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Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II

Reviewed by Jeff Schultz.

Marc Gallicchio’s Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II focuses on the late-war period leading up to the September 1945 Japanese surrender. This important monograph digs deeper than most into the complicated chain of events which resulted in the memorable Tokyo Bay ceremony, using American and Japanese archival sources to fill in the many gaps which shed light on a time of intense challenge and appraisal in time for the 75th anniversary of the long-awaited September 1945 Tokyo Bay surrender.

As a Villanova University Professor of History and the co-author of the award-winning Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945, Gallacchio delivers another significant title covering the last months of the Pacific War. He divides Unconditional: the Japanese Surrender in World War II into an introduction, conclusion and six main chapters: “Our Demand Has Been and It Remains – Unconditional Surrender,” “We Do Not Exclude a Constitutional Monarch Under the Present Dynasty,” “Popular Opinion Can Offer No Useful Contribution,” “They Will Yield,” “A Great Victory Has Been Won” and “The A-Bomb Was Not Needed.” The scholarly text, suitable for upper level college courses, is supported by a few maps and fifteen images of mostly prominent historical figures along with extensive notes and index.

Gallicchio begins the narrative as Vice President Harry Truman takes over suddenly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unfortunate passing in April 1945. Largely kept in the dark, Truman abruptly inherited a plethora of existing political conflicts and associated intrigues which predated him, many of which would shape the remaining war months with widespread dispute and prolonged, often ardent, debate.

Roosevelt’s insistence on unconditional surrender as a key demand went back to the 1943 Casablanca Conference, if not rooted in the earlier 1941 Atlantic Charter. As his heir, Truman decided to keep the same intent for continuity, not to mention maintaining whatever existing support previously assembled among leadership circles both in and out of the military. As Roosevelt saw it, World War I had ended with too many Germans thinking due to pervasive right-wing propaganda there was no true military defeat, rather the betrayal-focused Dolchstoßlegende (or stab-in-the-back myth), which blamed a range of internal foes instead. To avoid a repeat, there would be no question of the Nazi military defeat at the hands of the overwhelming might of the Allied forces which should usher in a different postwar era.

Gallicchio sheds light on the many governmental offices that had a say in the unconditional surrender demand, that is not merely the State Department but the War and Navy Departments, among others. Not merely departmental, but political lines also shaped the ongoing debate, as Democrats often supported unconditional surrender as Roosevelt’s wish and Republicans tended to seek modification. Securing Soviet entry against Japan made some want to modify their expectations while others insisted on keeping it like Roosevelt wanted, yet the lure of Soviet entry remained strong. If Stalin would attack Japan’s once vaunted Kwantung Army in Manchuria, it would not only help the Allies preparing to attack the Home Islands but also likely hasten the Japanese collapse. The opposite remained a nightmare, where the invasion of the Home Islands without Soviet involvement to pin down considerable Japanese resources might allow Tokyo to transfer forces from Manchuria to strengthen other locales. As it was the Kwantung Army of 1945 existed as a shell of its former self, weakened by unit transfers, obsolete equipment and marked loss of experienced troops, it failed to offer the resistance once imagined as just another indicator of the inexorable Japanese decline.

Gallicchio considers not only Truman’s dilemmas vis-à-vis his subordinates but also wisely looks at the role of popular opinion, which many decisionmakers held in low regard and of course the presidential need to pacify a fickle populace. With Germany defeated, the seemingly endless war could now be brought to an end, or so many had thought. However, the vicious 1945 Iwo Jima and Okinawa fighting exacted such a heavy toll of American lives that anyone could sense the impending potential slaughter if this effort carried to the logical conclusion. Many congressional Republicans entertained a negotiated peace or at least the idea of one in light of the tremendous casualties suffered as the Allies drew closer to Tokyo. A brutal invasion of the Home Islands therefore stood as an unwelcome proposal for many, and even the most uniformed knew a long casualty list represented the quickest way to doom a re-election bid.

Gallicchio focuses not only on the Americans but takes time to sketch out the Japanese perspective which breathes life into what are often portrayed thinly with little sense of the machinations taking place in Tokyo in the halls of government even as the Japanese empire lay in smoldering ruin. What of Emperor Hirohito, for example? Would he survive the war, his status intact or would the imperial tradition die with him? There were advocates for both viewpoints but Truman eventually decided to let Hirohito remain, albeit as a figurehead, but not as a war criminal. The book includes the landmark photo of the old and new emperors, Hirohito and Douglas MacArthur, which shocked many Japanese but served the goal of allowing some of the old ways to survive even while most things changed. Arguably Truman’s handling of the Japanese defeat heralded growth, not misery, for the re-emerging nation which rose from the postwar ashes to become one of the most important American allies and a critical support base for future Cold War conflicts. The book’s impact reaches beyond World War II, into the Cold War with the meaning of “unconditional” morphing into a different climate where conflicts could terminate with far less than an unconditional surrender yet still be considered resolved or at least halted.

Marc Gallicchio’s Unconditional: the Japanese Surrender in World War II stands out as a well-researched glimpse of the last months of World War II, revealing the many layers of decision-making which escape most cursory discussions of the war’s conclusion. It is not merely diplomatic or military history, as it considers other key aspects which impacted the decision such as public opinion, economic factors and coalition warfare. While not an entry-level work, there are plenty of aspects to enjoy and for enthusiasts of the machinations so common in politically charged foreign policy situations it will be a welcome treatise.

Unconditional: the Japanese Surrender in World War II (Pivotal Moments in American History Series) by Marc Gallicchio, Oxford University Press, New York, NY (2020).

Reviewed by Jeff Schultz, frequent NHF Book Reviewer, and Associate Professor of History, Luzerne County Community College

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