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