The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 9, 1945, a mere six days before Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and yet, seventy-five years later, Russia and Japan are still technically at war. Long after all the other major combatants, whose militaries slaughtered each other’s soldiers and civilians for years, have more than made their peace, these two nations, which spent all but a week of World War II under a pact of neutrality, have yet to reconcile. Following the recent constitutional amendments in Russia, formalized on July 4 after a nationwide referendum, it is unlikely that this will change any time soon.
The barrier to a formal peace and normalized relations are the southernmost four of fifty-six tiny, volcanic islands in an archipelago between Hokkaido, Japan and Kamchatka, Russia—and the damaging legacy of a needless error of historical understanding rooted in a president’s resistance to his advisors’ expertise.
Known as the South Kuril District in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, these four islands (Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai Group), once home to the indigenous Ainu people, have an aging population of around 20,000 primarily Russian and Ukrainian residents. What remains of a depressed economy is a small fishing and fish roe industry—hardly factors worth prolonging a seventy-five year conflict when normalized relations could spur a much-needed economic boost on both sides—and especially on the islands themselves. But history dies hard.
When the Allies met at the Crimean resort town of Yalta in February 1945, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s foremost objectives was bringing the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, with which the Soviets had signed a neutrality pact in 1941. With the Manhattan Project’s nuclear weapons yet untested, Roosevelt feared defeating Japan would require a full-scale invasion at a cost of 200,000 American lives. If he could draw Stalin into the Pacific war, how many thousands of Americans could be saved? Of course, there was a price: Stalin’s “desiderata,” including the Japanese-occupied southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. These demands were more than reasonable, Stalin asserted, telling Roosevelt that Japan had seized the islands during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. To Roosevelt, this seemed a fair trade. Russia was “only getting back territories that had been taken from her.”
Therein lay the rub. As Roosevelt’s Russian interpreter at Yalta and future Cold War “wise man” Chip Bohlen later wrote, “If the President had done his homework, or if any of us had been more familiar with Far Eastern history, the United States might not have given all the Kurils to Stalin so easily.” A brief historical survey would have revealed that Japan had seized only Sakhalin Island from Russia in 1904, not the Kurils, which Russia had obtained from Japan by treaty in 1875. But the four southernmost islands at the base of the Kuril archipelago—the Northern Territories—were not considered by Japan to be the Kurils at all, and they had never belonged to Russia. The State Department had prepared a memorandum warning that the Soviets might try to take advantage of this ambiguity to grab more territory, but Roosevelt evidently never read it. And, despite his limited understanding of the history of East Asia, he had neglected to consult his regional experts before agreeing to Stalin’s conditions.
Because of his virulent dislike of the more conservative-leaning State Department—which his friend and advisor Harry Hopkins referred to as the “old maids” and “cookie-pushers”—Roosevelt had brought only a skeleton foreign service staff to Yalta, particularly excluding James Clement Dunn, the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, a Soviet skeptic. Ironically, in place of Dunn, Roosevelt brought Alger Hiss, later revealed to have been a Soviet spy. Hiss had previously worked in the State Department’s Office of Far Eastern Affairs, but had transitioned to work on issues related to the United Nations. Had Dunn or any of his junior colleagues been present, they might have dissuaded Roosevelt from making this deal with Stalin.
Instead, Roosevelt put his unfounded trust in Stalin’s claims. By September 3, 1945, little more than two weeks after the Japanese surrender, the Soviet military was fully entrenched in the Northern Territories. Japanese citizens on the islands were forcibly repatriated.
As postwar alliances rapidly shifted and the brewing Cold War began to drive Washington and Moscow apart, the full cost of Roosevelt’s error was soon revealed. With a defeated Japan now a valuable regional partner, American diplomats attempted to spin the Yalta agreement’s ambiguous language about exactly which islands Roosevelt promised to Stalin in Japan’s favor. However, by the time Japan and the Soviet Union sat down to formalize their World War II peace treaty in 1956, Roosevelt had been dead for eleven years, and charged geopolitical conditions had raised the stakes surrounding these islands of little intrinsic value to a point beyond negotiation. For the Soviets, recognizing Japan’s authority over the Northern Territories would mean inviting American influence into one of the Soviet Union’s few points of unobstructed access to Pacific waters. Nor could the Americans allow Japan to back away from its claim. In a Cold War world, the Kuril Islands had become a microcosm of the larger zero-sum game.
For the Russians, this potential for encroaching American influence via Japan remains at the crux of the dispute today. The United States and Japan enjoy a robust relationship, both commercially and militarily. In 2019, trade between Japan and the United States totaled over $300 billion, and there are 54,000 American military personnel currently serving in Japan. As long as the United States and Japan maintain this vital relationship, Russia has no desire to reach any compromise with Japan to resolve the impasse.
Today, Japanese fishing vessels are often detained by the Russian military, which makes up a sizable portion of the Northern Territories’ tiny population. Occasionally, the situation turns hot: in 2006, a Japanese fisherman was shot and killed for encroaching on Russian waters. 2019 talks between Shinzō Abe and Vladimir Putin appeared to hold promise, with Russia indicating some willingness to consider transferring to Japan the smaller two of the four islands in question, but the recent Russian constitutional amendments that could potentially keep Putin in power until 2036 have forced Japan to confront a stark reality. The amended Article 67 of the Russian Constitution now states, “Actions … directed towards the alienation of part of the territory of the Russian Federation, and also calls for such actions, are not allowed.” This applies to the Northern Territories as much as to the Crimea, where Russia deliberately uses ambiguity surrounding disputed borders to its strategic advantage.
As the recent comments of Frants Klintsevich, a member of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security, reveal, the matter remains as clear-cut now as it was in 1956. Even if the Russian government wanted to negotiate with Japan, be it ten or one hundred years from now, he says, the “people won’t allow it…[T]omorrow there would be American bases.”
The World War and the Cold War may be but memories, but a costly mistake of textbook history still lives—a mistake that might have been avoided but for a president’s resistance to the expertise of his State Department. And so, Russia and Japan’s six-day war continues seventy-five years on.
Catherine Grace Katz is the author of The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 29, 2020).