In the wake of atomic bombs being used on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, there was an increasing expectation that the war would soon be over.
News that the Japanese government had informed the Allies it was willing to accept the terms of unconditional surrender prompted premature celebrations in London, as seen in this photograph. The negotiations between the Japanese and the Allies about the nature of the surrender had stalled. The Japanese government were deadlocked about accepting the occupation of Japan by Allied forces and the proposal to reduce the status of the Emperor. Personal intervention by Emperor Hirohito confirmed Japan’s decision to accept unconditional surrender.
'Winning the peace'
At 7 O’clock on the evening of the 14th August, The President of the United States, Harry Truman, announced the cessation of hostilities. By that time, it was midnight in London, so the recently elected Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, made a radio broadcast ‘Japan has today surrendered. The last of our enemies is laid low.’
The Labour Party’s manifesto pledged to nationalise industries such as coal and steel, provide a National Health Service and enact a nationwide house building programme. Employing the extensive powers, which the state had used in wartime, to improve the lives of its citizens, was termed “winning the peace”.
People believed that the war had not only been fought to defeat the Axis powers, but also to usher in a fairer society.
For many British people, the first knowledge they had of the war ending, was from newspaper headlines, which read “Japan Surrenders!” There were scenes of celebration redolent of those which Britain had experienced on VE Day, on the 8th May 1945.
The formal signing of the surrender terms by Japan did not occur until the 2nd September, aboard the United States’ battleship Missouri – anchored in Tokyo Bay. The United States continues to commemorate VJ Day on that date.
The news that Japan had surrendered, brought a feeling of relief, to Allied servicemen. They would no longer be risking death or injury in combat. Many who had been serving in the Pacific and Burma cherished the hope that they would soon be able to return home, to their loved ones.
Donald Lashbrook who was serving in Rangoon, Burma, recollected, ’VJ Day came and we heard that it was all over, the atomic bomb had been dropped. It was all over. Everybody was “we’re on our way home”.’
For many of the Allied prisoners of war held by the Japanese, the physical and emotional impact of a brutal captivity would continue for the remainder of their lives. Some of those former captives may have considered themselves fortunate to have been alive – almost 30 per cent of the inmates of Japanese POW camps died.
In Japan, the population was still experiencing the emotional shock, and physical destruction, caused by the dropping of the atomic bombs.
The numbers killed by the immediate effect of the bombs have been estimated at 66,000 in Hiroshima and 39,000 in Nagasaki. In the subsequent months and years thousands of people suffered cancer and leukaemia due to radiation poisoning.
Other civilians endured horrific burns, from the firestorms which swept through the cities – caused by the intense heat and propelled by hurricane-strength winds.
On the 15th August 1945, Emperor Hirohito took the unprecedented step of personally broadcasting to the Japanese people. The Emperor’s voice had not previously been heard by his subjects – who regarded him as an incarnate divinity. The situation faced by Japan was stated as follows, ‘Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage, is indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilisation.’
Michiko Nakamoto, who had suffered severe burns, as a consequence of the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, recalled her feelings, upon hearing that the war had ended, ‘I didn’t like the thought of losing the war and I couldn’t bear it, but then no more air raids and we could sleep at night without going to the underground shelter, so that was some relief. So it’s a mixed feeling.’
The Japanese population had experienced extreme food shortages during the latter part of the war, due to the sinking of merchant ships, by the United States Navy. The government in Japan had been advising people how to prepare meals from acorns, grain husks, sawdust, snails, grasshoppers and rats! The repatriation of demobilised Japanese soldiers exacerbated these starvation conditions. In a letter to a friend, Sherwood R. Moran, of the United States’ Navy wrote, ‘Tokyo, the first war casualty I’ve seen, is a devastated , immodest mess, but the silence is what gets me most…’.
In common with other German cities, Berlin had been flattened by Allied bombing and fighting which had scarred much of the country. The damage to dwellings resulted in homelessness for many German civilians. The British poet Stephen Spender wrote of Cologne’s inhabitants: ‘….digging among the ruins for hidden food, doing business at their black market near the cathedral…..’
Hunger was stalking the land in Germany. The adult population were provided with food ration cards in exchange for work. A report in the United States’ armed forces magazine, Yank, described the family of one Berlin manual worker subsisting on a cup of tea and a slice of bread each for breakfast. Their dinner was a potato soup made from one onion, one potato and a half-pint of milk, garnished with a tiny bit of cauliflower.
The survivors in the liberated concentration camps struggled to survive the effects of starvation. British troops encountering the emaciated figures at Bergen-Belsen, initially offered their own rations. The food was too rich for intestines which had shrunk so severely. The diligent efforts of British doctors and medical students, found the right combination of fluids and foods to nurse the survivors back to health.
The Atlantic Charter, issued jointly by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in 1941-when the United States was still neutral-expressed the “wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”
The leaders of independence movements in the colonies ruled by European nations drew inspiration from this. In colonial capitals across the British Empire, VJ Day was marked by military parades such as the one in the photograph.
Some of the leaders in European nations wished to continue administering their empires and restore dominion, in those territories which had been conquered by Japan. The thirst of colonised peoples for independence, combined with the economic exhaustion of the colonial powers, gave impetus to decolonisation.
On the second anniversary of VJ Day, Jawaharlal Nehru was sworn in as the first Prime Minister of an independent India. Between 1945 and 1960, forty nations–containing more than a quarter of the world’s population-revolted against colonialism and won independence.
The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was formed in November 1943, by the leading Allied powers and forty other nations.
During its four years of existence, it provided food, clothing, shelter and medicine to the people affected by the destruction of towns and cities during the war.
On 1st October 1945, UNRRA took responsibility for the care of all Europe’s displaced people. One of its objectives, was the repatriation of forced labourers, concentration camp survivors and former prisoners of war. By 1947, UNRRA was running 800 resettlement camps, housing seven million people.
Looking to the Future
In their discussions regarding the post-war settlement, the leaders of The United States, The Soviet Union, Britain and China had agreed that an international organisation needed to be created, to help prevent the outbreak of another global conflict. From a conference in San Francisco-attended by fifty nations, emerged The United Nations Organisation (UN). In the preamble to the UN charter the hope was expressed that “…that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest…” The way the world began to be reshaped in the years following the Second World War, owed more to politics and considerations of national interest, than the ideals embodied within the UN charter.
The leader of the Soviet Union Stalin, wanted to install communist governments in the nations of Eastern Europe, to prevent a future invasion, from the west. In October 1944, Churchill had visited Stalin in Moscow – President Roosevelt had remained in the United States, campaigning for re-election. Churchill agreed to the post-war Soviet control of Romania and Bulgaria, in exchange for Stalin promising not to support the communist insurgents in Greece. In March 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech in Fulton Missouri, in the presence of United States President, Harry Truman. Churchill described Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The speech was the opening blast in the confrontation known as the Cold War.