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'Road to Surrender' revisits the final weeks of World War II


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. For nearly 80 years, humankind has lived with the threat of nuclear weapons, now in the hands of nine countries. But in all those decades, only one country has used nuclear weapons in an armed conflict. That was the United States, which dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in 1945, killing as many as 200,000 people. Historians have long debated whether that carnage was necessary to compel Japan to surrender and end World War II. In the summer of 1945, Germany had surrendered to the Allies, while Japan, largely defeated, was defiant and still capable of inflicting horrific casualties on any force that might try and invade the Japanese mainland.

Our guest, writer Evan Thomas, has returned to that critical period with a new book that examines the thoughts and motivations of key players in the U.S. military and government and in Japan's ruling elite. It's a story of American leaders wrestling with the practical and moral dilemmas presented by the most terrifying weapon ever made and of determined Japanese leaders confronting the humiliating prospect of defeat and the removal of the country's emperor, who was seen by Japanese as a deity. Evan Thomas was a writer, correspondent and editor for 33 years at Time and Newsweek. He wrote more than 100 cover stories and in 1999 won a national magazine award. He's the author of 10 previous books. His latest is "Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To End World War II." Evan Thomas, welcome back to FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's go back to the summer of 1945. Germany, as we said, was defeated, and the Allies were focused on Japan, which was also clearly facing defeat. What was the state then of the Japanese armed forces?

THOMAS: Japanese armed forces were, by and large, intact. Although we had fought this heavy campaign through the Pacific Islands, the Japanese still had millions of men in their army. Many of them were in Asia, occupying China and Southeast Asia, but there were about a million of them collecting on the southern tip of Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese island, waiting there for an invasion they knew was coming. They also had 7,000 kamikaze planes and all sorts of kamikaze swimmers and frogmen and divers waiting there to inflict bloody harm on the American invasion.

DAVIES: Right. And kamikazes, for younger listeners who might not be so familiar with - they were pilots or people who would crash their airplane or other aircraft into enemy facilities or ships, dying in the process, but inflicting damage. What about the Japanese civilian population? There was a U.S. blockade, right?

THOMAS: There was. The Japanese population - you would think they would be thoroughly demoralized. They had been blockaded. They were eating - they were down to about 1,500 calories per person. They were eating acorns and whatever they could find. And yet they were not in rebellion. There were - the secret police were starting to pick up some graffiti anti - against the emperor. There were some rumbles and noises. But they were a largely quiescent population. They had put up with a lot, and they were willing to put up with a lot. They were on the verge of starvation, but that hadn't quite happened yet.

Now, their cities had been heavily bombed. By August 1945, the United States had burned about 60 Japanese cities, with the loss of life of a couple hundred thousand people. And yet a lot of those cities had been evacuated. People were moving into the countryside. The Japanese were not done. Also, the government had militarized the civilian population. About 28 million people had been formed into a kind of a civilian defense force, and people had been instructed to use pitchforks and spears and whatever they could pick up to kill the Americans. There's an instruction that a woman picking up an awl should ram it into the guts of a soldier and defenestrate them.

DAVIES: Right, right. We should note that the Japanese navy was at this point pretty much demolished, right? They - not much of an effective fighting force there, right?

THOMAS: The Japanese fleet was basically sunk. Their last big battleship, the Yamato, had been sent out to Okinawa that summer with a one-way supply of fuel to act as a last - really, a kamikaze ship. But the American planes found that ship, of course, and sank it. And so the Japanese - they were defeated. Their fleet was sunk. Their army - they still had one, but they were doomed. And the government was - knew that they were defeated, but they were determined to fight to the bitter, bitter end.

DAVIES: All right. So let's look at the American side of this. They're - they have overwhelming superiority on air and sea and in military power, but they're facing a determined adversary in Japan that was prepared to exact a bloody cost if they were going to invade. One figure that you look a lot at in the book is Henry Stimson. He was the secretary of war for Roosevelt and then for Truman, who of course took over when Roosevelt died in the spring of 1945. He's an interesting character, Stimson - 77 years old then. Tell us a bit about him.

THOMAS: He's a very stern, severe figure. He was known as a New England conscience on legs, also called the icicle, because he could be pretty chilly. He could be bloody-minded and was willing to use force, in fact, believed in force, believed in overwhelming force. At the same time, he did have a conscience, and we know this from his diary. He, in the spring of 1945, starts writing about the atom bomb. He knows the time is coming when we might have to use that weapon against the Japanese. And he refers to it by its codename S-1 - also the British codename, Tube Alloys. But also he refers to it as the awful, the terrible, the diabolical, Frankenstein monster. He knows how awful this weapon is.

DAVIES: As the Allies, you know, were preparing to shift their efforts from Europe, where they'd spent a lot of effort trying to defeat Germany and move a lot of those soldiers and fighting material to the Pacific Theater to take on Japan, you write that Stimson visited a redistribution center where some of these American troops from Europe were gathering for redeployment to the Pacific theater. What did he observe of their condition and mental state?

THOMAS: He saw that they were exhausted and haunted. They just defeated Germany in a apocalyptic battle. And now they were being sent to the Pacific to do it all over again against an even more determined foe. And he looked in their eyes, and he saw that these men were exhausted. He wrote in his diary he knew they would do their duty, that they would fight, but he just didn't want to send them, to make them do it. He knew the cost was going to be beyond anything we had ever imagined.

The scale here - you know, 7,000 U.S. Marines lost their lives to capture an island, the island of Iwo Jima, which is the size of Nantucket. It's just a spot in the ocean. Then Okinawa, a bigger island, cost us 12,000 Marines and two months of hand-to-hand fighting in some cases. And it was obvious that when we hit a beach that was defended by 1 million men and thousands of kamikaze planes, suicide fighters, essentially, it was going to be an enormous bloodbath. My father, as it turned out, was a junior officer who was scheduled to be on one of those ships. They were going just the scale of death was going to be something we had never seen before.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Evan Thomas. His new book is "Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To End World War II." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Evan Thomas. His new book about the end of World War II in Japan is the "Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To The End of World War II."

So as Henry Stimson, the secretary of war for the United States, was trying to figure out what he was going to do with this powerful weapon, the atomic bomb, and weigh it against the cost of invading Japan, he was concerned about civilian casualties. And this is something that you write about because the air war against Germany had inflicted horrific casualties on the civilian population. You write that he gave the order that it should be precision bombing only over Japan, but never really got a straight answer on whether, you know, the commanders thought they could do that or would try to do it. What is clear, as you've noted, is that 60 Japanese cities burned under allied bombing. And napalm was used. Was it a decision to destroy civilian neighborhoods by fire in order to demoralize the population?

THOMAS: That's not the way it worked. The United States was aiming at economic and military targets, but they missed. For one thing, we discovered we had a new airplane, the B-29, a fancy new airplane that was supposed to be able to do precision bombing from 30,000 feet, high enough so the Japanese fighters couldn't reach them. But when we tried this over Japan in the winter of 1945, we discovered a new thing called the jet stream. The wind blew our bombers away, so it didn't work. So Curtis LeMay, our man on the ground, our general on the ground, tried something different. Instead of bombing by day, 30,000 feet, he came in - he ordered the planes to come in at night, 7,000 feet, and to drop incendiaries, hoping to start a fire to burn down the factories on the ground.

Now, as it happened, on the first night we tried this in Tokyo on March 10, 1945, it created such a firestorm, it killed 100,000 people. More people died that night than in any six-hour period in any battle in the history of mankind. It was just a huge bloodbath. It wasn't intended to be a mass killer of civilians. It was intended to be a way to burn down factories. But the effect was to kill an awful lot of civilians. Did we know it? We didn't know the precise death tolls right away. But we figured out soon enough that we were killing a lot of civilians. And yet, that was the only thing that worked. So we kept on doing it even though, as you mentioned, Secretary of War Stimson raised questions about it, said he thought he had a promise to stop it. The military kept on doing it. And Stimson allowed it to keep on going.

DAVIES: You mentioned that the crews in that March 10 firebombing of Tokyo were smelling burning flesh in the cockpit. It's a horrific thing to contemplate.

THOMAS: It is. It's hideous. And they were sickened by it. You know, there wasn't a whole lot of gloating by those bomber crews when they came back. You don't read a lot of testimonials about how heroic was dropping incendiaries on Japan. The pilots knew what they were doing. They wanted to live, too, though, you know? They wanted to end the war, too. And it was - I think there was a lot of more quiet moral agony by the pilots - not just the decision-makers, but the pilots.

DAVIES: Right. So in the summer of 1945, the efforts to develop an atomic bomb are coming to fruition. The secretary of war, Stimson, knew about this. And there was discussion of, if it was to be used, what kind of target would it be? Should you drop it in the ocean? Should you drop it in an uninhabited area, you know, to demonstrate its power? Give us a sense of - there was a targeting committee - what its deliberations were like.

THOMAS: There was a targeting committee of military and people largely and some scientists. And their big issue was to make sure that they hit the target at all. It would be nice if we could hit a port or some factories or a military base. But if you're dropping a bomb from 30,000 feet, it just wasn't that accurate. And the targeting committee decided that the best thing to do was to pick a target smack in the middle of a city. In Hiroshima, it was a bridge in the middle of Hiroshima. And, yes, Hiroshima was a military city in the sense that it had military forces there. It had ports on the outside. There was a military base there. It was still basically a civilian city. It was full of civilians.

And so the target committee decided not to take the chance of going after a military target, but to drop the bomb right in the middle of the city, where they were sure they would strike it and it would set off a heck of a big bang. They did not have many regrets about that. There's no evidence of them saying, oh, my God, we're going to kill a lot of civilians. There were some civilians who worried about it. But the military, the people on the target committee, they wanted to drop that bomb. And they wanted to make sure it hit its target.

DAVIES: There was discussion of trying to convince the Japanese to surrender. And one of the things - and we'll talk about this as we move through the conversation - was what would happen with the emperor, Hirohito. The presence of the emperor presented a special problem. What was it? What was his status?

THOMAS: Well, he was divine in Japanese Shinto religion. He was the man in charge, but he wasn't really. His legitimacy depended on the military. They propped him up. The idea was that the emperor should be above politics, not dragged into politics. As a practical matter, it made him a tool of the military. And the Japanese government was just determined to preserve the emperor. Their existence in the government depended on there being an emperor - if not this emperor, at least some other emperor. But they wanted to keep the imperial system. They were completely wedded to this idea that there had to be an emperor. After all, he was divine.

DAVIES: So let's look at what's happening in Japan here. There were a lot of military leaders who were determined to fight to the end. But one person that you focus on was the foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, who had a different take on this. He wanted peace. Tell us about him.

THOMAS: Togo was the one civilian on the supreme war council. The rest were the war minister, army and navy chiefs of staff, the prime minister - they're all in uniform. Togo is the one civilian, and he's the only one who wants to surrender, who wants to save his country by surrendering. All the others want to fight to the bitter end.

They believe that - for two reasons. One is there is something almost mystical and grand about national suicide. And they talk this way, that the 100 million, they say, will die for the emperor. The other piece, though, is not so crazy. They believed that if they could make the Americans bleed enough, suffer enough, take enough casualties, then the Americans would give them terms that they wanted.

They knew they were defeated. They knew their fleet was sunk and their army was about to be defeated. But they hoped that if they could make us bleed, we would give them the terms they wanted, which were no occupation - no American troops on Japan - no war crimes trials, because they knew that as leaders of Japan they were going to be tried for war crimes, so they didn't want that. And lastly, they wanted to keep their emperor.

DAVIES: So Shigenori Togo, the foreign minister - he tries to get the Soviet - reach out to the Soviet Union to have them negotiate, approach the Allies on behalf of Japan. That kind of doesn't really go anywhere. But then he also tries to work the others on the supreme council, this body that's running the country at the time, to sort of massage them and get them to see reality, and let's end this thing. And then you write that in June, six weeks before the atomic bombs were dropped, he met with the emperor and that the emperor said, please terminate the war as quickly as possible. And when I read that, I thought, well, gosh, why didn't that settle the question, if the emperor had the authority?

THOMAS: The emperor has the authority in theory, but in practice he doesn't have that authority. He's too dependent on the military himself. For one thing, the emperor, Hirohito, is somewhat of a meek-seeming figure. He has a reedy voice. He likes marine biology. He's not a warrior type at all. And he exists at the sufferance of the military.

In June, the emperor hears that the military is thinking of removing him from Tokyo and taking him up to their mountain redoubt and in effect making him their prisoner. He refuses. He shows some backbone. For once he stands up to them, but he knows that he's very much a tool of the military. He doesn't like to admit it, but that is the practical reality.

DAVIES: In July, in the United States, the atom bomb is successfully tested. So it's clear that the United States is going to have an operable weapon to drop on Japan. And the idea emerged among Stimson and the secretary of war and others of rather than dropping the bomb, to give the Japanese a warning, saying we have this terrible weapon and we will not drop it, if you will surrender and perhaps even we'll let you keep your emperor, at least in some kind of ceremonial role. How does Harry Truman regard this idea?

THOMAS: Truman and his new secretary of state, Jimmy Byrnes, do not want to give the Japanese an out. Byrnes and Truman regard the Japanese as being duplicitous, and if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile. And they are afraid that if you say to the Japanese, you can keep their emperor, that will just be an excuse for them to fight on. In that judgment, the president actually has some backing from the military community that also worries about that. They have fresh memories of Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese continued to negotiate even as they were getting ready to strike Pearl Harbor militarily. So they just don't trust the Japanese.

And the proof of that, I think, is in the debates in the supreme war council - after we had dropped two atom bombs on Japan, the militarists still wanted to fight on. The most revealing moment is that at a meeting of the supreme war council on August 9, they're - the bomb has dropped on Hiroshima. They're talking about what to do. Word comes that another Hiroshima-style bomb has just taken out Nagasaki. And the Supreme War Council, the six of them, are now divided, they're stalemated. And it takes - in Japan, it takes a consensus to make a decision. They're stalemated on whether to surrender. That's after we had dropped two atom bombs.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Evan Thomas. His new book is "Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To The End Of World War II." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. My guest is veteran magazine writer and editor and author of 10 previous books, Evan Thomas. In a new book, he takes a close look at the final weeks of World War II, when Japan's military was largely defeated but its leaders were determined to keep fighting and inflict heavy casualties on the U.S. and allied forces as they advanced towards the Japanese mainland. Thomas also looks at top military and civilian leaders of the United States as they wrestled with whether and how to use the newly developed atomic bomb to achieve victory and end the war. Thomas' book is "Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To The End Of World War II."

Before the bomb is dropped, there is a meeting at Potsdam, which is a suburb of Berlin, right? It's in Germany - defeated Germany. And out of that comes a lot of things, including a message to Japan. What was the message from the allied leaders then?

THOMAS: The message was called the Potsdam Declaration. And it basically said, you have to surrender or we'll destroy you, period. It didn't have a lot of particulars in it. And the Japanese got that message and rejected it summarily. They - there's a word for it. They - in Japanese. It means to treat with silent contempt.

DAVIES: So the United States decides to proceed with dropping the first weapon. You note that the commander, General Carl Spaatz, insisted on a written order for this. He wasn't going to do this on some verbal command. And it's a long flight from the Marianas, where this B-29 left and dropped the bomb over Hiroshima. It was devastating, of course. And, you know, this is a time - you know, we kind of - we're used to instant communication in our age. But in fact, it took a long - some time for the perception of this disaster, this kind of carnage, to make its way around the world and even in Japan. It's interesting where Truman hears news that the bomb had been dropped. Tell us that story.

THOMAS: Truman is on a ship coming back from the Potsdam Conference when he first learns that the bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima. And he says, this is the greatest thing in history. He's excited about it. He - at least in the mess hall with the sailors, he is enthusiastic. And he gives a pretty strong speech warning the Japanese that another one is coming their way if they don't surrender. Now, what is Truman really thinking? That is a harder question. And I think the most interesting evidence of it - this is indirect. But on the day that Truman gives the order to drop the atom bomb, July 25, 1945, that evening, he writes in his diary, I have ordered the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, and we are in agreement that the target should be purely military, not civilian - that we should kill soldiers and sailors, not women and children.

Well, what is he thinking? Because as we've mentioned earlier, the aim point of the bomb was a bridge in the middle of Hiroshima. Of course it was going to kill women and children. It did. As it happened, it killed about ten, maybe twenty thousand soldiers, but fifty or sixty thousand civilians right away, instantly, including - most of them women and children because the men were off at war. So what was Truman thinking? Well, he may have been badly briefed. That's possible. We don't really have a good record of that. But more likely, he and Stimson had decided that day to remove another city, Kyoto, from the target list that had been on the target list. And I think that they were feeling that they had done the right thing by sparing the ancient cultural capital of Japan, therefore saving a beautiful and magnificent city. And they were, I think, in a way, congratulating themselves on that.

And so they chose to view Hiroshima as a military target, even though it wasn't. This is human denial. It's kind of incredible to think that the president and the secretary of war didn't really know what they were doing. But I think, under the pressure of this kind of thing, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised that the information is murky, that human denial kicks in. Still, it's hard to explain.

DAVIES: All right. So when the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and this incredible destruction - the Japanese military leaders are some distance away in Tokyo. Do they understand what's happened?

THOMAS: The Japanese military leaders had been working on building an atom bomb for Japan for years, and they failed at it. So they are aware that it is possible to build an atom bomb. They know that. They don't want to believe that the Americans have done it, but the evidence is considerable that they have. They stall, they hem, they haw, they send a plane down - a scientist to look at it. It takes a day or two for the plane to get there and the scientist to get back. They are also in denial. They don't want to believe what's happening. And when they finally do accede that, well, it's an atom bomb, they think, well, they must only have one atom bomb because they must not have enough uranium material to build more than one. And then, of course, there's a second, and that - there goes that argument. And then they are just in a kind of a suicidal fugue state. Some of them realize, we've got to surrender. Others want to fight on.

DAVIES: And what you see is, in effect - I mean, some of the military commanders attempt to stage a coup. Shigenori Togo, the foreign minister, goes to see the Emperor Hirohito, and he actually declares that we have to end this, right? He issues a sacred decision, a seidan. Am I pronouncing that correctly?



THOMAS: There is this little tiny peace party under Togo that is working the emperor, working the palace. And the emperor, by August 9, is worried about a couple of things. He doesn't really trust his own military. He's afraid maybe they're going to kidnap him, take him up into the mountains. But he's also worried that a third atom bomb may come for him, may come for Tokyo. He's not wrong to be worried about this. And his entourage - his - the people around him tell him they've heard radio signals that the group that dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they're in the air again. So he's fearing for his own life. His own palace was largely burned at the end of May by American firebombs. He's basically living in a shelter underneath his library.

And finally, he declares a seidan, a sacred decision, that - and he says - he gathers together his military advisers in his shelter, and he says, I agree with Togo, with Foreign Minister Togo. We have to surrender. Now, it's not the end of the story because although they accept the American demand for a surrender, the Japanese insist that the emperor must remain and be sovereign. Well, back in Washington, they're not going to buy that. Truman and Stimson and Byrnes - they're not going to allow the emperor to remain sovereign. They want the emperor not to be reporting to God, but to Douglas MacArthur, to the supreme Allied commander who is going to take over when the Americans arrive.

So the Americans reject that term, and we're back at square one. The military wants to keep on fighting, and the stalemate goes on for another four or five days. And it's not clear that the Japanese are ever going to surrender. And Truman, President Truman, starts thinking about using a third bomb, a third nuclear bomb, a third atomic bomb. He tells the British government that, sadly, he's preparing to drop a third atom bomb on Tokyo.

DAVIES: And the Allies do actually renew conventional bombing. A thousand planes are sent over Japan to renew their bombing campaign. But in Japan, while - the Emperor Hirohito has decided, in effect, it is time to end this. And he records a message to be broadcast over the radio explaining this. But before that can be broadcast, some military commanders essentially attempt to stage a coup. Tell us what happens.

THOMAS: Well, in this final week, the young hotheads get in their mind that they want to stage a coup, to take the emperor - take him up into the mountains and basically install a military government. The war minister has been half-encouraging them. Anami has been saying maybe, maybe. He finally says no. But he commits hara-kiri. He thrusts his sword into his bowels and a knife into his neck, and he's gone.

But the coup continues. And the coup plotters assassinate the head of the Imperial Guard, and they kill his assistant by chopping his head off. And now they are running - soldiers are running through the palace looking for a recording made by the emperor of his surrender speech, scheduled to be played on national radio at noon. The soldiers are running through the palace trying to find that record to break it. Fortunately, it's in a bag hidden in a room reserved for ladies in waiting to the empress, and the coup plotters never find it. Finally, the order is restored. The young officer leading the coup plotters goes out into the courtyard and shoots himself. But it was a close thing.

DAVIES: So it turns out this message from the emperor of Japan is played over the radio, telling citizens that the war is over. I'm wondering what it was like for people in Japan who had never heard the emperor's voice. What was their reaction to hearing this?

THOMAS: You would think that they would be overjoyed that the war was finally over. And there was, I'm sure, some rejoicing. But in many quarters they were defiant. They stood out in the courtyard outside the Imperial Palace shouting, banzai. They're falling to the floor in tears that the emperor is surrendering. Now, elsewhere in the country, people may have been more happy. They did - they acquiesced. You know, they didn't rise up. There wasn't some last revolution. They did go along with the surrender, but there was enormous sadness.

DAVIES: Right. And I guess some confusion, because, I mean, it was a voice they were not used to hearing. And the language was a little indirect, wasn't it?

THOMAS: Yes. The emperor, who's a very remote and removed figure, spoke in this ancient court Japanese that a lot of the people just didn't understand. The radio announcers had to essentially translate the emperor and explain to the people that they had just surrendered. Also, his address was absurd in some levels. He said to the people, the war is not going quite as well as expected. Well, they've just been nuked twice in a week. And yet he's saying the war is - you know, we're just - it's a close thing. Well, it wasn't a close thing. But so people didn't know quite how - he never used the word surrender. He said, we have to accept the Potsdam Declaration. So people were a little baffled at first, but it was quickly explained to them, this was a surrender.

DAVIES: Let's just take a break here and then we'll talk a little more. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Evan Thomas. His new book is "Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To The End Of World War II." We'll continue our conversation right after this. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Evan Thomas. His new book about the final days of World War II and the surrender of Japan is "Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To The End Of World War II."

So in the end, the atomic bombs did convince the Japanese, with some difficulty, to surrender. But for a long time, you know, the details of what it was like in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not really known to the American public. And about a year later, there was a full issue of The New Yorker dedicated to it, written by John Hersey, who had spent an awful lot of time in Hiroshima gathering information. And it was shocking. It was widely quoted. It was read in full on radio broadcasts. And questions were raised about the use of such a horrific weapon. Were we war criminals for having done this?

And Henry Stimson, the war secretary at the time, the man who had a lot of moral qualms himself, was engaged to write a response, which he did, saying dropping the bomb was the right thing to do. It saved lives. What was his case?

THOMAS: He argued that it was the least abhorrent alternative. It was abhorrent, but the alternative was an invasion of Japan that would have cost the lives of millions of Americans. Now, personally, he felt guilty that we didn't try hard enough to get the Japanese to surrender beforehand by letting them keep their emperor. I ask in the book, should he have felt guilty? And my answer is no because the Japanese - I think the record is pretty clear now. The Japanese just were not going to surrender, even if we offered them to keep their emperor.

The other piece of this puzzle that is important here to recognize - it's not just Americans that we saved by not invading Japan. It's Japanese because if we hadn't invaded Japan, we would have blockaded Japan, and we would have starved them. They were already down to 1,500 calories a day per person, roughly. And they, by, say, the winter of '45, '46, would have suffered a famine. We had figured out how to cut their rail lines into the plain of Tokyo. We were going to be able to squeeze off their rice. Their rice crop was already the worst they'd had in years, and they were going to start dying. And they were going to have civil war. Who knows what would have happened?

Not just in Japan, but also in Asia. The Japanese - the brutal Japanese occupation of China and Southeast Asia was killing people at the rate of roughly 250,000 a month, and that was just going to go on and on. So by ending the war in August, we not only saved Japanese lives, we saved a great number of Asian lives. There's a lot of research on this that shows that the death tolls, had we not bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would have been many multiples of the death tolls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a brutal equation. You know, it just - the point here is that wars are easy to get into, but they are hard to get out of, and there was no way out.

DAVIES: So after the war, there were war crimes trials in Japan in, like, '47 and '48. And among those sentenced to prison was Shinegori Togo, the foreign minister that you write about who had opposed the attack on Pearl Harbor back in 1941 and who worked so hard to bring an earlier end to the war. Why was he sentenced to prison, and how did he regard his fate?

THOMAS: It was crazy. We should have given Togo a medal. He saved millions of people, but he got swept up in this desire to have a broad victor's justice, to punish aggression by a nation. And the very fact that Togo had been in the cabinet of the Japanese government at the time of Pearl Harbor, even though he had opposed going into war, that was enough to doom him to be convicted. He wasn't sentenced to death like seven of them. He was given a 20-year sentence, but he died in prison. Now, interestingly, he was at peace. Although my American heroes in my book - Stimson and Spaatz - were wracked with guilt to their dying day, Togo was at peace because he felt that he had done everything he possibly could to bring peace. And he had. It was close. He almost failed. He had pernicious anemia. He was sick as a dog, but he worked towards a just end and he got it.

DAVIES: You know, Evan Thomas, as you've gone over this material and spent a lot of time looking at these primary source records about what was happening among Japanese rulers and among the American military, I mean, you come to the troubling conclusion that dropping these horrific weapons actually saved lives in the end. Have historians reached a consensus on that, do you think?

THOMAS: There's an endless debate over dropping these bombs, and I think that's a good thing. What did Schlesinger say, that history is a never-ending argument? And there's been a never-ending argument over the correctness and justice and rightness and morality of dropping those bombs. And I think that's proper because they're so horrific. I just think that, at this stage, the evidence shows - and I say this, you know, obviously with sorrow - that it was, at the end of the day, necessary. You know, it's - you can't prove the opposite. You can't prove for a fact that if we offered the Japanese to keep their emperor, they might not have surrendered. But I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming that they would not have. And therefore we had to use these weapons. And as I said, ending the war stopped carnage that was just going to go on and on and on.

DAVIES: Evan Thomas, thanks so much for speaking with us.

THOMAS: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Evan Thomas is the author of 10 previous books. His latest is "Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To The End Of World War II." Coming up - John Powers reviews "Kairos," the new novel from Jenny Erpenbeck set in East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SAMBA DE PARIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.