Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Rhymes of History

Sitting down in his study, the President of the United States reviews the war briefing he’s just received from his top military, political and foreign policy advisors and writes a few notes:

“This is what I know:

• We’re fighting a suicidal enemy.
• The enemy is militarily beaten but belligerent.
• There’s no sign of surrender.
• The enemy appears to be breaking up, with some saying they want peace while others want to fight. The ones wanting peace don’t speak with authority.
• The American populace is war weary.
• Problematic Allies.”

Sound like George W. Bush dealing with the war in Iraq?

Try Harry S. Truman, around June or July 1945, figuring out how to end the war with Japan so World War II could come to a conclusion.

President Truman likely never wrote those words, or anything similar, after talking with his advisors about the way to end the war with Japan, but he probably had thoughts along those lines. In the summer of 1945, as U.S. troops were occupying Germany, and the fighting on Okinawa against Japanese forces was ending, Truman was feeling pressure to end the war, on U.S. terms, as fast as possible.

Prior to Truman becoming president, senior U.S. military officers were focusing on the best way to bring the war with Japan to an end. Invasion plans were prepared for the Japanese islands and commanders and military units, as well as personnel, were selected for the pending assault, which was scheduled for November 1945. The goal was for Japan to surrender unconditionally, just like Germany did, 12 months after the Nazis gave up.

While plans were being finalized, top U.S. military officers, including the president, learned that a new weapon, the atomic bomb, would be at their disposal sometime that summer. There were a number of questions and issues about the bomb. Would it work? Was it a strategic or tactical weapon? Would it shock the enemy into surrender? Or would Japanese leaders react to it the way they did the night U.S. planes fire-bombed Tokyo, killing nearly 85,000 people? They didn’t.

These questions, the positions of top U.S. leaders, the debates between them, potential casualties resulting from the assault on Japan, as well as the complex issues the United States faced abroad and at home, are discussed with great authority by John Ray Skates, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, in his book The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb.

The book is especially pertinent today as the United States debates the best way to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while extracting some sort of political-military victory from the effort that’s been expended. It forces the reader to think about how the United States can shock its enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan into ending the fight; the book also makes the reader consider that perhaps there is no possible way to stun Al Qaida and Iraqi insurgents into submission. Skates, a retired army colonel, lays out, in excruciating detail, the debates, positions and discussions had by America’s leaders on the quickest and best possible way to coerce Japan into accepting the Allied policy of unconditional surrender.

In mid-1945, Japan still had five million men under arms. They’d lost every battle they’d fought against the United States since June 1942; however, Japan’s leaders didn’t see themselves as defeated. They knew U.S. troops would likely land on Kyushu, the Japanese island that American troops would invade in Operation Olympic, and they were preparing an intricate defense. While they couldn’t stop the invasion, Japan’s top brass thought, instead, that they could bleed the United States into accepting a negotiated settlement that was far short of its clearly stated, very public, and Allied-approved objective of unconditional surrender.

Skates shows how the policy of unconditional surrender for both Germany and Japan, as pushed through by President Roosevelt in early 1943, as well as the level of casualties the United States had sustained, determined military actions and, eventually, the use of the atomic bomb. The policy, as well as the experience from fighting Japan, forced America’s top leaders into coming up with the most efficient way into forcing Japan’s surrender.

By the time the summer of 1945 rolled around, the United States had suffered nearly 400,000 combat deaths with another 600,000 troops wounded. Top military commanders worried about the additional casualties the United States would suffer should it invade Kyushu. Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, the Navy’s top officer, thought Japan could be brought down through a blockade that would essentially starve Japan’s populace – at minimal cost of U.S. lives; others, like General of the Army George C. Marshall, the Army’s top general, feared that the blockade would extend the war beyond the patience of the American home front; he thought the invasion was the faster way to bring about an American victory.

The United States was holding more than 400,000 prisoners of war: 370,000 Germans, 50,000 Italians, and 5,000 Japanese. German and Italian troops were far more prone to surrender because it was not considered unpatriotic if they did. For the Japanese, however, surrender was simply out of the question. Japanese troops were instructed to fight to the death; if they ran out of ammunition, they were told to charge the enemy or commit suicide. Anything less would bring dishonor to themselves and their surviving family members. The fact that there were so few Japanese prisoners of war reinforced the military’s view that any battle on the Japanese mainland would be arduous and bloody.

Top U.S. military officers had also reviewed the post-action reports of the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which, combined, cost the United States more than 100,000 casualties. As Skates writes, “Public concern already simmered over the casualties of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. What would the cost of Downfall (the overall name for amphibious assaults against Japan) be and could Americans sustain it? Could any methods be used to minimize the casualties?”

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the Army’s commanding officer in the Pacific, would lead the ground attack on Kyushu while the Navy’s top officer in the Pacific, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, would be responsible for transporting the troops, the amphibious assault itself, and providing all the necessary support for MacArthur’s troops, including food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies.

Operation Olympic, had it occurred, would be one of the largest amphibious assaults in all of military history. It would have entailed 12 divisions “comprising 427,400 troops and 626,800 tons of supplies,” writes Skates. The assault on Normandy, in comparison, looks small: It only involved five divisions for the beach landing and another three airborne divisions that were dropped in the middle of the night, just prior to the amphibious landings.

American military analysts thought that U.S. forces would occupy at least half of Kyushu, if not the entire Island. If Japan’s leaders still refused to surrender, even though U.S. forces were on Kyushu, then MacArthur and Nimitz would initiate Operation Coronet, an amphibious assault on Honshu, Japan’s main island, in March 1946. This operation would have involved “14 divisions with 462,000 troops,” writes Skates.

The best military estimates said that Japan would put up an all-out fight in the defense of Kyushu. They may not have had the best troops to prevent American forces from succeeding but the thinking was that at Kyushu, Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen would make a gallant, albeit suicidal, stand.

Casualties, Skates says, would have been higher during Operation Olympic than on Operation Coronet. MacArthur’s intelligence officers estimated that “about fourteen thousand soldiers and airmen would die in the first sixty days of Olympic,” writes Skates. MacArthur estimated that there would be nearly 80,000 American casualties – killed and wounded – during the first 60 days of the invasion of Kyushu. If the battle lasted 120 days, MacArthur estimated there would be more than 100,000 American casualties.

The battle losses, Skates writes, were based on the casualties that American forces endured on both Okinawa as well as in Normandy, where the First U.S. Army suffered more than 60,000 casualties of whom 16,000 were killed during the first 48 days in France. “Much evidence exists that casualty estimates for the invasion were realistic and based on past experience,” writes Skates. And while the invasion of Kyushu would cause no more American losses than had been realized in Normandy or on Okinawa, as Skates writes, that “was small comfort” to American civilian and military leaders.

“The earlier fanatical and suicidal, yet hopeless Japanese defenses created a psychology that the normal conventions of war did not apply against a nation of potential kamikazes,” writes Skates.

In addition to facing a suicidal enemy, the United States attempted, throughout the war, to gain the participation of the Soviet Union in its fight against Japan. The Soviets made a number of promises to the United States about its willingness to fight Japan, including invading parts of the Japanese Empire, but they didn’t declare war against Japan until the day after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Like all leaders, President Truman and those he consulted for achieving a military and political victory in World War II, couldn’t foresee the future. What they had before them, as they debated the tactics and strategy to be employed in bringing about Japan’s surrender, was the results, including the number of dead and wounded so far, as well as an idea of the level of patience that the American public had for finishing the war.

“The bomb, whether used strategically or tactically, promised to keep U.S. casualties at an acceptable level,” writes Skates. “The bomb also would shock Japanese leaders, and combined with other demonstrations of hopelessness of continued resistance, might tip the balance toward surrender.”

As a result, the President ordered the atomic bombing of Japan. The first one was dropped on August 6, on Hiroshima; the next one was dropped three days later on Nagasaki.

It took two atomic bombs killing about 200,000 people to shock Japan’s emperor into realizing the war was lost. The objective of the war, Japan’s unconditional surrender, had been achieved. More than 100,000 U.S. lives had been spared death and injury.

Overall, this is an excellent book. It’s very well researched and lays out a number of details that the average history reader would likely find tedious. The only flaw in the book is that not enough attention is given to Truman’s perspective. The reader would have been better served had the author given us some details on Truman’s fears and hopes on both the atomic bomb as well as the invasion. Perhaps this information isn’t available.

The lesson here, if there’s any, is that the victory usually comes about when the enemy is “shocked and awed.” The best way to “shock and awe” the enemy, as military historian Michael Doubler points out, is to “let your enemy tell you that you’re shocking and awesome. Don’t tell the enemy you’re going to shock and awe them.”

The idea of shocking an enemy into surrender is nothing new. During the Civil War, Union forces shocked the Confederacy into capitulation through General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march on the South. It showed the South that their position was hopeless. Only the Union could win. During the American Revolution, the Battle of Yorktown, while not exactly a stunning U.S. victory, showed the British that the French were committed to the American cause and that for the British to continue it was to put at risk more than the fight was worth.

Today, the United States faces a suicidal enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference is that neither enemy fights for a particular government. And the question remains how does the United States force these enemies into realizing their position is hopeless; for that matter can it even be achieved? Do we march an Army or Marine Division or two up into the mountains of Afghanistan, killing everyone we encounter? Or do we shock them into making peace by showing them the benefits of harmony with the United States and the West? How will we shock the Iraqi insurgency into accepting a peaceful settlement with Iraq’s government and, consequently, the countries with troops stationed in Iraq?

Any given day, President Bush might say the following to himself:

• “We’re fighting a suicidal enemy.
• The enemy is militarily beaten but remains belligerent.
• There’s no sign of surrender.
• The enemy appears to be breaking up, with some saying they want peace while others want to fight. The ones wanting peace don’t speak with authority.
• The American populace is war weary.
• Problematic Allies.”

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it sure does rhyme.” And so it does.

(Writer’s note: The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb, published in 1994, can be found on The writer of this blog makes no money from but wishes he did.)

Publishing Information: The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb, by John Ray Skates, University of South Carolina Press, 1994, 276 pages

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