Invasion of Japan

As the summer of 1945 approached, Allied strategists, especially those in the United States, faced a difficult situation. With Italy long out of the war, and Nazi Germany having surrendered in May, only imperial Japan remained. While the Japanese military machine was all but destroyed, it remained a fanatical force that would rather die than surrender, as the shocking casualty rates at Okinawa and Iwo Jima had revealed. How were the Japanese to be brought to accept the terms of unconditional surrender?

As John Ray Skates points out, there were only three options: blockade and bombing alone; blockade and bombing followed by invasion; and outright invasion. By the spring of 1945, most American military planners and political leaders had come, reluctantly, to accept invasion as inevitable. The two-part effort would first seize the lower half of Kyushu, the southernmost of the major Japanese home islands. This phase, code-named “Olympic,” would gain locations for naval and air forces that could support the second part, “Coronet,” which would strike the main island, Honshu, capturing Tokyo. At that point, presumably, or soon thereafter, the Japanese would accept the reality of their defeat.

Would it have worked? Skates, after reviewing the detailed planning, seems optimistic, especially in light of the desperate straits of the Japanese defenders, reduced in some cases to drilling with sharpened sticks. Nevertheless, it was this same desperation that had made the final approach to Japan so costly in terms of casualties.

What would the casualties have been like? After the war, explaining his decision to drop the atomic bomb, President Harry Truman said he had been given estimates of nearly a million American casualties. Skates maintains that U.S. Army estimates at the time were much lower—no higher than those suffered at Normandy or Okinawa. Perhaps, but the planners had underestimated casualties throughout the Pacific campaigns.

While historical “what ifs?” are, by their very nature, unanswerable, speculation on them can be a rewarding intellectual exercise, especially if one comes to the task armed with the wealth of information and material found in THE INVASION OF JAPAN.