Tokyo, Japan • August 12, 1945
In 1945 the endgame in Europe was to take Berlin, the epicenter of Nazi resistance, which the Red Army did in the last week of April. On May 7 and 8, 1945, Adolf Hitler’s political heir, Adm. Karl Doenitz, surrendered Nazi Germany unconditionally to the Allies. The endgame in the Pacific War seemed to be the incineration of Japan. As President Harry S. Truman stated on August 6, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.” The Japanese warlords, the president went on to say, “may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” It was obvious to every combatant nation in the Asia Pacific conflict that a negotiated peace remotely favorable to Japan was off the table.
On this date in 1945 in Tokyo, Japanese Emperor Hirohito (posthumously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) informed his family of his decision to order his country’s surrender to the Allies. Until August 9, the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War (all military officers with the exception of Foreign Affairs Minister Shigenori Tōgō) had set four preconditions for Japan’s surrender. But on this day the emperor ordered his Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal to “quickly control the situation” in light of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war on August 9. (August 9 was also the date the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan, this on the city of Nagasaki. A third atomic bomb was being readied for delivery on August 17 or 18.)
Then Hirohito held an impromptu Imperial Conference (Gozen Kaigi) that included both the “Big Six” war council members and the entire cabinet of Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki during which he authorized Shigenori Tōgō (the same Foreign Affairs minister who had signed the declaration of war on the U.S. in 1941) to notify the Allies that Japan would accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 (“unconditional surrender” over the alternative of “prompt and utter destruction”) on one condition: that surrender did not compromise the prerogatives of the emperor as a sovereign ruler. Early on the morning of August 10, 1945, the Japanese Foreign Ministry telegrammed the Allies (via the Swiss legation in Washington, D.C.) of their government’s decision. The U.S., British, Chinese, and Soviet governments formally replied as one on August 12.
The Allies’ August 12 response, known as the Byrnes Note after the U.S. Secretary of State who crafted it, seemed to leave intact the principle of the preservation of the Throne: “The ultimate form of government of Japan shall, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.” It was a condition Hirohito could live with: “I think the [U.S.] reply is all right,” the emperor told his foreign minister. “You had better proceed to accept the note as it is.” And so on August 14 Hirohito recorded Japan’s capitulation announcement that was broadcast to the nation the next day. Speaking frankly to his subjects Hirohito acknowledged the awesome destruction caused by two atomic bombings and the potential for further destruction, saying, “Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
Inescapable Annihilation or Unconditional Surrender, Japan, August–September 1945
Left: Emperor Hirohito’s Rescript on the Termination of the War. The rescript was written on August 14, recorded on a phonograph record, and broadcast to Japanese citizens at noon on August 15, 1945. Hirohito’s Gyokuon-hōsō (lit. “Jewel Voice Broadcast”) made no direct reference to Japan’s surrender or defeat. Neither did it contain the words “apologize” or “sorry.” Instead, the emperor said he had instructed his government to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration fully. This circumlocution confused many listeners who were not sure if Japan had surrendered or if the emperor was exhorting his subjects to resist an enemy invasion. The poor audio quality of the radio broadcast, as well as the formal courtly language in which the speech was delivered, added to the confusion.
Right: Recently appointed Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, along with Chief of the Army General Staff and Supreme War Council member Gen. Yoshijirō Umezu, signs the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on board the USS Missouri as Gen. Richard K. Sutherland and Toshikazu Kase, a high-ranking Japanese Foreign Ministry official, watch. Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945. When Shigemitsu appeared confused as to where to place his signature, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers and master of ceremonies for the surrender formalities, barked barked to Sutherland, “Show him where to sign.” Shigemitsu, his predecessor in the Foreign Affairs office Shigenori Tōgō, and Gen. Umezu were tried as war criminals at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo and imprisoned.
Obliterating Japan: The U.S. Army Air Forces 1945 Strategic Bombing Campaign