In the 44 months since Pearl Harbor the United States had largely supplied the allied victory in Europe, and at the same time had built eight new battleships, 13 heavy cruisers, 2 large cruisers, 33 light cruisers, 18 heavy aircraft carriers, 76 light or jeep carriers, more than 600 destroyers and destroyer escorts, plus 4,000 large landing craft and 79,000 small landing craft. The Marine Corp had grown to over half a million men and the U.S. Army to one million men in fighting divisions. And it was this force, supplied in abundance and seeking revenge, which was descending upon Japan in August of 1945.
It was this sense of moral outrage, the thrust for justice and revenge that explained the haughtily tone in which the U.S. informed Japan that the “Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay. There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest. Until such a new order is established and until there is convincing proof that Japan's war-making power is destroyed …Japanese territory…shall be occupied…Japanese sovereignty shall be limited….as we determine…(and) stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals…We call…(for the) unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces,…The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.” It could almost have been written by an American political speechwriter; In fact, it was.
The Japanese, reading this statement, noted two things; first, the Russians had not signed it; and two, there was no direct mention of the Emperor. But they had also noticed that American propaganda often included hateful images of the Emperor. And the section about removing “...those who have deceived and misled” seemed to the Japanese, and to most Americans, to refer directly to the Emperor. And in 1945 the Japanese leadership was prepared to destroy the entire nation to prevent Hirohito from standing trial like a mere mortal.
From the 1890’s on, all Japanese children were indoctrinated in the belief that the nation and the Emperor were synonymous, that Japan began and ended with the Chrysanthemum Throne. According to the Imperial Cult, the Emperor was a spiritual leader, closer to a pope than a king. His subjects fought “for the Emperor” but they took orders from mortal men who ran the government, men like Tojo.
Hirohito certainly approved of their wars against China, England and America, but they were not "his" wars. He had not ordered them and was often a mere prop for the war makers. He was not expected to speak at meetings of his "Big Six" cabinet. (the meeting ending the war was the first at which he did speak). Besides, Japan had a long and ancient history of ignoring or “working around” inconvenient imperial wishes; which was the problem the Emperor now faced in ending the war.
Like all Kings and Presidents, he was a prisoner of his office, be it Edo Palace or the White House. Without a free press Hirohito only knew what his staff and advisers told him. And he could only act through them. He, like everyone else in Japan, believed the nation could not survive without the Emperor. And he had come, finally, to believe his throne could not survive unless the war was ended quickly.
The Americans agreed, for their own reasons, mostly to keep the Russians out of Japan. And on August 11, just one day after the Swiss communicated the Japanese note to the Americans, the American leadership replied, again speaking through the Swiss to the Japanese. The Americans were still firm and still boastful. After all they were the winners of this war. “From the moment of surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government… shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Nations. The Emperor will…authorize and ensure the signature by the Government of Japan…of the surrender terms…"
And there, hidden in all that brash macho braggadocio lay the compromise that ended World War Two in the Pacific. The U.S. was telling the Japanese (for the first time), that if they wanted the Emperor, they could have the Emperor, as long as he had no direct authority - something he had never really had; problem solved. The Americans had done the calculations in their heads and decided that removing the Emperor was not worth another one million casualties, not worth letting the Russians occupy any more of Asia, not worth spending any more on a war that had been won over a year ago .
To which the Japanese Government replied as quickly as the stilted etiquette and security of the Palace, politics and diplomacy would allow, on August 14th, and again via the Swiss: “His Majesty the Emperor…is prepared to authorize and ensure the signature by his Government…of the necessary terms for carrying out the provisions of the Potsdam declaration. His Majesty is also prepared to issue his commands to…surrender arms and to issue such other orders as may be required…” The Emperor would issue orders, the Emperor would issue commands....Hirohito would play the American figure head, instead of the Japanese figure head.
Done and done. Now all they had to do was separate the opponents, which would be a bit like separating two amorous porcupines - a very delicate procedure.
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