Stalin and the POWs

M A Jones mark at
Fri Aug 6 14:06:27 MDT 1999

Louis Proyect wrote:

>>Although I found Mark's piece defending the need to keep Soviet POW's
interned perfectly dreadful, he is more accurate on the historical
substance of this particular issue. <<

Probably the best account of the exact circumstances of the Japanese
surrender is still R J C Bulow's 1954 book, 'Japan's Decision to Surrender'.
The blow-by-blow account of discussions within the Japanese Cabinet and with
the Emperor are breathtaking: split between the hawks and doves, the Cabinet
debated for days at a time, unable to reach a decision; meanwhile aides
brought in new messages: the Soviets have declared war; the Red Army has
entered Manchuria; the Kwantung army is in headlong retreat; the Americans
have dropped another atom bomb, this time on Nagasaki; it is rumoured that
the Americans are about to drop one on Tokyo (where the Cabinet was then
meeting!). Unprecedentedly, the government left the decision to the Emperor.
They trooped into his library, where the emperor was then living (it had
its own air-raid shelter, but certainly not proof against A-bombs), and
he told them: 'we must learn to bear the unbearable' and authorised
no-one knew, in those desperate hours, whether the troops actually WOULD
surrender (it was against their oath!). The nightmare scenario of Japanese
troops counterattacking allied missions arriving to receive their surrender,
thus prompting an allied nuclear attack on Tokyo, was a sub-theme in
the debate among ministers torn by conflicting emotions, paralysed
with indecision, and some knowing that unconditional surrender also meant
their own trial and possible execution for war crimes. While they
talked they pored over a list of Japanese cities which might
be vapourised at any moment...

Interestingly, though, the Japanese Cabinet was possibly even
more impressed by the Soviet attack on Manchuria than
by the second A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki; formone thing, that
seemed just too much to For another (according to
Bulow), for weeks, the Japanese had vainly been trying to get the Soviets to
mediate with the Americans, so this sudden attack seemed completely
perfidious. The Japanese were ready to surrender, and the question was not
whether they would accept 'unconditional' surrender or not, but, as Bulow
puts it, what was the line separating conditional from unconditional
surrender? (in fact, the Allies did accept the only condition the Japanese
finally put, namely that the emperor should stay).

Stalin wasn't very keen for the Japanese to surrender before he had a chance
to take back the Kuriles, and possibly get Soviet troops into Hokkaido too
(now there's a historical what-if). Nevertheless, the Soviets scrupulously
passed onto the the Americans, the various Japanese entreaties. Not that
they needed to, because the Americans were reading all Japanese ciphers en
clair, so they knew perfectly well just how desperate the Japanese were to
find a way out: more desperate even than they gave the Soviets to
understand. But the Americans refused to discuss anything, until the
Japanese surrendered 'unconditionally' (as I say, almost a meaningless
phrase in the detail of the moment). There was only one reason: the US
wanted to try out the bomb (when you consider how desperately afraid the
Western Allies were of the risks of catastrophic loss of life involved in
making a forced entry into the Japanese mainland, you see clearly just how
confident the Americans were that the Bomb would change everything; and nor
did they have any doubts about whether the thing would work, so Truman
had no reason to hesitate: they were so sure about the Nagasaki bomb,
a 'simple contraption' according to Oppenheimer, just an enriched
uranium device, unlike the plutonium bomb dropped on Hiroshima -
that they never even bothered to test it before they
dropped it. The only worry was that the Japanese might have
surrendered too soon. They knew too (after Hiroshima) what
the effect would be. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese died, many
in agony and years later, as a result of these war crimes and
as Churchill would later tell Truman, such a terrible thing would
have been sufficient to get them all hanged as war criminals, if
by some mischance the Axis had won the war.

Truman thought he knew what the effect on Stalin would be, but was
wrong: when he gloatingly told Stalin (at Potsdam) that they had a secret
weapon of 'unusual power', Stalin didn't say a word, just grinned fleetingly
at the discomfited Truman, who later told Harriman that 'probably they
just don't understand what it is we've got,' but Molotov left Harriman in no
doubt that they certainly did understand.

David Holloway's 1994 book 'Stalin and the Bomb' is good on all this. Later
on I hope to post more on these events, which Louis rightly says formed the
hinge around which the anti-Nazi alliance turned into the Cold War. Nuclear
blackmail, and the persisting attempts to intimidate the USSR, explained
much about Soviet policy, internal as well as external, thereafter.

BTW, Stalin did not intern returning POWs for long periods, but they were
screened, and properly so. Before Louis finds that 'terrible' he ought to
explain what the Soviets should have done instead. Accepted American rule?
More than 10 million former Soviet citizens have died prematurely under
restored capitalism. That is more than any reasonable scholar, no matter
how anti-stalin, claims as 'excess deaths' during the Soviet Thirties. It is
time to look the truth in the face, however uncomfortable some people find

Mark Jones

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