How We Bungled the Japanese Surrender

by | Sep 1, 2006 | Stress Blog | 15 comments

Look Magazine, June 6, 1950

By Rear Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias, USN (Ret.)

The way was open to get Japan to surrender at least six months before VJ-Day. How we could have avoided the final agonies of the war in the Pacific is told here for the first time. Everybody remembers the outward signs of the Japanese collapse. After one of the costliest campaigns of the war, we had secured Okinawa on the very doorstep of Japan; then we had unleashed the awful might of the A-bomb; and finally Russia, on Japan’s other flank, had declared war on the enemy. All at once, the Japanese will to fight seemed to evaporate. But the truth is that a plan was evolved under Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, as early as February, 1945, to bring Japan to her knees without firing a single shot. In the muddle of wartime Washington, however, the plan was blocked on every side. We had to go through the final excruciating months of fighting until the war came to an end almost of its own accord. It need never have happened that way.

We knew quite definitely by the end of 1944, as I described in the last issue of Look, that important elements in Japan were ready to sue for peace. Unmistakable information on that score had come to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) through the most reliable intelligence channels. The first chance to act on the information came in February, 1945, when Secretary Forrestal returned to the United States from Iwo Jima.

I was stationed in San Diego, as chief of staff of the 11th Naval District. But as former deputy director of ONI, I had a special concern in the developing climax of the Pacific war. On December 16, 1944, I had outlined in detail a plan to conduct an intensive campaign of psychological warfare against the enemy, on the basis of the information we had on the faltering Japanese will to fight. And on Forrestal’s return, he ordered me to Washington, to aid him in formulating the kind of plan for a nonmilitary campaign that I had proposed.

My first job was to draft an Estimate of the Situation for Mr. Forrestal’s personal use, so he could better gain acceptance for the ideas we had on the highest echelons. The principal part of the estimate had to deal with the Soviet Union’s impending participation in the Pacific war. I was allowed access to top-secret decisions reached at Yalta; some of which, I was surprised to learn later, had been withheld even from War Mobilization Director James Byrnes and Vice President Truman. One such decision was the one to let Stalin have the Kurile Islands outright in exchange for Russian participation in the Pacific war.

The estimate I submitted to Forrestal was outspoken and unqualified in opposing such a step and declaring against Russia’s coming into the war. I outlined in detail the strategic significance of the Kuriles to us in a postwar world. I also depicted Russia’s probable role in postwar China, gained through easy victories in a war from which its participation was no longer needed.

Secretary Forrestal accepted my estimate in full. He did everything in his power to have our commitments to Russia canceled and to persuade our leaders to release Stalin from his “obligation” to join us in the Pacific war.

But the Pentagon thought otherwise and urged Truman to sustain the Yalta decision. And the Army’s view prevailed in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, despite a spirited defense of the Navy argument by Adm. Ernest J. King.

This upset was the start of a two-front war I had to fight for the ensuing months before the war with Japan did finally end. On the one hand, I fought the Japanese, using all means of propaganda and secret intelligence available to a man in my position. On the other hand, I fought against a Washington bureaucracy that failed to comprehend the nature of my mission and simply could not fathom the fact that wars could be waged without battleships and planes, guns and A-bombs-but in the intellectual sphere alone, by outthinking the enemy and persuading him to act according to our will.

Plan Was Two-Fold

Our plan, consistently opposed, was two-fold: Conduct an open campaign by press and radio, by leaflets and other overt media of psychological warfare, to provide the necessary arguments for members of the growing Tokyo peace party and, indeed the Emperor himself. Utilize covert or clandestine methods to gain Japanese surrender by all means of secret intelligence and secret diplomacy, with no holds barred, and enlist the active collaboration of all the secret operatives whose contributions made it possible for us to deploy our invisible forces for our campaign.

As we prepared our campaign, several forces appeared behind the scenes to co-operate with us.

One of the first such moves, proving we were on the right track, came when the Emperor of Japan asked the Holy See to intervene with us on his behalf and seek out our terms in preparation for formal peace negotiations with Pope Pius XII himself acting as intermediary.

Go-Betweens Listed

Involved in this move, besides the Pope, were Pietro Cardinal Fumasoni-Biondi, head of the Congregazione de Propaganda Fide, the Vatican’s own “intelligence service”; His Excellency, Petro Tatsuo Doi, Archbishop of Tokyo; two of the Cardinal’s representatives in Tokyo and members of a special mission of the Office of Strategic Services working in Italy on contacts developed through the Vatican.

If we still needed evidence that Tokyo was actually suing for peace, the appeal to the Vatican provided it for us. Unfortunately, nobody outside the Navy Department and the O.S.S. seemed to take the opportunity seriously. In fact the State Department discouraged it altogether and told the O.S.S. to discontinue its efforts, since American public opinion “might never approve of a peace negotiated with the help of the Roman Catholic Church.”

To strengthen our knowledge of Japanese sentiments for peace still further, Tokyo—at about this time—also called on the Russians to negotiate peace on its behalf. Here, however, the obstacle was that the Soviet never acted on the request, in fact it never advised us of the Japanese move. We had to learn about it in a roundabout way.

Our next step in the Office of Naval Intelligence was to prepare for the event predicted in a report received from a top-ranking diplomatic representative of a neutral country in Tokyo. This materialized on April 5, when Emperor Hirohito dismissed General Koiso as Premier, naming in his place Admiral Suzuki, whose job would be to explore the possibilities of ending the war. There was no time to lose.

Radio Campaign Planned

First, we planned a series of broadcast beamed directly to the Japanese High Command to provide it with reassurance that “Unconditional surrender” did not mean obliteration and to persuade the Japanese to “end the war before it was too late.” We did not know anything about the impending plan to use the A-bomb. What we tried to convey to the Japanese High Command with these words was the imminent danger of Soviet participation in the war.

But far more vital than these broadcasts, we felt, was a series of ambitious plans we developed, all converging on the same goal. Four such plans were worked out.

Plan One was a trip by submarine to “somewhere in Japan” for which Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the well-known motion picture actor, volunteered. The purpose of the mission was to establish direct contact with a group of influential Japanese political leaders close to the Dowager Empress, who had indicated their willingness to discuss peace with us through a member of the Swedish Legation in Tokyo.

Mr. Fairbanks at the time was serving with COMINCH, at Admiral King’s headquarters in Washington. He developed the plan on his own initiative as if desirous of ending his wartime career with a particularly gallant exploit. The men around the Dowager Empress were his friends and acquaintances, and he felt certain that he could persuade them to act on our behalf, to recruit others for the plot and to carry the conspiracy to a successful conclusion.

Although prepared in minute detail and promising the results Mr. Fairbanks confidently expected, Plan One was vetoed as “fantastic” and “Buck Rogers stuff” by the men to whom it had to be submitted for approval. Mr. Fairbanks may be interested to learn now that we in Op-16-W, the psychological warfare branch of O.N.I., regarded his daring proposal as perfectly feasible and expected as much from it as he did himself. We did our best to win approval of his plan, but the obstacles that blocked it in the myopic and pessimistic Washington of 1945 were insurmountable.

Ex-Ambassador Tapped

Plan Two involved a special trip by the most prominent Japanese in our hands. He was Gen. Hiroshi Oshima, until a short time before Japan’s Ambassador to Nazi Germany, and the chief promoter of Japan’s adherence to the Rome-Berlin Axis, as well as the Nazis’ most devoted propagandist throughout the Japanese hierarchy.

We found him hiding in southern Germany and made preparations to “exploit” him. With great and difficult effort, we succeeded in persuading the Army that Oshima should be brought to the United States. When we contacted him, we found him most eager to join in our plot. Our idea was to arrange a meeting, through certain neutral agents, with Admiral Suzuki’s personal representative on a small Pacific island held by us. Oshima would have been accompanied by Lt. Dennis McEvoy, one of my young aides in Op-16-W, and I would have followed myself had my presence have become necessary in the course of the negotiations.

Gen. Oshima Disappears

Plan Two was developed in Op-16-W, and it also died right there. When its details were communicated to certain Army representatives, General Oshima was moved from our reach and could never be found again until the end of the war.

Plan Three foresaw the development of close contacts with enemy representatives through Cardinal Fumasoni-Biondi and the Vatican. Even while the plan was being developed by us, more urgent messages reached us from the Holy See, conveying to us a truly desperate plea the Emperor had just flashed to the Pope through Archbishop Doi. It was the last “S.O.S.” we ever received from Tokyo via Vatican City. Shortly afterwards the Cardinal was told that “someone in Washington” was not looking favorably at his efforts. So this plan too had to be abandoned, despite the fact that it promised greater fruits without involving ourselves in the adventures of Plans One and Two.

Plan Four was a flexible project to promote the whole complex of the Japanese peace campaign in every manner we could. It sought to use every single secret agent and follow every lead we developed anywhere in the world that promised results along the lines of our basic plan. We never received permission to execute this plan and could not persuade the other agencies of government. Better qualified than we were to carry out such a project, to take it over from us.

Thus all our plans for direct action had to be discarded. We had failed to persuade the State Department to take part in the great diplomatic campaign then developing on three continents. We had tried to gain White House approval even for more limited objectives. We were left with the series of broadcasts we had originally planned. Only this least ambitious and unorthodox of our various plans were we allowed to execute.

The series of broadcasts was to start at once. I was to address Japanese leaders in the royal family, navy and army with whom I had been on most friendly terms during former years in Washington and Tokyo. To strengthen the effect in the capacity of “official spokesman.”

Planners Seek Bombshell

We planned to begin this campaign with a bombshell, with an explicit declaration specially prepared for this broadcast by the White House, assuring the Japanese that “unconditional surrender does not mean the extermination or enslavement of the Japanese people.” This was to be our opening shot. From then on, we hoped to develop an even more realistic approach by devising means of achieving unconditional surrender.

No such statement could be obtained, despite persistent efforts at the White House. So we drafted one ourselves entitled “Statement by the President of the United States.” The draft was submitted to the White House and clearance was requested at once so that we could begin our series of broadcasts.

White House Is Cool

But we could obtain no reaction whatsoever. The whole plan seemed to be heading for the limbo of Washington projects. White House attaches answered our persistent inquiries with a stereotyped “The President is in Hyde Park. He will take up the matter with you on his return to Washington.” Then one day we heard that Mr. Roosevelt had arrived in town.

We rushed to the White House to inquire about the fate of our drafted statement. The answer this time was, “The President has just left for Warm Springs. He will take up the matter upon his return to Washington.”

The President was never to return to the capital alive. But while he was in Washington, en route from Hyde Park to Warm Springs, we learned later, he did peruse the draft and suggested one or two minor changes, though he postponed a decision on its use. He was still reluctant to “compromise” his well-known position on his unconditional surrender formula. It was in this slightly changed form, however, that the statement was eventually issued to the world by President Truman, on the day of Germany’s surrender, less than a month after Roosevelt died. From then on, the radio war with Japan was on.

After a few broadcasts, though, we began to run short of ammunition. No matter how we prodded our government to prepare a special policy for us, to grant us permission to goad the Japanese into negotiations through carefully worded invitations, we could not obtain anything even remotely resembling a policy.

We were told in so many words that no one in high places really expected the Japanese to surrender especially “not in answer to a few broadcasts by a Captain of the United States Navy–my rank at the time. We were also told that the Pacific war would last until 1946 and even 1948, and that we could make ourselves more useful by turning to tactical propaganda problems.

Peace Moves Confirmed

But then in late May, an intelligence report reached us that encouraged us to continue our work despite the cold shoulder we got in Washington. The report, confirmed in full when we occupied Japan, said the Supreme War Guidance Council, Japans highest authority, had accepted a resolution to seek ways and means to end the war.

Shortly afterwards, on June 26, an Imperial Conference was called. The Emperor ordered his advisers to prepare immediate plans to end the war on whatever terms Japan could obtain from us.

Besides that, various Japanese spokesmen approached me to inquire about the terms on which Japan could gain peace.

We pleaded with the White House, with representatives of the Joint Chiefs, with the Pentagon and the State Department to give us terms for transmission to Japan. We assured our contacts in all those agencies that Japan was seriously seeking a way out. And we urged that a new military policy be introduced: to slow down fighting to an absolute minimum and to let the diplomatic offensive take over where our soldiers, sailors and marines left off. We were turned down at all agencies and on all echelons.

So we decided on a last rebellion. In retrospect I am surprised how we dared, in the midst of war, to devise a plan and carry it out almost single-handed. But Secretary Forrestal was behind us. And with his help, the last phase of our operation began.

We decided to offer the Japanese an opportunity to surrender on the terms of the Atlantic Charter, in which the Allies had set forth their aims for self-determination by the nations of the world and against self-aggrandizement.

We realized that we were moving high up in the rarefied air of our top policy makers and that the consequences of such “insubordination” could be dangerous for all of us. But it was a calculated risk and we took it.

Set Propaganda D-Day

Our “D-Day” was set for July 21, 1945. President Truman was in Potsdam discussing with Stalin and Churchill, among other things, a declaration they themselves were to issue to the Japanese people calling on them to surrender-or else. The else of course was the atomic bomb.

We made the plunge on schedule. Without warning, without Presidential knowledge, without clearance beyond our “low level censors” in the State Department and Joint Chiefs, we announced to Japan its choice-virtual destruction and a dictated peace or “unconditional surrender with its attendant benefits as laid down in the Atlantic Charter.”

This was all I said. But the hornets nest was stirred up. The offer was featured on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Wide speculations were printed about my role, my person, and my intentions. Then the State Department told newsmen that I had no authority to speak for the U. S. Government and that my designation as “official spokesman” was preposterous.

The controversy was still raging in Washington when Tokyo broadcast the first answer to my announcement. It was, in effect, an open invitation to begin surrender negotiations on the terms we had proposed.

It was not for me to provide the follow-up. From then on, it was for higher authorities of our government to continue my efforts and conclude, behind closed doors, negotiations leading to the cessation of hostilities.

Author’s Head Demanded

But this was not to be. In fact, my head was being demanded, especially by all those Washington circles that had steadfastly opposed our efforts. I was advised to prepare for the worst, possibly even a court-martial.

Then Forrestal came to our aid. He told Arthur Krock, Chief of the New York Times Washington bureau, that I did have the authority to make the statement I had made in the broadcast and that it did indeed reflect the President’s opinion.

Forrestal then called Potsdam and requested Presidential approval (after the fact) for our “deliberate indiscretion.” Finally he dropped everything in Washington and flew to Potsdam himself.

Our nerves were on edge as we waited word from Potsdam. Then came the Associated Press flash saying the President would stand by my reference to the Atlantic Charter.

But though we gained a victory, it was soon to be canceled out by the Potsdam Declaration and the way it was handled.

Instead of being a diplomatic instrument, transmitted through regular diplomatic channels and giving the Japanese a chance to answer, it was put on the radio as a propaganda instrument pure and simple. The whole maneuver, in fact, completely disregarded all essential psychological factors dealing with Japan.

It was drafted in the presence of the Russians as they stood poised to enter the Far Eastern war, convinced that Japan could not accept it in the time limit set. It was offered in the shadow of the A-bomb

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