Today marks 75 years since the Empire of Japan signed the formal instruments of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, marking the official end of World War II. Following the surrender ceremony, General Douglas MacArthur broadcast a speech via radio to the American people, in which he stated:
“Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — the seas bear only commerce men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed. And in reporting this to you, the people, I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way. I speak for the unnamed brave millions homeward bound to take up the challenge of that future which they did so much to salvage from the brink of disaster.
…We must go forward to preserve in peace what we won in war.
….A new era is upon us. Even the lesson of victory itself brings with it profound concern, both for our future security and the survival of civilization. The destructiveness of the war potential, through progressive advances in scientific discovery, has in fact now reached a point which revises the traditional concepts of war.”
His words carry weight. The legacy of that terrible war echoes to this day. The few survivors left still feel the pain. We have a duty to remember.
My interest in World War II began in familial fashion. My maternal grandfather was a Merchant Marine. My paternal grandfather was a ground crew member of the 95th Bomb Group, the first American unit to bomb Berlin during the war. From a young age, my interest in the war was spurred by the stories my grandparents told, and the toy airplanes I had, including a B-17 or two—just like the ones my grandfather had patched up between missions. In elementary school, I was writing reports on Jackie Cochran and the Tuskegee Airmen. I was taught about the Holocaust during this time as well, and these lessons resonated heavily as one of the few people of Jewish heritage in my school. By the end of grad school, I was reenacting battles and educating the public during living history events on the experiences of those who served during WWII.
My interest in that war fueled an academic and career path focused both on the military and diplomatic aspects of international relations. Understanding this war has heavily informed my approach to national security today.
While Americans rightfully still remain prideful of the role our nation played in securing the victory of that war, we are sadly uneducated about the history of the war beyond the fact that it was won and Hitler was evil.
As we contemplate the end of that war and how it should be remembered, we should take the time to personally dig deeper into its causes, its consequences, and the impact it had on the people who fought it and the world as a whole. Here are a few thoughts that occur to me as this anniversary quietly passes:
- No American wars have been declared or truly won since—understanding the cost of total victory, we as a country are understandably hesitant to pursue it. But even if we did, the way wars are fought, the technology involved, the political environments that exist today, and the scope of global media make fighting and winning a war in the same way as World War II extremely unlikely. We should be wary about our expectations at the outset of any potential conflict.
- The victory was not as simple and clean as we remember it—the cost of victory was high. Over 400,000 dead Americans. Eastern Europe was occupied by the Soviet Union and suffered under Soviet oppression for decades. The creation of nuclear weapons used to help win the war has threatened the survival of humanity ever since. There were many unresolved issues at the end of the war that led to the decades-long Cold War. We are still dealing with some of these unresolved issues today, like the division of the Korean peninsula.
- The causes of the war are often oversimplified. The methods that could have prevented it are also oversimplified. The narrative of how the victorious nations fought the war are oversimplified. It was a bloody, horrifying mess, and one we should strive to avoid again. Discussions about appeasement and methods for achieving victory are far too often used as political talking points instead of knowledge used to pursue sound foreign policy.
- Wars are unlikely to be fought like this again. Advances in technology and nuclear weapons make this unlikely. 1,000 bomber raids and million-man battles are thankfully a thing of the past.
- We don’t truly understand the role of racism and bigotry in the war. We know of the Holocaust, and we know that millions of Jews and other minorities were killed, but we as a country don’t fully understand how this happened. The public has never been truly educated about how societies can create these atrocities and genocides. We are also largely ignorant of the role racism played in the United States during this period. This includes the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps under executive order 9066 and the continued segregation of the armed forces during a conflict ostensibly fought to protect freedom and democracy. Racism also played a role in motivating Americans to fight. Many propaganda films from the time are terribly offensive to a modern audience, especially those focusing on the Japanese. We assume a Holocaust type event can’t happen here. I assure you, it can.
- Concepts of freedom and democracy are underappreciated by Americans, not in terms of our pride over these concepts, but in how we understand and fight for their preservation in non-military ways at home. We must assure that freedom exists not only for us as individuals, but the other individuals in our society as well. This is part of upholding the narrative we use overseas and setting the example of being the good guys.
- Hitler was evil—but his rise to power did not simply happen because evil people supported him. It happened because normal and educated people felt aggrieved in the post-World War I environment, and supported a leader who placed blame on others and promised to return their country to a mythical image of superiority. Blind loyalty to Japanese leadership created similar problems, whereby the Japanese undertook horrible atrocities against the Chinese. It is our duty as Americans to question our government, rather than blindly follow because we see personal benefit. It is the responsibility of a free people.
- We can never do enough to support the physical rehabilitation and mental health of our veterans who fought on our behalf.
- “Never again”—often used in reference to preventing another Holocaust, is often ignored. There have been numerous instances of mass murder, genocide, and incarceration throughout the world since WWII. They have rarely been brought to a halt before their effect is complete. Countries around the world are often just as hesitant to intervene on a humanitarian basis now as they were in the 1930s and 40s unless the perceived cost of doing so is minimal. Uighurs in China are herded into trains and transported into concentration camps. The American response has been inadequate.
- Technological advancement was incredibly fast. Radar, jets, ballistic missiles, pressurized air cabins, nuclear weapons, computers, and much more all came into prominent use during this time. Comparing the equipment used in 1939 vs 1945 across the warring countries is astonishing. It’s a shame that conflict is so-often the basis for technological advancement.
In the aftermath of the war, the United States led the world in establishing systems and institutions intended to prevent the outbreak of another world war. Having learned the lessons of isolationism in the post-World War I era, it built a vast network of overt alliances intended to deter its adversaries. It built a system of institutions intended to help resolve international conflict and make the world a better place. Today, our own government repeatedly challenges and derides these institutions and alliances.
In the end, our country and the world owes a great deal to those who fought to defeat the Axis powers. We owe it to them to preserve their memory not only in memorializing the heroic actions they undertook, but in protecting and advancing the values, norms, and institutions for which they sacrificed. Let’s truly never forget.