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When words go ‘BANG’


It was July 1945. The war in Europe was over. The Russians had Eastern Europe, Britain had a new government, the USA had a new President and the Germans had very little. The Allied Powers were now concentrating on finally ending the war which had engulfed much of the planet for almost 6 years. Yes, that’s six years, American high-schoolers, not three-and-a-half. Indeed, as far as the Chinese were concerned it had been very much longer, for they had been fighting the Japanese sporadically since 1931 with all-out war having been declared in July 1937.

Harry Truman, Winston Churchill (with his successor as Prime Minister, Clement Attlee), Josef Stalin and Chiang Kai-Shek met at Potsdam, in the Hohenzollerns’ modern palace of Schloss Cecilienhof on the green banks of the Jungfernsee. With the exception of Stalin, since Russia still had a non-aggression pact in place with Japan, the other leaders laid out their unilateral terms in the Potsdam Declaration, ending with “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

On the 26th the ultimatum was broadcast to the Japanese Home Islands by radio, and cascades of explanatory leaflets were dropped from American bombers on the principal Japanese cities. Although reading leaflets and listening to enemy broadcasts was forbidden, the key points of the declaration were soon known. The aged and embattled Japanese Prime Minister, Kantarō Suzuki, and his cabinet took their time over a response but, thanks to the propaganda campaign, eventually had no choice but to call a press conference on 28 July and issue a resounding, but not very helpful, “Er, sorry chaps, but we have no comment at this time”. Suzuki had, incidentally, been implacably opposed to the idea of war with the USA from the start, and had only been installed as PM in April.

The trouble was that Suzuki used the word mokusatsu ( 黙殺), rashly echoing the banner headline in that morning’s edition of the Asahi Shimbun; not the first or last time that a politician had been led by the media. Apart from meaning ‘silence’, like many Japanese words mokusatsu has a wealth of ambiguous interpretations. One of the many corollaries to Murphy’s Law states: “If it can be misunderstood, it will be misunderstood”. The international news agencies, who were represented at the press conference, reported that the Japanese government contemptuously regarded the ultimatum as “not worthy of comment”.

If only Suzuki had explained himself better, along the lines of, “Look, we’re really not ignoring you. Give us a couple of days and let me get back to you. I’ve just got to explain a few home-truths to the remaining crazies in the military, and I will have a statement after the cabinet meeting”, things would have been very different. Whether it was a poor choice of words or the fault of an interpreter on minimum wage, the Americans heard the answer as, “Bring it on, buddy”. It’s safe to say that Truman did not take kindly to this. The Manhattan Project’s first atomic bomb (‘Trinity’) had been tested at the White Sands Proving Ground on 16 July, the eve of the Potsdam Conference. The USA then revealed the thinking behind the words “prompt and utter destruction”, by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima on 6 August and (after yet more mokusatsu) on Nagasaki three days later.

Oh, and Russia finally declared war on Japan on 8 August, invading Manchuria the following day.

Bang goes Hiroshima (6 August), then bang goes Nagasaki (9 August)




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One Comment
  1. And some would have it that it was the Russian declaration that concentrated Japanese (governmental) minds rather than the bombs.

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