The 26th July is the anniversary of the issuing of the Potsdam Declaration in 1945, a document created by the United States, Britain and China outlining terms of surrender for Japan. Germany had already fallen and Japan's defeat seemed inevitable, yet they fought on with terrible losses; the Potsdam Declaration was offered to Japan as a final ultimatum.
The language of the document is astonishing to modern eyes. It was written with total imperial confidence and clarity, referring to the Allies as 'the aroused free peoples of the world'. It was a bleak and dreadful warning to Japan should they dare resist.
The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole German people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.
It sought to distinguish between the Japanese people and 'those self-willed militaristic advisers' who had taken Japan to war, encouraging the Japanese to 'follow the path of reason'. It ordered the removal of those guilty parties from power, announced that Japan would be occupied by the Allies until the demands were all satisfied, insisted on the obliteration of Japan's Asian empire, and the disarming of its entire military. It called for war crimes trials, and the establishment of a liberal democracy. Industries associated with armaments were to be temporarily forbidden.
All this was accompanied with clear and terrible language:
Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay....
We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all 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.
Prompt and utter destruction: some people believe this was a hint of the nuclear weapons that the US had already tested by the time the Potsdam Declaration was drawn up. There is a strange story about the Japanese government's response to the Declaration, incidentally, related by a 1968 National Security Agency document about the dangers of mistranslation:
Reporters in Tokyo questioned Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki about his government's reaction to the Potsdam Declaration. Since no formal decision had been reached at the time, Suzuki, falling back on the politician's old standby answer to reporters, replied that he was withholding comment. He used the Japanese word mokusatsu, derived from the word for "silence."
This word, unfortunately, has two meanings:
mokusatsu ... , 'l1-suru, v. take no notice of; treat
(anything) with silent contempt; ignore [by keeping
silence]; remain in a wise and masterly inactivity.
The NSA document suggested that Suzuki had intended to say the Japanese equivalent of 'no comment', but international press interpreted it as a contemptuous 'not worthy of comment'.
U. S. officials, angered by the tone of Suzuki's statement and obviously seeing it as another typical example of the fanatical Banzai and Kamikaze spirit, decided on stern measures. Within ten days the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb, the bomb was dropped, and Hiroshima was leveled.
Hard to know if one mistranslated word had really led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but American President Harry Truman did reference the Japanese rejection of Potsdam in an official announcement following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima:
It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
In any case the Japanese kept fighting for a few more months, and the rain of death continued: in the catastrophic (and more bloody) fire-bombing of Japanese cities and finally the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I lived for a year in a small town near Nagasaki City, and whenever I visited I felt a little proud of the bustling and friendly modern city that had recovered from the bombing.
Strange times. The utter Allied confidence, the talk of annihilating another country, and with such unquestioned moral confidence, seem odd now. One of the 'aroused free peoples of the world' the Declaration said had defeated Nazi Germany was the USSR, with whom the Western Allies would plunge the world into the Cold War within a few years. I usually feel sceptical when people talk about 'simpler times' but certainly they were different times from now. I cannot imagine George W. Bush announcing that Iraq would face 'prompt and utter destruction' or a 'rain of ruin' if it failed to surrender. But I don't really understand why things have changed - readers feel free to contribute thoughts below.
Anyway here is the entire Potsdam Declaration in full:
- We-the President of the United States, the President of the National Government of the Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, representing the hundreds of millions of our countrymen, have conferred and agree that Japan shall be given an opportunity to end this war.
- The prodigious land, sea and air forces of the United States, the British Empire and of China, many times reinforced by their armies and air fleets from the west, are poised to strike the final blows upon Japan. This military power is sustained and inspired by the determination of all the Allied Nations to prosecute the war against Japan until she ceases to resist.
- The result of the futile and senseless German resistance to the might of the aroused free peoples of the world stands forth in awful clarity as an example to the people of Japan. The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole German people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.
- The time has come for Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers whose unintelligent calculations have brought the Empire of Japan to the threshold of annihilation, or whether she will follow the path of reason.
- Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.
- There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest, for we insist that a new order of peace, security and justice will be impossible until irresponsible militarism is driven from the world.
- Until such a new order is established and until there is convincing proof that Japan's war-making power is destroyed, points in Japanese territory to be designated by the Allies shall be occupied to secure the achievement of the basic objectives we are here setting forth.
- The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.
- The Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives.
- We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners. The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established.
- Japan shall be permitted to maintain such industries as will sustain her economy and permit the exaction of just reparations in kind, but not those which would enable her to re-arm for war. To this end, access to, as distinguished from control of, raw materials shall be permitted. Eventual Japanese participation in world trade relations shall be permitted.
- The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government.
- We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all 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.