The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb
by John Ray Skates (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995); 276 pages; $27.95.
On November 1, 1945, the invasion of Japan began, under the code name Operation Olympic. Under the joint command of General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz, the United States armed forces started an assault on the southernmost of the Japanese home islands — Kyushu. A force of 650,000 soldiers, 2,500 ships, and 6,000 planes attacked from three sides along the southern coast of Kyushu.
Japanese military intelligence had correctly anticipated the location of the next major American offensive after the fall of Okinawa in June 1945. They had even predicted the landing areas the American forces would select for the initial beachheads. They had fortified the coastlines and chosen a strategy of repulsing the attack on the beaches. By August, the Japanese high command had already stationed over 200,000 troops in defensive positions in Kyushu. In the first ten days of the invasion, the Japanese planned to counterattack with 6,000 kamikazes, who would perform their suicide missions against the troop-carrying ships off the coast, hoping to destroy at least ten to twenty percent of the invasion force before they landed.
Earlier in the war, however, General MacArthur’s intelligence team had broken the Japanese military codes. His code breakers had been able to read every order and instruction issued for the defense of Kyushu. The U.S. invasion planners knew almost all of the Japanese defense strategy, including troops placements and airfields where planes for the kamikaze attacks were being concentrated. As a consequence, even before the first invasion ships came in sight of land, U.S. air power had destroyed or disabled many of the suicide planes. The mountainous terrain of Kyushu made it possible for American bombers to cut the few crucial railroads and highways through which the Japanese would have been able to maintain supply lines to the defense forces facing the invaders.
Furthermore, the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August had failed to bring about a Japanese surrender. By the end of October, the U.S. military had nine more atomic bombs, and they were now used tactically in three attacks to support the American invasion forces on Kyushu. Tens of thousands of Japanese were dead or dying from the atomic blasts, and resistance on the island soon weakened.
The invasion plan succeeded. Kyushu now provided the American forces with the naval and air facilities for the next and final assault on the main Japanese island of Honshu in March 1946, if the Japanese military still refused to accept unconditional surrender. But the Japanese had drained away most of their last home-island reserves in the defense of Kyushu. They had practically no kamikaze planes left, and the few they had had almost no fuel. The invasion point on the Honshu coast leading to the Kanto Plain and Tokyo was not easily defended against U.S. air and ground power. And the Soviet Union, having entered the war in August 1945, had totally overrun the famed Japanese Kwangtung Army in Manchuria. So before the invasion of Honshu had to begin, the Japanese finally surrendered.
This, of course, was the final invasion that never occurred. In his recent book, The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb, John Ray Skates details the strategies and planning behind Operation Olympic and Operation Coronet — the assault on Honshu. Instead, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, followed by another atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9. A total of over 185,000 people were killed or injured by these atomic blasts. And hostilities ended on August 15, when the Imperial Japanese Government agreed to unconditional surrender.
But even before the dropping of the bomb, Professor Skates explains, the U.S. had rained mass death upon Japanese cities. Giving up on precision daylight bombing, the U.S. undertook nighttime incendiary attacks during the first half of 1945, burning out 174 square miles in 66 cities and incinerating an estimated 330,000 Japanese. The March 10, 1945, raid on Tokyo alone killed almost 85,000 people. First priority in these air raids was given to cities with high “congestion and inflammability.”
In his memoirs after the war, President Truman said that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have cost the lives of upwards of half a million American soldiers. The likelihood of such high American casualties, he argued, was the primary reason why he decided to use the atomic bomb to end the war quickly. In fact, Professor Skates tells us, no such number had ever been suggested in any of the planning estimates before the invasion of Kyushu. The estimate most generally accepted was that in the first sixty days of the assault on Kyushu, American casualties would be between 55,000 and 78,000, with the dead numbering between 14,000 and 20,000. These numbers would have been approximately equal to the losses suffered in the invasion of Luzon in the Philippines. This estimate had been given to President Truman at a meeting with the Joint Chiefs on June 18, 1945; he seemed satisfied, telling them to proceed with the plans for Operation Olympic.
Professor Skates also explains that for the Joint Chiefs in Washington, the main hurdle in constructing a military strategy that could succeed in forcing the Japanese into accepting defeat was FDR’s declaration at the 1943 conference in Casablanca that the Allied goal was “unconditional surrender” by Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. There was a strong belief among several cabinet members — especially Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew, and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal — that if the Japanese could be given assurances that surrender would not mean the elimination of the emperor and the imperial system, there was a stronger likelihood of Japan’s accepting defeat. But Truman would not significantly budge.
Could both the dropping of the atomic bombs or an invasion of Japan have been prevented through a loosening of the surrender terms? Professor Skates does not discuss this in any great detail, but in July 1945, the Japanese had attempted to use both the Swedish and Soviet governments as intermediaries to end the war with the United States. Both President Truman and Secretary Stimson were aware of these Japanese feelers, but Truman still refused to approve of any private or public modification of the unconditional surrender terms. Instead, on July 25, while at the Potsdam Conference with Churchill and Stalin, Truman issued orders that the first atomic bomb was to be dropped any time after August 3. On July 26, the Potsdam Declaration was issued, stating: “We call upon the Government of Japan to proclaim unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces. . . . The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
Thus, the last avenue to end the war before the dropping of the atomic bombs was closed. Eight months after the end of the war, U.S. intelligence officers on the army general staff undertook a “what if” study of an invasion of Japan. “They concluded,” Professor Skates tells us, “that the failure of these [Japanese peace] efforts [through their embassy in Moscow] and the sudden Soviet declaration of war on 9 August would have been sufficient, even without the atomic bombs, to end the war. However, in the unlikely event that the Japanese continued in the war after the entry of the USSR, and OLYMPIC had been launched, ‘The island of Kyushu would have been occupied in not over two months at a cost of 75,000 to 100,000 casualties.’ In that case, concluded the analysts, the war would have ended no later than 15 February, 1946, and Coronet would not have been necessary. This author’s study of the record,” concludes Professor Skates, “leads to similar conclusions.”
Of course, this is all “what if” history. But by not even trying to find some common language over surrender terms to bring the war to an end in July or the first week of August 1945, what we do know is what happened. Tens of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians died from atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with many thousands more having the consequences of radiation poisoning for the last half-century. Stalin had his opportunity to declare war on Japan on August 8 and grab the lands promised to him by Roosevelt at Yalta. And America has had the burden as the only nation in the world to have used atomic bombs and intentionally take massive number of human lives in the process.