On this day in 1945, the most destructive war in human history came to an end when representatives of the Japanese government signed the instrument of surrender on board the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Overseeing the event was General of the Army and Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur. Representatives of the other major powers allied against Japan were also on hand to witness the surrender and sign the instrument.
The war against Japan ended much more suddenly than had been foreseen by allied planners. Extensive Japanese military forces remained deployed outside of the home islands, particularly in China, large parts of which had been occupied by Japanese forces for over a decade. The American campaigns to conquer Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been bitter and costly and caused planners to anticipate significant allied and Japanese casualties in any invasion of Japan. It was thought that the war would not end until 1946, sometime after the invasion of the Japanese home islands and the subsequent intervention of the Soviet Union.
However, the events of the summer of 1945 quickly changed the timetable for the conclusion of the war. In mid-July, the Big Three, President Truman, Marshal Stalin, and Prime Minister Churchill met in Potsdam, Germany to discuss matters concerning Europe, and also the conclusion of the war against Japan. Churchill was replaced mid-conference, after the conclusion of the parliamentary elections by the new prime minister Clement Attlee. On July 26, the conference issued a declaration calling on the Japanese government for the unconditional surrender of its armed forces or face “prompt and utter destruction.”
The events of early August provided a preview as to what prompt and utter destruction would look like. On August 9, as a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki resulting in over 35,000 deaths, the Soviet Union also declared war on Japan and began offensive operations in east Asia. What had been an impasse between the Japanese civilian leaders and some of the military leadership over conditions offered to the Allies led to an unusual conference held late that day in the presence of the Emperor. The Emperor expressed his wish for the war to end, agreeing that the only condition should be the preservation of the status of the throne. This condition was immediately ratified by the cabinet and communicated to the Allies. In Washington, D.C., Secretary of State James Byrnes was tasked with writing the response to the note. The response accepted the Japanese note and finessed the question of the ultimate status of the throne by stating “[t]he ultimate form of government of Japan shall, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.”
On August 14, the Emperor met again with senior military commanders to discuss the war. A decision was reached to surrender on the basis of the Byrnes note; this decision was immediately ratified by the cabinet and communicated to the Allies. Junior military commanders failed to prevent a prerecorded message by the Emperor announcing the surrender from being aired. The broadcast aired shortly after noon, Tokyo time on August 15. The occupation of Japan began with the arrival of the first U.S. forces on August 28.
The ceremony on September 2, marked the conclusion of the war on all fronts and the beginning of the process of local Japanese military forces in other parts of Asia surrendering to British, Soviet and Chinese forces. It would also lead to the decolonization of the rest of Asia over the next 10 years.