Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Coue
"To our good and loyal subjects:
After pondering deeply the general trends of the world
and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today,
we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation
by resorting to an extraordinary measure.
We have ordered our Government to communicate
to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union
that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.
We charge you, Our loyal subjects, to carry out faithfully, Our will."
--Hirohito, Emperor of Japan
August 15, 1945
August 15, 1945 was an oppressively hot day in Washington, DC. The high reached 91 degrees with the humidity of 74%. But the heat was mostly ignored as bits and pieces of scintillating news swirled around America's shrine city. Finally at noon, it was announced that Emperor Hirohito had told the Japanese people that his government had accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. Although the word "surrender" was carefully avoided, the meaning was clear. The war was finally over.
Germany had surrendered three months earlier, but even during the wild celebrations that followed, the harsh reality was never far from anyone's mind that The War was still not over. Soldiers in Europe had begun to prepare for the grim transfer to the Pacific Theater for what seemed to be the inevitable invasion of the home islands of Japan. It would have been a horrible fight. Conservative estimates pegged Allied losses at roughly one million soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. Since the defending Japanese forces would have included old men, women and many adolescent children armed with little more than sharp sticks, Japan's losses likely would have topped 20 million people. With the high post-war birth rate, it is possible to extrapolate that as many as 100 million people are alive today because their grandparents and great-grandparents weren't killed in that assault.
There is also the consideration of Soviet involvement. With Japan's society decimated and most of their homeland reduced to rubble, it would have been fairly easy for Russian troops to invade and occupy the northern islands. As documents show, this was in fact the plan of the Soviet leadership. Japan, instead of the economic and industrial powerhouse it became, would have been reduced to another divided Cold War battleground, like Korea and Vietnam.
But the United States introduced what was at that time, the most powerful weapon ever devised: The atomic bomb. It was a crude design, roughly cobbled together, but it made its point. There would be no invasion. There would be no heroic fight to defend Japan's soil. The Japanese government's earlier announcement that "The 100 million people of Japan prefer national suicide to the ignominy of surrender" would be brought to fruition through ruin from the air.
The Imperial War Council, staffed by hard-line generals and admirals, was fully prepared to commit national suicide. This was motivated partially by the martial spirit of Bushido, but likely by the full knowledge of their individual fates once they were arrested by the Allies. In the Japanese tradition, the Emperor's authority was limited by the phrase, "reign, not rule" meaning that the Council ran the government, while seeking the Emperor's approval. But after a long night session of the Council in an underground bunker sweltering in the summer heat, Hirohito took the extraordinary step of ordering the recalcitrant officers to accept surrender.
Even with the authority of the Emperor behind the decision, elements of the Japanese army in a last minute attempted coup, tried to impound the recording and stop the surrender. But the attempts failed, and events were set in motion which would culminate in the formal ceremony aboard the Battleship Missouri on September 2nd.
It is reflective of the collective discipline endemic to Japanese culture that once the announcement was made, there was no more fighting. There was no attempt to continue the fight guerilla-style, or secretly work to undermine the fragile peace. For them, it was a simple proposition. The Emperor had ordered them to lay down their arms. And that is exactly what they did.
In the United States, it was that group which Tom Brokaw christened "The Greatest Generation" which fought that war. But that was not the only challenge they faced during their lives. In their past lay the economic devastation of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Either one would have been difficult, but the two events together created an unmitigated disaster. And yet, they persevered and survived, and then pressed on to create the greatest economy in the history of the world. World leadership was thrust upon them, and they embrace the responsibility. That they were too slow to embrace racial equality was perhaps their only failure.
People who are alive today, particularly those of that group we call millennials, really have no grasp of reality when it comes to the events of those pivotal decades. To most of them, hardship means not having the latest version of the iPhone©. During the 1930's, most of their grandparents suffered a great deal of privation. They lived in poverty, balanced on the knife edge between hunger and starvation. Adults took any job, regardless of its presumed dignity. When their children were hungry, dignity didn't mean a damn. There was no social safety net at that time, so survival was up to them, and them alone. The Roosevelt administration created entities like the WPA and the CCC to provide any kind of work to Americans. Digging ditches, breaking rocks, hefting logs while living in crude shelters, those people were willing to do anything because they knew that all work was honorable.
In the movie "Bagger Vance," there is a conversation between Rannulph Junuh and the young boy Hardy Greaves. Hardy had lost respect for his father because he had taken a job sweeping the streets. Junuh set him straight:
"Your daddy is out sweeping streets because he took every last dime he had
and used it to pay up every man and woman he owed,
and every business who worked for him.
Your daddy stared adversity in the eye
and he beat it back with a broom."
The film bombed, but the expressed sentiment remains valuable. Too many of us have become accustomed to folding up when facing tough times, turning to the self-anesthetizing effect of alcohol and drugs to stave off the often harsh reality. For the Greatest Generation, there was no place to run, no place to hide. They faced the depression and fought back with all the grit they could muster. When war came to them in 1941, they signed up by the hundreds of thousands without a second thought. They fought in the terrible cold of European winters, and the crippling heat of Pacific islands. Together, they turned back two powerful armies, navies, and air forces on opposite sides of the world. At home, wives, mothers, and children did their part acceding to rationing, gathering all manner of junk that could be re-purposed into tools of war. They lived their lives as best as they could, all the time with the dark shroud of death hovering over them, making its appearance in the form of those dreaded yellow telegrams. Everyone was in the fight, in or out of uniform. Everyone faced the enemy with the same stiff back and defiant glare.
When I honor the victory of World War II, I honor not only those who fought, but also those who stood behind them. In the very best kind of way, they were all unbeatable.
For almost six years, including the three years and nine months of our involvement, the world convulsed in open and wide-spread conflict. Tens of millions died, even more permanently maimed. Entire countries were laid waste. But in the end, even that war ended.
Today, 72 years later, the memories of World War II have almost faded away. The stories of those heroic struggles are no longer taught in public schools. And the veterans who fought and won that war shuffle along our streets, ignored by those who enjoy the benefits of their victory. And their valor and sacrifice is largely forgotten.
There are so many lessons to be learned, so many stories to tell. But they require students willing to study them, and people willing to sit down and listen. It seems that we are a self-absorbed people with little time for such pursuits. The world has changed, and so has the nature of war. No longer can we point to a place on a map and say definitively "there lies the enemy." While enemies are out there, we prefer to make political war on each other.
But for me, this day cannot pass without recognition of what happened. Freedom and the ability to determine one's own destiny is neither free nor automatic, nor does it flow to those who sit back and idly wait. We can learn that those things we enjoy have been guaranteed to us by the sacrifice of those who went before, and thus should be remembered and honored. Those of the Greatest Generation, today I honor you, today I remember how you suffered and fought for those things I still take for granted.
And today, I thank you.