Truman Japan Potsdam And The Bomb Thesis

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Marilyn Alsaadi Dr. Megan Sethi

Mokusatsu: Translation Blunders and the Atomic Bomb

The motive behind President Harry Truman's decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan is one of those most debated topics of 20th century history. Much attention is often focused on two widely held perspectives: first, that the American government was reluctant to invade the Japanese mainland and, second, that the United States wished to preempt the nuclear arms race by establishing itself as the global leader of "atomic diplomacy." However, popular debates almost always fail to acknowledge that a relatively minor linguistic mishap was the real catalyst behind the series of events leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.. Despite the larger ideological motivations most often cited by historians, the "mokusatsu" translation blunder is in fact the actual historical event that directly triggered the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By the summer of 1945 the Allied forces had already defeated German forces in Europe and were closing in on what many believed was an inevitable victory in the Pacific. In mid-July allied leaders met in Potsdam, Germany to decide several matters concerning the end of the war and the establishment of a post-war global infrastructure. On July 26th, 1945, President Truman, British Prime Minister Clement Atlee and Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China, Chang Kai-Shek issued the Potsdam Declaration, calling for the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan according to guidelines determined during the Potsdam Conference.[footnoteRef:1] [1: Stone, Oliver; Kuznick, Peter, The Untold History of the United States (NY: Gallery Books, 2013), pg 173.]

The discovery of nuclear fission in the late 1930s made the possibility of a nuclear bomb a reality. The U.S. initiated the Manhattan Project in order to develop the weapon before another country did. Roosevelt gave the go-ahead to the atomic program in 1941. Berkeley physicist Robert Oppenheimer helped lead and oversee the design and manufacturing of the atomic bomb. The project was entirely secret from the American people. Indeed, when Truman became president upon the death of Roosevelt, even he did not know about the project's existence and had to be briefed on it when he took office. Deliberations about what to do with the bomb were mainly focused on it existing as a forceful deterrent. Einstein, for example, had written to Roosevelt in the days following the discovery of nuclear fission that an atom bomb should be made by the U.S. in order to be able to deter Germany (and he later regretted writing this letter after seeing the devastation).[footnoteRef:2] But the bomb did not end up being used as a deterrent against Germany: instead, it was a show of force for the whole world, particularly Russia. While the victims were Japanese, which no doubt pleased Stalin, the demonstration was one of showmanship: Truman wanted to show off his "new weapon of unusual destructive force" and give the entire world a good example of how exceptional America was when it came to arms.[footnoteRef:3] [2: Stone, Oliver; Kuznick, Peter, The Untold History of the United States (NY: Gallery Books, 2013), pg 133.] [3: "Potsdam and the Final Decision." The Manhattan Project -- an interactive history. U.S. Department of Energy. Web. 28 Jan 2016.]

Many historians and public figures have claimed the bombs were dropped to avoid further invasion of the Japanese mainland and thus further American casualties. For many years following the end of WWII this served as the official justification of the American government and leaders of the time like former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who was perhaps the most influential figure in the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Stimson wrote an article in the February, 1947 edition of Harper's Magazine defending the U.S. military's actions in the Pacific. In it, he carefully lays out estimates conducted by the intelligence section of the War Department regarding Japan's military strength as of July 1945 as follows:

"In the home island, slightly under 2,000,000; in Korea, Manchuria, China proper and Formosa, slightly over 2,000,000; in French Indochina, Thailand, and Burma, over 200,000; in the East Indies area, including the Philippines, over 500,000; in the by-passed Pacific islands, over 100,000. The total strength of the Japanese Army was estimated at about 5,000,000 men."

With the added benefit of hindsight, Stimson acknowledged that these estimates were later confirmed by official Japanese records, further legitimizing the U.S. government's belief that an allied victory in Japan was not an absolute certainty as of July, 1945.[footnoteRef:4] [4: Stimson, Henry. "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb." Harper's Magazine: pg. 97]


The bomb had been successfully tested in New Mexico just ten days prior on July 16th when Allied leaders first arrived at Potsdam, and as Stimson notes, "it was immediately clear the power of the bomb measured up to our highest estimates. We had developed a weapon of such a revolutionary character that its use against the enemy might well be expected to produce exactly the kind of shock on the Japanese ruling oligarchy which we desired." [footnoteRef:5] [5: Stimson, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb]
Truman reiterated these sentiments in the Declaration:

"We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces ... the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction."[footnoteRef:6] [6: Ibid, pg 99.]

The Declaration was sent to the Office of War Information in Washington, who broadcasted the proposal to Japanese stations starting at 5:00 P.M. eastern standard time. Although the declaration was never formally sent to the Japanese government, the message was received by Domei Press at 4;30 am on the morning of July 27th.

When informed of the declaration, Emperor Hirohito agreed to the terms given by the Allies. According to Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shigenori Togo, the Japanese Supreme Command was torn between peace advocates like Prime Minister Suzuki Kantaro and himself who believed that Japan must accept the declaration and military chiefs like General Anami, Umezu and Toyoda, who favored a complete rejection of the proposal. [footnoteRef:7] [7: Bernstein, Barton J. "The Perils and Politics of Surrender: Ending the War with Japan and Avoiding the Third Atomic Bomb." Pacific Historical Review: 1-27.]

Togo believed that the Declaration contained several ambiguities regarding the specific language of the phrase "unconditional surrender," and so there could be a chance for the Japanese to renegotiate the terms. One official, Takagi, pointed out that the declaration was not signed by the Soviet Union, so the question became whether Japanese officials should respond to the message indirectly through Moscow or if they should approach the United States and Britain head on.[footnoteRef:8] During the cabinet meeting that day, Japanese leaders decided that the best course of action would be to make no official decision on the proclamation until they got a response from the Soviet Union, as to not give the impression that they were worried about defeat. Yet, they knew that they could not hide news of the declaration from the Japanese people since many citizens had already got wind of the proposal from radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped by American bombers.[footnoteRef:9] [8: Ibid, pg 13.] [9: Shigenori, Togo. The Cause of Japan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.]

On the morning of July 28th there was a meeting held between the Imperial General Headquarters and the government, which Togo Shigenori did not attend. During the meeting, General Anami and others demanded that the government reject the declaration. Prime Minister Suzuki and his deputy Yonai disagreed but they were outnumbered by the others. Facing pressure from the military's staunch opposition, Suzuki held a press conference at 4:00 P.M. where he made the following comment:

My thinking is that the joint declaration is virtually the same as the Cairo Declaration. The government of Japan does not consider it having any crucial value. We simply mokusatsu suru (ignore it). The only alternative for us is to be determined to continue our fight till the end.[footnoteRef:10] [10: Suzuki, Taketo. "The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki." (1990). Pg 48]

However, there is debate as to whether or not Suzuki actually made the Mokasatsu statement. Saiji Hasegawa of the Domei News Agency was at the news conference and precisely remembered that when asked if Japanese leaders would accept the declaration, Suzuki merely replied "no comment." The question of whether Suzuki actually uttered those exact words or if the Japanese press put the "Mokasatsu" words in his mouth, has been lost to history. [footnoteRef:11] [11: Ibid, pg. 49]

Yet, as several historians gather, it is quite probable that the latter was true, seeing that knowledge of the Japanese government's intention to ignore the declaration had already been known to the public and even published in newspapers prior to Suzuki's press conference.[footnoteRef:12] However, different interpretations then began to spread, leading to the eventual destruction of two major Japanese cities. Shortly after it was released, the Associated Press and…

Sources Used in Documents:


Primary Sources

Stimson, Henry. "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb." Harper's Magazine: 97-107.

Shigenori, Togo. The Cause of Japan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

"Japan Officially Turns Down Allied Surrender Ultimatum." The New York Times 28 July 1945.

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"Truman Japan Potsdam And The Bomb", 28 January 2016, Accessed.20 April. 2024,

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