By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the final stages of the war in Europe
- Identify the components of the agreements reached at Yalta and Potsdam
- Analyze the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan
- Discuss the efforts to transform Japan after its surrender
Just as it did after World War I, immense hope prevailed after World War II that genuine and lasting peace might arise. The future of the globe itself seemed to hang in the balance if humans could not avoid using violence to solve their problems. However, the use of nuclear weapons to end the fighting in the Pacific meant the postwar world had to grapple with new ethical and technological concerns. The rebuilding of war-torn and defeated countries added a new dimension to what victory looked like.
Victory in Europe and Plans for Peace
For more than five years after they met in Newfoundland and produced the Atlantic Charter’s plan for the end of the conflict, Roosevelt and Churchill exchanged more than 1,700 letters and messages and held many high-level meetings to closely coordinate their efforts at every level. At a specialized conference held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944, representatives of forty-four Allied countries together hammered out the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund, both intended to secure economic security and stability after the war.
As Allied troops marched toward the German border, however, their coalition began to fray. On a visit to Stalin late in 1944, Churchill signed the Percentages Agreement in which the two decided to divide up eastern Europe into spheres of influence, with Britain getting a 90 percent share of Greece, the USSR getting 90 percent of Romania, and both holding 50 percent of the political power in Hungary and Yugoslavia. Churchill thought Stalin should burn the document afterward because “it might be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner.”
Finally, several months after the Soviet victory at Kursk, General Eisenhower prepared to open a second front in the European theater of the war. By May 1944, the German military was facing a dilemma. The Soviet Red Army was relentlessly rolling back German positions in the east, and it seemed obvious that the British and U.S. troops were preparing for an invasion of the continent. Given the brutality of the battles on the eastern front, the Germans chose to retain 228 divisions to counter the Soviets and assigned the defense of Europe to fifty-eight divisions, only fifteen of which were in the vicinity of Normandy, France.
Normandy, however, was the secret site of the coming invasion. After months of assembling and training troops, the Allies began their invasion of France at 2 a.m. on June 6, 1944—D-Day. Having assumed responsibility for nearly every detail but not convinced he had done enough, Eisenhower wrote a letter of resignation the night before in case things did not go well. But they did. By the second day of the operation, approximately 160,000 Allied troops with considerable armor were linking up in a continuous line through Europe and punching holes in German defenses. Paris was liberated just two months later.
A race to capture Berlin then began, with Allied generals vying for the honor of getting there first. As British and U.S. troops approached from the west, the Soviets closed in on the city from the east. While clearing out German forces west of the Rhine River, Eisenhower decided to pause for resupply and prepare for the final push to Berlin.
Hitler believed there might still be hope for a German victory if he could divide the Allied armies from each other. Four days later. he committed 200,000 troops, one thousand tanks, and large numbers of aircraft to the Battle of the Bulge in a forested region of the western front. Eisenhower later admitted the Germans had indeed achieved a tactical surprise in this offensive by penetrating Allied defenses by some fifty miles. Despite the German successes, however, he felt that by capitalizing on their fatigue, he could stem the tide of the war. Germany had in fact suffered major losses in what proved to be their final European offensive and another turning point in the war.
With the conflict nearing its end, the Big Three met again to plan the peace at the Yalta Conference in the Soviet Crimea from February 4 to 11, 1945 (Figure 13.17). Roosevelt’s agenda asked for Soviet support in the U.S. Pacific War against Japan, specifically in invading Japan. He also hoped for support for the creation of a new institution—the United Nations—that would be modeled on the premise of collective security but would be a stronger body than the League of Nations had been. Churchill pressed for free elections and democratic governments in eastern and central Europe (specifically Poland), while Stalin demanded a Soviet sphere of political influence in eastern and central Europe.
Stalin promised free elections in Poland, despite having recently installed a government in Polish territories occupied by the Red Army. His preconditions for the Soviet Union’s declaring war against Japan were U.S. recognition of Mongolian independence from China and of Soviet interests in the Manchurian railways and Port Arthur. These were agreed upon without Chinese representation or consent, and Stalin promised that the Soviet Union would enter the Pacific War three months after the defeat of Germany. Roosevelt met Stalin’s price in the hope that the USSR could be dealt with after the war via the United Nations, which the Soviets had agreed to join.
In the Declaration on Liberated Europe, the three leaders agreed that all original governments would be restored in the invaded countries (except France, Romania, and Bulgaria and the Polish government-in-exile in London), and that all displaced civilians would be repatriated. Other key points of the meeting were reaffirmation of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, and of the division of Germany and Berlin into three occupied zones (later expanded to four).
Germany was to undergo demilitarization and denazification and make reparations, partly in the form of forced labor by German prisoners of war and others who would work in agricultural and industrial roles in both Eastern and Western Europe after the war. At the same time, Nazi war criminals were to be hunted down and brought to justice. Stalin insisted that given the pain and destruction the Germans had visited upon the Soviet Union, reparations ought to go to the nation that had suffered the most. Resolution of this issue was postponed to a future conference. After Yalta, Eisenhower conferred with Moscow and laid out a plan, adhering to the Yalta Agreement, for the exact placement of the postwar occupation zones in Berlin. Eisenhower knew the German leaders were preparing to move to another city, making Berlin of only psychlogical significance.
On April 30, 1945, Hitler and his wife of one day, Eva Braun, committed suicide. Various German commanders then began surrendering to Soviet or Allied forces. Hermann Göring surrendered on May 6, and the next day the chief of staff of German forces, General Alfred Jodl, unconditionally surrendered all German forces. Victory in Europe had been achieved.
Advancing Soviet armies had begun the process of liberating the death camps in July 1944, and in January 1945, they freed those held in Auschwitz. In April, U.S. and British units liberated Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau. Eisenhower and his staff went into the camps on a number of occasions. To make sure the world became aware of German inhumanity, Eisenhower arranged for American and British reporters to tour the camps as well.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has preserved recorded testimony of Holocaust survivors recounting the end of their imprisonment and their life after liberation.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Early in 1945, the Japanese army and navy agreed to adopt the first joint operational plan in their histories. Operation Ten-go (“heaven”) called for suicide attacks by land and air units for defense in the Pacific, and a month later these attacks were combined with the shukketsu (“bleeding”) strategy in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Throughout the war, the Japanese had believed that high casualties would dishearten U.S. troops, who they felt could not tolerate suffering and loss. On Iwo Jima, the Japanese sacrificed twenty-one thousand soldiers and inflicted twenty-six thousand casualties on U.S. Marines (seven thousand were killed and the rest wounded). But the U.S. troops persisted and again absorbed high casualties as they later captured Okinawa. Japan’s struggle for Okinawa included the use of the island’s civilians, resulting in the death of 100,000 and demonstrating the resolve to be expected from the Japanese in defense of their main islands (Figure 13.18).
The slogan gyokusai (“honorable death”), combined with shukketsu and commitment to the emperor, was exemplified by the kamikaze or suicide pilots, essentially human bombs trying to fend off U.S. naval forces. In the face of such near-fanatical defensive efforts, U.S. secretary of war Henry L. Stimson and General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, estimated that an invasion of Japan could cost between 500,000 and one million U.S. casualties and last well into 1946. President Truman was briefed on these estimates, and they were widely discussed among the military planning circles and staff. Japan’s leaders, however, refused to consider an unconditional surrender that, among other things, may have led to the emperor’s being tried for war crimes. They came to the conclusion that an invasion of the home islands was inevitable. Private and secret initiatives were floated to persuade the Soviet Union to mediate with the United States and Britain to end the war.
Between July 17 and August 2, 1945, the final Allied summit conference took place at Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. This time, Harry S. Truman replaced the late Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill was replaced by Britain’s newly elected prime minister Clement Attlee. Truman was already troubled by Soviet actions in Europe. He disliked the concessions Roosevelt had made that allowed the Soviets to install a communist government in Poland. He also disapproved of Stalin’s plans, made known at the Yalta Conference, to demand large reparations from Germany. Truman feared the resulting burden on Germany might lead to another cycle of rearmament and aggression.
After issuing a demand for the unconditional surrender of Japan, the conference turned toward the fate of postwar Europe. The Allied leaders agreed to demilitarize Germany and to divide the conquered nation and its capital of Berlin into four occupation zones: three in the west to be controlled by Britain, France, and the United States, and one in the east for the USSR. An Allied Control Council was created to administer occupied Germany, though the choice to make the council’s decisions unanimous later proved unrealistic. The German economy was to be decentralized and focused on agriculture and nonmilitary industries.
The debates about reparations stemming from the Yalta Conference were settled with a plan to exchange Germany’s western industrial production for its eastern agricultural production. In practice, however, this plan led to economic policies being instituted and managed by zones rather than for the nation as a whole, creating further disunity among the Allies. Finally, a program of denazification for Germany and Austria was confirmed that included punishment of war criminals. The settlement of the final borders of Poland was postponed, but Britain and the United States agreed to the transfer of designated German territory to Poland.
Truman had known little about the Manhattan Project before becoming president and now relied on the advice of his experts. They shared a widely held faith in the justice of the U.S. cause and accepted technological approaches to ending the war. Informed of the success of the Trinity Test while at the conference, Truman noted his thinking about using the bomb in his July 25, 1945, diary entry. He favored using it only against military targets, not civilian ones:
This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10. I have told the secretary of war, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital or the new. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.
The bomb was used, first against Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and three days later on Nagasaki, both cities populated by civilians including women and children.
A variety of factors likely influenced Truman in making his decision. The desire to save American lives perhaps played the greatest role. The desire to justify the expense of the Manhattan Project also likely influenced him. Some have suggested that Truman hoped to demonstrate to the Soviet Union the technological superiority of the United States. Others believe that a desire for revenge for Pearl Harbor also played a role. Some have suggested that a long history of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States made the use of the atomic bomb against Japan seem less horrific than its use against Europeans would have been.
Dropping the Atomic Bomb
When it became clear that the Manhattan Project had been successful, a panel of scientists led by Robert Oppenheimer, the project’s head, made recommendations about the weapon they had created in a report dated June 16, 1945. A month later, physicist Leo Szilard and sixty-nine other scientists and technicians at the Manhattan Project’s Chicago laboratory petitioned President Truman to use caution when deciding how to deploy the bomb.
The initial use of the new weapon . . . in our opinion, should be such as to promote a satisfactory adjustment of our international relations. At the same time, we recognize our obligation to our nation to use the weapons to help save American lives in the Japanese war.
(1) To accomplish these ends we recommend that before the weapons are used not only Britain, but also Russia, France, and China be advised that we have made considerable progress in our work on atomic weapons, that these may be ready to use during the present war, and that we would welcome suggestions as to how we can cooperate in making this development contribute to improved international relations.
(2) The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous . . . . Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects . . . . We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.
—Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons
The war has to be brought speedily to a successful conclusion and attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare. We feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified, at least not unless the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.
If such public announcement gave assurance to the Japanese that they could look forward to a life devoted to peaceful pursuits in their homeland and if Japan still refused to surrender our nation might then, in certain circumstances, find itself forced to resort to the use of atomic bombs. Such a step, however, ought not to be made at any time without seriously considering the moral responsibilities which are involved.
The development of atomic power will provide the nations with new means of destruction. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.
If after this war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation. . . .
The added material strength which this lead gives to the United States brings with it the obligation of restraint and if we were to violate this obligation our moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. It would then be more difficult for us to live up to our responsibility of bringing the unloosened forces of destruction under control.
—A Petition to the President of the United States
- What are the points made by the two sides? Which do you think made the better argument?
- Do the scientists seem more concerned about the bomb’s effect on the Japanese or about the consequences for the United States of using it? Explain your answer.
- In what ways are Truman’s feelings about the bomb similar to those of Szilard and his supporters?
- If you had been President Truman, would you have ordered the bomb to be dropped? Why or why not?
Little Boy, as the first atomic bomb was called, was dropped on Hiroshima from the U.S. bomber the Enola Gay. Survivors referred to August 6 as “the day of two suns”; the blast was so bright that it burned the shadows of victims into walls and concrete. More than seventy thousand people were killed instantly. Immediately afterward, the sky turned purple and gray, even black, from the dust and debris suspended in the air. Hundreds of wooden and paper houses were ignited. Thousands of shocked and confused people whose flesh had burned off began roaming about, almost instinctively moving toward any pool or stream of water. Over the following days, months, and even years, people continued to succumb to their wounds and injuries, bringing the total deaths to more than 100,000. Three days later, Fat Man, the second bomb, similarly descended upon Nagasaki, killing forty thousand Japanese immediately. Including the aftermath, deaths there totaled seventy thousand.
Not everyone was horrified by the thought of the atomic bomb being used against Japan. But lyrics of the popular song “When the Atom Bomb Fell” reveal another perspective. The song was released in 1945 after the bomb had been dropped.
Visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to learn more about the effects of the bombing on the residents of Hiroshima.
Meanwhile, keeping the promise made at Yalta, after the bombing of Hiroshima the Soviets broke their nonaggression pact with Japan and invaded Manchukuo and Korea. Japanese defenses there quickly crumbled in the face of tens of thousands of casualties, ending any hope that the Soviets might act as an intermediary in some negotiated settlement with the Allies. Japan surrendered shortly after.
The Human Toll
The end of the war saw the world grapple with the conflict’s astronomical human toll. Germany had suffered 5.5 million military deaths and lost as many as three million civilians. Japan lost 2.1 million military and another million civilians. China’s military deaths can only be approximated but may have been as high as four million, with another sixteen million civilians. The United States and the United Kingdom emerged less battered, with 416,000 American and 384,000 British deaths. However, their ally the Soviet Union arguably suffered more than any other single country. Soviet military deaths were estimated at 8.8 to 10.7 million, and more than thirteen million civilian deaths were attributed to the war. Some of these deaths were the result of military actions; other Soviet civilians died of starvation or disease caused by wartime conditions. The German and Japanese surrenders ended the combat phase of the war. However, much work was needed to rebuild the world as the victors thought it should be.
The Aftermath: Europe
The right-wing dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, by staying out of the actual conflict, were able to avoid the reconstructive policies and action of the Allies. But fascism had been dealt a severe defeat in Europe.
The Soviets exacted retribution on the Germans largely by removing and transporting back to the Soviet Union virtually anything they considered useful to rebuilding their own industrial sector destroyed by the war. Thus, the Soviet occupation zone, which became the communist satellite of East Germany, was left with little to sustain itself. The western Allies, wanting relief from the burden of supporting destitute Germans and their largely destroyed economy, began to rebuild Germany’s industries in their occupation zones. Stalin perceived these efforts as a sign of greed, continued capitalist hostility to socialism, and the West’s desire to dominate the world economy.
Efforts were also made to establish some measure of justice via war crimes trials. In August 1945, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States agreed to create the International Military Tribunal to try Germans accused of committing war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. The Nuremberg Trials sought justice for Germany’s crimes against humanity; they lasted through 1946. Twenty-two individuals and seven Nazi organizations were indicted. Nineteen defendants were convicted and received sentences ranging from fifteen years in prison to death by hanging. Three of the Nazi organizations were ruled to be criminal organizations.
There remained the huge task of repatriating all those displaced by the war. Millions of people had been shuttled around Europe by the Germans as they drew forced labor to Germany and dispatched Jewish people and others to concentration/death camps. The Soviets demanded the return of all their citizens. The Allies agreed to the controversial “Operation Keelhaul,” whereby people who had cooperated with the Germans against the Soviets, including Cossacks, Ukrainians, and Russians, were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union with the probability of a harsh and possibly fatal reception. Millions of others were also forcibly moved back to their “home” nations at the end of the war, such as Germans living in areas now belonging to Poland who were forced to leave for Germany. The hope was that this would help avoid ethnic tensions that might lead to another conflict. At the same time, 250,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust languished in camps for displaced persons because their home countries refused to take them back. About eighty thousand were eventually able to relocate to the United States, and more than 100,000 settled in the British Mandate of Palestine.
The Aftermath: Japan
On August 10, 1945, in the wake of the atomic attacks and the Soviet invasion of Manchukuo, Japanese Emperor Hirohito had informed his Privy Council that he accepted the Potsdam Declaration regarding Japan’s unconditional surrender, and soon thereafter the Allies were informed to that effect. Hirohito himself followed up on August 15 with the first public broadcast any emperor had ever made to the Japanese people, saying he would bear the pain of defeat and accept the Allied terms. A month later on September 2, General Yoshijirō Umezu, the army’s chief of staff, signed a surrender document aboard the USS Missouri at anchor in Tokyo Bay (Figure 13.19).
As supreme commander for the Allied powers, General Douglas MacArthur was ordered to exercise authority during the Allied occupation of Japan through the Japanese governmental system, including Emperor Hirohito. MacArthur charged the Japanese government to immediately repeal the Peace Preservation Law, which allowed for the arrest of anyone perceived to be posing a threat to—or critical of—the Japanese government, and to begin open and free discussion of the entire Imperial government and its institutions. Political prisoners were released, and the Special Police were disbanded. On New Year’s Day 1946, the emperor publicly disclaimed his divine status: “The ties between us and our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.”
In Tokyo, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East emerged from the Potsdam Declaration. (Since the Soviet Union had not declared war on Japan at that time, it was not a party to the agreement.) The trials began in 1946 and lasted until November 1948. Eighteen members of the Japanese military and nine senior politicians were indicted. All were found guilty but one, who was found mentally unfit to stand trial; six were executed and the rest sentenced to prison.
For six years, from 1946 to 1952, the United States dominated the occupation of Japan. General MacArthur and his occupation authorities partnered energetically in almost all aspects of Japanese politics, economics, and society to try to reform and rebuild Japan. The overall goals of the occupation were demilitarization, democratization, and the fostering of respect for fundamental human rights. The Constitution imposed by MacArthur and his Government Section in 1947 was the sort of fundamental change no single group in Japan itself could have effected. The fact that it has survived virtually unchanged suggests that the Japanese themselves came to terms with it and bent the system to reflect their habits of mind and politics. The emperor was made a figurehead, “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people.” Real sovereign power was vested in the people via the Diet, an elected two-chamber legislature. An extensive Bill of Rights guaranteed academic freedom, women’s suffrage, the right to choose residence, collective bargaining, and full employment.
Demilitarization was immediately begun, and the Japanese accepted that a realistic appraisal of world conditions after World War II strongly suggested force was not a good way to protect Japan and secure access to economic resources. The preamble to the Japanese Constitution begins, “We, the Japanese people, desire peace for all time.” Land reform began to make more small farmers owners of their farms instead of renters, and union membership was supported in the industrial sector, but many large corporations remained and were deliberately not broken up. Japan was severely limited militarily; no Japanese army was allowed, nor was Japan permitted to go to war in the future.
Attempts took place across the globe to achieve some form of just and lasting peace. One glimmer of hope was the United Nations, an international body agreed to by the Allied leaders during wartime conferences and finally established in New York City in April 1945. The United Nations was pledged to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small . . . to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
Judicial actions in both Germany and Japan were the beginning of attempts to define such concepts as genocide and crimes against humanity, as a way to counter the possibility that the conflict had actually normalized total war, mass violence, brutalization, and totalitarianism. The war had also brought into stark view the cruel consequences of racism and racist ideologies. Even liberal democracies could be poisoned by such thinking, as was revealed in the United States by the groundless displacement of Japanese residents and nationals and Japanese American citizens.
As another aftermath of the war, women worldwide found themselves enjoying some of the freedoms and responsibilities of their fuller citizenship and participation in their nation’s fortunes. And populations in Africa and Asia, feeling they had earned liberation from prewar colonialism, began to reach for more self-determination and national legitimacy. It was widely felt that the struggles and sacrifices of so many could not and should not have been in vain.