10. The Big Six debates

The Big Six got its news of the bombing very quickly, from the governor of Nagasaki prefecture. The governor played down the impact of the attack, reporting that the number of dead was ‘small’, probably (he alleged) because the weapon had been less powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The news apparently had little effect on the impasse the Big Six had reached—though, as Richard Frank has pointed out, Toyoda’s argument, or hope, that the United States had few atomic bombs was undercut by the dropping of the second bomb so soon after the first. The debate went on. The meeting adjourned at 1.00 p.m., deadlocked over whether to insist that the United States meet four conditions or merely one.

That afternoon saw lobbying and intrigue by several groups and individuals on behalf of their positions. The veteran politician-diplomat Prince Fumimaro Konoe met Kido at the palace. Distressed to learn that the Big Six were considering four conditions, and that Kido and presumably Hirohito favored this approach, Konoe, joined in the effort by former foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and Hirohito’s younger brother Prince Takamatsu, urged Kido to convince the Emperor to issue a ‘sacred decision’ (seidan) to accede to Potsdam with just the one condition, thereby breaking the high-level deadlock. A small group of military officers pursued the same strategy on a parallel track. Meanwhile, Suzuki, at 2.30, convened an emergency cabinet meeting. There, for a larger audience, members of the Big Six rehearsed and embroidered the arguments they had put forward that morning. Yonai, who had first described the additional conditions that had so troubled the debate, now came forcefully into the one condition camp. Still, three hours later, the cabinet was no less divided than the Big Six. And, when the cabinet reconvened at 6.00, it could get no further. Togo contended that the Americans would never accept the military’s four conditions. If not, Anami retorted, let the war go on; the army would make the Americans pay dearly if they invaded Japan.

Suzuki put a stop to it at 10.00. He told the group that he would apprise the Emperor of the debate, and once more gather the Supreme War Council (the Big Six). The plan, hatched that afternoon with Kido, was to turn the meeting into an imperial conference, the Emperor himself presiding. Kido had earlier talked to Hirohito for nearly an hour. His own doubts about the four-conditions proposal having been sharpened by his encounters with Konoe, Takamatsu, and Shigemitsu, Kido had evidently brought the Emperor around with a small redefinition of the kokutai, broadening it slightly so as to offer the Japanese greater autonomy in determining its ultimate form. Now, after midnight, the principals in the drama met yet again, this time in a room in the palace basement, and in front of the Emperor. Then came a twist: Baron Kiichiro Hiranuma, chair of the

Privy Council, had been asked by the Emperor to join the deliberations. Hiranuma spoke out of his turn, asked many questions, and went on at length. At the end, he proposed yet another broadening of the definition of kokutai: it was to be understood that the Potsdam Declaration ‘does not comprise any demand that prejudices the prerogatives of his majesty as a sovereign ruler’. ‘In effect’, Herbert Bix has written, ‘this amounted to an affirmation that the emperor’s rights of sovereignty, including the all-important right of supreme command, antedated the constitution and had been determined by the gods in antiquity ...It was certainly not constitutional monarchy’ that Hiranuma had proposed. Either because they accepted Hiranuma’s redefinition of the kokutai or because they were simply exhausted, the three members of the ‘Peace Faction’ did not object.

Suzuki now asked the Emperor to decide. While no transcript of Hiro-hito’s exact words exists, the historian Robert J. C. Butow has pulled together a ‘re-creation’ of what he said, using the recollections of those who were there. Hirohito said he agreed with Togo—that they should ask for only the single condition. ‘Continuing the war can only mean destruction for the nation and prolongation of bloodshed and cruelty in the world,’ he said. ‘I cannot bear to see my innocent people suffer any longer.’ Despite promises made by the military, Tokyo was poorly defended; indeed, the sovereign said pointedly, ‘there has always been a discrepancy between plans and performance.’ Painful as it was to give way, it was necessary now to ‘bear the unbearable’. With that, Hirohito left the room. All six members of the Supreme War Council promptly signed a statement endorsing surrender on the one condition. At 3.00 a.m. the cabinet provided its endorsement. But Anami, angry at the use of the Emperor to break the deadlock in a way he thought dishonorable, now demanded to know whether, if the United States rejected preservation of the kokutai, Suzuki was prepared to continue the fight. Suzuki said he was. Just over three hours later, Japan’s terms were transmitted to the Allies via the neutrals, Sweden and Switzerland.47

Harry Truman received the news around 7.30 in the morning of 10 August. He gathered Byrnes, Stimson, Leahy, and Forrestal and asked them what he should do. Probably no one in the room understood the subtlety of Hiranuma’s conditional language, but Byrnes had already been buttonholed by a trio of Japan specialists in the State Department (one of them Joseph Grew), who insisted that the Japanese condition reserved limitless power for the Emperor and would thus frustrate the effort to demilitarize and democratize the defeated nation. Byrnes was worried enough that compromising in any way the unconditional surrender demand would result in Truman being ‘crucified’ by the American public, weary of war but nevertheless determined to adhere to declared principle—and to avenge itself fully on the Japanese. Leahy, Forrestal, and most emphatically Stimson disagreed, urging the acceptance of Japan’s offer as written. (Stimson later groused in his diary about ‘uninformed agitation against the Emperor in this country mostly by people who know no more about Japan than has been given them by Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” ’.) Here was a chance to end the war and thus save American lives, and to prevent the Soviets pushing deeper into Manchuria and elsewhere and thereby demanding a significant share of the occupation authority. Forrestal found a way out of the impasse: accept Japanese terms, but in the acceptance honor what he called ‘the intents and purposes of the Potsdam Declaration’. Truman approved this ploy and assigned Byrnes to put it in writing.

The result was a reply that left much to interpretation. The Byrnes Note, as it came formally to be called, initially stated: ‘From the moment of surrender the authority of the emperor and the Japanese Government to rule shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.’ Notice here that the continued existence of the Emperor was assumed, and that ‘Commander’ was a singular noun, ‘in order’, as Stimson put it, ‘to exclude any condominium such as we have in Poland’. (Forrestal, more accurately, said ‘Germany’.) Further on, the Byrnes Note allowed as ‘the ultimate form of government of Japan shall ...be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people’. This was largely a restatement of a provision of the Potsdam Declaration, though that document had omitted the word ‘ultimate’, the introduction of which now might suggest a phasing in period during which the Emperor might retain his perquisites. Byrnes won approval for his language at a cabinet meeting that afternoon. As the secretary read out the proposal, according to Vice President Henry Wallace, he ‘stopped’ and ‘laid special emphasis on the top dog commander over Hirohito being an American.’ Truman noted that Britain’s foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, had already approved the draft, and that it would also be circulated to the Chinese and Russians—though the President thought it unlikely that he would hear from Moscow. He also told the group that he had ordered a halt to the atomic bombing: ‘the thought of wiping out another 100,000 was too horrible.’ He ended by saying that, when peace rumors had been floated the previous day, the White House had received 170 telegrams in response. All but seventeen ‘were for hard terms—unconditional surrender’. With a slight subsequent modification by the British, acceptance by the Chinese, and grudging acquiescence by the Soviets, who had wanted at least a say in choosing the Supreme Commander, the Byrnes Note went to Tokyo, where it was received at 2.00 a.m. on 12 August.48

Now the wounds that the Emperor’s decision had closed with gossamer thread burst open once again. Togo was shaken by the unmistakable lack of explicit concession in the Byrnes Note; several of his subordinates in the foreign ministry hastily and deliberately mistranslated the note, moderating its language and hoping—fruitlessly, as it turned out—that the Japanese military would ask no questions or try a translation of its own. Yonai remained committed to surrender, but Prime Minister Suzuki wavered until Kido summoned him that night to put some backbone into him. Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda were angry at the American response and inclined to stiffen their position: Japan must fight on. A group of junior officers went further, making hasty plans to stage a coup against their disgracefully craven government and to take control of the Imperial Palace. Apprised of the plot, Anami remained silent. Along with Togo, and for reasons of his own, only Hirohito, guided by Kido, stayed steadfastly devoted to ending the war. Byrnes’s Note was not all that might have been hoped for, but even if properly translated it could be construed, by those who wished to see it so, as leaving the kokutai intact, albeit subservient to an alien supreme commander. The Emperor wished to see it so. Throughout the humid days of 12-13 August, however, the persistent opposition to a settlement by key military leaders, set against the distinctly audible rumblings of a plot to overthrow the government, prevented a decision to end the war.

Thus, for those days and much of the 14th, the war continued. Recognizing that surrender might be near, the Soviets drove hard against the Kwantung Army in an effort to capture as much territory as possible. Many Japanese units fought stubbornly, but they were overmatched and outgunned, and so fell back on nearly every front in Manchuria. The Russians also attacked Sakhalin Island and were preparing an assault on northern Korea. The Americans went on with their air war. Truman had suspended use of the atomic bomb, but there were no more bombs yet ready for use in any case. He also halted strategic bombing while the United States awaited Japan’s reply to the Byrnes Note. Still, it was possible to do nearly anything under the guise of tactical bombing, and there were plenty of high explosives and incendiaries available to US commanders in the Pacific. Early on the 13 th, carrier-based fighters and bombers struck Japanese factories at Kawasaki, hit airfields and train stations near Tokyo, and even strafed passenger trains. Rumors flew that the capital would be the target of a third atomic bomb; Radio Tokyo warned citizens to ‘Take shelter even from a single enemy plane!’ and ‘Wear white clothing that will protect you better from burns than dark clothes!’ That day, with the Japanese response to the Byrnes Note unforthcoming, Truman lifted the ban on strategic bombing. The decision allowed General Henry H. Arnold to carry out his wish to stage ‘as big a finale as possible’. Over a fourteen-hour period on the 14th and 15th, 828 B-29s and 186 fighters bombed and blasted Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the agony of indecision over what to do about the Byrnes Note was at last resolved. Anami played a key role. Though deeply unhappy at the prospect of what seemed to him unconditional surrender and more than willing to fight on—he famously said, ‘even though we have to eat grass, swallow dirt, and lie in the fields, we shall fight on to the bitter end, ever firm in our faith that we shall find life in death’—he also felt an abiding and powerful sense of duty to his emperor. When Hirohito appealed to him directly, calling him by name and tearfully begging him to accept the surrender decision, Anami resolved against supporting a coup. Indeed: ‘those who disobey must go over my dead body’, he told a stunned group of younger officers hoping for a green light from their superior. For Hirohito had intervened once again to break the stalemate in the Supreme War Council and the cabinet. At 10.00 a.m. on 14 August, the Emperor convened his second imperial conference in five days, summoning both the council and the cabinet to the same basement room in the palace. After hearing from the irreconciliables, Hirohito spoke, his voice breaking. He had not changed his mind about the need to surrender. Continuing the war, he said, offered ‘nothing but additional destruction’. The American reply to the Japanese proposal he deemed ‘acceptable’, constituting ‘a virtually complete acknowledgment’ of Japan’s terms. The military must accede to this position. For his part, the Emperor would broadcast a message over the radio to the Japanese people, explaining to them why the end had come, why it was necessary to lay down arms. He asked the assembled group to draft the message, which he then planned to record on a phonograph record in his formal Japanese. Thereafter, as one participant recalled, tears ‘flowed unceasingly’, and the Emperor left the room.

The coup did come off, as insurgents briefly seized the Imperial Palace that night and tried, unsuccessfully, to locate Kido, the Emperor, and the rumored phonograph record of the sovereign’s voice. Without high-level support, however, the revolt never had a chance of success: most of the army remained loyal, and within hours the insurgents had been routed and the leaders committed suicide. Anami shared glasses of sake with several associates, then used his sword to open his belly in ritual seppuku. Ignorant of these events, the following afternoon Dr Hachiya in Hiroshima, along with millions of other Japanese, strained to hear, through the static of the record, their Emperor entreating them to accept defeat. Hachiya felt confused and betrayed by what the Emperor said. Robert Guillain, a French journalist living in a village outside Tokyo, reported that few understood their sovereign’s stilted words and waited for the radio announcer to explain what he had said. ‘Then,’ wrote Guillain, ‘it was over’:

They had understood, and the sobbing broke out. The knots of people dissolved in disorder. Something huge had just cracked: the proud dream of greater Japan. All that was left of it to millions of Japanese was a true sorrow, simple and pitiable—the bleeding wound of their vanquished patriotism. They scattered and hid to weep in the seclusion of their wooden houses.

In the United States, the reaction to the news was a good deal more celebratory.49

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