We call upon the Government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all the Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.
(Proclamation by the Heads of Government, United States, United Kingdom and China, 26 July 1945)[i]
On 15 August 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Imperial Japan to the Allies, making an unprecedented broadcast to his nation. This ended the Second World War.
‘VJ Day’, Victory over Japan Day, is marked by Japan and the UK on 15 August. The United States marks it on 2 September, the anniversary of the signature of the Instrument of Surrender on the USS Missouri in the presence of General Douglas Macarthur, Supreme Commander in the Southwest Pacific theatre.
The end of the Second World War was a cause for celebration on the part of the victors, and relief to all those tired of fighting. Yet many conflicts remained to be resolved and problems tackled. For the defeated, relief was tinged with despair and disbelief, even guilt. But the wider context of VJ Day 75 years ago was complex, for all those involved.
14 August, the day on which surrender was agreed at an Imperial Council, marked the end of 2 devastating weeks for Japan. On 6 and 9 August atomic bombs dropped by US planes had demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki with massive loss of life. On 8 August the Soviet Union, which had signed a neutrality agreement with Japan in 1941, allied itself to the Tripartite Proclamation seeking unconditional surrender. The Japanese did not know of Stalin’s promise, at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, to enter the Pacific war on the Allied side within 3 months of the defeat of Germany. On 9 August, Soviet forces mounted a massive attack in Manchuria and Korea, overwhelming the Kwantung Army. Japanese defeat was inescapable.
The idea of surrender, in Japanese military culture, was unacceptable. The idea that the Emperor might bear any guilt for the sufferings of his country or the crimes of which his officers were accused, was unthinkable. The scale of Japanese deaths, past and future, was unimaginable. The prospect of occupation by the victorious powers, particularly the US, was bewildering. In addition, 6.5 million Japanese were stranded overseas at the time of surrender. The future seemed puzzling, uncertain and bleak.
For the United States, VJ Day brought rejoicing at victory. But as the Potsdam conference had revealed, the question of what to do about, and with Japan, and indeed the rest of the Pacific region, was not straightforward. President Truman and his advisers had been focussed on winning the war. The Tripartite Proclamation spoke of destroying Japan’s war-making power, punishing war crimes, limiting Japanese sovereignty, removing obstacles to ‘democratic tendencies’ and restricting its industrial base. But there was less agreement, between the Allies or within the US Administration itself, on how these things should be achieved. No developed policy for the region existed. Meanwhile, Macarthur was determined to retain supreme command in Japan, rejecting co-operation with other powers.
Stalin’s association with the Tripartite Declaration, and entry into war against Japan, were based on a calculation of self-interest as much as solidarity with the wartime alliance. He wished to retain territorial gains agreed at Yalta or acquired during the brief Soviet campaign in Manchuria. Ever distrustful of the Western powers, he was on the alert for attempts to extend US hegemony, whether political or economic. That applied to the Far East as much as to Europe. For that reason, Stalin continued to hedge his bets in the bitter struggle in China between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government - signatory of the Proclamation - and Mao Ze Dong’s Communists. Disturbed by the prospect of an American presence in the wider Pacific region that might encroach on the Soviet Union’s borders, Stalin and Molotov could be counted on to take a tough line in any negotiation.
Relief at the end of war in the Far East was tempered by extreme anxiety. Anxiety on how to bring British forces home as soon as possible, and to repatriate British Prisoners of War, many of whom had suffered terribly at Japanese hands. Anxiety over how to provide food and supplies for British colonial territories, when Britain ended the war bankrupt. Anxiety at the knowledge that once war ended, so would Lend-Lease, removing a key source of financial support. Anxiety over the future of British commercial interests in mainland China and in Japan, and about the future of Hong Kong. Above all, anxiety about Britain’s future significance within the counsels of the Big Three.
The Attlee government, in office only a few weeks, soon found Britain’s global position had diminished, certainly in respect of the Far East. The evidence lay in Potsdam, in the final stages of war against Japan, and in arrangements to accept the Emperor’s surrender. It lay in Macarthur’s dismissal of the involvement of British or Commonwealth forces in the pacification of the region, despite Australian protests. The Far East could not be a priority in British policy in the early postwar years, but that did not make marginalisation by the Americans, in particular, any more palatable.
Celebration and remembrance
Of course VJ Day was a cause for celebrating the end of the war. But the way it ended, and in particular the use of the atomic bomb, meant that the legacy of the war against Japan would remain complex and contested. Ever since 1945, the memorialising of VJ Day has been the trigger for controversy, guilt and sadness, as well as for grateful recognition of the service of those who fought.[i]
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[i] Printed in Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series I, Vol. I, No. 281.
[ii] Suggestions for further reading include: Christopher Baxter, The Great Power Struggle in East Asia 1944-50 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Akika Hashimoto, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory and Identity in Japan (Oxford University Press, 2015). Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (Penguin, 2014). British policy at Potsdam and the early postwar period is documented in Series I of Documents on British Policy Overseas.