It was the threat of Soviet invasion, not the bombs that drove Japan’s surrender.

The 75th Pacific War end anniversary has revived once again the debate over whether the US in 1945 had to resort to nuclear bombings to force Japan’s surrender. The global anti-nuclear movement has long used the horror of those bombings to promote its cause.

But Japan’s leadership had already shown they did not care much about the sufferings of their people under horrendous bombing attacks. And there had also been delays for the full details of the two nuclear attacks to reach Tokyo. Increasingly the consensus among historians and others says it was the prospect of Soviet invasion more than the nuclear attacks that forced Tokyo to surrender.

What’s more some elements in Australia could unknowingly have played an indirect role in the plans for that Soviet invasion. But first some background.

At the Yalta conference in the Crimea between February 4 -11, 1945, the US,UK and Soviet leaders – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin – met to decide the fate of the world after they had defeated Germany and then moved onto Japan.

The US, which had been struggling to defeat entrenched Japanese forces island by island in the western Pacific and which still had not developed its atomic bomb, saw a Soviet attack on Japan’s rear as crucial to reduce the casualties needed for Japan’s final defeat.

Stalin also had his own reasons to attack Japan – the recovery of territory Russia had lost to Japan in past wars. So it was agreed that within three months after

Nazi Germany’s defeat, Soviet forces would attack Japan. As a reward the Soviets would gain those lost territories – southern Sakhalin and the Kuril islands.

But by April, 1945, it was increasingly likely that the main Japanese islands could be invaded by the US in late summer or autumn. American forces had gained a firm foothold on Okinawa. From then on the only question was when and how Japan could be forced into surrender without tremendous casualties.

A group centered on the Japanese Foreign Ministry was trying to use Moscow contacts to broker a peace agreement. But Stalin had no interest in helping Japan get any peace agreement. He wanted to see Japan beaten into total surrender so Moscow could make its claims against Japan. Moscow was happy to pretend to help the peace seekers. But it was only seeking to delay Japan’s surrender so it would have time to move troops from Europe for its own planned attack on Japan

Meanwhile final US efforts to force Tokyo to accept unconditional surrender had stumbled over US inability to decide whether or not the imperial system would be allowed to continue after V-day. Some close to the emperor also still pinned hopes on those contacts with Moscow. That wishful thinking only ended on August 8, exactly 3 months after Germany’s formal surrender, when the USSR formally declared war on Japan and immediately began to attack into Japanese-occupied territories in Manchuria and elsewhere. On August 9 the US nuclear bombed Nagasaki. Six days later Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allied forces.

So what caused Japan to surrender? Truman and many others have claimed it was the Nagasaki bombing coming after the Hiroshima bombing. In that way they try to justify those bombings, the seemingly unnecessary Nagasaki bombing in particular. But the historian, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, in his 2006 book ‘Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan’, Harvard University Press, shows clearly that it was fear of Soviet invasion that forced the surrender.

Defeat at the hands of the Soviets would not only mean the loss of territory and the almost certain destruction of the sacred emperor system. For the ruling classes it would also see Japan’s hated and long persecuted communists finally able to seize power and gain a much deserved revenge. Immediate surrender to the Allies, before the Soviet invasion could get underway, was the only way to avoid this fate.

In short, these were days of heavy drama. And unknowingly, even to itself it seems, Australia may have played a role.

The story is related in the ANU’s monograph, ‘Breaking Japanese Diplomatic Codes: David Sissions and the D Special Section during the Second World War’, (Asian Studies Series Monograph 4, ANU E Press) by Des Ball and Keiko Tamura. It in begins in the Sydney of 1944-45 with pro-Soviet elements in the Evatt administration were able fairly freely, it seems, to obtain the plans for the attack on Japan from the General Douglas MacArthur headquarters.

And since the Soviet Union was supposed to be an ally in the war with Japan, those pro-Soviet elements would no doubt have seen little wrong in passing those plans to their contacts in Moscow’s Canberra embassy which in turn passed them to Moscow.

There the story would have ended but for the activities of our Defence Department’s DSD listening and decoding wartime activities based in Melbourne and Darwin. By some conjunction of the ethers due to shared latitude perhaps, it seems they were able freely to eavesdrop on, and then decode, the messages from Moscow being passed on to the Japanese consulate in Harbin, northern Manchuria, and then on to Tokyo.

And among those messages were those US plans for the island-hopping attack on Japan.

So why would Moscow, a supposed ally with the US, and Australia, want to be alerting our mutual enemy, Japan, of how and when it was going to be attacked by the US?

The war-end chronology set out above says it all. The combined US-Australian island-hopping attack from the Solomons, near New Guniea, all the way to Japan had begun in 1943. By April 1945 it had reached Japan’s Okinawa, close to three months before the deadline Moscow had set for its attack on Japan

Unless something could be done to slow the pace of that advance, Japan might quickly surrender and Moscow would lose all that the Allies had promised at Yalta

How to slow that advance? By passing on to Tokyo, via Harbin, MacArthur’s plans for the invasion of Japan.

It was a piece of treachery worthy of Stalin. But if successful Moscow had much to gain.

Was it successful? It seems so. Ball and Tamura go on to note that Acting Minister for the Army, General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces (AMF) reported that, in the course of Allied intelligence operations, ‘it has been definitely proved that there are leakages of information from Australia which have their origin apparently in Canberra.’ Blamey gave four examples of intercepts of Japanese signals which contained details of Allied ‘plans for certain operations in the Philippines’ and details of recent Australian army intelligence estimates of Japanese strength there.

They go on to note that the contents of an AMF Weekly Intelligence Summary issued on 4 November 1944 ‘were known in full’ in Tokyo on 11 November. The details of Australian army deployments in New Guinea that were prepared for a meeting of the Advisory War Council on 16 November 1944 were in Japanese hands by 19 November. And so on.

Some people must have been very busy to pass all that information, across three continents and a multitude of time zones. But Moscow regained its lost territories. It could have gained even more: It was only hours from landing its troops at Rumoi for the occupation of Hokkaido when Truman reportedly said the troops should go to take some traditionally Japanese islands in the Kurils close to Hokkaido, a deed which Tokyo still uses to refuse a peace treaty with Moscow.

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Gregory Clark began his career in Australia’s Department of External Affairs, with postings to Hongkong and Moscow. Resigning in 1965 to protest Australia’s participating in the Vietnam War he moved to Japan, becoming emeritus president of Tama University in Tokyo and vice-president of the pioneering Akita International University. He continues to live in Japan.

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