HELL TO PAY: OPERATION DOWNFALL AND THE INVASION OF JAPAN: 1945-1947
By D.M. Giangreco
U.S. Naval Institute Press, $36.95, 416 pages
Reviewed by Victor Fic
By mid-1945, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Sherman of Aurora, Ill., had lost three sons - Robert, Homer and Donald - in World War II. Many more than 7,000 American families had already sacrificed two or more of their boys for freedom. President Truman’s supporters insist that he dropped the atomic bomb on Japan to save young lives. His left-wing “revisionist” critics counter that he blasted that surrendering country to intimidate the Soviet Union and later fabricated astronomical casualty figures as moral camouflage.
D.M. Giangreco, former editor of the Military Review, expertly advances - perhaps settles - this old debate after analyzing new documents that exonerate Truman. In mid-1944, U.S. war planners projected half a million GI deaths to subdue Japan’s 3.5 million military defenders during Operation Downfall, slated for 1945 and 1946. Then the harrowing battle of Okinawa in spring 1945 chastened them. By July 1945, American analysts realized that Tokyo had mobilized 5 million soldiers and stationed them exactly on Downfall’s designated landing beaches. These factors foreshadowed 1 million GI deaths.
Mr. Giangreco observes that the cornered revisionists insist that Truman never saw these ghoulish numbers. The author counters that documents he discovered at the Truman library in the late 1990s prove Truman did. Therefore, at a June 18, 1945, White House meeting, the president emphasized “economiz[ing]” on American lives to preclude another Okinawa bloodletting. This reviewer notes that Truman had never visited Japan yet referred to Okinawa by name - it obsessed him. Using the still-mysterious A-bomb bested invasion.
Why didn’t Washington soften its unconditional surrender terms to preserve Japan’s emperor, the revisionists ask? Mr. Giangreco explains that Americans had learned that the partial defeat of Germany in 1919 had precipitated a worse war in 1939. Therefore, eliminating the emperor would facilitate lasting peace. This reviewer wonders why progressive revisionists would wish to rehabilitate an Asian dictator who trampled their Western liberalism.
Mr. Giangreco then examines neglected documents about Downfall and Ketsu-Go, Japan’s defense plan. No, Tokyo was not surrendering. He cites naval strategist Takejiro Onishi as claiming 20 million Japanese would die in a gyokusei campaign, meaning “crushing of the beautiful jewel” - or mass, heroic death - against any invasion. The bloodied Americans would then negotiate to preserve much of the empire.
Yes, Tokyo was still very strong, Mr. Giangreco argues. Its regimented civilians held 28,000 knee mortars, and its wrongly creative kamikaze strategy could have launched 18,000 missions in 1945. Mr. Giangreco concedes that many planes were made of wood. However, he claims to offer the best analysis of them. Given their wooden airframe, U.S. radar failed to track them, and the proximity fuses of Japanese bombs were known to malfunction. As for aviation fuel, Tokyo had copious underground stocks. Mr. Giangreco points out that in July 1945, a single wooden kamikaze biplane sank the destroyer Callaghan.
Next, Mr. Giangreco examines America’s plan to detonate its nuclear bombs tactically during Downfall. Americans and Japanese faced a radiation risk, he finds.
Other sections of the book attest that democracy on its worst day is better than fascism on its best day. Mr. Giangreco relates that during the Saipan battle in 1944, the Japanese forced civilians to leap off cliffs into the sea. The countless floating corpses blocked U.S. Navy vessels. However, he adds that during Okinawa, American leaflets implored civilians to wear white as identification. He adds that when famine threatened 10 million post-surrender Japanese, the United States disbursed war rations. Mr. Giangreco correctly notes that Japan had brutalized Asia under the san ko principles - “kill all, burn all, loot all” - while claiming to liberate it. He might add that Washington sometimes fought humanely even as Japanese propaganda demonized the country’s future liberator.
Is this contrast remembered on either Pacific shore? It’s worth asking because Mr. Giangreco cites James A. Michener’s letter recalling that as he and other GIs prepared to invade Japan, they faced”Armageddon” and felt “deliverance” when the A-bombs brought peace. How disappointing that Mr. Michener remained publicly silent to avoid “ridicule.” In Japan, it is critics of Tokyo’s war effort who often suffer bullying, or ijime.
Mr. Giangreco pointedly laments how revisionism misled a “young man who would become president.” The author should plainly implore Obama administration officials to accept his skillful analysis over distortions that permit Japanese rightists to whitewash worse acts. Mr. Giangreco quotes Japanese Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori as saying in 1945 that Japan must fully exploit the A-bombs’ propaganda value. Why don’t progressives debunk their ideological foes?
Polls in Japan show that only 2 percent of respondents exculpate Truman. Mr. Giangreco’s book cites maverick Japanese historian Sadao Asada as asserting that it “refutes” hisprosecutors.
The ultimate lesson is that Japan and America excel at war - so they must choose peace. Then blood will not stain Japan’s golden beaches and the gilded sons of Illinois can grow into manhood.
Victor Fic is a veteran analyst of East Asian affairs based in Seoul He has lived in Japan and China.