The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire

By Richard B. Frank

Random House. 484 pp. $35

By now few Americans can be unaware that the subject of the end of the war against Japan remains a matter of controversy. The 50th anniversary of World War II, the Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and Japanese protests over a proposed U.S. postage stamp commemorating the atomic bombs have all helped to keep our attention focused. Many people have a lot more invested in this issue than historical curiosity. Aside from cosmic questions about the American conduct of World War II, whether the United States is a "good nation," how we regard our veterans, etc., the heart of the controversy involves the truth or falsity of the statement printed on the ill-fated postage stamp: "Atomic bombs help shorten the war."

For decades after V-J Day, most Americans' answer to this question was an emphatic "yes." Hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families firmly believed that they owed their lives to the atomic bomb, that it spared them from the awful necessity of assaulting the beaches of Kyushu and perhaps Honshu in the Japanese home islands. Postwar memoirs by President Harry S Truman and others appeared to confirm this conclusion.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, historians and other writers began to question these beliefs. Though they disagreed on certain matters, most of these scholars argued that Japan would have surrendered without the use of the atomic bombs and without an invasion. They argued that by the summer of 1945 Japan was a defeated nation desperately searching for a way to end the war. American leaders must have known this because their code-breakers were reading secret Japanese diplomatic and military messages. They must also have been aware that the one obstacle to a Japanese surrender was the lack of a guarantee that the emperor not be deposed. Instead American leaders chose to use the atomic bombs, perhaps to intimidate the Soviets, perhaps to justify the enormous atomic bomb project, perhaps simply out of racial animosity and desire for vengeance. (Not surprisingly, these arguments have been enthusiastically embraced by many Japanese educators and intellectuals.) During the 1980s scholars who held these views were delighted to discover what they considered authoritative evidence that Truman and his close advisers did not really expect huge casualties in an invasion of Japan.

Richard B. Frank's Downfall does not so much refute many of the reigning orthodoxies on both sides of the controversy as demonstrate their irrelevance and ahistorical nature. The author of a widely praised history of the Guadalcanal campaign, Frank exhibits the same breadth and depth of research in this new work, even arranging for the translation of four volumes of the official Japanese War History Series. In addition, he is the first scholar to fully integrate new and important research published during the last five years by Asada Sadao, Barton Bernstein, Herbert Bix, John Dower and Ed Drea

Although Frank properly devotes much attention to such subjects as the American firebomb attacks on Japanese cities, Japan's fruitless maneuvers to have Russia broker a favorable peace, American military planning, the Potsdam Conference, the Russian campaign in Manchuria and Japanese preparations for the defense of Kyushu, his principal theme is the centrality of the atomic bombs in bringing about the surrender of Japan at the time and under the conditions in which it actually occurred. This capitulation came about not only as a result of U.S. and Soviet actions but also because of a complex series of events in Japan ranging from the emperor's belated conversion from hawk to dove to his advisers' dread of social revolution and the Japanese elite's willingness to use the bomb as "an indispensable excuse" to end the war. As former prime minister Suzuki observed, "If military leaders could convince themselves that they were defeated by the power of science they could save face to a certain extent."

Frank's book holds surprises for both supporters and critics of Truman's decisions in the spring of 1945. Frank effectively demolishes the argument that the president's fear of high casualties was "a post-war myth." The Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military planners used at least four different methods of calculating casualties, at least two of which projected losses in the hundreds of thousands. Other military and civilian planners made their own calculations, which projected up to a million casualties or more.

The entire discussion was largely meaningless, however, because U.S. military planners had underestimated the strength of Japanese ground troops on Kyushu by about 200,000 men and the number of operational aircraft by a factor of four. This miscalculation was not completely corrected by intelligence analysts until early August. As B-29s on Tinian were preparing for their nuclear missions, American admirals and generals were considering abandoning the Kyushu invasion plan. As Frank makes clear, such a decision would have meant additional atomic and conventional air attacks and blockade and possibly a Soviet invasion of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. In addition to those killed by air attacks, hundreds of thousands of Japanese would have died of starvation brought on by severe food shortages. Thousands more of the Japanese Empire's unwilling subjects in China, Korea and Southeast Asia would also have perished.

It is probably too much to hope that Downfall will convert many true believers on either side of the atomic bomb debate, but it may give them food for thought.

Ronald Spector, professor of history and international relations at George Washington University, is completing a social history of naval warfare.