World War II Day by Day World War II was the single most devastating and horrific event in the history of the world, causing the death of some 70 million people, reshaping the political map of the twentieth century and ushering in a new era of world history. Every day The Daily Chronicles brings you a new story from the annals of World War II with a vision to preserve the memory of those who suffered in the greatest military conflict the world has ever seen.

ALLIES ISSUE JAPAN SURRENDER ULTIMATUM

Potsdam, Germany July 26, 1945

After the conclusion of the ruinous Battle of Berlin (April 16 to May 2, 1945) and the uncon­di­tional sur­ren­der of Nazi Germany (May 7 and 8, 1945), U.S. Pre­si­dent Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin gathered at a “Big Three” victors’ conference in Potsdam. Their meeting in a Berlin suburb from July 17 to August 2 decided the post­war geo­polit­i­cal and eco­no­mic fates of Euro­pean nations as well as that of Japan, the Axis power still fighting World War II. This Asian hold­out was upper­most in Truman’s mind as he pon­dered how to get a com­mit­ment from the leader of the Soviet Union to join the U.S., Great Britain, and China in winding down the war as quickly as pos­si­ble. For the moment the Allies were sty­mied in bringing Stalin on board by the five-year non­ag­gres­sion pact Japan and the Soviet Union had entered into in 1941.

Separate from this conundrum, Truman and Chur­chill were keen on issuing a state­ment they and Chi­nese Nation­alist leader Chiang Kai-shek could sign, sum­ma­rizing the terms and con­di­tions as the three saw it for their adver­sary’s un­con­di­tional sur­rend­er. Securing Chiang’s sig­na­ture took a good week. Late on this date, July 26, 1945, the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion (known after its place of “pub­li­ca­tion”) was broad­cast to the world in English, then Japa­nese. Over the next few days 3 mil­lion leaf­lets that described the Allies’ terms were air­dropped over Japan. Truman and Chur­chill pur­posely kept Stalin igno­rant of the wording of the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion (after all, his nation was a non­com­ba­tant), while secretly knowing that Stalin would declare war on Japan on August 15 “with no strings attached,” as Truman remarked to his wife on July 18, a day after learning of the Soviets’ deci­sion to enter the war. The two West­ern leaders also knew that on July 16 their joint Man­hat­tan Pro­ject had exploded an atomic bomb of the sort that could be unleashed over Japan from August 1 onward. Its use might accel­er­ate Japan’s capitu­la­tion before Soviet armies could inter­vene, thus saving millions of combatants’ lives as well as those of civilians.

The Potsdam Declaration was a final ulti­ma­tum to force Japan to accept the Allies’ uncon­di­tional sur­ren­der demands. By now Japan’s defeat was not an issue: its armed forces were whipped, yet they were esti­mated to still be lethal for up­wards of another year or more. The sticking point for Japan’s war leaders was the status of Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito, whom Truman ini­ti­ally wanted removed in a post­war Japan. A Gallup Poll in June 1945 sided with Truman: just 7 per­cent thought Hirohito should keep his thrown, while a good third wanted him executed as a war criminal.

In its final iteration the Potsdam Declaration was ambig­u­ous enough over the emperor’s post­war fate that Hiro­hito found it “accept­able in prin­ciple.” Ignoring the signa­tories’ warning—“We shall brook no delay”—Prime Minis­ter Kan­tarō Suzuki stated at a press con­fer­ence that the decla­ra­tion was nothing more than a rehash of old pro­posals and, as such, beneath con­tempt. He would “kill (it) with silence (moku­satsu),” he said. Truman, hearing nothing back, carried out the decla­ra­tion’s threat of “prompt and utter destruc­tion” by ordering the bombing of two Japa­nese cities, Hiro­shima and Naga­saki, on August 6 and 9, 1945, using what he called “the most terrible bomb in the his­tory of the world” (Truman’s diary entry for July 25). On August 9 the Soviets dropped the final ham­mer by declaring war on Japan. Five days later Hirohito surrendered his country.



Japan 1945: Living on Borrowed Time

Potsdam Declaration: U.S. President Harry S. TrumanPotsdam Declaration: Japanese Emperor Hirohito

Left: For a brief while President Truman (1884–1972) seemed betwixt and between over his deci­sion to use the atomic bomb on Amer­i­ca’s last World War II adver­sary. The day after he ordered Hiros­hima oblit­er­ated, Truman con­fessed: “For my­self I cert­ainly regret the neces­sity of wiping out whole popu­la­tions because of the ‘pig­headed­ness’ of the leaders of a nation, and . . . I am not going to do it unless abso­lutely neces­sary.” Two days after ordering Naga­saki’s destruc­tion, Truman had no regrets: “The only langu­age they [the Japa­nese] seem to under­stand is the one we have been using to bom­bard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.” Looking back, Truman neither shirked per­sonal respon­si­bi­lity for his deci­sion to be the only U.S. pre­si­dent to autho­rize use of a nuclear weapon nor did he apologize for it.

Right: Emperor Hirohito (1901–1989) was not directly mentioned in the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion. The closest the decla­ra­tion came to stating the obvious wish of the victors, which was the removal of bad actors from the politi­cal and mili­tary stages after the war, was Para­graph 6: “There must be eli­mi­nated for all time the autho­rity and influ­ence of those who have deceived and mis­led the people of Japan into embarking on world con­quest.” At dawn on August 10, 1945, one day after the Naga­saki bombing and the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific War, the Japa­nese Foreign Minis­try, through the Swiss govern­ment, informed the U.S. State Depart­ment that the Japa­nese govern­ment was ready to accept the terms enu­mer­ated in the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion “with the under­standing that the said decla­ration does not com­pro­mise any demand which preju­dices the pre­rog­a­tives of His Majesty as a Sover­eign Ruler.” Secre­tary of State James Byrnes responded: “From the moment of sur­ren­der the autho­rity of the Emperor and the Japa­nese Govern­ment to rule the state shall be sub­ject to the Supreme Com­man­der of the Allied Powers.” Hiro­hito was unwa­vering in his com­mit­ment to ending the war im­medi­ately and pre­pared him­self for a worst-case sce­nario in which he might be arrested by the victors, even tried and exe­cuted as a war crimi­nal. Hiro­hito kept his throne and his skin as he and Japan’s post­war govern­ment developed a well-working relation­ship with the soft-handed approach of the Supreme Com­man­der for the Allied Powers Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, who handed over power to the Japa­nese government in 1949.

Potsdam Conference: Truman, Churchill, Stalin in Berlin, June 1945