Book Review: Racing the Enemy

By Jim Miles

Racing the Enemy – Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan.  Tsuyoshi Hasegawa.  Belknap Press, Harvard University, 2005.

The end of the Second World War with Japan is a story of the clashes of three empires – the struggling Soviets, the decline of the Japanese, and the ascendancy of the American. The common media perception is that the use of the atomic bombs ended the war, and while that is part of the picture, it misses several other nuances that played critical roles in the ending of the war. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa in his work Racing the Enemy provides a history of the critical months of the summer of 1945 that demonstrates the culpability of all three empires leading to the use of these weapons of mass destruction. It also serves as a story of the empirical elites working towards their own advantage, regardless of outcomes for others.

It is the idea of the atomic bomb itself that creates an unusual image of immense destruction, as the U.S., Britain, and Germany had all used mass carpet bombings to try and force the opposition to quit the war. The overall result in all affected areas was a stiffening resolve against the perpetrators of the other side (a lesson not yet learned in Iraq and Afghanistan). Incendiary bombings had already obliterated several cities and hundreds of thousands of lives before the atomic bomb became operational (Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo). According to Hasegawa, while the Japanese were impressed by the power of the bomb, its actual destructiveness and its threatening power were not the main reasons for ending the war.

Hasegawa’s picture of the summer of 1945 is one of manipulations and deceit involving all three parties, with very few of the motives being altruistic and humanitarian but rather mostly geopolitical.  The triangulations of power involved the expected entry of the Soviet forces into the war with Japan, a concept that the Japanese remained out of tune with real Soviet intentions until the end. It also involved American concerns about Soviet power and the occupation of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, although there were only minimal concerns about the Soviet occupation of the Southern Kurils as was agreed to in principle at the Yalta conference.

The main American concerns for the war was the possible necessity of having to invade the mainland and the probable entry of the Soviets into the war that would add complications to both post war occupation and treaties, as well as geopolitical concerns for the future. Along with all this was the ongoing development of the atomic bomb.

Thus Hasegawa’s title stands clearly defined.  He presents a story that clearly shows the three combatants trying to ‘race’ each other to a conclusion of the war that satisfied one or more of their own major concerns. As it was, none of the three escape criticism for actually extending the war, as the race involved purposeful roadblocks along the way as one side or the other tried to manipulate the situation in their favour – not surprising in a war, but not normally as clearly defined in history texts either. 

The ‘story’ is clearly told, and unlike many history texts provides a compelling narrative that includes much anecdotal material from diaries and war records on all three sides of the conflict. It remains an academic history, the story of the elite policy makers and how their decisions reflect more the future geopolitical needs of the respective countries/empires than concerns for any citizens in harms way.

Most critical to the discussion is Hasagawa’s presentation of the Potsdam ultimatum. First, the ultimatum was not delivered through diplomatic channels (i.e. using the neutrality of Sweden and Switzerland to deliver the message) and “was issued as propaganda through the Office of War information.”  Truman’s citation of newspaper editorials does not serve as proof of the “prompt rejection” of the ultimatum by the Japanese rulers, or “that the reaction of the Japanese government was entirely different from what Radio Tokyo had reported” as the government was divided as how to approach the issue. Rather, the Japanese reception was to reserve comment on the ultimatum, “that the Japanese government suspended judgment on the Potsdam ultimatum.” 

The ultimatum did not include any message about one of the over-riding concerns of the rulers of Japan that the Imperial house be preserved (a natural response of self preservation for all ‘supreme’ rulers). There is considerable discussion on this issue, with Hasagawa’s focus being that Truman needed and indeed wanted the Potsdam ultimatum to be rejected in order to use the atomic weapons:

one cannot escape the conclusion that the United States rushed to drop the bomb without any attempt to explore the readiness of some Japanese policymakers to seek peace through the ultimatum.

Why the rush?  In Hasagawa’s interpretation the bomb represented a solution to three dilemmas faced by Truman: “unconditional surrender, the cost of Japan’s homeland invasion, and Soviet entry into the war.” The bomb itself did not solve any of these issues, but Truman’s temporary jubilance at its success was “because of the satisfaction that everything had gone as he had planned.”

Japan’s reaction was in a sense under whelming. Already subject to fierce fire bombings that had killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, the bomb “did not lead to their decision to accept the Potsdam terms…[but] further contributed to their desperate efforts to terminate the war through Moscow’s mediation… Indeed, Soviet attack, not the Hiroshima bomb, convinced political leaders to end the war by accepting the Potsdam declaration.”

While the Potsdam ultimatum receives some of Hasagawa’s strongest critique, his conclusion finds all parties guilty for delaying the war even further than had been necessary.  Truman “needed Japan’s refusal to justify the use of the atomic bomb…thus…he could not include the provision providing a constitutional monarchy” in the ultimatum. The Soviets continually mislead the Japanese as to their intentions concerning the Neutrality Pact between the two, and “Ironically, both Stalin and Truman had vested interests in keeping unconditional surrender [no monarchy] for different reasons.” While the two atomic bombs alone “would most likely not have prompted the Japanese to surrender…the war most likely would have ended shortly after Soviet entry into the war – before November 1.”

Overall, while there were alternatives available to all three sides that could have allowed the war to terminate sooner without the use of the atomic bombs, political concerns, rather than military ones (or concerns about civilian deaths) carried the weight in the decisions. While the use of the atomic bomb can be seen as an atrocity, it is an atrocity that is not greater than the fire bombings on all sides, of the war crimes committed by the Japanese in China and Korea and other theatres of operation. While decisions by the Soviets and the Americans could have ended the war sooner without the catastrophe of using atomic weapons, Hasagawa lays the main blame on the Japanese policymakers who “must bear the responsibility for the war’s destructive end more than the American president and the Soviet dictator.”

While this is truly history now, not current events, its ramifications are obvious for our current world situation. The Japanese still have not resolved their war crimes issues with China.  Japan’s ‘defence’ forces are among the world’s largest military forces, and even with a ‘peace’ constitution, Japan has enough plutonium – and the technology – available to make dozens of nuclear warheads. The issue of the Kuril Islands still interferes with Russian-Japanese politics, even after the dissolution of the Soviet empire.  The Americans in some respects still occupy Japan after sixty years, with Japan a nominal independent and democratic country.

In an even broader perspective, the narrative of war, this war or any other, as presented by historians at the political-strategic level clearly demonstrates how empires are about power and control of heartlands and hinterlands regardless of the wishes of the majority of citizens. Those same citizens unfortunately are subject to ongoing propaganda in the form of out and out rhetoric and uber-patriotism, combined with the more nuanced propaganda from the education systems and dominant media of their respective elites. 

The current geopolitical struggles of the world over the oil and strategic importance of the Middle East and Central Asia continues this pattern. Our societies are now determined by our access to formerly cheap oil; the military relies on that oil for their dominance over other players; the elites wish to retain their hold on power, their hold on the resources of the world for their own benefit.  The narrative continues, an ongoing history punctuated by dates of conflict that are truly a series of encounters for empires to control and dominate other people and their resources.

To bring this back from that philosophical tangent, Hasagawa’s interpretations should be a must read for anyone interested in how the final acts of the Second World War set the stage for our current geopolitical encounters.  In reality, the American empire, the Russians, Chinese, and Indians are still Racing the Enemy in an ongoing battle for the world’s resources.

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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