Stalin had planned to seize a major Japanese island. When Truman refused, Stalin blinked. Why?
- By Sergey RadchenkoSergey Radchenko is a reader in international politics at Aberystwyth University and a former public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
In the wee hours of Aug. 24, 1945, Soviet long-range bombers would take off from their air base not far from the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok and fly east, across the Sea of Japan, dropping lethal payloads on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. At 5 a.m. that morning, two Soviet regiments would storm their way onshore, followed, in two hours, by a larger force. Within days, two infantry divisions would sweep across northern Hokkaido, cutting the island in half.
That was the rough battle plan drawn up by the commander of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, Adm. Ivan Yumashev, at the end of World War II for occupying Hokkaido. Troops were on standby. Submarines were ordered to the Hokkaido coast for reconnaissance in preparation for land invasion, and had even started sinking Japanese ships (tragically, just refugee boats fleeing Soviet operations on nearby Sakhalin Island). The Soviets had by then occupied southern Sakhalin and were mopping up the remnants of the Japanese along the Kuril island chain that stretched from Hokkaido to the Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia’s far northeast. Although the Red Army was not as experienced as the Americans with landing operations, this Soviet “D-Day” in Hokkaido would’ve been a walkover — the Japanese army was in shambles, and Emperor Hirohito had recently proclaimed defeat.
Japan’s second-largest island, roughly the size of Maine, Hokkaido was of huge strategic significance. Joseph Stalin’s possession of the island would turn the vast Sea of Okhotsk into a Soviet lake, and ease the projection of Soviet naval power into the Pacific. Stalin had his eyes on a big prize. The detailed Soviet operational plans, published Wednesday by the Wilson Center in the full English translation for the first time, show that all the pieces had been put in place for a swift Soviet occupation.
All that was missing was a final go-ahead from Stalin. On Aug. 16 the Soviet leader asked U.S. President Harry S. Truman to acquiesce in this “modest wish” or risk offending “Russian public opinion.” Although just months earlier, the U.S. War Department had considered letting the Soviets occupy Hokkaido and even part of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, Hiroshima had clearly changed things for Truman. Possession of a mighty new weapon gave Truman the confidence to set the terms of his relationship with Stalin. On Aug. 18, Truman bluntly turned Uncle Joe down. Stalin procrastinated, weighing the pros and cons. Two days before the planned Aug. 24 landing on Hokkaido, he called off the operation.
Stalin was not known for his measured appetites. Why did he refrain from taking a large chunk of Japanese territory that would have given him a much greater say in the running of postwar Japan and, quite possibly, led to the creation of a Soviet-controlled satellite in Hokkaido, a kind of a “Democratic People’s Republic of Japan,” on North Korea’s model?
This is not an idle question: It goes to the heart of what we think we know about Stalin, Truman, and the role of atomic deterrence. The most obvious possibility is that Stalin was intimidated by the display of U.S. might at Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later, which proved — even before diplomat George Kennan famously put it in those terms in his 1946 Long Telegram — that “impervious to logic of reason,” Moscow was “highly sensitive to logic of force.”
Truman believed that the bomb had won the war against Japan. Shortly after the bomb entered the U.S. military arsenal, it entered the American diplomatic arsenal as well. In other words, Truman did not have to threaten the Soviet Union: U.S. possession of the bomb implied the threat. But how did Stalin see it?
First, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less of a shock to Stalin than one would suppose. In spite of Truman’s famous belief that Stalin did not understand him when he cryptically brought up the A-bomb at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Stalin had long known about British and American atomic weapons research. Beginning in 1941, Soviet spy agencies — NKVD and GRU — gathered intelligence on the bomb, and in September 1942 the Soviet State Defense Committee, chaired by Stalin, authorized work on the Soviet atomic project. This was initially a limited effort: Moscow could not afford to spend massively for uncertain gain at the time of its raging war with Nazi Germany. But in December 1944, Stalin charged his ruthless and powerful security chief Lavrentiy Beria with oversight of the project. Extending NKVD’s umbrella and resources to atomic research spoke volumes about Stalin’s determination not to let the United States get too far ahead.
After Hiroshima, Stalin redoubled his efforts. While he pondered whether to invade Hokkaido, the Soviet leader on Aug. 20 decided to create a “Special Committee,” headed by Beria, for an all-out push to make the atomic bomb. The program was dubbed “Project Number One,” and it really was, in terms of commitment of industrial resources, manpower, and scientific expertise. Teams of scientists (including captured German ones) were incentivized with cash and perks; thousands of Gulag slave laborers worked construction and mining sites; hundreds of geological parties went looking for uranium from the permafrost of Siberia, to the mountains of Central Asia, to newly occupied Eastern Europe and North Korea.
Meeting the scientific head of the Soviet atomic project, Igor Kurchatov, on Jan. 25, 1946, Stalin dismissed the notion that there could be a “Russian” way to the bomb and urged him to “carry out the work quickly in the crude basic manner” — relying on information collected by Soviet spies. It did not matter how sophisticated the bomb would be. All that mattered was to have something in hand. “All great inventions were initially crude,” Stalin said, “as it was with the steam locomotive.” Stalin got his “locomotive” in August 1949, years earlier than American intelligence estimates predicted.
However, Stalin’s keen interest in the bomb does not mean that he was terrified by its awesome power. Instead, Stalin wanted it as a status symbol of a great power. He was far less impressed by the bomb’s military usefulness.
Members of the GRU and Soviet diplomats in Japan made repeated trips to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath of the bombing, filming the damage and interviewing survivors. In a September 1945 report, the Soviet ambassador to Japan, Yakov Malik, downplayed the extent of the devastation, arguing that “neither streetcar tracks nor things buried in the earth were damaged,” and that Japanese newspapers had overestimated the effects of the bomb.
Aware of these reports, Stalin was skeptical of the power of atomic weapons. “Not atomic bombs, but armies decide about the war,” he told Polish Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka in November 1945. Even more important was the will to fight. The Americans, Stalin felt, had none: They “have been disarmed by agitation for peace and will not raise their weapons against us.”
Even assuming that Stalin was bluffing — and that he was quite scared of the U.S. bomb — it is unlikely that he would have let it show by conciliatory gestures. Only weeks after Stalin blinked on the question of Hokkaido, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov played hardball at the London Council of Foreign Ministers, stonewalling U.S. demands for a say in Romania and Bulgaria and even demanding bases in the Mediterranean. Then-U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes unsheathed the weapon of atomic blackmail: “If you don’t cut out all this stalling.… I am going to pull out an atomic bomb out of my hip pocket and let you have it.” Molotov remained steadfast.
Behind the scenes, Stalin egged him on: “The Allies are pressing on you to break your will and force you into making concessions. It is obvious that you should display complete adamancy.” Later, Stalin elaborated, “We cannot achieve anything serious … if we begin to give into intimidation or betray uncertainty.” Stalin’s response to pressure was to apply counterpressure, meeting threats with bravado. Why, then, did he retreat in Hokkaido?
The answer is that even a cynical realist like Stalin wanted not so much geopolitical gains as U.S. recognition of his sphere of interests. Attractive for geopolitical reasons, Hokkaido was not part of the deal agreed upon at Yalta in February 1945. Stalin knew that by violating this agreement, he risked undermining Soviet gains in the Far East, including possession of southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Truman already hinted at that in his letter to Stalin on Aug. 18, when, out of the blue, the U.S. president asked for an air base in the Kurils, threatening to poke a large hole in the Soviet line of defense in the Far East.
Stalin wanted Soviet-U.S. cooperation to continue, with each country respecting the other’s legitimate claims. This was the reason he proposed Soviet occupation of Hokkaido in the first place. True, the Americans had basically won the war in the Pacific. But, then, in his view, the Soviets had basically won the war in Europe, so if the Soviets could tolerate U.S. presence in Germany, why would the United States refuse to tolerate Soviet presence in Japan?
Truman’s refusal to accept what to Stalin seemed like a reasonable idea deeply upset the Soviet leader. U.S. Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, who saw Stalin in October 1945, found him still “irked” by the Hokkaido debacle, complaining bitterly that the Soviet Union did not want to have merely a symbolic role in Japan, like “a piece of furniture.” In fact, Stalin was so upset by Truman’s Aug. 18 written refusal to allow the Soviets on Hokkaido that he crossed out the title “President” before Truman’s name on the president’s letter. In Stalin’s view, Truman lacked the stature and the foresight to be president. He was not the sort of person who Stalin could strike a deal with — or who could be counted on to honor his promises. Truman, in other words, was no Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Still, instead of ignoring Truman, Stalin acquiesced. History of Japan took a different turn from the history of Korea. The Japanese did not have to endure the pleasures of Soviet occupation.
There is a long-running feud between historians who argue that the atomic bombing of Japan was a “military necessity” and their opponents, who think it functioned as a means of intimidating the USSR. Seventy years on, evidence suggests that even if Truman did intend to intimidate Stalin, he was unsuccessful. Stalin’s retreat at Hokkaido was a major concession made in spite of Hiroshima — a late effort by the Soviet dictator to patch up the rapidly unraveling relationship with the United States.
In 1947, when Yumashev, the author of the Hokkaido landing plan, became the Soviet Minister of the Navy, he raised the subject of the cancelled operation with Stalin. He told Stalin that at the time he had wanted to call him on the phone to insist on the landing but, upon reflection, decided not to. “That’s too bad,” Stalin replied. “If you succeeded, we would have awarded you. If you failed, we would have punished you.”
Evidently, Stalin had come to regret his decisions on Hokkaido. As the Cold War raged, the Soviet leader thought Truman had been untrustworthy and wished he’d played a tougher game. By 1950, Stalin no longer cared about the Yalta framework that had made him so cautious in August 1945. He aligned with Communist China, and gave Kim Il Sung a green light to invade South Korea. “To hell with it!” Stalin said in January 1950, speaking of Yalta. “Once we have taken up the position that the treaties must be changed, we must go all the way.”
In August 1945, Stalin was clearly not prepared to “go all the way.” He still saw Truman as a partner in the postwar management of the world. That feeling did not last: Realizing that Truman, emboldened by Hiroshima, was pressuring him, Stalin resolved to stand firm. Truman, for his part, likely misread Stalin’s retreat in Hokkaido as evidence that Stalin would back off if pressed. Although the bomb did not make Stalin back off in Hokkaido, its implicit threat made superpower cooperation an increasingly remote prospect. Hiroshima, then, made the Cold War practically inevitable.
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