The Timeline at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester in Highland Park is a unique historical repository. The four foot long pieces begin at 300 B.C. — depicting the first migrations from China to what is now Vietnam — and end with the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1973.
In last few years, we’ve looked closely at the Timeline within the contexts of the Cambodian and Laotian civil wars, the firing of General Douglass MacArthur, the Eisenhower presidency, sports in the 1960’s,the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. (SEE ALL AT END)
Today, September 2nd, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the official end of World War II, the day the Japanese signed the Instrument of surrender. We look at Timeline pieces that chronicle the war in the Pacific, adding photos from various sources.
Readers of the September 2nd, 1945 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle learned that World War II had definitively come to an end. About two weeks earlier, D & C readers had learned that the Japanese government told the American command that Japan was accepting the terms of unconditional surrender.
It is of minor significance, but which date is VJ Day — August 14th when the Japanese government cabled to the U.S its agreement to the surrender terms, August 15th when the news was announced to the world and the Japanese people or September 2nd when the final Instrument of surrender was signed on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay — is a subject of debate. The Timeline says President Truman declared August 14th to be VJ Day but the Democrat and Chronicle says Truman declared September 2nd to be VJ Day. Regardless of which day you view as VJ Day, World War II was finally over
Whichever date is chosen, Rochesterians were both ebullient and relieved. Like all American cities, Rochester lost many of its sons fighting Imperial Japan.One of the most poignant deaths was the last, Lt. Paul C Zaenglein, who perished along with nine other airmen on August 7th, 1945 in a bombing mission over Kyusliu, Japan, just one week before the surrender of Japan.
Lt. Zaenglein’s last mission took place the day after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The American high command decided to intensify its air attacks after Hiroshima to show the Japanese government that delaying surrender would only lead to more destruction. Zanglein’s mission was part of the intensified bombardment from August 7th right up to the Japanese capitulation on August 14th.For this project, at CVS in Topp’s Plaza I bought The Road to VJ Day, Defeating Japan and Winning World War II, 75 Years Later, Life Magazine, 2020. The purchase at first felt like an indulgence, but was more than merited after using its photographs to accompany the Timeline pieces.
I re-read Alvin Coox’s Japan: the final agony (1970). Coox examines the decline and fall of the Japanese empire from its peak of expansion in 1942. Coox’s focus is 1945 and the catastrophes — the battle of Leyte Gulf, the defeats at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and in the Philippines, the firebombings of Japanese cities — that lead to Japan’s destruction and surrender.¹
The Timeline itself raises an important question: did Imperial Japan have any chance to achieve its war aims? The Timeline notes that Japanese Admiral Yamamoto repeatedly said “starting a war was easier than finishing it.”
Admiral Yamamoto was against the attack on Pearl Harbor from the beginning. Yamamoto knew the attack — starting a war — would only bring the full weight of the United States against Japan. Once the United States mobilized with its enormous advantages, Japan was — Yamamoto rightfully believed — doomed. It would be the United States who would finish the war.
Japanese advances after Pearl Harbor
The fall of the Philippines
American victory in the Battle of Midway
American victory at Guadalcanal
American victory in Iwo Jima
American forces liberate the PhilippinesVictory in Okinawa
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The Timeline piece on Hiroshima and Nagasaki raises a question long debated: were the bombings justified? The August 9th Piece frames the debate:
The devastation caused by the two blasts will provide the basis for debate on not only the moral issue, but on the eventual limiting of the nuclear arms race. Although disputed, it is often said that the detonating of the nuclear devices was instrumental in bringing a speedier end to the war, saving untold American and Allied lives. [From the August 9th Timeline piece]
I would add that the ending of the war saved far more Japanese than American lives.
Actually, the Timeline even implicitly allows another question: should the atom bomb have been built? The December 2nd, 1942 piece shows that the nuclear age did not begin in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Rather, once a controlled nuclear reaction was achieved in Chicago, it was only a matter of time before usable weapons could be made. On one level, even if the two bombs were not used, nuclear weaponry was not going away. The world would still have to grapple with its entrance into the nuclear age.
I except that the Hiroshima bombing was justified on the grounds that the war was shortened. The first bomb was dropped on August 6th and the Japanese surrendered on the 14th.³ The bombing of Nagasaki is far more problematic. Only three days had passed since Hiroshima. More time should have been given for the Japanese people to process the event and its horror.
In The Final Agony, Coox shows that the bombs themselves did not drastically alter the Japanese military thinking. In denial, the Japanese command characterized the bombs as “not formidable and we have countermeasures,” and the “atom bomb is not such a dreadful weapon.” If the army was in denial, Emperor Hirohito was not, finally demanding that Japan except unconditional surrender even if the surrender included a possibility that the Emperor would be abolished.4
In his concluding paragraphs, Coox cites a lieutenant colonel in the Japanese war ministry who discussed the role of the atomic bombs in Japan’s capitulation:
In Hirohito’s August 15th radio address to his people — the first time millions had ever heard his voice — Hirohito mentioned the awful power of the new weapon. To what degree, the bombs were the determining factor in the surender is unknowable, but Hirohito ended the war, saving — in the Timeline’s phrase, “untold lives.”
Furthermore, the Timeline also says the bombs were the basis for discussion of moral issues and the eventual limiting of the nuclear arms race. Quite frankly, the phrasing and concept are vague. Nonetheless, the concept raises the question: to what degree did the bombings in all their horror help deter future use?
While the dropping of the bombs hardly resulted in the curtailed development and proliferation of nuclear weaponry — scientists knew that bombs a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima bomb could be made — no nuclear weapons have been used since 1945.
We can’t know to what degree the display of the horrific human toll in death and radiation sickness at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has worked as a warning to humanity against such apocalyptic weapons. But, undoubtedly, the warning has been heard.
As a small example, on August 6th, 1985 in Rochester I participated in the Shadow Project marking the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima. On Rochester sidewalks, we chalked outlines or silhouettes of people in various poses. The chalked images represented bodies of Hiroshima victims vaporized by the atomic bomb. Often, nothing but a shadow on pavement was all that remained. I wasn’t sure how people would respond to the imagery of the Hiroshima bombing. Most were encouraging, moved by the stark reminder of the inhumanity of nuclear weapons. Maybe those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not die in vain.
¹ Coox looks at the last ditch hopes Japan harbored in the final months of the war. First, throughout the war, Japan and the USSR maintained a non-aggression pact, although in 1945 the Soviet Union announced it would not renew the pact. In the spring of 1945, Japan was desperate to find a peace that would not include Allied occupation. The Japanese believed the Russians would prefer a peaceful Japan unoccupied by the Americans who would make Japan a base in the soon-to-be Cold War. In return for major territorial concessions, Japan sought a mediated surrender with the help of the USSR. The Soviets never seriously considered mediating a conditional surrender. At the July Potsdam conference, the Russians said they expected to attack Japanese holdings in Manchuria including the possibility of an attack on the Japanese homeland. On the 8th of August, the Soviet offensive began. It’s fantasy diplomatic initiatives thwarted, the Japanese high command realized the Soviet offensive was the final death blow to Imperial Japan. For an extended discussion as to what ultimately precipitated Japan’s surrender — the atomic bombs, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, or other factors, see “Debate over the Japanese Surrender,” Atomic Heritage Association, June 1, 2016.
The second Japanese hope was that the American’s would launch an invasion of the Japanese homeland. In turn, the Japanese military and civilians — even if just armed with bamboo spears (as Coox mentions on the back cover of Japan: The final agony) — would again and again throw the invaders back into the sea. The Americans would find the cost too high and agree to a conditional end to the war.
This scenario was another fantasy. First, an invasion might never have been launched. As Coox shows, in early June the cabinet’s fear was that the Americans would not attempt a ground landing but instead continue its devastating policy of fearsome air bombardment and an ever tightening naval blockade, both of which had essentially destroyed the Japanese war economy. Only a ground assault would allow Japan to inflict the kind of casualties it hoped would compel the Allies to sue for peace. Furthermore, especially after the final capitulation of Nazi Germany, the entire world was arrayed against Japan. With or without nuclear weapons, the Allied world would never stop short of unconditional surrender.
²Reader Michael J. Nighan notes:
As an FYI, the Highland Park VV Memorial timeline is incorrect when it states that because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (which because of the International Date Line, occurred on Dec. 8 from Japan’s perspective), the US, “has no choice but to declare war on Japan, and thus on her allies Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy”, is incorrect. The US did not declare war on Germany until AFTER Hitler and Il Duce declared war on America on Dec. 11. Hitler’s decision to do so is considered his second greatest mistake of WWII (after his invasion of the Soviet Union). While FDR obviously had support for declaring war on Japan, he would not have been able to garner support for a pre-emptive declaration against Germany and Italy, a situation that concerned him greatly as he knew that Germany, not Japan, was our chief enemy.
³ While I think the short time between the bombing of Hiroshima and the surrender of points to its justification, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arguably not necessary. In recent Los Angeles Times editorial, Gar Alperovitz and Martin J. Sherwin, Los Angeles Times, “U.S. leaders knew we didn’t have to drop atomic bombs on Japan to win the war. We did it anyway,” August 5th, 2020, Alperovitz and Sherwin review recent scholarship that suggest the bombings were not primarily motivated to save lives.
Alperovitz points to the fact that seven of eight Joint Chiefs of Staff were against the bombings. They argued that from a military perspective the bombings were unnecessary and the massive loss of life would serve no purpose. Although General Douglass MacArthur later urged Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War, he was adamantly against the use of atomic weapons against Japan. Alperovitz argues that Truman was well aware that Japan had sought out peace through Soviet channels. Furthermore, the Soviets had planned to invade Manchuria around August 15th, basically dealing a coup de grace. In addition, Truman knew that Japan was tottering on its last legs. The invasion planned for November 1945 would very likely not be needed.
In Coox’s final paragraph, he cites General Curtis Le May who, convincingly, said within six months Japan would essentially be bombed back to the dark ages. A massive air campaign was planned for September:
Instead, Alperovitz primarily see the bombings as predicated on the US-USSR relationship. By the time the Soviet Union was preparing to go to war with Japan, the US no longer wanted such an attack. Truman hoped to limit Soviet ambitions in the Far East, such as claiming Japanese territories as it own. Truman preferred that only the US conquer and occupy the Japanese homeland. Ultimately, the bombings were both a message to Japan that total destruction lay ahead, as well as a message to the Soviets that a nuclear armed US would hold the upper hand as the Cold War unfolded. The use of the Nagasaki bomb, the day after the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and only three days after Hiroshima, arguably sent a message to the Japanese government that it must completely capitulate before the Soviet army neared Japan, as well as displaying to the Soviets that we had more than one bomb. The Japanese realized they would prefer to deal just with the Americans, and promptly surrendered.
From a geopolitical perspective, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can less be seen as a carefully weighed option aimed at saving lives but instead both the parting shots of World War II and the opening salvos of the Cold War.
4 I also re-read Japan’s Longest DayBetween Longest Day and Final Agony, Emperor Hirohito emerges as a humanitarian hero. Coox shows how realistic Hirohito was about Japan’s prospects in the war. The Japanese had been defeated at Midway in June 1942 without much public commentary. However, Hirohito, accurately, saw the battle as the turning point of the war that doomed Japan, saying, “The future of this war is not bright.” In February 1945, Hirohito demanded unvarnished assessments of the war. Prince Konoye told the Emperor; “I believe that our defeat is imminent and inevitable, regrettable though it is,” a sentiment Hirohito probably shared. After the Tokyo fire bombings, Hirohito toured the ruins and without sugarcoating declared that “Tokyo is now scorched earth.” After the Allies at Potsdam in July 1945 offered Japan the chance to end the war without total annihilation, Hirohito pushed for acceptance without conditions attached.
In its examination of the last week of the Empire of Japan, Longest Day presents Hirohito as deeply pained and anguished at the sufferings of his people. While the generals blithely talked about sacrificing 20 million Japanese to repel an invasion, Hirohito was willing to do anything to relieve the people’s suffering, including the possibility that the Allies would eliminate the Emperor. Some of Hirohito general’s pleaded with him to continue hostilities, but he was adamant that the war end immediately.
The Timeline series