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The New York Times said of Ronald H. Spector’s classic account of the American struggle against the Japanese in World War II, “No future book on the Pacific War will be written without paying due tribute to Eagle Against the Sun.” Now Spector has returned with a book that is even more revealing. In the Ruins of Empire chronicles the startling aftermath of this crucial twentieth-century conflict.
With access to recently available firsthand accounts by Chinese, Japanese, British, and American witnesses and previously top secret U.S. intelligence records, Spector tells for the first time the fascinating story of the deadly confrontations that broke out–or merely continued–in Asia after peace was proclaimed at the end of World War II. Under occupation by the victorious Allies, this part of the world was plunged into new power struggles or back into old feuds that in some ways were worse than the war itself. In the Ruins of Empire also shows how the U.S. and Soviet governments, as they secretly vied for influence in liberated lands, were soon at odds.
At the time of the peace declaration, international suspicions were still strong. Joseph Stalin warned that “crazy cutthroats” might disrupt the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay. Die-hard Japanese officers plotted to seize the emperor’s palace to prevent an announcement of surrender, and clandestine relief forces were sent to rescue thousands of Allied POWs to prevent their being massacred.
In the Ruins of Empire paints a vivid picture of the postwar intrigues and violence. In Manchuria, Russian “liberators” looted, raped, and killed innocent civilians, and a fratricidal rivalry continued between Chiang Kai-shek’s regime and Mao’s revolutionaries. Communist resistance forces in Malaya settled old scores and terrorized the indigenous population, while mujahideen holy warriors staged reprisals and terror killings against the Chinese–hundreds of innocent civilians were killed on both sides. In Indochina, a nativist political movement rose up to oppose the resumption of French colonial rule; one of the factions that struggled for supremacy was the Communist Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh. Korea became a powder keg with the Russians and Americans entangled in its north and south. And in Java, as the Indonesian novelist Idrus wrote, people brutalized by years of Japanese occupation “worshipped a new God in the form of bombs, submachine guns, and mortars.”
Through impeccable research and provocative analysis, as well as compelling accounts of American, British, Indian, and Australian soldiers charged with overseeing the surrender and repatriation of millions of Japanese in the heart of dangerous territory, Spector casts new and startling light on this pivotal time–and sets the record straight about this contested and important period in history.
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Ronald H. Spector is a professor of history and international relations at George Washington University. He was a distinguished professor of strategy at the National War College in Washington, D.C., and a guest professor at Kyoto University at Tokyo. Spector served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and is the author of six books, including Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan, a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. He and his wife live in Annandale, Virginia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Shoot the Works!”
No one expected the war to end when it did. even after the two atomic bombs and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war on August 9, the Japanese, though doomed, were expected to fight on for some considerable time. Suddenly, on August 10, the Domei News Agency broadcast a statement by the Japanese Foreign Ministry that Japan was ready to accept the surrender terms presented by the Allies in the so- called Potsdam Declaration on July 26, “provided that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.” The announcement surprised even top officials in Washington. “When the Japanese surrendered it caught the whole goddamn administrative machinery with their pants down,” recalled a colonel in the Army high command.1 At the time the official notification was received via neutral embassies, Secretary of War Henry Stimson was about to leave on vacation, and the army and navy were opening another round in their continuing squabble about command arrangements for the impending invasion of Japan.
One of those slated for that invasion, Marine sergeant David F. Earle, a veteran of the campaigns on Guam and Okinawa, listened with his tentmates to the radio. “Our station,” he told his parents, “which secures at 2200, was back on the air with Japan’s unconfirmed peace offer. It seemed almost too good to be true, beyond all realization. . . . Men shook hands, embraced and beer was drug out. Each time the commentor announced the same commentary, even though the men had heard the same thing over and over there was complete silence, as if we weren’t able to hear it often enough. This morning the announcement was confirmed and now it’s either accepted or not. To those who don’t want to accept the terms because of the Emperor—I haven’t got words in my vocabulary to fit my contempt and scorn for their attitude. I know damn well that twenty-eight months out here would change their minds but fast. Anyway, we in my tent have already accepted the surrender and if the country hasn’t we’ve decided to sue for a separate peace.”
Many in Washington shared Sergeant Earle’s sentiments. In July, Stimson and Undersecretary of State Joseph C. Grew, former ambassador to Japan, had urged President Truman to include an explicit promise in the Potsdam Declaration that it might be possible for Japan to retain “a constitutional Monarchy under the present dynasty” following its surrender. There was strong opposition to such a guarantee, however, from many of the president’s advisers, including Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, who believed that it would compromise the long-standing Allied agreement on “unconditional surrender” by the Axis powers. “Too much like appeasement,” former secretary of state Cordell Hull observed. Other Americans saw no reason to retain the outmoded reactionary institutions that had encouraged Japanese militarism and aggression. The emperor had been portrayed in the American media as a symbol of Japanese fanaticism, a partner of Hitler and Mussolini. A Gallup poll published in The Washington Post at the end of June had revealed that 33 percent of Americans wanted the emperor executed, 17 percent favored a trial, 20 percent were for imprisonment or exile, and only 7 percent favored his retention, even as a figurehead.
Truman was well aware of these sentiments when he hastily convened a meeting at the White House to discuss the Japanese surrender offer. Present at the meeting were Byrnes, Stimson, the president’s military aides, Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal, John Snyder, a Missouri friend of Truman’s who was serving as head of the Office of War Mobilization, and the president’s military adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William D. Leahy. Stimson urged acceptance of the Japanese stipulation, pointing out that the emperor was “the only source of authority in Japan.” He argued that “something like this use of the Emperor must be made in order to save us from a score of bloody Iwo Jimas and Okinawas all over China and the New Netherlands [Indonesia].” Leahy and Snyder agreed. Byrnes, however, warned that public opinion and the Allied powers might not understand or accept such a concession. Abandonment of unconditional surrender could lead to “the crucifixion of the President” at the hands of public opinion. Truman informed the meeting that since news of the Japanese proposal, the White House had received 170 telegrams, all but seventeen of which had urged the harshest surrender terms. On the other hand, millions more Americans like Sergeant Earle might be equally infuriated if Truman and his advisers allowed this opportunity for peace to slip away.
At that point Forrestal suggested a compromise: The United States should send a reply that reaffirmed the Potsdam demands while neither rejecting the Japanese offer nor discouraging hope that the emperor could remain. Byrnes, aided by his special assistant, Benjamin Cohen, was given primary responsibility for drafting a reply, though Forrestal, Leahy, Stimson, and Truman himself all lent a hand, as did Undersecretary Grew. Grew had not been at the White House meeting, but he was the government’s highest-ranking expert on Japan and had always stressed the crucial role of the emperor in any surrender scheme. Now “Grew, mastering his personal pride, opened the door between his office and Byrnes’ and said, ‘Mr. Secretary, if you are working on the Japanese note I believe I and some others could be helpful.’ ” Byrnes agreed.
Unlike most products of a committee, Byrnes’s reply was a masterpiece. Addressing the key Japanese reservation on the emperor, the note was intentionally ambiguous, asserting, “From the moment of surrender, the authority of the emperor and the Japanese government to rule the state shall be subject to the authority of the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers, who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate the surrender terms.” But the note also promised, “The ultimate form of government of Japan shall, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, be established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.” At a meeting of the full Cabinet, Truman approved the note. The British and the other Allies quickly agreed, and, after only momentary hesitation, so did the Soviets.
A more significant Allied disagreement, although it appeared small at the time, briefly arose over the question of the surrender ceremony. The draft of the note submitted to the Allies had provided for the emperor to sign the surrender documents personally. Grew had unsuccessfully argued against this provision, but when the British raised doubts about its advisability, Byrnes dropped it. The Chinese government, which had been especially enthusiastic about this symbolic humbling of Japan, was not informed of the “slight change” until after the revised note had actually been dispatched to Japan. Stalin made no formal objection, but he later cautioned Ambassador Averell Harriman that the American plan to stage the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay entailed “considerable risks.” The Japanese, Stalin observed, “were treacherous people.” He was sure “there were some crazy cutthroats left” and advised the Americans to take several hostages to “guard against incidents.”
In Tokyo, the receipt of the Byrnes note touched off a crisis within the highest circles of the government. Japanese Army leaders argued that the demands of the note were intolerable and that Japan must fight on, while most of the civilian ministers urged acceptance of the Allied terms. With the government deadlocked and American B-29s raining leaflets on Japanese cities containing copies of the Japanese note of August 10 with Byrnes’s reply, the emperor met with the Cabinet and other senior military and political advisers to announce that it was his wish that Japan “accept the Allied reply as it stands.”
in the late afternoon of August 14, an RCA messenger carrying a telegram to the Swiss legation in Washington was stopped by police for making an illegal U-turn on Connecticut Avenue. After ten minutes he was allowed to proceed. The messenger was carrying Tokyo’s acceptance of the surrender terms. At 7:00 p.m. Truman announced to the reporters who jammed the president’s office that he had received from the Japanese government “a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.”
Even before President Truman’s announcement of Japan’s final surrender, the thoughts of many Americans had turned to the twenty- two thousand Americans and the hundred and ten thousand other Allied prisoners of war in Japanese hands. It was unclear how many were still alive. Many were known to be suffering severely from disease, malnutrition, and exposure even where they were not being subjected to torture, brutality, and other forms of abuse by the Japanese. The story of the appalling Bataan Death March, in which six hundred Americans and five to ten thousand Filipinos who had surrendered in the Philippines perished in a brutal sixty-five-mile forced-march evacuation to their prison camps, became widely known in the United States by early 1944. Americans believed, with good reason, that with their impending defeat the Japanese might decide to massacre all the surviving prisoners, many of whom had by this time been moved to northern China, Manchuria, and Japan. U.S. intelligence estimated that there were about nine thousand Allied prisoners in China and Manchuria, with another fifty-five hundred in Indochina and one thousand in Korea.
In April the War Department had ordered Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer, the top American c...
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