On August 9, 1945, the population in Nagasaki was estimated to be 263,000, which consisted of 240,000 Japanese residents, 10,000 Korean residents, 2,500 conscripted Korean workers, 9,000 Japanese soldiers, 600 conscripted Chinese workers, and 400 Allied POWs. At 11:02 a.m., “Fat Man” was detonated more than a mile off target, almost directly over the Urakami Cathedral, which was nearly leveled, killing dozens of worshippers waiting for confession.
In 1953, a report by the US Strategic Bombing Survey put the number of deaths at 35,000, wounded at 60,000 and 5,000 missing. In 1960, the Japanese put the number of dead at Nagasaki at 20,000 and the number of wounded at 50,000. Later, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the figure for deaths alone at 87,000 with 70% of the city’s industrial zone destroyed.
Nagasaki is the capital and the largest city of Nagasaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu in Japan. The city’s name, 長崎, means “Long Cape” in Japanese. Nagasaki became a centre of colonial Portuguese and Dutch influence in the 16th through 19th centuries, and Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki have been proposed for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Part of Nagasaki was home to a major Imperial Japanese Navy base during the First Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War.
The U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II has long been a subject of emotional debate. Initially, few questioned President Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, in 1965, historian Gar Alperovitz argued that, although the bombs did force an immediate end to the war, Japan’s leaders had wanted to surrender anyway and likely would have done so before the American invasion planned for Nov. 1. Their use was, therefore, unnecessary. Obviously, if the bombings weren’t necessary to win the war, then bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong.
The “traditionalist school” accepts the explanation given by President Truman, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and others in the government in the aftermath of the war. The traditionalist conception is that the atomic bombs were crucial to forcing Japan to accept surrender, and that the bombings prevented a planned invasion of Japan that might have cost more lives. Emperor Hirohito’s citation of the “new and most cruel bomb” in his speech announcing surrender bolsters this theory’s credibility.
Historians have critiqued various parts of this rationale for the bombings, including casualty estimates from the planned invasion. Retrospective estimates vary wildly, and are often lower than the figures stated by Truman and Stimson. But there is also a sizable literature disagreeing with the central premise: that the bombs led to the surrender.
The oldest and most prominent critics of the traditionalist school have been the “revisionist school,” starting with Gar Alperovitz in the 1960s. The revisionists argue that Japan was already ready to surrender before the atomic bombs. They say the decision to use the bombs anyway indicates ulterior motives on the part of the US government. Japan was attempting to use the Soviet Union to mediate a negotiated peace in 1945 (a doomed effort, since the Soviets were already planning on breaking off their non-aggression pact and invading). Revisionists argue that this shows the bombings were unnecessary.
The other piece of evidence behind this claim is the US Strategic Bombing Survey, conducted after the war. It concluded that Japan would have surrendered anyway before November (the planned start date for the full-scale invasion).
The Real Reason for Surrender
The Soviet–Japanese War (Russian: Советско-японская война; Japanese: ソ連対日参戦, “Soviet Union entry into war against Japan”) was a military conflict within the Second World War beginning soon after midnight on August 9, 1945, with the Soviet invasion of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo.
The Soviets and Mongolians terminated Japanese control of Manchukuo, Mengjiang (Inner Mongolia), northern Korea, Karafuto, and the Chishima Islands. The defeat of Japan’s Kwantung Army helped in the Japanese surrender and the termination of World War II. The Soviet entry into the war was a significant factor in the Japanese government’s decision to surrender unconditionally, as it made apparent the Soviet Union would no longer be willing to act as a third party in negotiating an end to hostilities on conditional terms.
At the Tehran Conference in November 1943, Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan once Nazi Germany was defeated. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin agreed to Allied pleas to enter World War II’s Pacific Theater within three months of the end of the war in Europe. On July 26, the US, UK and China made the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum calling for the Japanese surrender which if ignored would lead to their “prompt and utter destruction”.
The commencement of the invasion fell between the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. Although Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had not been told much detail of the Western Allies’ atomic bomb program by Allied governments; the date of the invasion was foreshadowed by the Yalta agreement, the date of the German surrender, and the fact that on August 3, Marshal Vasilevsky reported to Stalin that, if necessary, he could attack on the morning of August 5. The timing was well planned and enabled the Soviet Union to enter the Pacific Theater on the side of the Allies, as previously agreed, before the war’s end. However, the Japanese island of Hokkaido, originally planned by the Soviets to be part of the territory taken, was held off on due to apprehension of the United States’ new position.
At 11pm Trans-Baikal time on August 8, 1945, Soviet foreign minister Molotov informed Japanese ambassador Satō that the Soviet Union had declared war on the Empire of Japan, and that from August 9 the Soviet Government would consider itself to be at war with Japan. At one minute past midnight Trans-Baikal time on August 9, 1945, the Soviets commenced their invasion simultaneously on three fronts to the east, west and north of Manchuria. The operation was subdivided into smaller operational and tactical parts:
Khingan-Mukden Offensive Operation (August 9, 1945 – September 2, 1945)
Harbin-Kirin Offensive Operation (August 9, 1945 – September 2, 1945)
Sungari Offensive Operation (August 9, 1945 – September 2, 1945)
South Sakhalin Operation (ru) (August 11, 1945 – August 25, 1945)
Soviet assault on Maoka
Soviet assault on Tōro (ru)
Seisin Landing Operation (August 13, 1945 – August 16, 1945)
Kuril Landing Operation (August 18, 1945 – September 1, 1945)
Though the battle extended beyond the borders traditionally known as Manchuria — that is, the traditional lands of the Manchus — the coordinated and integrated invasions of Japan’s northern territories has also been called the Battle of Manchuria. Since 1983, the operation has sometimes been called Operation August Storm, after American Army historian Lieutenant-Colonel David Glantz used this title for a paper on the subject. It has also been referred to by its Soviet name, the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation, however this name refers more to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria (1945) than to the whole war.
This offensive should not be confused with the Soviet–Japanese Border Wars, (particularly the Battle of Khalkhin Gol/Nomonhan Incident of May–September 1939), that ended in Japan’s defeat in 1939, and led to the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact.
Background and buildup
The Russo-Japanese War of the early 20th century resulted in a Japanese victory and the Treaty of Portsmouth by which, in conjunction with other later events including the Mukden Incident and Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September 1931, Japan eventually gained control of Korea, Manchuria and Southern Sakhalin. In the late 1930s there were a number of Soviet-Japanese border incidents, the most significant being the Battle of Lake Khasan (Changkufeng Incident, July–August 1938) and the Battle of Khalkhin Gol (Nomonhan Incident, May–September 1939), which led to the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact of April 1941. The Neutrality Pact freed up forces from the border incidents and enabled the Soviets to concentrate on their war with Germany, and the Japanese to concentrate on their southern expansion into Asia and the Pacific Ocean.
However, with success at Stalingrad, and the eventual defeat of Germany becoming increasingly certain, the Soviet attitude to Japan changed, both publicly, with Stalin making speeches denouncing Japan, and “privately”, with the Soviets building up forces and supplies in the Far East. At the Tehran Conference (November 1943), amongst other things, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan once Nazi Germany was defeated. However, Stalin faced a dilemma – he wanted to avoid a two-front war at almost any cost yet the Soviet leader also wanted to extract gains in the Far East as well as Europe. The only way Stalin could make Far Eastern gains without a two-front war would be for Germany to capitulate before Japan.
Due to the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact, the Soviets made it policy to intern Allied aircrews who landed in Soviet territory following operations against Japan, although airmen held in the Soviet Union under such circumstances were usually allowed to “escape” after some period of time. Nevertheless, even before the defeat of Germany the Soviet buildup in the Far East steadily accelerated. By early 1945 it had become apparent to the Japanese that the Soviets were preparing to invade Manchuria, though they were unlikely to attack prior to Germany’s defeat. In addition to their problems in the Pacific, the Japanese realised they needed to determine when and where a Soviet invasion would occur.
At the Yalta Conference (February 1945), amongst other things, Stalin secured from Roosevelt the promise of Stalin’s Far Eastern territorial desires, in return agreeing to enter the Pacific war within two or three months of the defeat of Germany. By the middle of March 1945, things were not going well in the Pacific for the Japanese, and they withdrew their elite troops from Manchuria to support actions in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Soviets continued their Far Eastern buildup. The Soviets had decided that they did not wish to renew the Neutrality Pact. The terms of the Neutrality Pact required that 12 months before its expiry, the Soviets must advise the Japanese of this, so on 5 April 1945 they informed the Japanese that they did not wish to renew the treaty. This caused the Japanese considerable concern, but the Soviets went to great efforts to assure the Japanese that the treaty would still be in force for another twelve months, and that the Japanese had nothing to worry about.
On 9 May 1945 (Moscow time), Germany surrendered, meaning that if the Soviets were to honour the Yalta agreement, they would need to enter war with Japan by 9 August 1945. The situation continued to deteriorate for the Japanese, and they were now the only Axis power left in the war. They were keen to remain at peace with the Soviets and extend the Neutrality Pact, and they were also keen to achieve an end to the war. Since Yalta they had repeatedly approached, or tried to approach, the Soviets in order to extend the neutrality pact, and to enlist the Soviets in negotiating peace with the allies. The Soviets did nothing to discourage these Japanese hopes, and drew the process out as long as possible (whilst continuing to prepare their invasion forces.) One of the roles of the Cabinet of Admiral Baron Suzuki, which took office in April 1945, was to try to secure any peace terms short of unconditional surrender. In late June they approached the Soviets, (the Neutrality Pact was still in place), inviting them to negotiate peace with the allies in support of Japan, providing them with specific proposals and in return they offered the Soviets very attractive territorial concessions. Stalin expressed interest, and the Japanese awaited the Soviet response. The Soviets continued to avoid providing a response. The Potsdam Conference was held from 16 July to 2 August 1945. On 24 July the Soviet Union recalled all embassy staff and families from Japan. On 26 July the conference produced the Potsdam Declaration whereby Churchill, Truman and Chiang Kai-shek (the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan) demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan. The Japanese continued to wait for the Soviet response, and avoided responding to the declaration.
The Japanese had been monitoring Trans-Siberian Railway traffic and Soviet activity to the east of Manchuria and in conjunction with the Soviet delaying tactics, this suggested to them that the Soviets would not be ready to invade east Manchuria before the end of August. They did not, however, have any real idea, and no confirming evidence, as to when or where any invasion would occur.
The Japanese were caught completely by surprise when the Soviets declared war an hour before midnight on 8 August 1945, and invaded simultaneously on three fronts just after midnight on 9 August.
The Far East Command, under Marshal of the Soviet Union Aleksandr Vasilevsky, had a plan for the conquest of Manchuria that was simple but huge in scale, calling for a massive pincer movement over all of Manchuria. This pincer movement was to be performed by the Transbaikal Front from the west and by the 1st Far East Front from the east; the 2nd Far East Front was to attack the center of the pocket from the north. The only Soviet equivalent of a theater command that operated during the war (apart from the short-lived 1941 “Directions” in the west), Far East Command, consisted of three Red Army fronts. Western Front of Manchuria
The Transbaikal Front, under Marshal R. Y. Malinovsky, was to form the western half of the Soviet pincer movement, attacking across the Inner Mongolian desert and over the Greater Khingan mountains. These forces had the objective to secure Mukden (present day Shenyang), then meet troops of the 1st Far East Front at the Changchun area in south central Manchuria, and in doing so finish the double envelopment.
Eastern Front of Manchuria
The 1st Far East Front, under Marshal K. A. Meretskov, was to form the eastern half of the pincer movement. This attack involved striking towards Mudanjiang (or Mutanchiang), and once that city was captured, the force was to advance towards the cities of Jilin (or Kirin), Changchun and Harbin. Its final objective was to link up with forces of the Trans-Baikal Front at Changchun and Jilin (or Kirin) thus closing the double envelopment movement.
As a secondary objective, the 1st Far East Front was to prevent Japanese forces from escaping to Korea, and then invade the Korean Peninsula up to the 38th parallel, establishing in the process what later became North Korea.
Northern Front of Manchuria
The 2nd Far East Front, under General M. A. Purkayev, was in a supporting attack role. Its objectives were the cities of Harbin and Tsitsihar, and the prevention of an orderly withdrawal to the south by the Japanese forces.
Once troops from the 1st Far East Front and Trans-Baikal Front captured the city of Changchun, the 2nd Far East Front were to attack the Liaotung Peninsula and seize Port Arthur (present day Lüshun).
Each Front had “front units” attached directly to the Front instead of an army. The forces totaled 89 divisions with 1.5 million men, 3,704 tanks, 1,852 self propelled guns, 85,819 vehicles and 3,721 aircraft. Approximately one-third of its strength was in combat support and services. Its naval forces contained 12 major surface combatants, 78 submarines, numerous amphibious craft, and the Amur River flotilla, consisting of gunboats and numerous small craft. The Soviet plan incorporated all the experience in maneuver warfare that the Soviets had acquired fighting the Germans, and also used new improved weapons, such as the RPD light machine gun, the new main battle tank T-44 and a little number of JS-3 heavy tanks.
The Kwantung Army of the Imperial Japanese Army, under General Otozō Yamada, was the major part of the Japanese occupation forces in Manchuria and Korea, and consisted of two Area Armies (the First Area Army (northeastern Manchukuo) and the Third Area Army (southwestern Manchukuo)), and three independent armies (responsible for northern Manchuria, North Korea, Mengjiang, South Sakhalin and the Kurils).
Each Area Army (Homen Gun, the equivalent of a Western “army”) had headquarters units and units attached directly to the Area Army, in addition to the field armies (the equivalent of a Western corps). In addition to the Japanese, there was the forty-thousand-strong Manchukuo Defense Force, composed of eight under-strength, poorly equipped, poorly trained Manchukuoan divisions.
The Kwantung Army had less than eight hundred thousand (800,000) men in twenty-five divisions (including two tank divisions) and six Independent Mixed Brigades. These contained over 1,215 armored vehicles (mostly armored cars and light tanks), 6,700 artillery pieces (mostly light), and 1,800 aircraft (mostly trainers and obsolete types). The Imperial Japanese Navy did not contribute to the defense of Manchuria, the occupation of which it had always opposed on strategic grounds. Additionally, by the time of the invasion, the few remnants of its fleet were stationed and tasked with the defense of the Japanese home island in the event of an invasion by American forces.
On economic grounds, Manchuria was worth defending since it had the bulk of usable industry and raw materials outside Japan and was still under Japanese control in 1945. However, the Japanese forces (Kwantung Army) were far below authorized strength; most of their heavy military equipment and all of their best military units had been transferred to the Pacific front over the previous three years to contend with the advance of American and Allied forces. By 1945, the Kwantung Army contained a large number of raw recruits and conscripts, with generally obsolete, light, or otherwise limited equipment. As a result, it had essentially been reduced to a light infantry counter-insurgency force with limited mobility or ability to fight a conventional land war against a coordinated enemy.
Compounding the problem, the Japanese military made many wrong assumptions and major mistakes, the two most significant being:
They wrongly assumed that any attack coming from the west would follow either the old railroad line to Hailar, or head into Solun from the eastern tip of Mongolia. The Soviets did attack along those routes, but their main attack from the west went through the supposedly impassable Greater Khingan range south of Solun and into the center of Manchuria.
Japanese military intelligence failed to determine the nature, location and scale of the Soviet buildup in the Far East. Based on initial underestimates of Soviet strength, and the monitoring of Soviet traffic on the Trans-Siberian railway, they believed the Soviets would not have sufficient forces in place before the end of August, and that an attack was most likely in the autumn of 1945 or in the spring of 1946.
Due to the withdrawal of the Kwantung Army’s elite forces for redeployment into the Pacific Theatre, new operational plans for the defence of Manchuria against a seemingly inevitable Soviet attack were made by the Japanese in the summer of 1945. These called for the redeployment of the majority of forces from the border areas; the borders were to be held lightly and delaying actions fought while the main force was to hold the southeastern corner in strength (so defending Korea from attack).
Further, they had only observed Soviet activity on the Trans-Siberian railway and along the east Manchurian front, and so were preparing for an invasion from the east. They believed that when an attack occurred from the west, the redeployed forces would be able to deal with it.
However, although this redeployment had been initiated, it was not due to be completed until September, and hence the Kwantung Army were in the middle of redeployment when the Soviets launched their attack simultaneously on all three fronts.
The operation was carried out as a classic double pincer movement over an area the size of Western Europe. In the western pincer, the Red Army advanced over the deserts and mountains from Mongolia, far from their resupply railways. This confounded the Japanese military analysis of Soviet logistics, and the defenders were caught by surprise in unfortified positions. The Kwantung Army commanders were involved in a planning exercise at the time of the invasion, and were away from their forces for the first eighteen hours of conflict. Communication infrastructure was poor, and communication was lost with forward units very early on. However, the Kwantung Army had a formidable reputation as fierce and relentless fighters, and even though understrength and unprepared, put up strong resistance at the town of Hailar which tied down some of the Soviet forces. At the same time, Soviet airborne units were used to seize airfields and city centers in advance of the land forces, and to ferry fuel to those units that had outrun their supply lines. The Soviet pincer from the east crossed the Ussuri and advanced around Khanka Lake and attacked towards Suifenhe, and although Japanese defenders fought hard and provided strong resistance, the Soviets proved overwhelming. Perhaps the most glaring fact illustrating the differences in efficacy between the two opponents was that, often, the speed of Soviet advances far outpaced any sort of fighting withdrawal the Japanese could conduct, which formed a crucial element of the entire Japanese strategy for defending the Manchurian heartland.
After a week of fighting, during which Soviet forces had penetrated deep into Manchukuo, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito recorded the Gyokuon-hōsō which was broadcast on radio to the Japanese nation on August 15, 1945. The idea of surrender was incomprehensible to the Japanese people, and combined with Hirohito’s use of formal and archaic language, the fact that he did not use the actual word “surrender”, the poor quality of the broadcast, and poor lines of communication, there was some confusion amongst the Japanese about what the announcement actually meant. The Imperial Japanese Army Headquarters did not immediately communicate the cease-fire order to the Kwantung Army, and many elements of the army either did not understand it, or ignored it. Hence, pockets of fierce resistance from the Kwantung Army continued, and the Soviets continued their advance, largely avoiding the pockets of resistance, reaching Mukden, Changchun and Qiqihar by August 20. On the Soviet right flank, the Soviet-Mongolian Cavalry-Mechanized Group had entered Inner Mongolia and quickly took Dolon Nur and Kalgan. The Emperor of Manchukuo (and former Emperor of China), Puyi, was captured by the Soviet Red Army. The cease-fire order was eventually communicated to the Kwantung Army, but not before the Soviets had made most of their territorial gains.
On August 18, several Soviet amphibious landings had been conducted ahead of the land advance: three in northern Korea, one in Sakhalin island, and one in the Chishima Islands. This meant that, in Korea at least, there were already Soviet soldiers waiting for the troops coming overland. In Karafuto and the Chishimas, it meant a sudden and undeniable establishment of Soviet sovereignty.
On August 10, US government proposed to the Soviet government that they divide the occupation of Korea between them at the 38th parallel north. The Americans were surprised that the Soviet government accepted. Soviet troops were able to move freely by rail, and there was nothing to stop them occupying the whole of Korea. Soviet forces began amphibious landings in Korea by August 14 and rapidly took over the north-east of the country, and on August 16 they landed at Wonsan. On August 24, the Red Army entered Pyongyang and established a military government over Korea north of the parallel. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and took control of the south.
Importance and consequences
From the time of the first major Japanese military defeats in the Pacific in the summer of 1942, the non-military leaders of Japan had come to realise that the Japanese military campaign was economically unsustainable — as Japan did not have the industrial capacity to simultaneously fight the United States, China and the British Commonwealth and Empire — and there were a number of initiatives to negotiate a cessation of hostilities and the consolidation of Japanese territorial and economic gains. Hence, elements of the non-military leadership had first made the decision to surrender as early as 1943; the major issue was the terms and conditions of surrender, not the issue of surrender itself. For a variety of diverse reasons, none of the initiatives were successful, the two major reasons being the Soviet Union’s deception and delaying tactics, and the attitudes of the “Big Six”, the powerful Japanese military leaders.
The Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation, along with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined to break the Japanese political deadlock and force the Japanese leaders to accept the terms of surrender demanded by allies.
In the “Sixty years after Hiroshima” issue of the Weekly Standard, American historian Richard B. Frank points out that there are a number of schools of thought with varying opinions of what caused the Japanese to surrender. He describes what he calls the “traditionalist” view, which asserts that the Japanese surrendered because the Americans dropped the atomic bombs. He goes on to summarise other points of view.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s research has led him to conclude that the atomic bombings were not the principal reason for Japan’s capitulation. He argues that Japan’s leaders were impacted more by the swift and devastating Soviet victories on the mainland in the week following Joseph Stalin’s August 8 declaration of war because the Japanese strategy to protect the home islands was designed to fend off a US invasion from the South, and left virtually no spare troops to counter a Soviet threat from the North. Furthermore, the Japanese could no longer hope to achieve a negotiated peace with the Allies by using the Soviet Union as a mediator with the Soviet declaration of war. This, according to Hasegawa, amounted to a “strategic bankruptcy” for the Japanese and forced their message of surrender on August 15, 1945. Others with similar views include The “Battlefield” series documentary, among others, though all, including Hasegawa, state that the surrender was not due to any single factor or single event.
The Soviet invasion and occupation of the defunct Manchukuo marked the start of a traumatic period for the more than one million residents of the puppet state who were of Japanese descent. The situation for the Japanese military occupants was clear, but the Japanese colonists who had made Manchukuo their home, particularly those born in Manchukuo, were now stateless and homeless, and the (non-Japanese) Manchurians wanted to be rid of these foreigners. Many were killed, many others ended up in Siberian prisons for up to 20 years, and some made their way to the Japanese home islands, where they were also treated as foreigners.
Manchuria was “cleansed” by Soviet forces of any potential military resistance. With Soviet support for the spread of Communism, Manchuria provided the main base of operations for Mao Zedong’s forces, who proved victorious in the following four years of the Chinese Civil War. These military successes in Manchuria and China by the Communist Chinese led to the Soviet Union giving up their rights to bases in China — promised by the Western Allies — because all of the land deemed by the Soviets to be Chinese, (as distinct from what the Soviets considered to be Soviet land which had been occupied by the Japanese), was eventually turned over to the People’s Republic of China. Note, however, that before leaving Manchuria, Soviet forces and bureaucracy dismantled almost all of the portable parts of the considerable Japanese-built industry in Manchuria and relocated it to “restore industry in war-torn Soviet territory”. That which was not portable was either disabled or destroyed; the Soviets had no desire for Manchuria to be an economic rival, particularly to the underdeveloped Far Eastern Soviet Territories. However, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China the bulk of the Soviet economic assistance went to Manchuria to help rebuilding the region’s industry.
As agreed at Yalta, the Soviet Union had intervened in the war with Japan within three months of the German surrender, and they were therefore entitled to annex the territories of Karafuto and the Chishima Islands and also to preeminent interests over Port Arthur and Dalian, with its strategic rail connections, via the China Changchun Railway, a company owned jointly by China and the Soviet Union that operated all the railways of the former Manchukuo. The territories on the Asian mainland were subsequently transferred to the full control of the People’s Republic of China in 1955; the other possessions are still administered by the Soviet Union’s successor state, Russia.
The division of Korea between Soviet and US occupations led to the creation of the separate states of North and South Korea. This was a precursor to the Korean War five years later.