lost.

In short, the Yalta Conference divided Europe between those states that were under the rule of the Red Army and those that were to join the West in one association or another (de facto, not formally). It would also divide Germany ostensibly into occupation zones, but ultimately into separate states.

Thus, it’s largely accepted among historians that Yalta ignited the beginning of the Cold War that would last for the next half century.

Bibliography

Smyser, William R. (1999). From Yalta To Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-06605-8

On This Day – February 22, 1943 – 21 Year Old Resistance Leader Sophie Scholl is Found Guilty of Treason and Executed in Munich

Monday, February 22, 1943 in Munich

 

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst

On a cold, February afternoon in Munich 77 years ago today, 21 year old Sophie Scholl, a pioneer and active member within the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, was found guilty of high treason and beheaded by a guillotine in Munich for distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich with her brother, Hans.

For decades, she’s been seen as a leading figure of the resistance movement against the policies of the Nazi government, having demonstrated a profound amount of courage and a great deal of social dissent in a controlled society of violent repression, censorship, and conformist pressure. At her trial she said the following:

“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

The Nazi court allowed no testimony for Scholl and the other defendants; this quote was her only defense.

Sophie Scholl’s bust on display at Walhalla

In 2003 the government of Bavaria placed her bust in the Walhalla Temple, something that would’ve been inconceivable when it opened in the 19th century (let alone during the Nazi period). Later that year, the German television network ZDF invited people from around Germany to participate in the so-called “Unsere Besten” (Our Best), a nationwide competition to choose the top ten most important Germans of all time. Young voters helped Scholl and her brother to finish in fourth place, above the likes of Einstein, Bach, Goethe, and Bismarck.

Else Gebel, who shared a cell with Scholl, recorded her last words before being taken away to be executed:

Sophie Scholl’s and Hans Scholl’s graves at the Friedhof am Perlacher Forst in Munich

“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause…? It is such a splendid sunny day, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted…”

She was only 21 years old.

V-J Day: Victory in Japan – Sunday, September 2, 1945

The highly anticipated ‘unconditional surrender’ is finally signed by the Government of Japan: Today, 73 years ago: Sunday, September 2, 1945 on the USS Missouri in the Tokyo Bay.

Aboard the deck of the ship named after President Truman’s beloved home state – the USS Missouri – Japanese officials arrived to sign the surrender documents that would finally and officially bring World War II to a close.

The scene surrounding this ceremony in Tokyo Bay was awe-striking.

With a fleet of navy ships anchored in the Bay, while American flags rippled in the wind, the colossal figure that was General Douglas MacArthur conspicuously appeared aboard the USS Missouri.

Today, it might be hard for us to understand the aura surrounding General MacArthur at that time. Called to active duty in the U.S. Army as major general, and named as the commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) as early as July 1941, Americans would collectively come to see him as a kind of God – an infallible God – who had averted failure on several occasions and led successful campaigns – primarily in the Philippines – all the way up until the end of WWII in the Pacific.

The General only stood around 5 feet 9 inches tall, but many have said that – if you’d stood in his presence – it would’ve felt as if he were standing around 6 feet 6 inches tall. And he had all the props: The open collar shirt, the sun glasses, the crunched hat, and pipe. Furthermore, he took unclear directives and interpreted them in his own way. General Douglas MacArthur was the modern day ‘American Caesar.’

As the ‘American Caesar’ stood on the Missouri’s deck monitoring the proceedings, his face was so expressionless that he looked as though he was – as historian A.J. Baime would say – “(already) a bust that would sit in a museum.”

Finally, after it’d been proclaimed by President Roosevelt in 1943, reconfirmed by President Truman at Potsdam in the summer of 1945, slightly revised in the second week of August 1945, and finally ‘agreed to be accepted’ on August 14, 1945, unconditional surrender was a signature away.

The Japanese government (on behalf of the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mamoru Shigemitsu – and on behalf of the Japanese armed forces, Yoshijiro Umezu) officially accepted the Potsdam Declaration by signing the highly anticipated unconditional surrender on this day: Sunday, September 2, 1945.

World War II was now over. Victory in Japan – or V-J Day – could officially be celebrated, and General Douglas MacArthur had now become the supreme ruler of  80 million people in Japan.

 

 

Japan Accepts the Unconditional Surrender – WWII Is Over: On this day – Tuesday, August 14, 1945

Tuesday, August 14, 1945

Three full days had passed since the United States, United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union had jointly submitted their formal reply to Japan’s terms of unconditional surrender that they had issued on August 10th (see our blog post from August 10, 2018).

Finally, at 6:10 PM, Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes received a message from Switzerland’s Department of State. It was what the world had been waiting for: Japan’s acceptance of the terms of surrender.

Secretary Byrnes then rushed to the White House to deliver the document to President Truman.

Just before 7:00 PM, newsmen pushed into Truman’s office to listen in on what the President was about to say. Indeed, there was a lot of excitement in the air. World War II had killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians; it was the worst catastrophe that had ever struck the human race. It was now over – and everyone crammed into the Oval Office knew that the right side had won.

The photographers’ lights nearly blinded the President as he stood up from behind his desk, holding the document in his right hand.

All the top aides, advisers, and heads of his administration sat or stood around him. Even his beloved wife, Bess, was seated just a few feet away.

Truman looked as if he had just emerged from a bandbox. His double-breasted navy blue suit was neat and pressed – his style was immaculate for such a moment.

“All in!” a Secret Service man announced.

Truman glanced at the clock.

At exactly 7:00 PM, with his shoulders squared, he began reading slowly and clearly from the document in his right hand.

“I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government,” the President announced. “I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.”

He went on to announce General Douglas MacArthur’s role as supreme allied commander over Japan, and that the proclamation of VJ-Day (Victory in Japan) would have to wait until the formal signing of the unconditional surrender.

In any event, World War II was now essentially over.

The hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers who were preparing to go to Japan to engage in man-to-man combat could now breathe a sigh of relief.

As was reported in the papers the next day, one jubilant soldier in Washington DC flung his arms around a civilian shouting, “We’re all civilians now!”

 

 

 

Bibliography

Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6

McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5

Revising Unconditional Surrender: The day after the tragic bombing of Nagasaki: 10 August 1945

Friday, August 10, 1945

Japanese Emperor Hirohito

At 7:33AM in Japan, monitors recorded the following broadcast over Radio Tokyo:

“The Japanese Government today addressed the following communication to the Swiss and Swedish governments respectively for transmission to the United States, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union…The Japanese Government is ready to accept the terms enumerated in the joint declaration which was issued at Potsdam, July 26, 1945, by the Heads of Government of the United States, Great Britain, and China, and later subscribed by the Soviet Government, with the understanding that said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler. The Japanese Government hopes sincerely that this understanding is warranted and desires keenly that an explicit indication to that effect will be speedily forthcoming.”

What the Japanese appeared to be offering was not unconditional surrender. As so many advisers in President Truman’s inner circle had predicted, it was indeed the fate of Japan’s emperor that was the ultimate question that separated war from peace.

At 9:00AM Washington time, Truman sat down with the heads of the most important positions in his administration: Admiral Leahy (Chief of Staff), Jimmy Byrnes (Secretary of State), Henry Stimson (Secretary of War), and James Forrestal (Secretary of Defense). He went around the room and asked each man for his opinion on what to do next.

United States Secretary of State James F. Byrnes

Leahy and Stimson didn’t have a problem with Japan’s wanting to keep their emperor. If anything, they believed that he would be useful when it came to inspiring peace among the Japanese people after WWII.

Jimmy Byrnes, however, adamantly refused. He wanted nothing less than unconditional surrender. It was the policy that Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to at the Casablanca Conference in January of 1943 and at the Cairo Conference in November 1943. Furthermore, he quickly reminded the President that unconditional surrender was once again reconfirmed at the Potsdam Conference just two weeks before.

“Why should we now go further than we were willing to go at Potsdam,” Byrnes said at that meeting. “And that was when we had no atomic bomb and Russia was not in the war (with Japan).”

Truman then asked to see the Potsdam Declaration one more time.

While the President was reviewing it, James Forrestal spoke up and probably brought forth the wisest plan of action: “Why don’t we suggest a reply in which the Allies could accept Japan’s terms, if these terms were spelled out further so that the Potsdam terms could be clearly accomplished?”

That was to say, the emperor could remain if he surrendered unconditionally.

United States Secretary of Defense James Forrestal whose revision of the words of unconditional surrender would help bring WWII to an end on paper.

This appealed to the President and he agreed. President Truman had gone against his Secretary of State. He decided, as he recorded in his diary, that if the Japanese wanted to keep their emperor, then “we’d tell ’em how to keep him.”

Jimmy Byrnes then got to work on the reply. It would eventually state that the Emperor would remain but “subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.” In other words, the reply attempted to satisfy all those Americans who demanded unconditional surrender, while allowing the Japanese the right to retain their emperor; and thus, for peace to be achieved.

And the new “Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers” – to whom the Japanese emperor would now have to answer – would be the extremely popular general, Douglas MacArthur.

If it wasn’t unconditional surrender, it was something very close to it.

Now the President needed the official approval of the two other countries that jointly issued the Potsdam Declaration, China and Great Britain, as well as the Soviets who were now at war with Japan.

Prime Minister Attlee cabled his approval that evening (Churchill also called the American embassy in London to express his approval), but the Australians were adamantly opposed. “The Emperor should have no immunity from responsibility for Japan’s acts of aggression…Unless the system goes, the Japanese will remain unchanged and recrudescence of aggression in the Pacific will only be postponed to a later generation,” said the Australians, who had been excluded from Potsdam and who had fought long and suffered greatly in the war with Japan.

The Soviet Union’s assault on Manchuria in the initial days of its invasion in August 1945.

The Chinese cabled their agreement the next morning (Saturday, August 11), as did the Australians, but reluctantly.

The Soviets, however, were stalling. They appeared to be doing this deliberately in the hopes of having some say in the control of Japan and to drive farther into Manchuria (where Soviet troops had already arrived days before), but Washington made it crystal clear that they would not agree to any Soviet claim in Japan. Eventually, Stalin also agreed.

A formal reply, with the approval of the four nations at war with Japan, was now transmitted to Tokyo.

The wait for Japan to accept these somewhat revised terms of unconditional surrender would now begin.

Bibliography

Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6

McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5

On This Day: August 9, 1945. The United States drops a second atomic bomb on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki

President Truman addressing the world after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Today we take a look back on the events surrounding the United States’ decision to release a tragic second atomic bomb on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki on this day 73 years ago: August 9, 1945.

If you recall from our blog that chronicled the Potsdam Conference on July 26, 1945, the issuing of the Potsdam Declaration  by the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the President of China, had called upon the Government of Japan to accept the “unconditional surrender of all its armed forces.”
Japan’s alternative if it didn’t: “Prompt and utter destruction,” were the words used in the Potsdam Declaration.
By this point the United States armed forces had experienced some of the bloodiest fighting of WWII, particularly during the battle of Okinawa: Over 10,000 Americans had been killed and another 27,000 wounded. And entrenched in the caves and jungles of the island nation, more than 100,000 Japanese were killed or burned to death rather than accept the unconditional surrender.
And still the Japanese fought on.
As a result, President Truman had agreed to plans at the end of June for an invasion of the Japanese home islands to take place in early November; and if the invasion had gone through, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers returning from Europe would have soon headed off to the Pacific to face the Japanese in man to man total combat.
The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall in utter ruins in the fall of 1945.

Then, on July 16, 1945, while President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill were touring a devastated Berlin just a little over a month after the German high command had signed the unconditional surrender that brought WWII in Europe to an official end, the first ever atomic bomb had been born just 95 miles north of Albuquerque in New Mexico.

While weighing the options of whether or not to use the weapon, President Truman recorded in his diary at Potsdam: “I asked General Marshall (George C.) what it would cost in lives to land on the Tokyo plain and other places in Japan. It was his opinion that such an invasion would cost at a minimum a quarter of a million American casualties…” Interestingly, however, when it came to what he thought about the atomic bomb, Marshall would add, “after long and careful thought, I did not like the weapon.”
On Friday, July 27, 1945, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki said at a press conference that he’d “kill (the Potsdam Declaration) with silence,” as it was “nothing but a rehash of old proposals and as such, beneath contempt.” In other words, the Government of Japan had rejected the Potsdam Declaration.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, serves as a memorial to the upwards of 80,000 people killed instantly in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Years later, some would argue that Japan could’ve been forced to surrender without the bomb.

Some would argue that the Allies should’ve just blockaded the Japanese island to force them to surrender.
Some argued that the Allies could’ve warned the Japanese with a demonstration bomb.
Some would argue that the United States should’ve just simply lightened up on ‘unconditional surrender’ and allowed the Japanese to fully and uncompromisingly keep their emperor.
President Truman would later say, “In order to end the War without invading Japan, the Bomb had to be used.”
On Monday, August 6, 1945, the most terrible weapon ever developed in human history was dropped on the densely populated Japanese city of Hiroshima. A blast equivalent to the power of 20,000 tons of TNT reduced 4 square miles of the city to ruins.
“Some of our scientists say that the area in Hiroshima will be uninhabitable for many years because the bomb explosion had made the ground radioactive and destructive of animal life,” recorded President Truman’s Chief of Staff, William Leahy, after the release of the bomb, which instantly killed upwards of 80,00 men, women, and children and an additional tens of thousands of people as a result of radiation sickness in the days and years to come.
Later on that day, President Truman issued a statement to the Government of Japan and to the rest of the world:
“What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history. It was done under high pressure and without failure. We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.

It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”

The last page of the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 issued just outside Berlin at Potsdam, Germany.
Two days later, the Russians declared war on Japan, but yet there was still no word of surrender from the Japanese.
Sadly, on this day 73 years ago at 11:00AM a second atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki. In 1/10 of one-millionth of a second the city was utterly annihilated, instantly killing upwards of another 40,000 men, women and children and an additional tens of thousands over the next several years.
Following the bombing of Nagasaki, President Truman took the authority to use the atomic bomb (there was still one more ready to use) away from the United States military and placed it once again in his own hands.
The following morning on August 10, 1945 in Japan, monitors recorded a broadcast over Radio Tokyo.
Check back tomorrow as we chronicle the final days of the Second World War.

Bibliography

Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6

McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5