Tokyo, Japan August 12, 1945

In 1945 the endgame in Europe was to capture 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, August 12, 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. Another atomic bombing was in the planning stages just as soon as a third bomb, which was in New Mexico, had been flown to the Pacific and made ready for delivery some­time after August 24 if Japan hadn’t sur­rendered. Truman ruled out further atomic bombings of Japan with­out his express per­mis­sion the day after Nagasaki was immolated.)

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 the Impe­rial Con­fer­ence the emperor 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”). Japa­nese leaders insisted on one con­di­tion: the sur­render must 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 11.

The Allies’ August 11 response (it was August 12 when it arrived in Tokyo), 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 loss of life and destruc­tion of pro­perty caused by two atomic bombings and the poten­tial for more of the same, 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.” After the broad­cast the emperor’s war cabinet resigned en masse.

Inescapable Annihilation or Unconditional Surrender, Japan, August–September 1945

Decision to order Japan’s unconditional surrender: Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the WarSigning the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, September 2, 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 in fact 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 com­posed and delivered, added to the con­fu­sion. Curiously, Hiro­hito made no men­tion in his broad­cast of also being moti­vated to termi­nate the war by the Soviet Union’s August 8 inva­sion of Japa­nese-occu­pied Man­chu­ria (Japan’s puppet state of Man­chu­kuo) on the Chinese main­land, though clearly it weighed on his mind in the decisions he and his councilors made between August 8 and 14, 1945.

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. (A revision to the Byrnes Note dropped the require­ment that Hiro­hito person­ally sign the surren­der docu­ment.) 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 to Suther­land, “Show him where to sign.” Shige­mitsu, along with his pred­e­ces­sor in the Foreign Affairs office, Shige­nori Tōgō, who advo­cated Japa­nese surren­der in the summer of 1945, and Gen. Umezu were tried as war crimi­nals at the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo and imprisoned. Hirohito escaped their fate.

Footage of the Moment the Japanese Surrendered Aboard the USS Missouri