Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II

Image of Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Random House
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“A nuanced, absorbing, and perhaps definitive story of the last weeks of World War II.”

Japan was unwilling to surrender.

“By the summer of 1945, the empire seemed to be defeated,” writes Evan Thomas in Road to Surrender.  “Japan’s ships had been sunk, its cities burned, and its people were on the verge of starvation. But its military leaders . . . seemed bent on mass suicide.”

And now the United States had an atomic bomb.

In this beautifully crafted account of that critical moment, veteran author and former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas recreates the painful decision-making that led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Even after the atomic bombs fell, Japanese officials were prepared to fight on. They were simply not allowed to use the word surrender, writes the author. This despite the fact that more than 20 million Japanese had died.

U.S. leaders then considered dropping a third bomb. The American people, after all, were set on vengeance for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

“There is no discussion at the higher levels of government about not using the bomb. It is simply understood that the American public would want to use a weapon that could save the lives of thousands of American soldiers, regardless of the humanitarian cost.”

The three men—two American and one Japanese—who shaped then war’s ending were the most “unlikely” partners.

There was Henry L. Stimson, 77, the American secretary of war, a wealthy “19th century gentleman” and former Wall Street lawyer, whom reporters called “the icicle” for his emotional reticence. Unfailingly erect in posture, he hated to be touched.

In his diary, Stimpson wrote: “We are up against some very big decisions. The time is approaching when we can no longer avoid them and when events may force us into the public on the subject. Our thoughts went right down to the bottom facts of human nature, morals, and government, and it is by far the most searching and important thing I have had to do.”

The second American was Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spatz, head of strategic bombing in the Pacific, a low-key air commander whose orders had sent thousands of tons of bombs raining down on Japan. He supervised the planes that dropped the atomic bombs. Like Stimson, he “agonized” over “the brutal means to what they saw as a just end,” or so their diaries and papers reveal.

The third man, Japan’s Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, brave and stubborn, did  more than anyone else to persuade Japan’s ruling Supreme War Council to accept surrender. Of Korean descent and one of six officials running the war, he knew that Japan, running out of food and fuel, was beaten.

What’s more, the other leaders he was trying to persuade to surrender were well aware of rumors that Tokyo, Japan’s capital, was the next target for the atomic bomb. At that point in the war, Japanese women were exchanging kimonos for sweet potatoes, and popular magazines were running recipes for acorn stew.

Drawing on diligent research, the author creates a dramatic narrative of these tormented leaders as they struggled to make their momentous decisions. Vivid detail gives the story great immediacy.

Surprisingly, President Harry Truman hardly enters the story. Development of the bomb originated on his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt’s watch.

Thomas offers sharp insights into Japanese beliefs and customs—especially martial virtues—that allowed the country to go on fighting for so long. He also dispels certain myths, such as the one that the United States wanted to intimidate Russia at the start of the Cold War.

A nuanced, absorbing, and perhaps definitive story of the last weeks of World War II.