Pacific Postcards

Cameron Davidson Final Pacific Essay

The Pacific Theater of World War II is often taught about in the United States and discussed as just that: a theater. A side-show from the main war that took place in Europe, that didn’t occupy the main attention of the Allied Powers until after Nazi Germany was disposed of. Only then did the United States focus its attention on the Empire of Japan, where it made the tough decision to end the war once and for all with the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, in order to prevent further suffering to the people of Japan or the soldiers of the United States. At least, that’s what we Americans were taught in schools. However, the reality is far more complicated and doesn’t exactly portray the United States in the best of lights. The Potsdam Declaration issued by the Allied Powers calling for Japan’s surrender helps to illustrate the motivations driving the American and Japanese governments in the final months of the war and how these two nations shared more in common than many Americans think. Most importantly, it serves to highlight whether or not the United States’ use of the Atomic Bombs against Japan was justified.

The Potsdam Declaration was a document issued by the Allied Powers calling for Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War and was issued on July 26th, 1945. It was drafted and issued during the Potsdam conference, a meeting of the leaders of the Allied Powers to discuss the fate of Europe following Germany’s defeat and discuss how they would bring about an end to the war in the Pacific.  The declaration itself is one page long and reads as a list of demands and terms for Japanese surrender. Among these demands is that Japan must abolish its military, that a democratic government be established, and that the Allies shall occupy Japan until these goals are met. The declaration also says that “those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest” must have their authority and influence “eliminated for all time”. The document outlines that Japan’s military may return to their homes and lead “peaceful and productive” lives, while also making clear that they do not intend for Japan to be destroyed as a nation. However, they make clear that stern justice will be issued to war criminals, and that Japan must lift its limitations on free speech. The document closes by saying that the alternative should Japan not succumb to these demands is “prompt and utter destruction”. The declaration makes a point to re-enforce the military strength of the Allied Powers. It uses Germany as a threatening, negative example of resisting the Allies for the leaders of Japan, saying that Nazi Germany’s resistance “necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life for the whole German people”. Moreover, the declaration attacks the character of Japan's leaders, saying, “The time has come for Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers whose unintelligent calculations have brought the Empire of Japan to the threshold of annihilation, or whether she will follow the path of reason.” In writing this, it is clear that the Allies hope to scare Japan’s leadership, the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War into surrender, and make clear to them the hopelessness of their military situation. 

While it is easy for us as Americans to view the United States as the hero who fought against an axis of evil in a war for the good of the world, the United States did embody many of the same characteristics as the Empire of Japan did during this time. No better is this illustrated than by the United States’ treatment of its Pacific Territories during this period; especially the Marshall Islands and Guam, as illustrated by Mary L. Dudziak in How the Pacific World Became West. In this piece, Dudziak describes how the United States made use of these two Pacific Colonies in vastly different ways --establishing military bases and liberating Guam from Japanese occupation but exploiting the Marshall Islands for nuclear testing. Dudziak also discusses in this article how America’s island territories became the extent of America’s borders during this time, as they used these islands as jumping-off points in their move towards the Japanese Mainland. The attack on Pearl Harbor is then what cemented Hawai’i as part of the United States, at least in the view of white-mainland Americans and the government, when before its status was somewhat ambiguous, especially considering that many of its inhabitants would rather be a self-governing state. All this is to say that the United States treated its overseas islands in much the way that the Japanese empire did. While of course, the United States was not an oppressive-totalitarian regime on the same level as the Japanese Empire, it's important to consider that these factors, combined with the US use of internment camps and eventually the Atom Bomb, that when the United States condemns those who “mislead the Japanese people into embarking on world conquest” in the Potsdam declaration and the “war crimes” committed by Japan, that oftentimes history is written by the victors. 

By mid-1945, four years after Japan had brought the United States into the war with their attack on Pearl Harbour and other US Pacific military facilities, Japan had been all but defeated militarily. Both their Navy and airforce essentially ceased to exist, and the US was able to perform bombing raids against Japanese cities almost at will, including the infamous firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 which killed more than 100,000 people. Even with all this, however, the Japanese government was reluctant to surrender, as many militarist leaders were deadset on the retention of the Imperial Government and were willing to launch an all-out defense in order to secure better terms for Peace, also hoping that Russia would be willing to help them negotiate Peace. 


The United States and the other allied powers, then were left with one question: how would they prompt a Japanese surrender and thus an end to the war? At the Yalta conference, a meeting between the Allies in February 1945 to discuss an end to the war, US President Franklin Roosevelt had requested that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin violate the Soviet non-aggression pact with Japan and declare war against Japan three months after Nazi Germany’s defeat (which was all but guaranteed), to which Stalin agreed in exchange for various territorial concessions. At the Potsdam Conference in July, new US President Harry S Truman and Secretary of State James Byrns hoped to secure Stalin’s support. 

Meanwhile, the United States’ effort to design a nuclear bomb --the Manhattan Project-- was in its final stages, with the weapon being all but complete pending a final test. Upon hearing the news of the successful test, Truman and Byrns began to change their tone. Now ever fearful of a USSR on the rise and Russia’s influence on the World Stage, they hoped that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan (it should be noted that Truman writes of the bomb’s usage as if it were an inevitability, rather than an active choice that he is making) would be able to force a Japanese surrender before the intervention of the Soviet Union, and thus Stalin wouldn’t be present at the negotiating table and the US would be at an advantage on the world stage. 

Later that month, the Potsdam Declaration, otherwise known as the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender was drafted. Notably, the declaration was not signed by Stalin or any other representative from the USSR, despite their signatures having been on earlier drafts of the Declaration. The stated reason for this was that the USSR was yet to declare war on Japan, but it seems likely that instead the USSR was struck from the document because Truman and Secretary of State Byrns did not want Russia to be involved in the surrender of Japan, including by having their signatures on the documents of surrender. For Japan, the biggest issue with these surrender papers was the question of what would be done about the emperor of Japan, which was in stark contrast to Truman and US leadership, who had been advocating heavily for his removal. This is further complicated by the fact that Hirohito remaining in power would actually be good for the Allies, in that he could tell the scattered Japanese military force to stand down, whereas otherwise, pockets of the military may continue fighting.  

However, with the how vaguely the phrasing was in the Potsdam declaration with regards to the question of the Emperor, and with Japan hoping that the Soviet Union would be able to mediate peace with the Allies with more favorable terms for them, the Potsdam Declaration was ignored by the Japanese leadership, and thus the United States proceeded with their plans of using the bombs. The question of whether or not the bombs were necessary or not is a very layered question, and it is one that is explored by Robert Buzzanaco in a chapter entitled “The Atomic Bombing of Japan: Was It Necessary?” from the book 

In this chapter, he first tells the version of events that we as Americans are familiar with: that the bomb was used as a means of avoiding a full-scale American invasion of Japan, something that would have resulted in the deaths of even more people. He then, however, goes on to call attention to criticisms of the bomb’s use, which posit that by the time the nuclear option was on the table following the successful Trinity test, an invasion (which had been planned in early 1945) had been ruled out because of Russia’s guarantee that they would declare war on Japan, which Truman and Byrns knew would end the war. Instead, then, Buzzanaco highlights arguments that the bomb was used not as a necessary military weapon against Japan, as they were likely to surrender anyway, but instead as a political weapon against the Soviet Union. The US aimed to avoid the USSR’s entry into the war by any means necessary, and also hoped that showcasing their new weapon on a global scale would frighten the Soviet Union. Buzzanaco goes on to point out that the narrative that the bomb was used to avoid an invasion was fabricated after the war, its first use being in a published letter by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. The higher-ups aimed to change public perception about the use of the bomb and were successful in doing so in that Americans went from split on its usage in the immediate aftermath, to mostly in agreement that it was necessary even up until today, where 60% of Americans think it was necessary. 

The idea that the bombs were used as a diplomatic weapon against the Soviet Union rather than strategic ones against Japan as argued by Buzzanaco is one that highlights the Potsdam Declarations’ insight into the morality of the bombings. The US had Stalin’s signature stripped from the declaration, and threatened in the declaration utter destruction of Japan should they not surrender. The term utter destruction, especially with hindsight, can be interpreted as a direct threat of the usage of the bombs, though Japan did not know this at the time. From this, we can see the US’s thinking that they could use the bombs to prompt Japanese surrender before the USSR entered the war, and put on a display of American might to frighten the Soviets at the same time. However, the US was unsuccessful in its goal of forcing the Japanese to surrender before Russia entered the war, as the USSR declared war against Japan on August 8th, the day before the bombing of Nagasaki and almost a month before Japan officially surrendered on September 2nd. The notion that the United States government murdered upwards of 100,000 people in pursuit of a diplomatic goal that they ultimately failed in achieving is difficult to swallow, and it’s obvious why the US government would take steps towards changing their citizens’ perceptions of the event, but the facts should never be lost. 

It should also be noted that when the United States threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction” in the Potsdam declaration, this was not a threat that they intended on backing down from, regardless of its military necessity. The idea that somehow this was “payback” for the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as racism against the Japanese people were likely also factors in the US decision to drop the bomb. All in all, this is an issue that is still intensely debated, and the lie that the US somehow needed to drop the bomb is still one that is very persistent, for varying reasons. However, it is important to understand the real motivations guiding the United States and Japan during this time and their relative similarity in order to provide the necessary context to these grotesque events that should not be forgotten. 

Works Cited:

  1. Dudziak, Mary L. 7. How the Pacific World Became West. (2020). World War II and the West It Wrought, 161–178.

  2.  Buzzanco, R. (n.d.). The Atomic Bombing of Japan. The Routledge Handbook of American Military and Diplomatic History.

  3. Potsdam Declaration: July 26th, 1945


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