Rewriting History

Documents emerging from once-closed Soviet archives are forcing historians to rewrite the history of the last days of World War II and reassess the impact of the Hiroshima bomb on Japan’s surrender.

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a professor of history at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said the evidence shows that it wasn’t so much the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that forced the Japanese to capitulate in August 1945, but the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and impending threat of Soviet occupation of the Japanese mainland.

“I think the Soviet presence was crucial,” said Hasegawa, author of “Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan.”

Hasegawa, whose specialty is Russian history, said histories for the last half-century have treated the Soviet entry into the war against Japan on Aug. 8 as a sideshow. U.S. textbooks today emphasize the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and the bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9 as the decisive action forcing the Japanese to surrender by Aug. 14.

But Hasegawa said the bombing of Hiroshima didn’t deliver a knockout punch, and the bombing of Nagasaki got surprisingly little notice at the highest levels of the Japanese government, which already was trying to find a way to end the war.

“Of course it had an impact, but it was not that decisive,” said Hasegawa, who studied imperial Japanese war records in Tokyo as well as Soviet archives. “What it did was to inject urgency into Japanese diplomatic efforts to end the war.”

Western historians first obtained once-closed Soviet archives during the period of perestroika in the 1990s, when Russian reformers made Stalin’s papers available for the first time. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since closed many of the archives to Western researchers, but Russian historians recently were allowed again to see the papers.

Hasegawa said he was also surprised to find that Japanese historians have done little work in Tokyo’s archives exploring the activities of Emperor Hirohito in the last days of the war _ a shortcoming he attributes to Japanese sensitivities about the role of the emperor in World War II.

Hasegawa said many Japanese leaders wanted to end the war in July, but Hirohito’s hopes of gaining a mediated settlement that would leave him in power delayed the surrender for a month.

Doug Long, a retired computer programmer who runs a Web site on the Hiroshima bomb from his home in Rio Rancho, N.M., said Hasegawa’s study has provided fresh insights into the last days of World War II and shows how the Soviet archives are broadening historical understanding of the chaotic days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

Long said the war blinded Japanese leaders to the reality of their military weakness. Even when Tokyo received intelligence reports of Soviet troops massing on the borders of Manchuria to invade, Japanese leaders still held out hope that Moscow would mediate a settlement.

Long said the Soviet records are “confirmation of what we knew or surmised” and are key to filling gaps for historians trying to put together the story of how the war ended.

University of Pittsburgh historian Donald Goldstein, author of several books on the war in the Pacific, agreed that the Soviet documents provide “a new slant” on Stalin’s involvement that had been withheld from the public for decades.

Goldstein said it’s clear that Japan was fatally crippled by the summer of 1945. Japanese diplomats began trying to find a way to bring the war to an end by April, looking for a deal that would keep the country’s emperor system intact. By the summer, Japanese leaders knew the allies intended to bring the Nazis to trial for war crimes and feared the same would happen to them and Hirohito.

“They were trying to get the best deal, but the word came back, no deal,” Goldstein said.

Truman monitored the Japanese diplomatic efforts through electronic intercepts of diplomatic codes, which provided the texts of messages Japan’s foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, sent to the Japanese ambassador in Moscow seeking Stalin’s help in ending the war. Stalin describes in some of the Soviet documents how he “lulled the Japanese to sleep” while secretly preparing for war.

By mid-1945, Truman was increasingly alarmed about Soviet occupation of Europe and concerned that Soviet involvement in Asia could result in a divided Japan. The Soviet archives confirm that Truman had some justification for these concerns and detail Stalin’s maneuvering that continued the Soviet war against Japan for two weeks after Japan’s Aug. 14 surrender. While denying to American diplomats that he was involved in the continued fighting, the Soviet records show that Stalin ordered the Red Army to seize Manchuria and the Japanese islands.

Hasegawa said Soviet archives show that Stalin considered even invading Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.

“Stalin’s role was very crucial in the drama of ending the war,” he said. “This was totally in the dark, we didn’t know it.”

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)