Opinion: WWII’s end closed one era, began another

Gen. MacArthur’s “walk upright in the sunlight” led world into a peace that would prove fragile in coming decades.

Seventy-five years ago, on September 2, 1945, World War II ended when U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the surrender of the Empire of Japan aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Following the surrender, Gen. MacArthur addressed the American people from the deck of the Missouri in one of the most eloquent, if forgotten, speeches in American history: “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 and men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed.”

The quiet peace and the holy mission had come with unimaginable cost: nearly 100 million people dead or maimed across the globe, untold devastation, destruction, and Holocaust, humanity itself nearly a casualty in the most terrible conflict in human history. For many, the physical and psychological scars of the War would never heal.

Despite six long years, the War had ended quicker than anyone thought possible a month earlier, when the U.S. dropped two nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, respectively.

Before that, military planners feared an Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands would cost upwards of one million US casualties alone, not counting those of the Japanese themselves — and might continue until 1949. The two bombs, nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy, brought instant death to over 100,000 Japanese civilians — and the Empire to the surrender table.

MacArthur — whom William Manchester called the “American Caesar” — understood that the technology that ended the War had ushered in a new and terrifying reality. The world would not — could not — ever be the same. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, witnessing the first atomic test in New Mexico six weeks earlier, recalled the Hindu scripture from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

MacArthur understood: “We have had our last chance,” he said. Without “some greater and more equitable system” to ensure a lasting peace, he warned, “Armageddon will be at our door.”

Only generals and politicians really know how close we have ever come to nuclear midnight. It turned out that the Cold War that followed peace brought, not Armageddon, but slow death by a thousand cuts and in places that most Americans could not find on a map. Disillusion set in with the reality that America’s nuclear supremacy would mean little in Korea, Vietnam, Beirut, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

The end of the War had promised otherwise. Seventy-five years ago, MacArthur boasted that “Today, freedom is on the offensive, democracy is on the march. Today unshackled peoples are tasting the full sweetness of liberty, the relief from fear.”

We know now that, yes, freedom was on the offensive in the former Reich and in Asia, but also in America in ways that MacArthur could not have imagined. Black GIs, having restored freedom elsewhere, came home determined to extend it in the United States in places where it had never existed, particularly in the Jim Crow South. The modern Civil Rights movement began soon after, and indeed, “unshackled peoples” in this country began the still-unfinished struggle of “tasting the full sweetness of liberty.”

Seventy-five years ago the United States stood astride the world like a colossus, having led the effort to destroy evil incarnate in the Japanese Empire and the Third Reich. The intervening years have brought our own internal struggles that have challenged us to live up to the American scripture that all men — and women — are created equal, even as we have sought to extend freedom around the globe, with varying levels of success.

Even so, seventy-five years later, the world still looks to the United States for leadership, especially when the darkness begins to overtake the light.

When the next great challenge comes — and it will — may we again find the wisdom and the courage to hold the beacon of freedom aloft for all those who wish to walk upright in the sunlight.

Stan Deaton, Ph.D., is the Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at the Georgia Historical Society.