Book Review: Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II


by Evan Thomas

New York: Random House, 2023. Pp. xviii, 316. Illus., map, notes, biblio., index. $28.00. ISBN: 978-0-3995-8925-6;

How Will the War End?

The most important word in the title of this book is “surrender.” While it was clear that the final weeks of World War II had been reached, as Evan Thomas so cogently documents in his riveting account, it was not at all obvious at the time exactly how the war would end. To many Japanese, the military in particular, the very idea of surrender was anathema. Drawing on personal papers, and particularly diaries, Thomas makes a persuasive case that the Japanese surrender was largely due to the work of three men, two Americans and one Japanese. These three men were Henry Stimson, the American secretary of war, General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, the head of strategic bombing in the Pacific, and Japanese foreign minister Shigenori Togo. Stimson believed the best chance for peace was a negotiated one; Togo thought a negotiated peace was the only chance to save Japan; while Spaatz came to understand that only a demonstration of the power of atomic weapons could make negotiations a reality.

Setting the scene, Thomas describes the evolution of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb in the US. Since 1941 Stimson had been overseeing the development of the bomb from a distance, ensuring that the money for it continued to flow, although always deploring it as a dreadful new weapon. By March 1945 he realized it was near readiness although by then the target had changed from Germany to Japan. Fully alive to the moral implications of such a potentially dangerous tool, Stimson agonized over its possible use. Meanwhile, Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the XXI Bomber Command, had been pummeling Japanese cities, burning many of their largely wooden buildings to the ground with incendiary bombs filled with highly flammable napalm. But despite devastating losses and even the firebombing of Tokyo in spring 1945, the Japanese Supreme War Council in the hands of ultra-nationalist zealots, refused to consider negotiating. Emperor Hirohito and his government were largely in thrall to these young men who in June 1945 adopted a formal policy of no surrender.

Thomas shows that Hirohito was more amenable to a negotiated peace but that it remained impossible until the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and he analyzes in detail the role of General Spaatz in making that happen. While, like Stimson, Spaatz was reluctant to use such a potentially devastating weapon, especially on cities filled with civilians, he came to recognize that LeMay’s fire bombing had not brought Japan to its knees. Convinced that the atom bomb had to be used, there ensued lengthy and agonizing discussion about potential targets.

In Japan, meanwhile, there was little Togo could do to persuade the military not to prepare for the final decisive battle for which all men, women, and children were being readied to resist to the death. One of the motivating factors was the American demand for unconditional surrender, with the implication that it would end the imperial regime, something the Japanese could never accept.

After the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945, and the invasion of Germany from the east by the Russians and from the West by the Western Allies, Adolph Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered. Harry Truman, the new president, went to Potsdam to meet with Stalin and the Russians, and Stimson insisted on going too. While there, the Americans received news of the successful detonation of a nuclear device in the desert of New Mexico.

According to Thomas, Truman was shocked by his growing awareness of Stalin’s determination to seize control of states in Eastern Europe and even to move into territories in Asia that had been conquered by Japan during the war. He realized the US and Russia were moving in the direction of the aggressive competition that would become the Cold War, making him more amenable to softening his attitude towards achieving peace with Japan. While the Potsdam Declaration issued by the Allies in July 1945 seemed to convey the same insistence on Japan’s unconditional surrender, Togo saw in it hope for the survival of the Imperial dynasty since the surrender it referred to mentioned only the Japanese military.

In the rest of the book, and based on scrupulous examination of primary sources, Thomas lays out how Stimson and Togo each worked to achieve a negotiated peace based on an understanding that unconditional surrender included a tacit agreement allowing Japan to keep the emperor. In other words, as Truman saw it, a conditional unconditional surrender! Their efforts at persuasion continued as Spaatz organized the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then, when that did not elicit a Japanese surrender, a second bomb on Nagasaki. There was even discussion of a third bomb, but that proved unnecessary when Emperor Hirohito took the unprecedented step of announcing a Japanese surrender.

In this masterly book, Thomas shows exactly how Stimson, Togo and Spaatz helped to cajole, persuade, and move each of their bosses to a final, surprisingly peaceful conclusion to the war. The complexity of the issues involved makes for difficult reading, but by interweaving the three stories and showing exactly how each affected the other, Thomas makes clear not only how the war ended, but how much that depended on the essential work of those three men.


Our Reviewer: Prof Williams, former visiting professor at Annapolis, and Executive Director Emerita of The New York Military Affairs Symposium, is the author of several books on naval history and technology, including Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, The Measure of a Man: My Father, the Marine Corps, and Saipan, and most recently Painting War: George Plante's Combat Art in World War II. Prof Williams’ previous reviews include The Trident Deception, Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr., Churchill, Master and Commander, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Allied Air Operations, 1939-1940, Nimitz at War, Global Military Transformations, Great Naval Battles of the Pacific War, Fighting in the Dark: Naval Combat at Night, 1904-1939, and Leyte Gulf: A New History of the World's Largest Sea Battle.


Note: Road to Surrender is also available in paperback, audio, and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Kathleen Broome Williams.    

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close