“Shoot the Works!”
No one expected the war to end when it did. even after the two atomic bombs and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war on August 9, the Japanese, though doomed, were expected to fight on for some considerable time. Suddenly, on August 10, the Domei News Agency broadcast a statement by the Japanese Foreign Ministry that Japan was ready to accept the surrender terms presented by the Allies in the so- called Potsdam Declaration on July 26, “provided that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.” The announcement surprised even top officials in Washington. “When the Japanese surrendered it caught the whole goddamn administrative machinery with their pants down,” recalled a colonel in the Army high command.1 At the time the official notification was received via neutral embassies, Secretary of War Henry Stimson was about to leave on vacation, and the army and navy were opening another round in their continuing squabble about command arrangements for the impending invasion of Japan.
One of those slated for that invasion, Marine sergeant David F. Earle, a veteran of the campaigns on Guam and Okinawa, listened with his tentmates to the radio. “Our station,” he told his parents, “which secures at 2200, was back on the air with Japan’s unconfirmed peace offer. It seemed almost too good to be true, beyond all realization. . . . Men shook hands, embraced and beer was drug out. Each time the commentor announced the same commentary, even though the men had heard the same thing over and over there was complete silence, as if we weren’t able to hear it often enough. This morning the announcement was confirmed and now it’s either accepted or not. To those who don’t want to accept the terms because of the Emperor—I haven’t got words in my vocabulary to fit my contempt and scorn for their attitude. I know damn well that twenty-eight months out here would change their minds but fast. Anyway, we in my tent have already accepted the surrender and if the country hasn’t we’ve decided to sue for a separate peace.”
Many in Washington shared Sergeant Earle’s sentiments. In July, Stimson and Undersecretary of State Joseph C. Grew, former ambassador to Japan, had urged President Truman to include an explicit promise in the Potsdam Declaration that it might be possible for Japan to retain “a constitutional Monarchy under the present dynasty” following its surrender. There was strong opposition to such a guarantee, however, from many of the president’s advisers, including Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, who believed that it would compromise the long-standing Allied agreement on “unconditional surrender” by the Axis powers. “Too much like appeasement,” former secretary of state Cordell Hull observed. Other Americans saw no reason to retain the outmoded reactionary institutions that had encouraged Japanese militarism and aggression. The emperor had been portrayed in the American media as a symbol of Japanese fanaticism, a partner of Hitler and Mussolini. A Gallup poll published in The Washington Post at the end of June had revealed that 33 percent of Americans wanted the emperor executed, 17 percent favored a trial, 20 percent were for imprisonment or exile, and only 7 percent favored his retention, even as a figurehead.
Truman was well aware of these sentiments when he hastily convened a meeting at the White House to discuss the Japanese surrender offer. Present at the meeting were Byrnes, Stimson, the president’s military aides, Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal, John Snyder, a Missouri friend of Truman’s who was serving as head of the Office of War Mobilization, and the president’s military adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William D. Leahy. Stimson urged acceptance of the Japanese stipulation, pointing out that the emperor was “the only source of authority in Japan.” He argued that “something like this use of the Emperor must be made in order to save us from a score of bloody Iwo Jimas and Okinawas all over China and the New Netherlands [Indonesia].” Leahy and Snyder agreed. Byrnes, however, warned that public opinion and the Allied powers might not understand or accept such a concession. Abandonment of unconditional surrender could lead to “the crucifixion of the President” at the hands of public opinion. Truman informed the meeting that since news of the Japanese proposal, the White House had received 170 telegrams, all but seventeen of which had urged the harshest surrender terms. On the other hand, millions more Americans like Sergeant Earle might be equally infuriated if Truman and his advisers allowed this opportunity for peace to slip away.
At that point Forrestal suggested a compromise: The United States should send a reply that reaffirmed the Potsdam demands while neither rejecting the Japanese offer nor discouraging hope that the emperor could remain. Byrnes, aided by his special assistant, Benjamin Cohen, was given primary responsibility for drafting a reply, though Forrestal, Leahy, Stimson, and Truman himself all lent a hand, as did Undersecretary Grew. Grew had not been at the White House meeting, but he was the government’s highest-ranking expert on Japan and had always stressed the crucial role of the emperor in any surrender scheme. Now “Grew, mastering his personal pride, opened the door between his office and Byrnes’ and said, ‘Mr. Secretary, if you are working on the Japanese note I believe I and some others could be helpful.’ ” Byrnes agreed.
Unlike most products of a committee, Byrnes’s reply was a masterpiece. Addressing the key Japanese reservation on the emperor, the note was intentionally ambiguous, asserting, “From the moment of surrender, the authority of the emperor and the Japanese government to rule the state shall be subject to the authority of the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers, who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate the surrender terms.” But the note also promised, “The ultimate form of government of Japan shall, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, be established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.” At a meeting of the full Cabinet, Truman approved the note. The British and the other Allies quickly agreed, and, after only momentary hesitation, so did the Soviets.
A more significant Allied disagreement, although it appeared small at the time, briefly arose over the question of the surrender ceremony. The draft of the note submitted to the Allies had provided for the emperor to sign the surrender documents personally. Grew had unsuccessfully argued against this provision, but when the British raised doubts about its advisability, Byrnes dropped it. The Chinese government, which had been especially enthusiastic about this symbolic humbling of Japan, was not informed of the “slight change” until after the revised note had actually been dispatched to Japan. Stalin made no formal objection, but he later cautioned Ambassador Averell Harriman that the American plan to stage the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay entailed “considerable risks.” The Japanese, Stalin observed, “were treacherous people.” He was sure “there were some crazy cutthroats left” and advised the Americans to take several hostages to “guard against incidents.”
In Tokyo, the receipt of the Byrnes note touched off a crisis within the highest circles of the government. Japanese Army leaders argued that the demands of the note were intolerable and that Japan must fight on, while most of the civilian ministers urged acceptance of the Allied terms. With the government deadlocked and American B-29s raining leaflets on Japanese cities containing copies of the Japanese note of August 10 with Byrnes’s reply, the emperor met with the Cabinet and other senior military and political advisers to announce that it was his wish that Japan “accept the Allied reply as it stands.”
in the late afternoon of August 14, an RCA messenger carrying a telegram to the Swiss legation in Washington was stopped by police for making an illegal U-turn on Connecticut Avenue. After ten minutes he was allowed to proceed. The messenger was carrying Tokyo’s acceptance of the surrender terms. At 7:00 p.m. Truman announced to the reporters who jammed the president’s office that he had received from the Japanese government “a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.”
Even before President Truman’s announcement of Japan’s final surrender, the thoughts of many Americans had turned to the twenty- two thousand Americans and the hundred and ten thousand other Allied prisoners of war in Japanese hands. It was unclear how many were still alive. Many were known to be suffering severely from disease, malnutrition, and exposure even where they were not being subjected to torture, brutality, and other forms of abuse by the Japanese. The story of the appalling Bataan Death March, in which six hundred Americans and five to ten thousand Filipinos who had surrendered in the Philippines perished in a brutal sixty-five-mile forced-march evacuation to their prison camps, became widely known in the United States by early 1944. Americans believed, with good reason, that with their impending defeat the Japanese might decide to massacre all the surviving prisoners, many of whom had by this time been moved to northern China, Manchuria, and Japan. U.S. intelligence estimated that there were about nine thousand Allied prisoners in China and Manchuria, with another fifty-five hundred in Indochina and one thousand in Korea.
In April the War Department had ordered Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer, the top American commander in China, to be prepared to locate, assist, and repatriate Allied POWs in China and Manchuria as quickly as possible. This had been a comparatively simple task in the European Theater, where almost all Axis territory had already fallen and Allied forces reached most camps within a few days. Conditions were far different in General Wedemeyer’s China Theater, an enormous expanse of territory that included China, Manchuria, Korea, and at least half of Indochina. Much of this area was still in the hands of the Japanese, who as recently as the previous fall had conducted a series of devastating offensives into central China that brought thousands more square miles under their control.
Within the Japanese-held areas were large and small pockets of land controlled or influenced by the Chinese Communist forces of Mao Tse- tung (Mao Zedong), who conducted guerrilla warfare, propaganda, and subversion against the Japanese. Nominally allied to Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), the American-backed leader of “Free China,” the Communists remained in fact his bitter rivals in an ongoing struggle for control of China that had been only temporarily interrupted by the Japanese. Finally, there were the Soviets, who had entered the war against Japan on August 9. Led by experienced commanders who had helped destroy the German Wehrmacht a few months before, the Soviet armies swept aside the ill-prepared Japanese in Manchuria and advanced rapidly toward the main cities and rail lines.
American planners estimated that it might take a month or more for relief forces traveling overland to reach some of the largest prison camps, which were located hundreds of miles from the nearest American bases in China. Such a delay was completely unacceptable, however. The United States, Wedemeyer’s staff reminded him, “has consistently maintained that China Theater is their [special] responsibility and we have in many cases pointed this out in no uncertain terms to the other Allied nations. . . . A failure to discharge the humanitarian aspects of this responsibility can never be condoned.”
In Europe, the British and Americans had employed special teams immediately after the surrender to locate POW camps, contact the internees, report on conditions, and provide emergency support. That concept appeared to be the solution to the problem of POW relief in Asia as well. Yet in Asia such teams would have to travel immense distances into relatively unknown territory and confront armies whose attitudes and intentions were likely to be problematic at best. Only one American organization in East Asia was both prepared and equipped to carry out such missions: the Office of Strategic Services.
Like many other activities in the China Theater, intelligence operations there had been characterized by contention, confused organization, and byzantine personal and political rivalries. By 1945 no fewer than fourteen different agencies were contributing intelligence information to theater headquarters. Until a few months before the surrender, the Office of Strategic Services, widely referred to as “OSS,” had scarcely existed as a major contender in the bureaucratic Olympics incessantly played out in China’s wartime capital, Chungking (Chongqing). The brainchild of Colonel William J. Donovan, a Wall Street lawyer, Republican political operator, and hero of World War I, OSS was conceived as a single agency that would coordinate the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence and conduct special operations such as commando raids and disinformation campaigns and work with partisan and guerrilla groups behind enemy lines. Older organizations like the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, and the Army’s Military Intelligence Service viewed Donovan’s organization of former college professors, gangsters, corporate lawyers, and European émigrés with suspicion. The two Pacific commanders, General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz, barred Donovan’s organization from their theaters. Yet OSS proved its value in the North African campaign, and in November 1942 Donovan received a broad charter from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to act as their agent for espionage, sabotage, and psychological and guerrilla warfare.
In China also, OSS got off to a rocky start. (Its first head of intelligence reportedly went around Chungking passing out business cards with “American Intelligence Office” printed under his name.) In the summer of 1944, when Patrick J. Hurley, a prominent Republican and former secretary of war, arrived as the new U.S. ambassador at Chungking, Donovan’s prospects improved. Hurley and Donovan had served together in the Hoover administration. Wedemeyer, who assumed command of the China Theater that October, was an outstanding staff officer and planner who valued centralization and orderly organization. He readily accepted Donovan’s arguments on the value of a single U.S. intelligence agency under the direct control of the theater commander. With Hurley and Wedemeyer’s support, OSS grew from a small organization with a strength of about one hundred in October 1944 to about nineteen hundred in July 1945. More important, at the time of the Japanese surrender, OSS had been about to undertake a series of secret operations to penetrate what its leaders referred to as “Japan’s inner zone.” From its advance base at Xian in Shanxi Province of west-central China, OSS was completing preparations to send teams to operate in the furthest parts of Japanese-occupied China as well as to Manchuria and Korea. It already had small groups of agents operating in Shantung (Shandong), Shanxi, Hebei, and Peiping (Beijing).
On August 14 the head of Strategic Services in the China Theater proposed to General Wedemeyer’s chief of staff that OSS contact teams be parachuted in to distant points believed to have prisoner-of-war camps, such as Peiping and Weihsien (Weifang) in northern China, Mukden (Shenyang) in Manchuria, Hanoi in northern Vietnam, and Vientiane in Laos. OSS commanders in Xian and Kunming were already making preparations for such missions. The Air Ground Aid Service of the U.S. Air Forces, China Theater, was the organization primarily responsible for aiding American prisoners, evaders, and escapees behind enemy lines. But the Air Ground Aid Service had no parachute- qualified personnel and lacked OSS firsthand experience in the northern areas.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from In the Ruins of Empire by Ronald H. Spector. Copyright © 2007 by Ronald Spector. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.