Consider this fictitious scenario: In the summer of 1950, President Thomas E. Dewey faced a national security crisis of extraordinary proportions—one that his advisors agreed likely would define his presidency. After beating his Democratic opponent in 1948 by a comfortable margin, Dewey received news that Soviet-backed armies in Korea, Hokkaido, and Northern Honshu had mounted a massive invasion of Southern Honshu, with the goal of unifying Japan under a single government. He knew that American occupation forces—under strength, dispirited, and still fighting insurgencies loyal to the emperor in Kyushu and Shikoku, as well as other scattered parts of the former Japanese empire—were hardly in a position to resist.
Although he based much of his election campaign on a “Truman Lost Japan” platform, he now lamented the fact that the war dragged on through the spring of 1947 instead of ending in the summer of 1945. That brought in the Russians, who took over all of Korea and carved out an occupation zone in northern Japan, transforming it into one of their notorious “people’s republics.” The United Nations could do nothing—the Russians had the veto—and Americans were sick of war. What was the United States going to do? Use atomic bombs to stop the invasion? Unthinkable! Especially not with the Russians also having tested an atomic weapon during the previous fall.
The new American president slumped in his chair in the oval office, disconsolate—and angry. China, Russia, Korea, and now probably Japan—all communist dictatorships. Where else would Joe Stalin press his advantage? In Europe again, against Germany? Central Asia, perhaps? Iran? Pakistan? Victories whet imperialist appetites. And America was losing the Cold War. If only that novice Harry Truman had acted as tough as he talked…
Of course, the fact that Truman did, spared us this nightmare version of an early Cold War alternative history. In fact, in the months leading to the actual surrender of Japan, which occurred on 14 August 1945 (Washington time), a variety of morbid statistics on estimated casualties haunted the president’s thoughts. On Okinawa alone, American casualties ran to 75,000. And a horrendous battle it was—replete with flamethrowers torching caves filled with suicidal Japanese soldiers and terrified Okinawan citizens, tanks attacked by enemies with bombs attached to their heads, endless mortar and artillery bombardments—it was the worst battle in a war that had also included Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima.