Review of Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa Harvard University Press

Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780674022416

Perhaps no single topic in American history is as controversial as the decision to use atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. While scholars have debated the issue, few have looked at it from an international perspective. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa uses primary source material from Japanese, American, and Russian archives to make a series of compelling arguments. First, Hasegawa believes that Truman’s meeting with Stalin at Potsdam initiated a race between the Americans to end the war and the Soviets to invade Manchuria before the war ended. Hasegawa also argues that Truman and Byrnes constructed the Potsdam Proclamation in a way that would make it impossible for the Japanese to accept surrender. Second, Molotov held out the Japanese for mediation while the Soviets were actually preparing for war. Hasegawa claims that the eventual Soviet attack shocked the Japanese more than the destruction caused by the U.S. atomic bombs. Third, disagreements between army leaders and the peace party in the Japanese government delayed the surrender. Hasegawa argues against Gar Alperovitz’s position that Japan was a defeated nation ready to capitulate (2–5).

As the war in Europe wound down, the Big Three (Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill) met at Yalta in February 1945. Roosevelt’s two key issues were to obtain Soviet entry into the war against Japan and to obtain Soviet recognition and alliance with the Nationalist Government of China. Roosevelt gave Stalin favorable concessions including preeminent interests in the Dairen port and the Chinese-Eastern Railroad as well as the southern part of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (34–35). By midsummer 1945, Germany had surrendered and Roosevelt was dead. A final meeting was needed to discuss the war with Japan.

Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam beginning 17 July 1945. Hasegawa argues that Stimson’s message regarding the successful detonation of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos changed Truman and Byrnes’ opinion on the necessity of the Soviet Union. Truman believed that using the atomic bomb would compel the Japanese to surrender without Soviet entry into the war. The United States would dictate terms of occupation of Japan and ensure an open door policy with Asia. Truman developed a hard line toward Stalin during the meeting and maneuvered the Potsdam Proclamation through without Stalin’s signature. Hasegawa claims that Truman and Byrnes knew that the clause demanding “the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces” would be rejected by the Japanese, allowing the United States the excuse it wanted to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima by 2 August 1945 (166). The race was on to see if the United States could force the Japanese to surrender before the USSR could join the war. Stalin pushed his eastern forces to prepare to invade Manchuria. At stake was Soviet hegemony in the east.

Stalin had long coveted Manchuria but he needed Japanese cooperation during most of World War II to avoid a two-front war. For the same reason, the Japanese also needed the Soviets to remain neutral while they fought the United States. The resulting Neutrality Pact created a strange alliance where each side pledged neutrality while the other fought its ally. According to Hasegawa, Stalin spent the summer of 1945 building up his forces for an attack on Japan while trying to figure a legal way out of the pact. Hasegawa never reveals why Stalin thought the legality of his actions against a country the allies loathed was so important. Meanwhile, the Japanese, who had already been told by the Soviets that they would let the pact naturally expire in 1946, viewed the Soviets first as a partner to help win the war and later as the agent to help them negotiate a peace treaty. Unfortunately for the Japanese, they were dealing with two of the world’s masters of duplicity (Molotov and Stalin). Hasegawa claims that although the capable ambassador Sato realized the futility of dealing with the Soviets, he was hamstrung by Togo and Suzuki in Tokyo. They refused to give Sato concrete details to tempt the Soviets, who eventually grew weary of Sato and became more and more unavailable. Finally, the Soviets attacked; Hasegawa claims this shocked the Japanese more than the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To back up his argument, he uses Sato’s statement that “the inevitable has now arrived.” (191) However, Hasegawa contradicts his own argument when quoting Emperor Hirohito, the living god of Japan, shortly after the attack on Hiroshima: “So my wish is to make such arrangements as to end the war as soon as possible.” (185)

Yet, Sato and the emperor fielded the minority opinion regarding capitulation. The Supreme War council was split between those who wanted peace and those who wanted to stage one last great battle. Both sides insisted on preserving the kokutai, “the symbolic expression of both political and spiritual essence of the emperor system.” (4) Hasegawa argues convincingly against the revisionist position that Japan was a country ready to surrender. Most armed forces junior officers and a majority of senior officers favored continuing the war. But a small group dubbed the peace party eventually persuaded Hirohito to intervene personally. After Hirohito’s message to surrender was broadcast on radio, a group of junior officers attempted a coup.  It is important to note that the senior officers who stopped the coup only did so out of loyalty to the emperor, not because they wanted to surrender. (245–49)

Hasegawa attempts to ride the middle ground between the revisionists and the post-revisionists. His primary agreement with revisionists is that Truman had motives other than saving American lives when he contemplated using atomic force. He places a strong moral indictment against Truman using the president’s own words regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: “This is the greatest thing in history.” (180) On the same page, Hasegawa details the devastation of Hiroshima. Yet, as previously mentioned, Hasegawa also agrees with post-revisionists that Japan was not a country ready to surrender in the summer of 1945. However, Hasegawa tends to dismiss too easily the effect of the atomic bombs on the surrender process; this is a point of contention with other post-revisionists. In the end, Hasegawa states, “Thus this is a story with no heroes but no real villains, either—just men.” (302)

Racing the Enemy is written in traditional diplomatic style with a long list of endnotes. This book is recommended for scholars looking for an international view of the war’s end. The text reads well except that the many names and positions of the lower-echelon participants can be confusing. It would be helpful occasionally to mention the full names and titles of lesser-known individuals. This is a valuable book that belongs in the collection of a diplomatic historian.

Reviewed by Jeff Ewen, Drew University
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]