On this day in 1945, a formal surrender ceremony is held aboard the USS Missouri. Today is the anniversary of V-J Day! On this day, World War II effectively came to an end.
It had been less than a month since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had been devastating, of course. But the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki was—if anything—even worse. That plutonium bomb produced an explosion 40 percent bigger than the uranium one dropped on Hiroshima.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the bombs prompted the Japanese government to consider surrendering—but it still wasn’t willing to do so unconditionally. Instead, it sought to ensure that such a document would not “compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler.” Nevertheless, President Harry Truman ordered a halt to the atomic attacks so negotiations could commence. Truman’s Secretary of Commerce later reported that Truman really didn’t want to “wip[e] out another 100,000 people . . . . He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’”
By August 12, the Japanese government had the American reply: The United States would accept surrender, but any future government of Japan must be established by the “freely expressed will of the Japanese people.”
Negotiations dragged on much too slowly. The Japanese government still didn’t answer right away. The “days of negotiation with a prostrate and despised enemy,” a British ambassador later said, “strained public patience.”
That seems like a bit of an understatement!
When the Japanese government failed to respond, conventional bombings resumed. The United States continued to prepare a third atomic bomb, just in case it was needed. And it did something else: The United States began dropping leaflets across Tokyo. The leaflets described the terms that had been offered for ending the war.
You don’t think surrender was going to be easy, even after all this, do you? It wasn’t, of course. In Japan, there was one last attempt to stop the surrender. A handful of officers attempted a coup, but they were discovered. In the end, many of those involved in the coup attempt committed ritual suicide.
Finally, on August 15, the emperor made an announcement on public radio: Japan would surrender. It was the first time that many Japanese people had ever heard their Emperor’s voice. Can you imagine that?
The formal surrender ceremony occurred aboard the USS Missouri on September 2. The ceremony lasted for 23 minutes. General Douglas MacArthur accepted and signed the Japanese surrender as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. Admiral Nimitz and representatives from other nations also signed the document.
Terms of a final treaty would still need to be negotiated, of course. But, for all intents and purposes, World War II was finally over.
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Dennis D. Wainstock, The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1996)
Francis Pike, Hirohito’s War: The Pacific War, 1941-1945 (2015)
Herbert Feis, The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II (1966)
Jerome Beser & Jack Spangler, The Rising Sun Sets: The Complete Story of the Bombing of Nagasaki (2007)
Paul Boyer, "Some sort of peace": President Truman, the American people, and the atomic bomb, in The Truman Presidency (Michael James Lace ed., 1989)