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A myth is a story that we want to believe, regardless of its truth.

The most enduring myth of recent history concerns the atom bomb that obliterated Hiroshima 68 years ago today. The myth holds that Hiroshima (and Nagasaki three days later) were atom-bombed in order to end World War II and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians who would have perished in the planned invasion of Japan.

The war did end nine days after Hiroshima, and no invasion was necessary, so the notion that the Bomb made the Japanese give up became enshrined in our collective memory. For decades thereafter any criticism of the use of this weapon of mass destruction was met with the assertion that the Bomb had ended the war and therefore had saved more lives than it took.

According to the myth, one of those saved lives might have been mine. I was in Navy boot camp in August ‘45 and I could have been part of an invasion, had there been one. So my buddies and I welcomed and celebrated the Bomb as the means to victory and peace; we embraced the myth.  But of course we were not told everything that was going on.

One of the things we were not told was the background of the Soviet Union’s sudden entry into the war against Japan. The U.S.S.R. had been neutral in the Pacific War, and then, two days after Hiroshima, had declared war on Japan and attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria.

We all assumed at the time that the Reds were just trying to get in on the kill at the last minute, but that was not the case. Eight months earlier, U.S. military leaders urged President Roosevelt to persuade the Russians to enter the war against Japan after the defeat of Germany. Unless the Red Army could tie down the 700,000 Japanese troops in Manchuria, the military thinking went, the U.S. would suffer huge casualties in the planned invasion of Japan. And indeed, at the Yalta conference, in exchange for significant territorial concessions in the Far East, Stalin let himself be persuaded to do what he probably would have wanted to do anyway to get in on the spoils of war: he agreed in writing to attack the Japanese within three months of the fall of Germany.

To Japan, the Soviet attack on August 8, three months to the day after the surrender of Germany, represented more than a huge military threat: it doomed the Japanese Government’s attempts to get Moscow to mediate an “honorable” end to the war. Since that June, aware that the war could not be won, desperate to keep their sacred Emperor on the throne, and hopeful of avoiding an Allied occupation, the Japanese had been trying to get the Soviet Union to negotiate a peace. The Russians were already sending their armies eastward, however, so Moscow stalled the Japanese envoys. On August 8, as Russian troops attacked, the Japanese knew that their effort to reach a negotiated peace had failed.

But even after two atomic bombs, and with Soviet forces advancing in Manchuria, the Japanese Emperor and war council were not ready to surrender.  There was something else going on that most of us in America didn’t know as we celebrated the atomic bomb. And that was the debate over whether the Japanese Emperor could remain on the throne.

President Truman and his top advisers had been aware for some time that the Japanese might never agree to stop fighting if they feared that their Imperial system would be dismantled and that their Emperor might be tried as a war criminal. The issue had been debated in Washington, and the original text of the Potsdam Declaration–the July 25 ultimatum to Japan to surrender or face destruction–had contained wording that protected the Emperor’s status. But President Truman, citing the policy of “unconditional surrender,” had removed that promise. The final version of the ultimatum was unclear on the future of the Emperor, and the Japanese, still hoping for Soviet intervention, had ignored it.

Then came the atom bombs and the Soviet attack. The Japanese leaders realized they had to do something. After a series of contentious meetings with his high command, the Emperor himself decided to accept the Declaration, with just one “but.” On August 10 the Japanese sent a message to the Allies that they accepted the Potsdam Declaration but would not accept any conditions that would “prejudice the prerogatives” of the Emperor “as a sovereign ruler.”

That message, in turn, sparked some contentious discussions in Washington, between those who insisted on unconditional surrender and others who realized that they would need the Emperor to assure that the  Japanese armies throughout East Asia would lay down their arms. At Truman’s instructions, Secretary of State James Byrnes drafted a masterly reply that eventually satisfied all sides. “From the moment of surrender,” it said, “the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. . . . The ultimate form of the Government of Japan shall, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.”

That reply reached Tokyo on the 12th and after another day of argument, and attempts at a military coup aimed at prolonging the war, the Emperor once more had to tell his divided cabinet what to do. “I have studied the Allied reply and…I find it quite acceptable,” he told the cabinet on the 14th. That night he signed the Imperial surrender rescript and recorded the surrender speech that was broadcast to his stunned subjects at noon the next day.

Clearly the Bomb did not convince the defeated Japanese to surrender; if there had been no promise regarding the survival of the Imperial system, the war would have continued, despite the Bomb.

Or if, instead of dropping the Bomb, the U.S. and its Allies had granted that promise earlier, perhaps in the Potsdam Declaration itself, Japan would probably have accepted the declaration as soon as the Soviets attacked, and the war could have ended without the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That would have created a much different postwar world. For the Bomb projected American diplomatic, geopolitical and strategic power into Asia in a way that nothing else could have done. Empowered by the bomb, President Truman could block Russian attempts to share in the occupation of Japan, could prevent the Soviets from occupying all of Korea.

Despite the horrors of the Bomb, some Japanese were able to find some value in it. “The American Atom Bomb kept the Russians out of Japan,” a senior Japanese journalist once told me. “The price was terribly high, but it saved us from being carved in two after the war the way Germany was.”

Maybe that is a myth too, but it’s closer to the truth than ours.

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