Queries about the Potsdam Declaration, A Response to H-Diplo Roundtable XXIII-18

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Response to H-Diplo Roundtable XXIII-18

Marc Gallicchio.  Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War IINew York: Oxford University Press, 2020. ISBN:  9780190091101 (hardcover, $27.95).

25 January 2022

Editor:  Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: George Fujii

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Response by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, University of California, Santa Barbara

Queries about the Potsdam Declaration

The recent H-Diplo roundtable on Marc Gallicchio’s book, Unconditional, raised a number of interesting issues, which, I am sure, will further be discussed by specialists.[1]  This post is not meant to be a rebuttal to the author’s response to my comments, but rather is to solicit opinions of those who know more about the internal debate with the Truman administration than myself on the issue of unconditional surrender and those who have examined more closely the relevant archival materials than I have. Being a non-Americanist, I am genuinely puzzled about a couple of issues associated with the Potsdam Declaration. 

The Potsdam Declaration was a crucial document that had consequential impact on Japan’s surrender, the US decision to drop the atomic bombs, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s decision to hasten the date of attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea.  Despite the importance of the document, I have a number of questions I have been struggling to answer for many years. 

The first is what seems to be a contradiction between Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s July 2 draft and the final form of the declaration.  The Potsdam Declaration demanded, not “unconditional surrender,” but “unconditional surrender of the armed forces.”  The question arises then of why Truman decided to delete the promise to allow the Japanese to “maintain a constitutional monarchy under the current dynasty,” as stipulated in Stimson’s draft?   Was limiting “unconditional surrender” merely to the armed forces meant to be a carrot to make it easier for the Japanese to accept the ultimatum? If so, why did Truman delete the promise to “maintain a constitutional monarchy under the present dynasty?” The contradiction was the first question that Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo and other foreign ministry officials raised.  This issue also lies at the heart of Truman’s concept of “unconditional surrender.” Was this a clever maneuver on the part of the president to be silent about the possibility of maintaining a constitutional monarchy to avoid criticism from the anti-monarchy hard-liners such as Archibald MacLeish and Dean Acheson in the State Department and from the expected opprobrium of the public opinion who might view Truman as an appeaser to the Japanese emperor, while obliquely holding out the possibility that the emperor would be spared, as Gallicchio argues?

This is an attractive interpretation, but evidence to support it is lacking.  Did Truman already have a long-term policy to reduce the emperor to a mere a symbol of the state, as Supreme Command of Allied Powers General Douglas MacArthur forced the Japanese to accept in Japan’s post-war constitution, depriving him of political role, while preserving the imperial institution to survive without abolishing it altogether? If so, I would like to see the evidence.

Or was this a tacit acceptance of the emperor’s role in order to persuade to the armed forces to lay their arms down?  In other words, did Truman have to accept the emperor’s role only for a short term for the practical purpose of forcing the Japanese armed forces to surrender, without thinking much about his role in the long term during the occupation? 

Secretary of State James F. Byrnes states in his memoirs: “The copy in my files indicates that several suggestions made by [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill were incorporated, and the President inserted one or two with his pen.”[2]  But we do not know specifically what amendments Churchill offered and what insertions Truman made to Stimson’s draft. 

In my opinion, it is important to trace the process through which the ultimatum to Japan went through various drafts and examine who were involved in these drafts at each stage.  Especially, I would like to see Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew’s assistant Eugene Doorman’s four-and-a half page draft he presented to Grew on May 27, and its relationship with SWNCC 150.  I do not have these drafts in my possession.  Does anyone have these documents or know where to obtain them?

Finally, there is one sentence in the Potsdam Declaration that was not included in Stimson’s draft: “The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”  I have long wondered: who added this sentence and for what purpose? Was this meant to be a warning about the atomic bombings? 

I believe answers to these questions give us a better understanding of this important document.


Tsuyoshi Hasegawa is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His major publications include:  The Northern Territories Dispute and Russo-Japanese relations, 2 vols (International and Area Studies Publications, 1998); Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).  The most recent publications include Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution: Mob Justice and Police in Petrograd (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017); The February Revolution Petrograd, 1917: The End of the Tsarist Regime and the Birth of Dual Power (Leiden: Brill, 2017, Paperback edition, Haymarket Books, 2018).


[2] James F. Byrnes, All in One Lifetime (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 296.

Categories: Roundtable, H-DiploPub

[Ed. This is a response to a query posted on this thread: https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/9602114/queries-about-... ]

I know far less about this question than Professor Hasegawa, who claims not to be an expert. But I have some ideas on which I hope those more expert will comment.

Truman knew little about Japan. He did not know to what extent the emperor had been responsible for Japan's aggressive policies, and I think he was probably smart enough to understand that he did not know.

To tell the Japanese how harshly Japan would be treated, he would have had to decide what, exactly, to tell them. The fate of the emperor was only one of multiple major issues.

He didn't have an opinion as to how harshly a defeated Japan should be treated. To formulate such an opinion he would have to open up an extensive discussion of the issue. That would start a ferocious argument, causing Truman political problems that could not reliably be predicted but probably would be large.

Unconditional surrender, basically telling the Japanese, surrender now, and wait to find out what we do to you, was the only practical way of postponing the question.

I fear that Professor Moise's reply might add to confusion about Professor Hasegawa's main question. It was this: "The Potsdam Declaration demanded, not “unconditional surrender,” but “unconditional surrender of the armed forces.” The question arises then of why Truman decided to delete the promise to allow the Japanese to “maintain a constitutional monarchy under the current dynasty,” as stipulated in Stimson’s draft?"

As a legal and practical matter, it is essential to separate two matters. The first is the "surrender" or capitulation of the armed forces, to stop the fighting. The second is a peace agreement of some kind that addresses things like Japan (or Germany's) governance, territory, etc.

By choosing "unconditional surrender," the United Nations had decided that fighting would stop only with the unconditional capitulation of the armed forces, not the negotiation of a conditional armistice. In April 1945, for example, a Justice Department adviser, Curtis Shears, explained such distinctions to his avid listeners at a session of the American Society of International Law on "Some Legal Implications of Unconditional Surrender."

Thus, in May 1945, the German instruments of surrender were purely military and were signed only by military commanders. They said nothing at all about Germany's future governance.

One can see then how, in July 1945, someone might have quibbled with the language in Stimson's draft. The Potsdam declaration reverted to the focus on military capitulation. It could have broken with the German precedent and added assurances about the future content of a peace treaty with Japan, such as assurances about the status of the Emperor. And the declaration did add general statements about the treatment of the Japanese people and the future territory of Japan.

But one can see how the argument could have been made against adding such an exceptional and particular assurance about future Japanese governance into this public surrender demand. Against that, a purely military argument could be made, and was made, that the Emperor, as the ultimate commander of the Japanese armed forces, would play a key part in ordering the surrender of all such forces.

It is well known that Secretary of State James Byrnes asked the advice of his predecessor, Cordell Hull, about this exceptional language in Stimson's draft, that on July 16 Hull cabled Byrnes that he was against it, and that the next day, July 17, Byrnes wrote back to Hull that he agreed with this conclusion. Marc Gallicchio's recent book, among others, including Hasegawa's work, provides a good deal of context.

On July 18, Admiral William Leahy, writing for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who had discussed the matter the day before), then gave President Truman a further dissent, which a lower-level committee had already sent to General George Marshall. Leahy and the Chiefs worried about possible misinterpretation of Stimson's specific draft assurance. Leahy and the Chiefs instead suggested language about the Japanese people being "free to choose their own form of government." And that proposal then evolved into the Declaration's broad reference to a government being established "in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people."

Thus, in September 1945, the Japanese instruments of surrender were purely military and were signed only by military commanders. They said nothing at all about Japan's future governance.

I am not making an argument about whether these American choices were wise. I only wish to point out that -- from a professional point of view -- it is possible to see why American advisers in 1945 preferred that the specific language of the surrender demand itself focus only on the "unconditional surrender of the armed forces."

Philip Zelikow, University of Virginia

From: Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, University of California at Santa Barbara, emeritus

I am happy to know that my query on the Potsdam Declaration has received two comments from the colleagues I respect.  Given his government experience, Professor Zelikow knows far more than I do about how such decisions are made, from the draft stages involving various agencies to the top-level decision and eventually he final policy.  Zelikow’s post, however, raises some questions I myself have had for many years, and were not been cleared by the roundtable discussion on Marc Gallicchio’s book.

The question is the importance of the July 17-18 Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) meetings at the Potsdam Conference, to which Zelikow, Gallicchio, and I refer.  Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s July 2 draft had been sent to the Joint Strategic Survey Committee (JSSC), which recommended the deletion from the draft of the passage that allowed the possibility of Japan maintaining a constitutional monarchy under the existing dynasty for two reasons.  First, the draft proposal could be interpreted as a measure “to depose or execute the present emperor.”[1] Second, this provision could meet the opposition of radical elements in Japan. 

First, what was the Joint Strategic Survey Committee?  Who were the members of this committee, what was its role in the decision-making process, where was it located in the floor chart of the decision-making process? 

Second, where did it receive the recommendation and advice on which it based its conclusion?  What was its relationship with former Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Assistant Secretary of State Archibald MacLeish, Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson (New Dealers who took harsh view on retaining the monarchy) on the one hand, and the Japan hands (Undersecretary of State Joseph Grew, his assistant, Eugene Doorman, and the State Department’s Director of Far Eastern Affairs, Joseph Ballantine), on the other? And, further, what was its relationship between Secretary of State James Byrnes and Secretary of War Stimson?

Third, how can we explain the seeming contradiction between the two reasons they cite for deleting the passage: first, not to alienate those who supported the current emperor, and second, not to alienate the radical elements who opposed the retention of the monarchy?

Fourth, to counter the JSSC’s recommendation, the writers of the Stimson draft in the Strategic and Policy Group of the War Department’s Operation Division responded and offered a further amendment to read: “the Japanese people will be free to choose their own form of government whether they shall retain their Emperor as a constitutional monarchy.”[2] This amendment resolves the ambiguity of the holder of the emperor’s position that the JSSC raised, but not the second reason.  The question is why this amendment was not adopted and Truman (and Byrnes) preferred instead to adopt the JSSC’s recommendation. 

Any clarification on these points would be appreciated. 

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa

Professor Emeritus

University of California at Santa Barbara


[1] Enclosure “A” Report by the Joint Strategic Survey Committee, Military Aspects of Unconditional Surrender Formula for Japan, Reference: J.C.S.,1275, Series, Records of the Office of the Secretary War, Stimson Safe file, RG 107 NARA; Marc Gallicchio, Unconditional, New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 97; Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 146.

[2] H.A. Craig’s Memorandum for General Handy, 13 July 1945, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, Stimson Safe File, RG 107, NARA; Gallicchio, Unconditional,98; Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, 147.

From: Mark A. Stoler, University of Vermont, Emeritus

I am writing in response to Professor Hasegawa’s Feb. 13 questions regarding the Joint Strategic Survey Committee (JSSC).  I have written extensively on the committee and am pleased to be able to provide the following information. 

The JSSC consisted of three high-ranking officers who, in effect, served as the Joint Chiefs’ senior advisors on matters of grand strategy and national policy: Lieutenant General Stanley D. Embick for the Army; Vice Admiral Russell Willson for the Navy; and Major General Muir S. Fairchild for the Army Air Forces.  The committee had been established in late 1942/ early 1943 as part of a major reorganization and expansion of the JCS committee structure and, along with a newly-established Joint War Plans Committee (JWPC), replaced the overworked Joint U.S. Strategic Committee (JUSSC).  Whereas the JWPC was responsible to the senior army-navy members of the Joint Staff Planners (JPS), the totally independent JSSC reported directly to the JCS and was charged with advising the chiefs on all matters of combined, grand and global strategy as well as “the relation of military strategy to national policy.”  Its members had no other regularly assigned duties and possessed total freedom to develop their own procedures, initiate their own studies without prior directives, and report directly to the JCS without going through any part of the JCS committee structure. They could also attend meetings of the JCS and the JPS as well as the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) as they wished.   

Implicit in the JSSC’s charter was the expectation that it would establish close ties with the State Department, which it did as early as March of 1943 when it began to meet with Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and other high-ranking members of the department as well as attend meetings of the Postwar Foreign Policy Advisory Committee’s Security Subcommittee.  Embick, who chaired the JSSC, had old and special relationships with both Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.  Far from surprising is the fact that Marshall sided with Embick and the JSSC over his own Strategy and Policy Group in the Operations Division of the Army General Staff on this issue.

I have written extensively on Embick and this extraordinary committee, and I recommend to Professor Hasegawa and any other interested scholars my Allies and Adversaries, a study of the World War II Joint Chiefs of Staff that contains detailed information on the committee members and their activities.  So does an older article of mine on Embick and the committee.[1] 

Mark A. Stoler

Professor Emeritus of History

University of Vermont

[1] Mark A. Stoler, Allies and Adversaries: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Grand Alliance, and U.S. Strategy in World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); and “From Continentalism to Globalism: General Stanley D. Embick, the Joint Strategic Survey Committee, and the Military View of American National Policy during the Second World War, Diplomatic History, 6 (summer 1982): 303-21.