We all know that it was the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended WW II in the Pacific. We all know that the USSR only entered the Pacific War when Japan had already lost heart, and that the Soviet advance was a farcical beating of an already dead enemy.
Well, according to Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, who has spent decades reading the debates that swirled through the US, Soviet and Japanese elites during the last days of the war, much of what we all think we know about the leadup to VJ Day is simply wrong. Hasegawa's research shows that the Soviet Union's invasion of Manchuria was a far greater shock to the Japanese High Command: ":the Soviet entry into the [Pacific] war played a greater role than the atomic bombs in inducing Japan to surrender."
As Hasegawa says, all three major participants in the Pacific endgame have told self-serving, "parochial" versions of the bloody end of the war. The US sticks to its magic mushroom cloud fairytale, while the Japanese simply prefer not to discuss this period even among themselves. And, as Hasegawa notes, "American and Japanese historians have almost completely ignored the role of the Soviet Union in ending the Pacific War." Hasegawa demonstrates that in fact, "Stalin was an active participant, not a secondary player, as historians have depicted, in the drama of Japan's surrender."
To demonstrate why the Soviets were so vital in the final stages of the Pacific war, Hasegawa traces the debate within Japan's military elite over which war of conquest to pursue: either a showdown with the USSR for Eastern Siberia, or a Southern strategy pushing southward through China to the South Pacific. Defeated by Soviet forces in Manchuria in 1938 and again in 1939, the Japanese grew wary of taking on the Russians and decided to pursue the naval and air war against America and Britain, declining to attack the USSR even after the Germans invaded it from the west.
The high point of Japan's courtship of Stalin came in April 1941, when Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviets. Weirdly enough, the Japanese high command, cynical as it was about treaties and declarations in general, actually placed great faith in this agreement with Stalin, and counted on it even as their empire collapsed in 1945.
"Racing the Enemy Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan" - by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Harvard University Press 2005
Hasegawa's reading of the Imperial junta's memos has shown that "the more [Japan's] military situation worsened, the more important the Soviet Union became in Japan's foreign and military policy." The Japanese command clung to a delusive vision of Stalin as last-minute peacemaker: "as the ruling elite of Japan became convinced of defeat, they came to rely more and more on the Soviet Union as the mediator for peace."
Hasegawa's story is soberly told, but he still does a fine job of revealing the sheer craziness of Japanese discourse during the last stages of the war. Debate had been stifled for decades, with dissenters silenced by assassination, resulting in what Hasegawa calls "a strategy of irresponsibility" in which the Emperor was assumed to be behind whatever mad military adventure the junta decreed. In this atmosphere, even bringing up the notion of ending the war could get you killed: "political figures who worked for peace might be assassinated" while pushing for obviously suicidal new attacks showed your loyalty to "the kokutai," the mystical ideal of Japanese nationhood in the name of which the military elite governed.