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Militarism and War, The Tide Turns

Potsdam Declaration, Pearl Harbor attack, American aircraft carriers, limited war, Japanese cities

Japanese leaders were aware of America’s immense economic and technological strength, but they gambled that the American public and politicians would not have the stomach to fight to the finish. Japanese war plans envisaged a limited war that would lead the United States to a negotiated peace that recognized Japan’s dominant position and territorial gains in East Asia. The plans assumed that Japan would be able to hold a strategic defensive perimeter of island bases stretching through the central and South Pacific against American counterattack, and that Nazi Germany would complete its military conquest of Europe. These sobering realities would then force the United States to the negotiating table.

In actuality, the United States decided to wage an all-out “total war” that would end only with Japan’s “unconditional surrender.” Although the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been heavily damaged by the Pearl Harbor attack, American aircraft carriers had escaped unscathed, and they inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The Americans adopted an island hopping strategy of striking behind bases on Japan’s outer perimeter and cutting them off from their logistical support. The Americans also used submarine warfare to sink Japanese merchant marine vessels and cut the sea lanes linking the Japanese home islands to the resources of the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia. In July 1944 the American capture of Saipan, a major Japanese base in the Mariana Islands, put the Japanese home islands within range of American long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers. Beginning in the early fall of 1944, Japanese cities and their civilian populations were subjected to increasingly frequent bombing raids.

Although Tojo was forced to resign as prime minister after the fall of Saipan, military setbacks did not change the basic policies of the Japanese government. A number of Japanese civilian politicians, ranking bureaucrats, and a few former generals were aware that the tide of the war had turned against Japan. They urged the opening of peace talks with the United States through an intermediary such as the USSR. However, despite steady military and naval losses, the destruction of Tokyo, Osaka, and other major cities, and the surrender of their German allies, Japan’s military and naval leaders were determined to fight to the end. Furthermore, despite increasing shortages of food, clothing, and other necessities, the civilian population showed few signs of declining morale. Many farm women and housewives were even trained to meet an American invasion force on the beaches with bamboo spears.

When in late July 1945 the Japanese cabinet rejected the Potsdam Declaration, a renewed Allied demand that Japan surrender unconditionally or face utter destruction, the United States decided to use its new atomic weapons. On August 6 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Two days later the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and on August 9 the United States dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki. Faced with such an utterly hopeless situation, the Japanese leadership finally agreed to surrender on August 14 (August 15 in Japan). Japanese emperor Hirohito, speaking for the first time on the radio, broadcast the news to the nation.

Article key phrases:

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