A Brief History
On July 26, 1945, the leaders of the major Allied countries fighting Japan in World War II met in Potsdam, Germany to issue the conditions by which the Japanese were to surrender to the Allies. Also known as “unconditional surrender” the Allies left no room for negotiation, which soon became a point of controversy and is debated to this day, as the declaration is seen by some as having prolonged the war by leaving Japan no honorable way to stop the fighting.
President Truman, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and Chinese premier Chiang Kai Shek representing the Allies formed the committee that made the declaration. Incredibly, on the same day of the Potsdam Declaration the British electorate voted Winston Churchill out of office in a landslide. In spite of relying on Churchill’s indomitable character to lead them out of the darkest days of the war with Germany, the British people discarded him before the entire war was even over.
The Potsdam Declaration included clauses to disarm and disband the Japanese military, and remove from office and put on trial those Japanese the Allies deemed responsible for the war. The Japanese feared this meant their emperor would be placed on trial, something that was unacceptable to them, a serious impediment to their surrender. It has been speculated that if the Allies had publicly stated the emperor could stay on the throne a surrender would have come earlier, perhaps without the use of atomic bombs. Additionally, the Allies would dictate what territories Japan would retain as part of their nation, and what territories would be returned to their previous countries or given independence. The Japanese people would not be enslaved, but would have democratic government, and war criminals would be tried.
The Allies pledged various human rights clauses to be given to the Japanese people, and promised to end the occupation as soon as Allied conditions had been met. The words “unconditional surrender” came in the last paragraph of the declaration. The Japanese were left threatened with “prompt and utter destruction” if they did not comply with the declaration and surrender, though we never did warn them about the atomic bombs.
Leaflets describing the declaration were dropped over Japan, and radio broadcasts were made informing the Japanese and the world of the Allies terms. Given what they thought were intolerable conditions, the Japanese leadership refused to surrender and fought on several more weeks until Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked, at which time the emperor himself insisted on the surrender of Japan before the country was annihilated.
As things turned out, Japan got to keep their emperor, the country was rebuilt, and today is more prosperous and important on the world scene than ever before in their history.
Japanese came to revere and trust Douglas MacArthur, once their enemy, as a benevolent and understanding administrator, mindful of Japanese needs and desires.
Winston Churchill will always be remembered for his fiery leadership of Britain during the war, and was a revered elder statesman later.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were the peace terms to end World War II too harsh? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read…
Dobbs, Michael. Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman–from World War to Cold War. Knopf, 2012.