Road to Surrender

Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II

About the Book

A riveting, immersive account of the agonizing decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan—a crucial turning point in World War II and geopolitical history—with you-are-there immediacy by the New York Times bestselling author of Ike’s Bluff and Sea of Thunder.

“As Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer shows, the shockwaves reverberate still. The veteran biographer Evan Thomas now enters the debate.”—The Wall Street Journal


At 9:20 a.m. on the morning of May 30, General Groves receives a message to report to the office of the secretary of war “at once.” Stimson is waiting for him. He wants to know: has Groves selected the targets yet?

So begins this suspenseful, impeccably researched history that draws on new access to diaries to tell the story of three men who were intimately involved with America’s decision to drop the atomic bomb—and Japan’s decision to surrender. They are Henry Stimson, the American Secretary of War, who oversaw J. Robert Oppenheimer under the Manhattan Project; Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, head of strategic bombing in the Pacific, who supervised the planes that dropped the bombs; and Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, the only one in Emperor Hirohito’s Supreme War Council who believed even before the bombs were dropped that Japan should surrender.
Henry Stimson had served in the administrations of five presidents, but as Oppenheimer’s work progressed, he found himself tasked with the unimaginable decision of determining whether to deploy the bomb. The new president, Harry S. Truman, thus far a peripheral figure in the momentous decision, accepted Stimson’s recommendation to drop the bomb. Army Air Force Commander Gen. Spaatz ordered the planes to take off. Like Stimson, Spaatz agonized over the command even as he recognized it would end the war. After the bombs were dropped, Foreign Minister Togo was finally able to convince the emperor to surrender.

To bring these critical events to vivid life, bestselling author Evan Thomas draws on the diaries of Stimson, Togo and Spaatz, contemplating the immense weight of their historic decision. In Road to Surrender, an immersive, surprising, moving account, Thomas lays out the behind-the-scenes thoughts, feelings, motivations, and decision-making of three people who changed history.
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Praise for Road to Surrender

“A terrifying, heartbreaking account of three men under unimaginable pressure . . . This is history that crackles with journalistic immediacy. I challenge you not to read this book in a single sitting.”—Nathaniel Philbrick, New York Times bestselling author of In the Heart of the Sea and Travels with George

“In this meticulously crafted and vivid account, Evan Thomas tells the gripping and terrifying story of the last days of the Second World War in the Pacific. Writing with insight and understanding, he re-creates for us those critical moments when, for better or worse, the decisions, from the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Japanese surrender, were made.”—Margaret MacMillan, author of War: How Conflict Shaped Us

“With an unerring eye for detail and a deft touch with the dramatic, Evan Thomas tells one of the most important stories of all time with power and grace. Paced like a thriller, replete with fresh historical insight, and driven by new research, Thomas’s book explains how America came to deploy the deadliest weapons ever created. The result is an indispensable portrait of power, anxiety, and moral ambiguity.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of And There Was Light

“This dramatic, in-the-moment masterpiece provides a convincing explanation of one of the great moral questions of twentieth-century history: Was America right to drop the atom bomb on Japan at the end of World War II? This is an indispensable book for those who want to understand the moral issues surrounding the use of great power.”—Walter Isaacson, New York Times bestselling author of Elon Musk

“A taut, thrilling narrative, rich, compassionate, and superbly nuanced.”—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Revolutionary

“By turns surprising, illuminating, and thought-provoking, Road to Surrender also throws light on the extremities of human power, and the effect on those who wield it.”—Sinclair McKay, author of The Secret Lives of Codebreakers

“In this mesmerizing account of the final weeks of World War II, Evan Thomas provides a haunting, deeply human look at the mental and physical torment of American and Japanese leaders as they confronted the catastrophic reality of the atomic bomb. Thomas reveals in cinematic, nail-biting detail that Japan’s surrender was not a foregone conclusion.”—Lynne Olson, New York Times bestselling author of Madame Fourcade's Secret War and Citizens of London

“Superbly crafted . . . Drawing on a wide range of sources, including the primary figures’ diaries, Thomas makes the period come vividly alive. This moving account of three men of peace who had to make life or death decisions will interest history lovers everywhere.”BookPage

“The author’s argument is well taken even though it does nothing to lessen the moral anguish that his principals—to say nothing of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and even Truman as well as generations after them—felt over the decision to unleash nuclear terror on their enemy. An exploration of the moral quandaries that surrounded the atomic bombing of Japan . . . a thoughtful study of nuclear war, its early discontents, and alternate scenarios that might have been worse.”Kirkus Reviews
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Road to Surrender


August 14–15, 1945

Lord Kido knows right away that the game is up. For the past several days, the people of Japan have been kept in the dark about their government’s anguished internal debate over surrender. Now the silence is broken. The privy seal’s sense of alarm only grows as he reads several other leaf lets that have drifted down onto the streets of Tokyo—and, he can be sure, many other cities as well. The American propaganda prints, in full, the text of Japan’s August 10 offer to surrender with the sole condition of keeping the emperor, and Washington’s response, received on August 11, that the emperor must be “subject to” the Supreme Allied commander. Kido knows that these incendiary pieces of paper could spark a coup by dissident army officers, which could erupt into civil war and anarchy. He hastens to seek an audience with the emperor.

In consensus-minded Japan, and especially at the palace, little happens quickly, but Hirohito is aware that time has run out. The emperor has been vitalized by the desire to survive American atomic bombs and the suicidal fanatics in his own army, and he wants to save what is left of his country. He wants to convene the top leaders of government for a second seidan, at which he will accept Washington’s surrender terms and finally, once and for all, end the war and preserve the nation. Prime Minister Suzuki proposes a meeting to begin in about four hours’ time, at one p.m. No, says the emperor. Sooner. Right away. He does not want to give the military time to organize a coup.

Hirohito has been hearing rumors, and they are all true. The plotters are planning to launch their coup at ten a.m.—to cut off the palace, isolate the emperor, arrest the “Badoglios,” declare martial law, and fight to the end. There has been some wild talk of storming the obunku and killing everyone (except the emperor, who will be “protected”) with machine guns before taking their own lives with hand grenades. But the calmer discussion still centers on recruiting War Minister Anami to the cause, in the expectation that the army high command will fall in behind him.

Anami, at this moment, is finishing breakfast with Field Marshal Shunroku Hata, commander of the army for the defense of western Honshu and Kyushu. Hata has just returned from Hiroshima. He reports that white clothes serve perfectly well to protect people from atomic rays and that sweet potato roots are growing healthily just one inch beneath the blasted ground. Anami excitedly exclaims, “You must tell the emperor!”

Reality intrudes when Anami returns to headquarters. His brother-in-law, Colonel Takeshita, and his fellow plotters are buzzing about, but they are suddenly silenced by General Umezu, the army chief of staff, who says, flatly, that he will not support a coup. Umezu tells Anami that launching a coup in defiance of the emperor would just split the army and start a civil war. Anami appears to accept this judgment from “the Iron Mask,” an impassive operator known for his unflappability.

That should be the end of it, since the coup cannot succeed without men who report directly to Umezu, including the commanders of the Eastern Army and the Imperial Guard. But then Umezu seems to soften. . . . He suggests he is not absolutely opposed to the coup. Or at least that is what Takeshita and his men choose to hear. It is hard to know. Anami himself remains opaque and cheerful.

In makeshift government offices around the burned-out palace this morning, staff are witnessing the strange spectacle of cabinet ministers borrowing neckties, coats, and even pants from their aides in a scramble to don the appropriate formal wear for the hastily arranged audience with the emperor, now scheduled for ten-thirty a.m. Through the vaultlike gates of the obunku they go, two dozen once-proud, now-anxious men summoned to surrender an empire that has terrorized Asia and the Pacific for more than a decade. The obunku is the only steel-reinforced concrete building on the palace grounds, but its underground shelter might as well be a sauna. In the moist August heat, moisture drips from the walls.

The emperor, dressed in his military uniform, enters; the ministers bow low. Premier Suzuki apologizes, yet again, for a failure to reach consensus. One last time the admirals and generals reprise their arguments to fight to the end, “even at the cost of a hundred million lives” (ichioku gyokusai, “death in battle of the hundred million,” a common patriotic slogan). The emperor grasps the hilt of his sword and speaks. “I have listened carefully,” he says, “but my own opinion has not changed.”

Hirohito announces that he “agrees with Foreign Minister Togo” that the Allies will preserve Japan’s imperial system. He feels sorry for the military, but the Japanese people must be saved. He quotes from his grandfather Emperor Meiji, who, a half century earlier, at the time of a far lesser humiliation—an intervention by Western powers that forced Japan to give up a peninsula in Manchuria—uttered the words, “We must bear the unbearable.” Pointedly, Hirohito adds, “The War and Navy ministers have told me there is opposition within the Army and Navy; I desire that the services also be made to comprehend my wishes.” And just to make sure they do not distort his words, he announces that he will go on the radio—unheard of!—to speak to the nation.

The reaction in the room is convulsive. Two ministers slide from their seats onto the floor, gasping and keening. Most weep. As they leave, “each of us in his own thoughts wept again,” Togo will recall in his memoirs.

Afterward a lunch of whale meat and black bread is served. No one eats except for Prime Minister Suzuki, who seems surprisingly well rested and robust, despite his old age; Taoist passivity has been good for his constitution.

Anami seems to be in a near-delusional state. He pulls aside his aide, Maj. Saburo Hayashi, into a bathroom and babbles excitedly that there is a U.S. Navy fleet with a huge landing force in Tokyo Bay. If we attack them with everything we have, says the war minister, we will get much better peace terms. Incredulous, Hayashi stares back at his superior. The U.S. Navy force is just rumor, he says.

Anami returns to Ichigaya Heights, where the War Ministry is thronged with agitated officers. Colonel Takeshita is after him to resign from the Supreme War Council, thereby bringing down the whole government and creating a chaotic situation that can be resolved only by a military takeover. For a moment, Anami seems tempted. He says, “Bring me ink and a piece of paper.” Then he thinks better of it.

He is—perhaps always has been—committed to the emperor. “The emperor has spoken his decision, and we have no choice whatever to obey it,” Anami tells the hotheads surrounding him. He straightens and glowers. “Anybody who disagrees,” he says, “will have to do so over my dead body.” The most fervent of the coup plotters, Anami’s “pet” disciple Colonel Hatanaka, lets out a wail.

About the Author

Evan Thomas
Evan Thomas is the author of eleven books: The Wise Men (with Walter Isaacson), The Man to See, The Very Best Men, Robert Kennedy, John Paul Jones, Sea of Thunder, The War Lovers, Ike’s Bluff, Being Nixon, First, and Road to Surrender. John Paul Jones, Sea of Thunder, Being Nixon, and First were New York Times bestsellers. Thomas was a writer, correspondent, and editor for thirty-three years at Time and Newsweek, including ten years (1986–96) as Washington bureau chief at Newsweek, where, at the time of his retirement in 2010, he was editor at large. He wrote more than one hundred cover stories and in 1999 won a National Magazine Award. He wrote Newsweek’s fifty-thousand-word election specials in 1996, 2000, 2004 (winner of a National Magazine Award), and 2008. He has appeared on many TV and radio talk shows, including Meet the Press and The Colbert Report, and has been a guest on PBS’s Charlie Rose more than forty times. The author of dozens of book reviews for The New York Times and The Washington Post, Thomas has taught writing and journalism at Harvard and Princeton, where, from 2007 to 2014, he was Ferris Professor of Journalism. More by Evan Thomas
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