How did the world find itself in such a situation that nuclear weapons could be the best hope for its salvation? To find the answer, we have to dig deep into the guts of World War II and the politics of a proud, violent, fascist Japan.
In mid-1945, Japan’s major decisions about war and peace came from the Supreme War Council, a body of six ministers whose hectic meetings controlled the waging of the war and, so, the lives of millions in August of that year. The events proceeded as follows: the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on the 6th of August. Information about the damage filtered up to the leadership by the 8th and a meeting was called, but the more militant branches of the government said they were too busy to come and it should be tomorrow. The Soviet invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria started in the early minutes of the morning of the 9th, and then Nagasaki was erased later that same day, as the Council sat in their meeting. The day after, Japan began negotiations with the U.S. that would lead to full surrender on the 14th.
There aren’t many first-hand accounts of the decision-making process involved in the surrender – like the Nazis, the fascist Japanese loved burning documents – but the few papers we do have paint a tense and foreboding portrait of the last meetings. Over the last months, the U.S. had taken the near island of Okinawa, huge air raids had razed major cities, and the nation’s resources (food, houses, human beings) had dwindled and burned. Yet despite the dire straits strangling Japan, the Council was in stalemate over whether to accept the terms of the U.S. Potsdam Declaration. Then suddenly, two pacemaker-shattering shocks appeared on each other’s heels – the A-bomb and Stalin’s invasion – adding a new sense of urgency to the search for peace.
On the 9th of August, the six ministers of the Supreme War Council sat down as they had on many other fruitless occasions and debated each other, showing their teeth, not bowing low enough, and rudely spilling tea, which is as close as Japan gets to anarchy. Three of the ministers continued to support surrender and acceptance of current peace terms. Three others, led by the vociferous Minister of War Korechika Anami, wished to continue until the bitter end – or at least until hundreds of thousands of Japanese and American deaths convinced the Allies to pardon Japan’s current rulers and grant them more post-war control. This was the non-surrender party’s goal: to convince the U.S., by means of steadfast resistance, to let them keep running their country into the ground after the war ended.
Korechika Anami was the kind of man who would try to stare an enemy tank into butter if it dared to charge him. A stubborn product of Japan’s decades of militarism, he held himself to be a classic samurai, practicing daily such anachronisms as the sword, bow, and religious devotion to the Emperor.
Anami’s determination to fight until the bitter end manifested in a great deal of wishful thinking. Hours after Hiroshima, he contended that an atomic bomb would be too big to carry across the ocean and thus none had been used, only a very powerful regular bomb. (Most countries in World War II had gained rudimentary knowledge of the hypothetical weapon through pre-war research and had a vague idea of what an “atomic bomb” might be.) When pressed, he insisted that in any case the U.S. could only have one bomb, as the amount of enriched Uranium required for a single bomb was astronomical and they couldn’t afford to build another (he was right – the U.S. made its second bomb of Plutonium). Of course, when Nagasaki was destroyed during the meeting, it kind of undermined his “one bomb” argument. But he plunged onward nonetheless, insisting that Japan continue the war even if victory was “mathematically impossible.”
The Minister of War’s victory-or-death worldview was not unique – many of his subordinates in all branches of the military lived and breathed such ideas. When, after the War Council meetings, he would speak to the other officers, it was like locking himself in an echo chamber of fascist jargon and violent excitement at the thought of honorable death. These ideals were deeply ingrained – though not omnipresent – in the rank and file soldiers, the kamikaze pilots, the civilians who committed mass suicide rather than be captured. Japan’s supreme willpower in this regard is proof of the world of difference that existed between defeat and surrender.→