Most helpful positive review
88 of 97 people found the following review helpful
Very Good and Somewhat Controversial
on August 21, 2005
This is a well written and documented attempt to produce a comprehensive account of Japan's decision to seek peace at the end of WWII. This includes the controversial topic of the importance of American use of nuclear weapons. Since at least one prior reviewer has used the "R" (revisionism) word, let me begin with with some brief historiographic background. Revisionism, unfortunately, is one of those words that has lost specific meaning and become a term of abuse. Any substantial work of historical scholarship presenting new information or a substantial new interpretation, like this one, is revisionist by definition and the mere fact that the author has a new point of view is not an excuse to fling abuse. In the debate over the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, revisionism has a concrete, specific connontation. It is used usually to refer to the work of historians like Gar Alperovits and others who argue that the use of nuclear weapons was unecesary, that the Truman administration knew this, and that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an effort to intimidate the Soviet Union. In this interpretation, the use of nuclear weapons against Japan was the opening salvo of the Cold War, not the conclusion of WWII. Hasegawa is definitely not in this camp and politely, but firmly, consigns the revisionist consigns the revisionist camp to the trash can. The Truman administration employed nuclear weapons with the primary purpose of bringing the war to an end as fast as possible.
The strengths of this book are Hasegawa's description and analysis of the role of the Soviet Union and his attention to the role played by figures, both in Tokyo and Washington, usually regarded as secondary figures. Hasegawa's interpretation is based in part of novel archival research. An important point of departure from what might be called the triumphalist American version that implicitly treats the American decisions as decisive and the Japanese role as essentially reactive. Hasegawa takes pains to emphasize the autonomy of Japanese decision makers. This is not novel. Richard Frank, in his excellent book Downfall, which covers much of the same ground, makes the same point and also emphasizes the autonomy of the Japanese leadership. Hasegawa goes farther than Frank with his extensive description of Soviet diplomacy and the impact of the Soviet decision to enter the war on the Japanese decision to capitulate. Hasegawa makes a strong case that both the Soviet entry and the American use of nuclear weapons were crucial factors in deliberations of the Japanese leadership to end the war. I found this aspect of the book convincing and I think the likely conclusion is that use of nuclear weapons with necessary but probably not sufficient to coerce the Japanese leadership to surrender. In the most controversial aspect of the book, Hasegawa argues that Soviet entry may well have been necessary and sufficient, and that use of nuclear weapons was not needed. This is a major point of difference with Frank, who sees use of nuclear weapons as decisive though he also discusses the importance of the Soviet entry. Hasegawa and Frank's disagreement centers on interpretation of a relatively small number of documents and it is impossible to be sure which is correct, though I find Frank's analysis more convincing. Hasegawa has interesting treatment of the Truman administration, which he presents has more uncertain and divided than usually thought. There is a lot of useful information in these sections of the book. Truman, who had been largely excluded from foreign policy during Roosevelt's life, is presented as periodically indecisive.
An important theme of Hasegawa's interpretation is that the American were willing and did use to bomb to avoid Soviet participation in the occupation of Japan. This is presented reasonably well, but I don't think that Hasegawa does as well as Frank in presenting the secondary reasons why the Truman administration wanted to end the war as quickly as possible. Certainly, they wanted to end the war without an invasion of the home islands. But, they also didn't want to take over a Japan in a state of chaos or given the Soviet behavior in Poland, share occupation with the Soviets. American policy objectives were just not to win the war but to sustain a lasting peace. Occupying a Japan with a functioning cooperative government and without a divided occupation were important goals. Nor, given the clearly duplicitious and aggressive behavior of the Soviets, was it irrational to use the bomb rather than wait to see what would happen after Soviet entry into the war. The Truman administration wanted to conclude the war with a minimum of casulties, to ease the occupation, to eliminate Japanese militarism and imperialism, to be able to democratize Japan, to make Japan a permanent US ally, and to ensure that Japan became an important member of the world economy. These objectives might have been accomplished with different decisions but its hard to argue with the remarkable results obtained by Truman and his advisors.