Potsdam Declaration

The Potsdam Declaration or the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender was a statement that called for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces during World War II. On July 26, 1945, United States President Harry S. Truman, United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Chairman of China Chiang Kai-shek issued the document, which outlined the terms of surrender for the Empire of Japan as agreed upon at the Potsdam Conference. This ultimatum stated that, if Japan did not surrender, it would face "prompt and utter destruction".[1][2]

Terms of the Declaration

On July 26, the United States, Britain, and China released the Potsdam Declaration announcing the terms for Japan's surrender, with the warning as an ultimatum: "We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay." For Japan, the terms of the declaration specified:[1]

  • the elimination "for all time of the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest";
  • the occupation of "points in Japanese territory to be designated by the Allies";
  • that the "Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and such minor islands as we determine", as had been announced in the Cairo Declaration in 1943;[3]
  • that "the Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives";
  • that "we do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners".

On the other hand, the declaration offered that:

  • "The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established."
  • "Japan shall be permitted to maintain such industries as will sustain her economy and permit the exaction of just reparations in kind, but not those which would enable her to rearm for war. To this end, access to, as distinguished from control of, raw materials shall be permitted. Eventual Japanese participation in world trade relations shall be permitted."
  • "The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established, in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people, a peacefully inclined and responsible government."

The mention of "unconditional surrender" came at the end of the declaration:[1]

  • "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."[1]

Contrary to what had been intended at its conception, which was to disenfranchise the Japanese leadership so the people would accept a mediated transition; the declaration made no direct mention of the Emperor at all. It did, however, insist that "the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest must be eliminated for all time".[4] Allied intentions on issues of utmost importance to the Japanese, including the extent and number of Allied "occupation points", the fate of Japan's minor islands, and the extent to which the Allies planned to "control" Japan's "raw materials", as well as whether Hirohito was to be regarded as one of those who had "misled the people of Japan" or whether the Emperor might potentially become part of "a peacefully inclined and responsible government", were thus left unstated, essentially a blank check for the Allies.[5]

The "prompt and utter destruction" clause has been interpreted as a veiled warning about American possession of the atomic bomb which had been successfully tested in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, the day before the Potsdam Conference opened. Although the document warned of further destruction like the Operation Meetinghouse raid on Tokyo and other carpetbombing of Japanese cities, it did not mention anything about the atomic bomb.

A major aspect relating to the Potsdam Declaration was that it was intended to be ambiguous. It is not clear from the document itself whether a Japanese government was to remain under Allied occupation or whether the occupation would be run by a foreign military government. In the same manner, it was not clear whether after the end of the occupation Japan was to include any territory other than the four main Japanese islands, i.e., whether the set or sets of islands potentially satisfying the description "such minor islands as [the Allies] determine" included the empty set. This ambiguity was intentional on the part of the U.S. government in order to allow the Allies a free hand in running the affairs of Japan afterwards.[6]

Leaflets and radio broadcasts

The Declaration was released to the press in Potsdam on the evening of July 26 and simultaneously transmitted to the Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington. By 5 p.m. Washington time, OWI's West Coast transmitters, aimed at the Japanese home islands, were broadcasting the text in English, and two hours later began broadcasting it in Japanese. Simultaneously, American bombers dropped over 3 million leaflets describing the declaration over Japan.[7] The Declaration was never transmitted to the Japanese government through diplomatic channels.[8] Although picking up enemy propaganda leaflets and listening to foreign radio broadcasts (in Japan) was illegal, the American propaganda efforts were successful in making the key points of the declaration known to most Japanese.


The terms of the declaration were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Upon receiving the declaration, Foreign Minister Shigenori Tōgō hurriedly met with Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki and Cabinet Secretary Hisatsune Sakomizu. Sakomizu recalled that all felt the declaration must be accepted. Despite being sympathetic to accepting the terms, Tōgō felt it was vague concerning the eventual form of government for Japan, disarmament, and the fate of accused war criminals, and still had hope that the Soviet Union would agree to mediate negotiations with the Western Allies to obtain clarifications and revisions of the declaration's terms. Shortly afterwards, Tōgō met with Emperor Hirohito, and advised him to treat the declaration with the utmost circumspection, but that a reply should be postponed until the Soviet response to the Japanese request to mediate peace. Hirohito stated that the declaration was "acceptable in principle". Meanwhile, the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War met the same day to discuss the declaration. War Minister Korechika Anami, General Yoshijirō Umezu, and Admiral Teijirō Toyoda opposed accepting the declaration, arguing that the terms were "too dishonorable", and advised that the Japanese government openly reject it. Suzuki, Tōgō, and Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai leaned towards accepting it, but agreed that clarification was needed over the status of the Emperor. Tōgō's suggestion that the government not respond until it received the Soviet response was accepted.[9]

At a press conference with the Japanese press in Tokyo, Suzuki stated that the Japanese policy towards the declaration would be one of mokusatsu (黙殺, lit. "killing with silence"), which the United States interpreted as meaning "rejection by ignoring", leading to a decision by the White House to carry out the threat of destruction.[10] Subsequent to the White House decision, the United States Army Air Forces dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then the second atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki three days later on August 9, 1945. These two bombings devastated the two cities, killing tens of thousands of people and destroying much of the cities' infrastructure as well as military bases and factories in a matter of seconds in a radius that stretched for more than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers).

On August 9, 1945, Stalin, based on a secret agreement at the Yalta Conference in February, unilaterally abrogated the USSR's Neutrality Treaty with Japan (1941) and declared war on Japan, beginning the Soviet–Japanese War. The Soviets invaded Manchuria on three fronts.

However, the word mokusatsu can also mean "withholding comment".[10] Since World War II, it has been alleged that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attributable to English translations of mokusatsu having misrepresented Suzuki as rejecting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration;[11][12] however, this claim is not universally accepted.[13]

In a widely broadcast speech after the bombing of Hiroshima, which was picked up by Japanese news agencies, President Truman warned that if Japan failed to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, it could "expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth".[14] As a result, Prime Minister Suzuki felt compelled to meet the Japanese press, to whom he reiterated his government's commitment to ignore the Allies' demands and fight on.[15] The extent of the Allies' demands brought home to the Japanese leaders and people the extent of the success Japan's enemies had achieved in the war.[16] Subsequent to the receipt of the Potsdam Declaration, the Japanese Government attempted to maintain the issue of the Emperor's administrative prerogative within the Potsdam Declaration through its surrender offer of August 10, but in the end had to take comfort with Secretary of State James F. Byrnes' reply "From the moment of surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate the surrender terms."[17] Thus, at 1200 JST on August 15, 1945, the Emperor announced his acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, which culminated in the surrender documents signature on board the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. The radio announcement to the Japanese people was the first time many of them had actually heard the voice of the Emperor.[18]

The Potsdam Declaration was intended from the start to serve as legal basis for handling Japan after the war.[19] Following the surrender of the Japanese government and the landing of General McArthur in Japan in September 1945, the Potsdam Declaration served as legal basis for occupation reforms.

See also

Further reading

  • Ehrman, John (1956). Grand Strategy Volume VI, October 1944-August 1945. London: HMSO (British official history). pp. 304–306.


  1. "Potsdam Declaration: Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender Issued, at Potsdam, July 26, 1945". National Science Digital Library.
  2. "Milestones: 1937-1945 / The Potsdam Conference, 1945". United States Department of State, Office of the Historian.
  3. "Potsdam Declaration - Birth of the Constitution of Japan". ndl.go.jp. Retrieved January 25, 2015.
  4. "Potsdam Declaration". Birth of the Constitution of Japan. National Diet Library.
  5. "Potsdam Declaration". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. 2. 1966.
  6. Department of State Memorandum, undated, but certainly from late July 1945, FRUS, Conference of Berlin, vol. 2, doc. 1254
  7. Williams, Josette H. "The Information War in the Pacific, 1945: Paths to Peace". Central Intelligence Agency.
  8. Hellegers, Dale M. (2001). We, the Japanese People: Washington. Stanford University Press. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-8047-8032-2. OCLC 47238424.
  9. Wainstock, Dennis: The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb, p. 76–77
  10. "Mokusatsu, Japan's Response to the Potsdam Declaration", Kazuo Kawai, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 4 (November 1950), pp. 409–414.
  11. Zanettin, Federico (2016). "'The deadliest error': Translation, international relations and the news media". The Translator. 22 (3): 303–318. doi:10.1080/13556509.2016.1149754.
  12. Mark Polizzotti, 'Why Mistranslation Matters,' New York Times 28 July 2018
  13. Chalmers Johnson, 'Omote (Explicit) and Ura Implicit):Translating Japanese Political Terms,' The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 89-115
  14. United States Department of State (1945). "Foreign Relations of the United States: diplomatic papers: the Conference of Berlin (the Potsdam Conference)". Foreign Relations of the United States. 2. U.S. Government Printing Office: 1376–1377. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. Scoenberger, Walter (1969). Decision of Destiny. Columbus: Ohio University Press. pp. 248–249.
  16. Rhodes, Anthony Richard Ewart (1976). Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion: World War II (2, illustrated ed.). Chelsea House. p. 262. ISBN 978-0-87754-029-8. OCLC 1500305.
  17. "The Japanese Surrender Documents - WWII". Ibiblio.org.
  18. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, American Anthem textbook, 2007.
  19. Department of State Memorandum, undated, but certainly from late July 1945, FRUS, Conference of Berlin, vol. 2, doc. 1254
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