The Dangerous Illusion of Japan’s Unconditional Surrender

For decades, U.S. foreign policy has been badly distorted by the way that World War II ended.

General Douglas MacArthur and Japan's Emperor Hirohito in 1945, a few weeks after Japan's surrender on September 2, 1945.
General Douglas MacArthur and Japan's Emperor Hirohito in 1945, a few weeks after Japan's surrender on September 2, 1945. AFP via Getty Images

Shortly before dawn on Aug. 15, 1945, a national broadcast alerted Japanese to expect a message from the emperor later that day. Across Japan, people waited in uncertainty to hear for the first time “the jeweled voice.” Most expected that the emperor would urge them on to fight to the end. What they heard was a high-pitched voice speaking in archaic Japanese that many could not comprehend. It was only after a commentator explained that the emperor had agreed to surrender that they knew for certain that the war was over.

When the news reached Washington, the celebrations began immediately. But the formal ceremony ending the war had to wait until Sunday, Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan’s official defeat was staged on the USS Missouri. The document signed by the representatives of the Allied Powers and Japan declared the unconditional surrender of the Imperial General Headquarters and all the armed forces under Japanese control. It also made the authority of the emperor and the Japanese government subject to U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s orders and commanded all civil and military officers to obey him. At the ceremony’s conclusion, MacArthur moved to a microphone and began a radio address to a world audience. “Today the guns are silent,” began the now famous message. “A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won.”

Everything that followed—the disarmament of Japan, the reform of its economic, political, and social institutions, the adoption of a new constitution, and the surrender of Japan’s undefeated armies in China and Southeast Asia—followed from American influence on the emperor, who ordered the unconditional surrender of Japan’s armed forces. With planes soaring overhead and more than 200 ships of the 3rd Fleet stretched out across the bay, America’s might was everywhere in evidence. None of those present could have known that this was the last time Americans would stand as the indisputable victors in war, imposing their will on a conquered foe. The display of military power in Tokyo Bay was intended to awe the Japanese, but it also created a misleading impression of what could be achieved by force of arms.

Beginning in the 19th century, social and technological developments had made warfare so costly as to risk making the attainment of national objectives through military force politically unacceptable. The mobilization of nations for modern war placed enormous pressure on the belligerents and strained even the victors to the breaking point. When the United States went to war against Japan, American strategists hoped to escape that fate by relying primarily on naval forces to isolate the Japanese homeland and compel the enemy’s surrender. The first of those objectives was achieved through the destruction of the Imperial Japanese fleet. By spring 1945, the relentless U.S. aerial assault on Japanese cities added to the enemy’s desperation. Nevertheless, the Japanese government refused to yield on terms acceptable to the Americans. The war continued.

By August 1945, the U.S. Army found itself preparing to fight the most demanding campaigns of the Pacific War with exhausted divisions replenished by green troops. A restive public and increasingly assertive political leaders questioned if victory, defined as Japan’s unconditional surrender, could be achieved at a tolerable cost. The atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war against Japan cut short that debate and produced swift decision where none had seemed likely. That sudden reversal of fortunes obscured for later generations the extent to which U.S. strategy had been unhinged by Japanese resistance and the splintering of unity at home. It also made the ceremony in Tokyo Bay seem inevitable and reproducible.

America’s next war appeared to follow the pattern of the Pacific War, only compressed in time and geography. The Korean War began with a surprise attack that drove back the United States and its allies and transitioned to a buildup of resources followed by a U.N. offensive. The breakout amphibious landing at Inchon, which recalled MacArthur’s bold leapfrogging operations along the northern coast of New Guinea in World War II, fed expectations of the conquest of North Korea and total victory. The intervention of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army dashed those hopes and forced the United Nations into a protracted and increasingly unpopular war for limited objectives. There would be no enemy capitulation on the deck of a U.S. battlewagon. The fighting ceased with an uneasy truce negotiated in a tent in Panmunjom.

By the time the United States intervened directly in Vietnam, a decade of strategic analysis confirmed the uselessness of nuclear weapons in combat. This was especially so in Asia. In the decade after Hiroshima, American strategists had concluded that use of atomic weapons in Asia would confirm public perceptions that Americans were indifferent to the lives of the region’s inhabitants. To compensate for the shortcomings in nuclear deterrence, American military thinkers advocated a strategy of limited war emphasizing mobility and tactical airpower as the best way to produce victory at a tolerable cost. The United States settled for a limited objective: defense of a noncommunist Vietnam. Fearing a repeat of China’s intervention in Korea, officials ruled out a ground war against North Vietnam, but they incongruously adopted a military strategy that made destruction of the enemy’s capacity to wage war its ultimate objective. Although the United States consistently won individual battles, victory proved even more elusive than in Korea.

Although the outcomes were different, there were similarities between the war with Japan and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. One was the willingness of the enemy to suffer unimaginable losses while inflicting significant casualties on U.S. forces. Another was that Americans, notably their business and political leaders, were unwilling to accept the strains of protracted war. Instead of viewing those similarities as evidence of the historic tendency of warfare toward indecision, military analysts concluded that Korea and Vietnam proved only that Americans were unsuited for limited war. The remedy was the Powell Doctrine, named after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the early 1990s. The new dispensation proclaimed there would be no more Vietnams. The United States would only fight winnable wars. Colin Powell put the doctrine into action in 1991 when U.S. and coalition forces liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces. Operation Desert Storm succeeded in driving Saddam Hussein’s armies back into Iraq, but once that objective was achieved, Powell, fearing a Vietnam-like quagmire if he invaded Iraq, halted the offensive. Celebration of this feat of arms turned to disillusion as Saddam remained in power to torment Americans with the incompleteness of their victory.

A decade later, the digital revolution and accompanying advances in weaponry convinced a new American leadership that they had created a revolution in military affairs. Advocates of this new way of war believed that so-called full-spectrum dominance of the battlefield would enable the United States to achieve overwhelming victory at low cost. The first test of the revolution in military affairs came after the terrorist attack on 9/11, an event that conjured memories of Pearl Harbor.

Instead of responding with a targeted campaign directed at the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, the United States embarked on an expansive global war on terrorism. Phase one began in October 2001with Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion of Afghanistan. Operation Iraqi Freedom came next in March 2003. Both operations were envisioned as part of a larger campaign to spread democracy through the Middle East.

In October 2002, as the George W. Bush administration contemplated the invasion of Iraq, military planners looked to the occupation of Japan as a guide for action. Japan, as opposed to Germany, was the most desirable model because it had remained undivided during the occupation and it proved that the United States could nurture democracy in a non-Western nation. But Iraq was not like Japan, at least not in the ways that the administration imagined.

On April 1, 2003, two weeks after the start of the American invasion, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared that the United States sought nothing short of the unconditional surrender of the Iraqi regime. In August 2007, Americans were still fighting in Iraq. As the conflict dragged on, President Bush sought to assure Americans that the “war on terror” would end in a victory like the one secured by his father’s generation. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush began with a parable. His story began on “a sunny morning, when thousands of Americans were murdered in a surprise attack and our nation was propelled into a conflict that would take us to every corner of the globe.”

“The enemy I have just described is not al Qaeda,” he continued, “and the attack is not 9/11, and the empire is not the radical caliphate envisioned by Osama bin Laden. Instead, what I’ve described is the war machine of Imperial Japan in the 1940s, its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and its attempt to impose its empire throughout East Asia.” Dismissing critics who disparaged American efforts at spreading democracy through the Middle East, the president reminded listeners that experts had also doubted that the United States would be able to democratize Japan.

By the time the president spoke, however, Americans had lost their enthusiasm for the Middle East crusade. Like their predecessors had during the summer of 1945, they looked past the raging conflict and toward domestic pursuits. For most Americans, the price of total victory in the Middle East had exceeded its value.

As Americans commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war with Japan, they would do well to remember that it took two atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war to compel Japan’s unconditional surrender. A great victory was won. For a moment, but only a moment, the United States had broken free of history and escaped the fate of other nations that struggled to achieve victory at an acceptable cost to its citizens. That moment has never since returned—nor should we expect it to.


Marc Gallicchio is professor of history at the Villanova University and author of Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II.