The 65th anniversary of the surrender of Japan (following what was for US forces a three year and eight month ordeal of savage fighting across the Pacific starting at Pearl Harbor and finally culminating in the incineration of two of Japan’s cities with atomic weapons) came and went last week with little fanfare or mention. I suppose the world moves forward and as our World War II generation dies off now in ever increasing numbers the events of 1941-1945 will die with them save in history programs, textbooks and war films.
This passing is a shame, not just for the honor of those brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who won the great victory, but for the country as a whole. The examples that generation set are essential in reminding us that this was, and continues to be, an extraordinary nation. The moral force of VJ-Day and its aftermath–in a time when America stood as the undisputed colossus of the world, with all the blessings and curses that go with the position–reminds us what is best about this country.
I often ponder the notion of “American exceptionalism” so maligned in more left-leaning circles both here and abroad. A while back, when President Obama was asked if he believed in this idea, his reply was tepid: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, America’s greatness is not so much an empirical fact, but rather a debatable construct based upon one’s field of vision.
I beg to differ with the President and I offer as evidence what is, for me, the epitome of the American exceptionalists’ sentiments as demonstrated during the formal Japanese surrender ceremony held eighteen days later on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri. Remember the context of this sublime and surreal gathering. Japan had been among the cruelest, most sadistic of conquerors, butchering millions while justifying their rampage of gore with the premise that they were chosen people, whose emperor was a living god–a direct descendant of the divine Jimmu Tenno–and that the Japanese islands were formed by golden drops from the point of a heavenly being’s sword. The Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Malaysians, Indochinese, Indians, Samoans, Polynesians, and of course, the Western devils, were all inferiors to be subjugated and coerced violently to do their emperor’s bidding for the greater glory of the Rising Sun.
But on this VJ-day, with their cities burned to the ground, over one million civilian and military dead and as many homeless, and even the myth of the divinity of Hirohito exposed by his own admission, the Japanese stood before the American and Allied leviathans as the most annihilated and vanquished nation to ever take such a beating and still survive, albeit in ruins.
Japan’s defeat was total in that it was not just military, but cultural, social, economic, and religious. In short, its very society had been eviscerated. Everything Nippon’s citizenry had believed for generations was exposed as farce. The only way we in the West can understand the magnitude of their loss would be to imagine if you are a Christian and suddenly out of the blue Jesus Christ Himself confesses to you that He is a fraud, or if you’re Jewish you learn that Moses and the prophets never existed at all but are rather just figments of a cruel hoax? This was the psychological equivalent of what the Japanese people were experiencing. They were waking up from a superstitious and militaristic world of make-believe to find their nation suddenly occupied by what they had been taught through relentless propaganda were inferior beasts. And to make the subjugation even more total, they learned that they had, in fact, fought and suffered and died for a lie! Can you imagine the crippling emotional trauma on these people? I honestly cannot.
So it was in this cowed condition, with the enemy’s massive naval fleet anchored in Tokyo Bay, and an awesome display of a thousand warcraft of all types winging overhead, that the demoralized Japanese delegates were brought before their conquerer to accept whatever fate awaited them at the hands of the victorious Americans and their own Caesar, Supreme Allied Commander and Five Star General Douglas MacArthur. Standing on the deck of the Missouri, looking so powerless and even pathetic in their top-hats, tails and white gloves, the diminutive Japanese representatives presented the polar opposite image of the fierce Samurai whom they had tried to emulate at the expense of the rest of Asia they once convinced themselves was their holy destiny to rule. Now they steeled themselves for the worse…the full wrath of a bitterly angry and blood-thirsty foe determined to exact a satisfyingly cruel vengence for all they had done.
But when MacArthur took to the microphone and began to speak, the magnanimity and eloquence of this American warrior who had so brilliantly destroyed them on the battlefields of the South Pacific and the Philippines, stunned the Japanese delegates–and even some of the Allies as well. “It is my earnest hope,” he said, ” and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past — a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.”
With his expression of goodwill, and vision of Japan not as a subjugated slave state but rather a rebuilt, independent, democratic, vibrant and welcomed member of the family of nations, the Japanese finally came to understand what a truly great and exceptional people Americans were and are. One delegate Toshikazu Kase recalled it this way:
Here is the victor announcing the verdict to the prostrate enemy. He can impose a humiliating penalty if he so desires. And yet he pleads for freedom, tolerance and justice. For me, who expected the worst humiliation, this was a complete surprise. I was thrilled beyond words, spellbound, thunderstruck. I certainly felt that I and my colleagues were standing at the new start line of rebuilding the nation.
Anyone who thinks Obama’s teleprompter is eloquent should read MacArthur’s words of healing, to understand how a truly great speech that ushers in a new world should sound. As a powerful rebuke to those who believe that America is not a special nation (even our President by his own statements), I offer evidence to the contrary below. It certainly provides legitimacy to Mark Steyn’s observation that: “America is the most benign hegemon in history: it’s the world’s first non-imperial superpower.”
As the increasingly radicalized Islamic world – which includes much of our old allies in Europe these days – careens ever farther into a fog of backwardation and Anti-American vitriol (Obama’s election has done little to stem their manic hatred) the West might want to ask itself the same question that Kase asked himself while standing as a defeated enemy before the most powerful nation the world has ever known. At the time he wondered if the roles had been reversed (and they stood on the deck of, say, the IJN Yamato anchored in New York Harbor) if the victorious Japanese would have shown the defeated Americans the same magnanimity, humanity, and respect. I think the men of Bataan and Corregidor know the answer to that one.
Let us hope then for the world’s sake that the USA never comes up as the loser in the next big war, or series of smaller wars for that matter that nonetheless weaken us as a people. I realize that these days hating America is one of the world’s favorite pastimes, and as such many overseas believe it would be desirable to see the USA relegated to just one of many nations on the globe in power and influence. Well, it is said be careful what you wish for…the last time the United States was turned in on itself, merely watching the game of world affairs unfold from the bleachers, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland and Imperial Japan ravaged China. The two world wars of the last century ignited while America was at her weakest. If history teaches us anything, it is that the world without an American presence is a far more dangerous and ugly place than those with short memories can possibly fathom. And it is far from exceptional.
Here is MacArthur’s speech, September 2, 1945 from the deck of the USS Missouri.