Book Review

by Ryan Day

Codename Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan

Allen, Thomas B. and Norman Polmar
Headline 1995

In Codename Downfall, Allen and Polmar accomplish an amazing feat. In a book describing U.S. President Harry Truman's decision to use the atom bomb, they make the world's only nuclear attacks seem almost unimportant.

Fifty years have passed since U.S. bombers annihilated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but those events have been debated frequently and furiously ever since. Using insightful research the authors paint so terrible a picture of the Pacific war's escalating destruction it even dwarfs the instant vaporization of two complete cities.

Downfall does not linger on the classic numerical comparison of lives lost to nukes versus invasion. Instead, the authors provide a sweeping account of the Allies' efforts to liberate or capture island after island in their determined drive to seize the Japanese homeland and stop the Japanese war-making ability. New documents describe the Japanese strategy of using suicide forces, including the famous "kamikaze" which claimed thousands of sailors' lives in the many amphibious invasions which climaxed in the summer of 1945.

Chapter after chapter reveals an American public and their leaders horrified by the carnage piling up through battle after battle, which promised to be bloody foreshadowing of a strike on the home islands.

Both sides expected a full mobilization of every Japanese citizen to fight what would be the largest invasion of all time. As Japanese generals preached about "100 million souls" all dying together, the American leaders searched for any alternative to the "decisive battle" as the Japanese military referred to it. The book described how the U.S. leaders grasped at the atomic bomb as a last, desperate hope to avoid this bloody climax their enemies sought.

A striking contrast are the recently declassified U.S. intercepts of Japanese diplomatic communication, which show Japanese leaders resisting surrender a full two weeks after the first nuclear bomb fell. By the end of the book, the reader no longer wonders why Truman dropped the Bomb, but how the Japanese leaders could refuse the mercy of a peaceful surrender. Responsibility for the bombing finally rests squarely on the shoulders of the Japanese "cabinet."

The book jacket suggests Downfall is simply another apologetic for the bombing, but the mass of evidence the authors collected precludes the need for biased opinionating. Only once do the authors stop to ask "isn't this evidence overwhelming?" Indeed it is, and provides a clear picture of the events that shaped modern history. It gives a fresh and convincing perspective on a very old question.

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