Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today

Khalid Elhassan - October 16, 2019

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam, where they jointly issued a declaration calling for Japan’s unconditional surrender. Atomic Heritage

3. A Simple Error Led to America’s Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan

America is the only country to have ever used atomic weapons in war, and it all might have been the result of a misunderstanding. There is a myth that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have been true if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

At war’s end Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a brutal occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and treated t hem barbarically.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Wikimedia

2. Japanese Intransigence Sets The Stage for a Tragic Mistake

Every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. In the meantime the Japanese government, run by militarists hopped up on bushido and machismo, vowed to fight to the end. So America correctly saw Japan as a formidable foe that was inflicting significant harm every day, and that would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.

In short, Japan was a menace that needed putting down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Translation of leaflet dropped on Japanese cities after atomic bombing. Harry S. Truman Library

1. The Momentous Translation Error

It began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.

The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. That Japanese word meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language, in which the same word could convey various meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Harry Truman. 10 days later, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Battlefield Trust – Battle of Yorktown, Facts & Summary

Antietam on the Web – Special Order 191: Perhaps the Greatest ‘What If’ of American Military History

Catton, Bruce – Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951)

Daily Beast – What Fueled the Child Sex Abuse Scandal That Never Was?

Defense Media Network – The Mark 14 Torpedo Scandal

Encyclopedia Britannica – Battle of Trenton

History News Network – Failures of the Presidents: JFK’s Bay of Pigs Disaster

Hornfischer, James D. – The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the US Navy’s Finest Hour (2005)

Maas, Peter – Killer Spy: The Inside Story of the FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Aldrich Ames, America’s Deadliest Spy (1995)

Motley Fool – How Coke Helped Create Pepsi, and Other Historic Market Moments

New England Historical Society – Percy Spencer Melts a Chocolate Bar, Invents the Microwave Oven

NSA, (b)(3)-PL 86-36 – Mokusatsu: One Word, Two Lessons

Nuclear Regulatory Commission – Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident

Ranker – Mistakes That Created Modern America

Smithsonian Magazine, October 2009 – Columbus’ Confusion About the New World

Wikipedia – Pepsi

Wikipedia – Siege of Detroit

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