The Greatest Hoax In American History: Japan’s Alleged Willingness to Surrender During the Final Months of World War II


Mr. Maddox, Professor of History Emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, is the editor of "Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism" (University of Missouri Press, May 2007).

A staple of Hiroshima Revisionism has been the contention that the government of Japan was prepared to surrender during the summer of 1945, with the sole proviso that its sacred emperor be retained.  President Harry S. Truman and those around him knew this through intercepted Japanese diplomatic messages, the story goes, but refused to extend such an assurance because they wanted the war to continue until atomic bombs became available.  The real purpose of using the bombs was not to defeat an already-defeated Japan, but to give the United States a club to use against the Soviet Union.  Thus Truman purposely slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Japanese, not to mention untold thousands of other Asians and Allied servicemen who would perish as the war needlessly ground on, primarily to gain diplomatic advantage.

One might think that compelling substantiation would be necessary to support such a monstrous charge, but the revisionists have been unable to provide a single example from Japanese sources.  What they have done instead amounts to a variation on the old shell game.  They state in their own prose that the Japanese were trying to surrender without citing any evidence and, to show that Truman was aware of their efforts, cite his diary entry of July 18 referring to a “telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.”  There it is!  The smoking gun!  But it is nothing of the sort.  The message Truman cited did not refer to anything even remotely resembling surrender.  It referred instead to the Japanese foreign office’s attempt (under the suspicious eyes of the military) to persuade the Soviet Union to broker a negotiated peace that would have permitted the Japanese to retain their prewar empire and their imperial system (not just the emperor) intact.  No American president could have accepted such a settlement, as it would have meant abandoning the United States’ most basic war aims.

An exchange I had with two revisionists, Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, is revealing.  In the December 2007 issue of Passport (newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations), I published a short critique of their Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus:  the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Among other things, I accused them of resorting to “semantic jugglery” in falsely equating Truman’s diary reference to “peace” with “surrender,” and pointed out that they had failed to provide “even a wisp of evidence” that Japan was trying to surrender.  In their response, Sherwin and Bird in turn accused me of dismissing a “huge body of distinguished scholarship,” but again failed to include a single example of such evidence.

In particular, Sherwin and Bird berated me for failing to refer to Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan.  “Hasegawa’s research into Soviet and Japanese archives,” they wrote, “is replete with massive new and important ‘wisps’ of evidence about the causes of Japan’s surrender.  It seems telling to us that his work is ignored.”  What Sherwin and Bird apparently did not know, or hoped their readers did not know, was that although Hasegawa agreed with revisionists on a number of issues he explicitly rejected the early surrender thesis.  Indeed, Hasegawa in no uncertain terms wrote that “Without the twin shocks of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war, the Japanese never would have surrendered in August.”  So much for the “massive new and important ‘wisps’ of evidence.”

Undeterred by this fiasco and still unable to produce even a single document from Japanese sources, Bird has continued to peddle the fiction that “peace” meant the same thing as “surrender.”  In a mostly contemptuous review of Sir Max Hastings’ s Retribution:  The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (Washington Post Book World, April 20, 2008), Bird professed to be “appalled by the critical evidence left out.”  In passing he cited what he referred to as Hasegawa’s “widely praised” book again, but only to note the latter’s claim that Soviet entry into the war rather than the atomic bombs caused Japan’s surrender.  There is no mention of the bogus “massive new and important ‘wisps’ of evidence” he and Sherwin earlier had claimed to find in Hasegawa’s work.  Bird castigated Hastings because he “can’t find the space to note that Truman, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and Adm. William D. Leahy, the president’s chief of staff, all reportedly agreed on Aug. 3, 1945—three days before 140,000 civilians were killed in Hiroshima—that Japan was ‘looking for peace.’ ” Readers of this sentence who were unfamiliar with the sources—meaning practically all of them—could be expected to reach the false conclusion that Japan was trying to surrender.

In the last sentence of his review, Bird wrote that “the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain a hot-button issue, something that can make otherwise responsible historian nose-dive into polemics.”  How true!

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Kevin James Chiles - 12/7/2010

So in Maddox's view, Hiroshima revisionism is the "Greatest Hoax in American History." Gee, what about white supremacy? No, the greatest hoax is the product of his naive, misleading, unscholarly "NEW LEFT" opponents who let their political agendas taint their views. A fascinating display of academic professionalism and objectivity, Mr. Maddox!

Deus X Nihilo - 9/13/2010

"On July 20, 1945, under instructions from Washington, I went to the Potsdam Conference and reported there to Secretary Stimson on what I had learned from Tokyo – they desired to surrender if they could retain the Emperor and their constitution as a basis for maintaining discipline and order in Japan after the devastating news of surrender became known to the Japanese people."
--Allen Dulles, in his 1966 book "The Secret Surrender"

Nope, there's not one single shred of evidence to support the revisionist case, is there?

Oh, wait, I get it. Dulles was driven by the same perverse desire to bite the government hand that feeds him as drove the authors of the US Government Strategic Bombing Survey.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/20/2010

The US and UK are the ones, as historical record clearly shows, initiated the imperialistic struggle for the hegemony in the Pacific and South-eastern Asia. Japan has just played the opposite side of this struggle.
Not already mentioning the ominous role of T.Roosevelt and his government in early encouragement of Japanese imperialistic aggression.

So, spare us "the US above all and always right" absolutism.

MITCHELL G DAY - 5/12/2010

Mr. uh Head, It's not Dr. Maddox claiming claiming the significance of an obscure semantic argument it's the revisionists and he's refuting it! You seemed to have missed the point. As far as the statements of the Japanese agressors to American interrogators concerning THEIR willingness to surrendor immediately AFTER the war but immediately BEFORE war crimes trials can, I think, be taken with more than ONE grain of salt! The question is what was going on BEFORE the end of the war? For instance before the bomb were dropped and the Russians invaded Manchuria the Japanese had moved hundreds of thousands of troops to Kyushu island in order to oppose the projected American invasion(to the point of actually OUTnumbering the slated American forces!).They had also gathered 3000 planes and trained pilots for their use in Kamikaze attacks. Doesn't sound to me like they were ready to surrender. And that doen't even take into account the attempted palace coup(which failed as a result of the last American fire bombing raid of the war!) to prevent Hirohito from surrendering which took place AFTER the bombs were dropped and Russia got into the Pacific theater! So much for the peaceful intentions of mass murdering Japanese Fascist imperialists!

MITCHELL G DAY - 5/12/2010

Ms. Paul, no he wasn't! JAPAN was guilty of a crime for prosecuting a mass murdering imperialist war of aggression against the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, China, Korea,the Philippines, Great Britain and Holland!

MITCHELL G DAY - 5/12/2010

Mr. Beatty your chronology is faulty. The Showa didn't make his decision to surrender until AFTER the dropping of the bombs!

Lorraine Paul - 5/6/2009

Truman was guilty of a war crime!

bit Head - 8/21/2008

The author has a valid point about the semantic games regarding the Japanese communication mentioning peace with Stalin, but referring to the long accepted notion in military circles that Japan would have surrendered before the end of the year without the use of nuclear bombs is plainly ludicrous, and based on a little more than a straw man argument.

That the Japanese were close to surrender was documented by the United Stated government shortly after the war:

"Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." Source: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/USSBS-PTO-Summary.html

Of course, to the author, that report played no role in later assessments of Japan's likelihood of surrender. None at all.

Also of no significance was the Soviet Union's entry into the Pacific theater on August 9. The Soviet joining with the US against Japan was negotiated in Yalta in February of 1945 and known to the allies. That, and the reallocation of 3700 b-29 bombers to the pacific theater (among other resources) were why military analysts at the time were estimating Japan's surrender before the end of the year. All that information is curiously left out the picture.

One can suppose that the Soviet invasion of Japanese held territory and the reallocation of massive resources from the European theater to the pacific had nothing to do with the estimation of Japan's pending surrender - supposedly everything hinges on an obscure semantic argument regarding one message. The revisionists here is the author.

Stanley Lawrence Falk - 7/28/2008

The nasty tone of Bird's review of Hastings may stem from the latter's unequivocal statement that "The myth that the Japanee were ready to surrender anyway has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence." (p. xix)

John D. Beatty - 7/28/2008

For Prof Bernstein: Though the samurai were willing to die in place it it is not at all clear that ALL of Japan was ready for self-immolation. The Showa became convinced that if all of Japan were destroyed his sacred duty to his ancestors, the protection of the sacred regalia, would be violated. Deride this if you will, but HE believed it, and that's ultimately all that matters.

D. M. Giangreco - 7/28/2008

Re "with the exception of Hasegawa": In the University of Missouri Press anthology that Maddox just edited, Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, Maddox included Asada's "The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender -- A Reconsideration." Originally published in the November 1998 Pacific Historical Review, it won the AHA's Lewis Knott Koontz Award. Books by Asada, who recently retired from Doshisha University, Kyoto, include From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States (US Naval institute Press, 2006) and Culture Shock and Japanese-American Relations: Historical Essays (University of Missouri Press, 2007). His Japanese-American Relations Between the Wars(available in Japanese only) won the pprestigious Yoshino Sakuzo Prize in 1994.

Lewis Bernstein - 7/28/2008

Fascinating--the same of "stuff" is still going on. What I find interesting in all this so-called revisionist thesis is that the Japanese have no agency in their own history. The bloodbath at Okinawa is conveniently overlooked too and despite Hasegawa's scholarship no so-called revisionist tries to understand what the decision makers knew at the time. There is no imaginatively entering into the context of the decision. While there was a faction of the Japanese government that may have been willing to surrender, as long as the militarists were in power anyone talking of surrender was taking his life in his hands. According to what I have read, the Japanese were seemingly resigned to mass death, not because they wanted it but because they could see no other way out. The diaries of the Special Attack pilots (kamikazes) reflect this sad fact.

Why are all those who write on this subject, with the Hasegawa exception, Americanists. While I do not follow this dispute closely it strikes me that no one who can deal with the Japanese or Russian language documentation pays much attention to this subject.