Total war, that is.
A war is not won until the enemy, the loser, knows that he’s been beaten, that he has absolutely no chance in Hell of prevailing and that any further resistance will not only not lead to any sort of future possible, fantasy land victory, it will also lead to further horrors, humiliations and pointless suffering. If you leave as much as a shred of a hope that there is a future possibility of turning the table around, then you haven’t won. You’ve just gained a truce.
It’s as simple as that.
WWII as the last war this country actually fought like we meant it is a great example. Germany knew they’d been beaten. Not because they’d lost a bunch of battles and the allied troops were marching at will through Germany itself, but because Germany had thrown everything, EVERYTHING they had at the allies for 6 long years and it hadn’t changed the outcome. Nothing Germany could produce had been able to stop that, and Germany was way ahead in everything technologically, they’d thrown every available German into the grinder down to pre-teens and septuagenarians, they were united as very few, if any, countries had ever been before, and they still couldn’t stop it.
Japan had watched two major cities get obliterated in as many days and, for all that they knew, we could keep on obliterating all of their cities in the same way until there was nothing left.
THOSE are the factors that ended those wars decisively, not any number of won battles, no matter how decisively any of them were won.
What won those wars was the simple message that “we have destroyed/killed x% of you. We can keep on doing so until that x reaches 100, and there isn’t a single thing you can do about it. And unless you surrender, UNCONDITIONALLY, we WILL do so.”
That is the only message that wins wars and makes them stay won.
More on Japan specifically:
Unconditional surrender was not particularly popular among some Allied leaders, especially Churchill and several notable American generals such as Eisenhower. It was heavily debated throughout the conflict, and still remains one of the most controversial policies of the war. Steven Casey in Cautious Crusade has a whole chapter dedicated to the politics of unconditional surrender, and notes that historians have long debated over FDR’s motives and the effects. Generally, it’s believed that his fear was that if militant entities and institutions were allowed to remain postwar, future conflict would be inevitable, invoking the memory of the 1918 armistice with Germany. FDR himself explained, “unconditional surrender means not the destruction of the German populace, nor the Italian or Japanese populace, but does mean the destruction of a philosophy in Germany, Italy, and Japan which is based on the conquest and subjugation of other people.” (Casey, 118). The Allies would avoid any uncertainty, decisively and completely winning the war, or it would keep fighting. It has been asserted that the move was also to keep Stalin from attaining any negotiated peace during a time when the US had yet to open a second front and casualties on the Eastern front were extreme (the announcement had taken place merely a few days after the conclusion of the Battle of Stalingrad). Truman, taking office in April 1945, believed that to go back on the demand of unconditional surrender would be a sign of weakness both to the American people and to the Japanese government, providing fuel for those who wished to continue the war. Critics believe unconditional surrender was a significant boost to Axis propaganda, leading them to fight more fanatically, and lengthened the duration of the war both in the European and Pacific theaters. Upon hearing of it, Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels exclaimed, “I should never have been able to think up so rousing a slogan.” (Fleming, Written in Blood)
The means for which this surrender was to be achieved was total war – the complete mobilization of a nation’s resources, including the conversion of its industry and drafting of citizens. The intention is not to just destroy the enemy military forces, but also to destroy their ability to make war. This leads to an incredibly blurred line between combatants and civilians. For instance, in order to destroy Japan’s ability to make war, factories in densely populated urban centers were targeted. By extension, civilians in industrial areas could themselves even be viewed as “legitimate” targets. By the end of the war, cities were being routinely bombed into submission in an effort to break the will of the government and people to fight.
Hasegawa notes that the use of the bomb was the best possible outcome to Truman, solving the problem of unconditional surrender, invasion, and Soviet interference. For the Japanese, news of the bomb led to complete disarray. Asada states that many in the army and Japan’s R&D board denied that an atomic bomb had been used, or even that it was possible that one could have been developed so soon. Information from Hiroshima was limited, as the infrastructure had already been significantly damaged even before the 6th. However, both Asada and Hasegawa note that by that evening, and certainly by the following day, little doubt remained. Asada argues that acceptance of American technological superiority helped the army “save face” and “smoothed their acceptance of surrender” – a minister tried to persuade the military by pleading, “if we say we lost a scientific war, the people will understand” (Asada, 197).
On August 9th, the USSR declared war on Japan and Soviet armor poured into Manchuria. Coupled with the use of the atomic bomb, this utterly crippled the hope of continuing the war effort. Though Japanese forces mounted a strong defense, they were quickly pushed back. Yet, the supreme council still held on to hope that it could negotiate with the Soviets, refusing to officially declare war. Though the Prime Minister and other civilian leaders now openly declared that Japan should surrender, military leaders wished to continue the fight. Even after the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9th, the supreme council still tried to push for maintaining the position of Emperor, and there was a 3-3 split for three other conditions: war criminal trials would be conducted by the Japanese, self-disarmament, and that occupation (particularly of Tokyo) should be avoided or limited wherever possible. (Hasegawa 204, Frank 291). The short span of time between bombings as well as Allied threats were made to give the impression that the US already had a stockpile of the weapons when in actuality it only had the two. A third would have come “sometime after August 19, and then the fourth bomb in the beginning of September,” (Hasegawa 298). It was only until the morning of the 10th that the Foreign Ministry sent telegrams saying it would accept the Potsdam Declaration and unconditional surrender after Hirohito himself demanded the war’s end. Even then, there was an attempted coup by a segment of the military leadership, which invaded the imperial palace and nearly killed the Prime Minister, as well as other senior officials. On August 15, the emperor officially announced the surrender worldwide. Many pockets of Japanese soldiers still continued to fight, and many military officers chose suicide over surrender. By 1947, a new constitution was written, and while the emperor was maintained as ceremonial figurehead, the Empire of Japan was formally dissolved.
Whether it was the use of nuclear weapons or Soviet invasion that more forcefully led to surrender has been hotly debated between historians. Hasegawa places greater emphasis on the Soviet invasion, suggesting that Japan would likely have stood steadfast under multiple atomic bombings as it had done in the face of firebombing. Asada directly references and disputes his account, claiming that nuclear weapons and the threat they posed to the homeland reflected a much more “direct” impetus to end the war rather than the invasion of Manchuria, and offered an easier way out for the leadership. Further, they came as a complete surprise to Japanese leadership, whereas eventual conflict with the USSR was expected. Frank’s account, and most other anti-revisionist historians support this thesis.
It’s worth noting that the term “unconditional surrender” originated after the battle for Fort Donelson with Grant’s subordinates Andrew Foote* (“No sir, your surrender will be unconditional!”) and CF Smith (“I’ll make no terms with rebels with arms in their hands — my terms are unconditional and immediate surrender!” and, more famously, “No terms to the damned Rebels!”). The total-war idea came to full deadly fruition later with Sherman, of course.
What’s most interesting to me about it all, though, is how Grant and Sherman are almost universally revered and lionized as American heroes now, while modern-era “hard war” men like Curtis LeMay are regarded by many as somehow monstrous, executors not so much of victory as of atrocity. Is that a function of the unique horror of nuclear weapons, or of merely being farther removed in time? Does it maybe say more about us than it does about them?
Either way, in light of our ongoing (and so far unsuccessful) struggle with Islam–a perhaps even more fanatical and dedicated foe than Imperial Japan–it’s all worth thinking about very damned carefully, I’d say.
*NOTE: I should maybe mention that, since Foote was a Navy man, he was more a colleague of Grant’s and not a subordinate. Wouldn’t want to slight my fondly-appreciated Squid readers out there, who are legion–and way tougher and meaner than me, too. Ahem.