Racing the Enemy – A Book Review

           Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan BY HASEGAWA TSUYOSHI. First Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005. 382 pgs.

If one were to devise the perfect historical trivia questions that characterized the diplomatic and political situation at the end of World War II in the Pacific, it would be the following: Where was the final battle of the Pacific war? Who were the opposing belligerents and what diplomatic, political, and militaristic developments brought them together? What were the repercussions of their conflict and how was it settled?

            A thoughtful aficionado might suggest the battle for Okinawa in which American forces struggled to evict a stubborn Japanese contingent insistent on holding every last inch of the island.

An American Marine advances across the barren landscape of Okinawa.

Or, perhaps, the Russian invasion of Manchuria in which a three-pronged attack by superior Russian forces drove a weak, demoralized Japanese army to the brink of surrender.

Russian tanks advance into Manchuria.

The Kamikaze pilots in their frenzied attack on US Navy vessels certainly might qualify as a final, desperate battle.

A Kamikaze attacks a US warship.

None of these would be the correct answer.

            Tsuyoshi, a respected historian, searched through contemporary Japanese literature, American diplomatic and military records, and Soviet glasnost documents to paint an inciteful portrait of Stalin and Truman, as well as the inner circle of Japanese military and political figures at the close of summer in 1945. Significant issues were being debated in all three diplomatic, political, and military circles.

  Stalin, with disregarded input from his browbeaten staff, deliberated on the promises made at Yalta and Potsdam to enter the war against the Japanese. He was hindered by a four-year old treaty with Japan that ensured neutrality for five years. Breaking the agreement would signal to Japan exactly what Stalin’s plans were to be in supporting the allies with a preemptive assault on Manchuria and the million-strong Japanese armies. He decided to follow the treaty’s mandates and give Japan a formal notice that the USSR was backing out of the treaty – a year in advance. The notice was designed to mislead the Japanese hierarchy and create the image of a Manchurian border that was safe and secure for at least another year. This was a classic Stalinist ploy, as the Russian leader secretly began moving troops, material, and detailed plans to the Manchurian border while assuring his American and British allies that he would indeed enter the war as promised and at the same time delay clandestine Japanese requests to the USSR to act as an intermediary to negotiate an armistice with the same allies. Stalin did not want the war to end before he could possess the Japanese territory that he desired. Deception was the word of the day.

In Tokyo, two conflicting groups – the Peace Party and the War Party – sought the support of the Emperor. The Peace Party sent secret negotiators to Moscow to entice Stalin with promises of territory including southern Sakhalin Island and the northern Kuril Islands as well as railroad and lease concessions in Manchuria if only the Russians would broker a peace feeler to the allies. The opposing War Party, led by the Japanese Army generals, entreated the Emperor to continue fighting and preserve the traditional dynasty of Japan. They were certain that the tremendous casualties faced by the allies would soften their resolve and lead to a negotiated settlement preserving the Japanese lifestyle and religious traditions.

The Americans faced an internal debate of a different nature. The definition of “unconditional surrender” was batted back and forth between war hawks who wanted nothing less than total destruction for the Pearl Harbor attackers. A slightly more realistic faction wanted to preserve some semblance of the Emperor’s powers to help in the post-war reconstruction and to possibly alleviate American casualties in a mainland invasion which was assumed to be inevitable. Truman and a small group of advisors hesitated and prolonged the debate as they waited impatiently for the results of the S-1 project – the atomic bomb – which was nearing readiness.

The author brings all three perspectives together in that fateful August as the Russians advance, the bombs are dropped, and the Emperor instructs his military and loyal subjects to accept the Potsdam Declaration with a stipulation that his position and family be spared; but, the Emperor delayed a few days.

The Americans started preparations for seven more atomic bombs, a military coup began taking shape in Tokyo, and the Russians continued to advance overtaking Japanese forces in Manchuria and Southern Sakhalin Island. The coup was suppressed and the Emperor prevailed; the Americans debated the condition of sparing the Emperor, and the Russians continued their advance. The conditional surrender was finally accepted and hostilities ceased except on one minor front. Stalin had been promised territory that included the Kuril Islands at the Yalta conference of 1944 but he was determined to occupy these islands before the allies could possibly deny him possession.

Position of the Kuril Islands.

After the acceptance by the allies of the Japanese military and political collapse, the Soviet army and navy continued their advance on the Kurils, island by island, meeting at first strong resistance on Shimushu Island and then immediate surrender of the Japanese occupiers of the central and southern Kurils. When confronted by the allies, Stalin demanded a partition of Hokkaido – the northernmost Japanese mainland – but retreated from this demand at the last moment. Here was a defining moment of the start of the Cold War and the answer to the trivia question.

Racing the Enemy is a fast-paced insight into the final days of World War II and added immeasurably to my understanding of diplomatic and political intrigue in the mid-twentieth century. The author expertly supports his thesis that the Japanese surrender was a result of the Russian entry into the war and the relentless pursuit of Japanese territory by the Soviets rather than the dropping of the two atomic bombs by the Americans. If one‘s goal is to understand the complexity and apparent duplicity behind diplomatic actions and decisions, then Racing the Enemy will provide that view.

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