WWII highlights from the Truman Library’s archives and collections
Marching to Victory: Japan Surrenders
August 14, 1945
As Emperor Hirohito and his cabinet accepted the surrender terms on August 14, officials on both sides knew Japanese commanders and soldiers would find it a bitter pill to swallow. How could Japan’s proud troops be convinced to lay down their arms and finally end the bloodshed of World War II?
Davidson Sommers’ oral history in the collections of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum reveals how American and Japanese leaders worked out a last-minute plan to achieve peace.
Until mid-August 1945, Japan was a proudly militaristic country with a long history of conquests. Even with food shortages, devastating air raids, two atomic bomb attacks, and a massive Soviet force approaching from Manchuria, the unconditional surrender terms demanded by the Allies remained an unthinkable dishonor to many Japanese at that time.
Sommers was a U.S. Army Air Corps officer working for John J. McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War in Washington. Thanks to his prewar career as a lawyer specializing in administrative law, Sommers advised on issues “that are not purely military but have politico-military and foreign policy implications,” such as Japan’s imminent surrender and occupation by the Allies.
Sommers’ oral history, recorded 44 years later, sheds light on the situation in McCloy’s office after the War Department received Japan’s surrender.
SOMMERS: I remember being in McCloy’s office when the Japanese surrender message was first received. It was typical that State and Navy and Army representatives met in McCloy’s office. He was a person that brought those parts of the Government together. Important decisions began there. Well, it was a pretty hectic moment for McCloy and the others who were assigning people to do all these various jobs.
After all other tasks were assigned, McCloy said, “I’m not satisfied with this. The Emperor is so important that I doubt whether the Japanese troops scattered all over Asia and the islands will surrender unless they get a direct order from him to do so.” He turned to me and said, “Draft an order from the Emperor to his troops.” So I went out and drafted a one-line order saying something like, “I, Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, hereby order all of my loyal troops not to continue their resistance, but to lay down their arms and surrender.” … A one-liner. This was sent to the Japanese for comment, and they accepted it as such, except they asked whether they could change “I” to “We.” I thought that change might be for Western benefit. With that change the Emperor signed it.
That night, Hirohito recorded the Gyokuon-hōsō, his message to the Japanese people announcing the surrender. It was broadcast at noon the next day, August 15. This historic broadcast was the first time ordinary Japanese heard the voice of their Emperor, and together with the order drafted by Sommers, it convinced the vast majority of Japanese to accept surrender.
All across the Allied nations, news that the war was finally ending sparked jubilation. Although both August 14 and 15 would be celebrated for years to come as Victory Over Japan Day or V-J Day, President Truman reminded Americans that the “proclamation of V-J Day must wait upon the formal signing of the surrender terms by Japan.”
Additionally, the difficult task remained of rebuilding Japan and installing a democratic government. After General Douglas MacArthur was assigned as military governor of Japan, McCloy had Sommers draft instructions for MacArthur. These orders kept Emperor Hirohito on his throne as a “stabilizing factor.” As Sommers recalled: “there was considerable opinion in the Government that we couldn’t get peace unless we accepted the Emperor, because he was such an important symbol.”
Consequently, the postwar instructions Sommers drafted for MacArthur “said we accepted the Emperor’s continuation in office, but we didn’t support it, and that we didn’t want to discourage movements toward more liberalization and freedom.” Although, according to Sommers, some Americans “criticized it as being too leftist” and others thought MacAurthur “was going to be very skeptical about it,” MacArthur fully accepted this policy.
Hirohito remained Japan’s head of state for over 40 years despite his diminished power and Japan’s democratization. After leaving the Air Corps, Davidson Sommers continued his work in the Department of War before becoming an attorney for the World Bank.
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Marching to Victory
70 years ago, World War II ended under President Truman’s decisive leadership. Now, follow key events from the war’s final months with the Truman Library Institute’s series, “Marching to Victory: WWII Highlights from the Truman Library’s Archives and Collections.” The 25-part blog series opens the vaults at Truman’s presidential library to share eyewitness accounts and historic artifacts related to major conflicts and monumental victories – from the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of Dachau to the unconditional surrender of Japan.
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Contributed by Will Hickox. Will is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written for The New York Times and contributed to several digital history projects.