The Lessons of V-J Day: As Necessary As Ever for an America and a World In Crisis

V-J Day’s legacy is a huge part of why the world is a better place today than it was during World War II, but ignoring its lessons risks throwing all that progress away

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) August 26, 2020

V-J Day celebration
V-J Day, August 15, 1945. Victory celebrations at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. Sailors on board an LCT shout with grins and cheers, 15 August 1945. Official U.S. Navy photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (2014/5/29).

SILVER SPRING—The seventy-fifth anniversary of V-J Day—Victory over Japan Day, the day the Allies, including and mostly America, beat the Imperial Japanese Empire into announced surrender and submission to end World War II—should have been a true moment of somber yet hopeful reflection.  And yet, in the American press, overwhelmed by extremes of economic fallout, what feels like daily unprecedented political shenanigans (e.g., our own government sabotaging the U.S. Post Service), and deadly coronavirus antics that have exceeded the absurd and flirted with the dystopian—there was scant coverage.  I checked in on CNN—in some ways the flagship of American television news coverage—on and off throughout the day, and did not see one minute of coverage of the anniversary of the end of Pacific War and World War II overall.  There was not much online or social media either, at least, not much that was featured.  I will not say there was nothing on The New York Times homepage, but I did not notice any stories if there were and if so, they were not featured terribly prominently.

This felt even worse than the dearth of coverage for the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I in Europe, on which I have previously written for the Modern War Institute at West Point.

It is, perhaps, sadly fitting that an American leadership that places little stock in international cooperation and alliances and has put the nation in such dire straits that its ability to pause and reflect on such a pivotal historical moment—one that was the forge of a nearly unprecedented era of alliances, peace, and cooperation—was compromised, but it is not at all surprising.  Leaders tend to be one of the major forces characterizing their nations’ culture while they lead, and the idea that America as a whole—its media overall, its people—would have been particularly reflective on this moment was, sadly, not realistic.

And yet, here we are, living in 2020 under an international order that in many ways is still defined by the final denouement of World War II in Japan, the immediate aftermath of that, and the “Long Peace,” to cite historian John Lewis Gaddis, that humanity as a whole has been extremely fortunate to live under since the end of the war.  On any day, then, it would be wise to reflect on the events and legacy surrounding V-J Day, but the passing of the seventy-fifth anniversary is an excuse to call for, and hopefully hold, the public’s attention on the subject.

Below are my own top takeaways as someone who has studied and written about history, policy, politics, security, and international affairs for two decades.

End Big for Better, and Long(er)-Term, Results

One of the more recent trends in armed conflict is that conflicts do not seem to end.  War has essentially been ongoing in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, the Maghreb, and even with Mexico’s far-more-deadly-than-you-think drug war continuously for years.  War has been on-and-off in Libya, between Israel and various terrorist movements, in Iraq, in Colombia, between Turkey and Kurds, and in numerous other places on lesser scales throughout the world, conflicts that if are not active now have been recently and could be any day again; they may swing between civil war and insurgency and terrorism or any combination of these, and, increasingly, such conflicts seem intractable.

One of the many complex driving forces behind these dynamics is that the far-more connected and globalized world makes it much easier for extremists, weapons traffickers, and those wanting to join in a common cause in some way to have more ability than ever to come together.

A major related driver is the internet, which fuels this connectivity and extremism in general, both through the ease of the use of and accessibility of it and the way in which it and major tech companies foster extremism, division, hate, and violence along with a proliferation of misinformation and disinformation; both state and non-state actors further these extremist trends still more so.

Another major force behind longer-lasting conflicts is that the end of the Cold War, which suppressed many long-simmering conflicts from erupting, has allowed a good number of these conflicts to boil over.  Furthering this trend is the American and overall Western reluctance to intervene in foreign conflict after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan under the Bush Administration.  The lessons of the possibilities of competently executed interventions, like those seen in Bosnia and Kosovo and East Timor in the last few decades in the wake of the world’s failure to act in Rwanda to prevent genocide there, seem to have currently been lost, as if there is not a sound middle ground between doing little-to-nothing, as in Rwanda, and in doing far too much, as in the case of Iraq in 2003.

What we are seeing now, more than anything else, is conflict in which both sides find some sort of foreign support—ranging from random volunteers identifying with the conflict to formal state support and intervention from foreign militaries—but in which the outside forces generally do not intervene forcefully enough or with enough resources to end the conflict; conflict in which the natural course of the conflict—if there is an imbalance of power, and in which one side would triumph enough over the other to end the conflict—seems to never take hold but where, instead, though foreign backers do not want to be terribly involved, they stay involved enough to keep the factions they support just powerful enough to keep on fighting, to keep either hope for their fighters alive or at least a sense they if they keep fighting they will be better off than capitulating or seeking peace.  And, as I have noted recently with Afghanistan, even if there is a short-term surge of forces, its effects will usually be limited and the enemy knows to simply wait it out until your surge of forces does what it will and leaves.

There are different ways to end a war big, but ending small or with lukewarm support and effort or with a short-term mentality, as has often been the case in the recent conflicts mentioned above, seems to almost invariably lead to further conflict in the future, unless one is dealing with the happy experience of a very limited conflict with very limited hatred and very limited goals where each side can walk way with a sense of success.  In contrast, ending a war big can often produce much more lasting results: in Bosnia, a massive Western bombing campaign essentially forged peace that still holds throughout the states of the former Yugoslavia, with the exception of Kosovo, where the subsequent bombing campaign not only took care of that issue, but also brought about the downfall of the main instigator of genocide and ethnic cleansing throughout the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.  In Balkan cases, there was robust support from the international community after the war, with troops on the ground, and there is still peace there today.

We can say this model was even more robustly implemented in Japan, Germany, Italy, and other places at the end of World War II, perhaps none more forcefully or successful than in Japan.  That is not to say we should be ending most wars with a pair of atomic bombs and a massive occupation (nor to suggest accepting without question the use of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities filled with civilians), but without a doubt, there was a massive commitment in 1945 to rebuilding Japan as a nation of peace and as a partner and an ally.  And the planning for the postwar world, including Japan, began almost as soon as the war started: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tasked top officials with postwar planning at the end of 1941 and it began seriously in early 1942.

Today, Japan is one of America’s closest allies, has experienced peace and mostly prosperity since the end of World War II, and currently has the world’s third-largest GDP, only losing the second spot to China a decade ago.  Japan did not turn out this way by accident: it was a result in many ways of long-term commitment and planning as well as considerable resources, and there are today still many U.S. troops—many thousands on multiple bases—in Japan, even seventy-five years after its surrender and the war’s end.  The same can be said for Germany, South Korea, Italy, and the UK, all still U.S. allies and some of the most prosperous, peaceful nations on earth since 1945.

Essentially, you get what you put in when it comes to ending conflicts and creating a new order. 

Peace Is a Result of Equal Parts Politics and Security

Von Clausewitz’s maxim that “War is the continuation of policy [or politics] by other means” was true long before his time, is true today, and should be true forever.  Before the Bush Administration took out Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime in 2003, there was a famous lack of both respect for and implementation of prewar postwar planning when it came to the top Bush Administration officials calling the shots for Iraq in the first few years of the war, notably Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other top political appointees loyal to him.  While not everything was smooth in postwar Japan, there were comparatively robust military and political efforts in Japan at the beginning of its occupation and a well-resourced, consistent effort and leadership for years after the war ended, so that the formal occupation did not end until almost seven years after the war ended (and then the troops hardly all went home). 

There was also a unity of leadership under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who, for all his flaws he would (especially soon) display, was a source of stability and strength for both America and Japan during the occupation, with MacArthur having the wisdom to make serious adjustments when necessary, most notably during the so-called “reverse course.”  In contrast, Sec. Rumsfeld had essentially run Iraq into the ground and anything like a “reverse course” only occurred after he was replaced.  And while Gen. MacArthur may have been a military man, he displayed a keen understanding of the local needs and sensibilities, prioritizing sweeping political, legal, social, and economic reform, hardly content to view his mission as just a security or military one.  For Clausewitz, as Clayton Dennison notes in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, public opinion is the key to managing counterinsurgency, but where MacArthur was sensitive in key ways to local public opinion, Rumsfeld and his ideologically kindred spirits carrying out his will in Iraq and Afghanistan were not.,

Such a comprehensive approach was incredibly successful in the end, bringing about sweeping reform and, while hardly perfect and certainly complicated, overall made remarkable progress for both American interests and the Japanese people, who formed a genuine, serious alliance with the American people that persists until this day.  In the end, American planners—MacArthur hardly the least among them—realized that security did not exist in a vacuum, that any military planner who wanted to achieve success could not ignore politics or leave it to others as some sort of unrelated phenomenon.  Military occupations that ignore politics on the ground end on one of a narrow number of possibilities, if not utter failure, then a level of violence and resistance that requires such overwhelming force it often leads to massive destruction, depopulation, war crimes, or massacres to break the population or requires such a revolutionary change of course (and that often comes so late) that the damage can take a generation to undo, with the occupier (eventually) simply giving up and going home.

Dennison quotes Clausewitz’s line that “Wwr is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts,” then promptly labels Sec. Rumsfeld and his crowd as “irresponsible enthusiasts.”  On the same page, Dennison agrees with Clausewitz’s observation that war is a “serious means” and politics is its serious “goal,” and that war “can never be considered in isolation from” politics.  Thus, war cannot be carelessly entered into or carelessly exited from, only approached seriously, and any serious approach understands that equally serious political efforts must both precede and follow any military action.  We clearly understood this with our approach to World War II and Japan within it and clearly failed to take this approach with our launching of the Iraq War in 2003.  The lessons from V-J Day presented themselves then and in recent decades, yet for most of the twenty-first century, the United States has engaged in most of its military actions in ways that seem to forget Clausewitz’s keen understanding of the relationship between war and politics, much to our detriment and that of our allies and the world, much to the delight of our enemies.  But it was different in 1945, and we are still reaping the rewards of the V-J Day approach today.

Hate Never Has to Be Forever; Any Enemy Can Become a Friend

A strain of thought has become prominent in some influential circles in the West (especially among conservatives) ever since political scientist Samuel Huntington’s essay The Clash of Civilizations? was published back in 1993.  This was, overall, a regressive, backwards, reductionist view, and journalist Thomas Friedman and others would later recognize that “the real clash today is actually not between civilizations, but within them.”  The real takeaway from this debate is that there are no distinct civilizations with which we are wholly incompatible, destined for perpetual conflict and eternal hatred, but that, instead, we can make peace—and become friends and even allies—with anyone, that no conflict is so intractable that it cannot be transcended.  And in all of American history, there is no greater testimony to these ideas and ideals than our conflict and subsequent friendship and alliance with Japan.  In this tale, V-J Day is the seminal moment on which all those ideas and ideals hinge.

A pair of books by historian John Dower is essential, here: his 1986 War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War—which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was an American (now National) Book Award Finalist—and his 1999 Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II—which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize, among others.  In his work, Dower takes us from the darkest depths of racial and religious hatred, atrocity, and mass murder to respect, friendship, and alliance.  For anyone born after the war who has experienced Japan or the Japanese in recent decades, it is almost impossible to imagine this world or this conflict between our peoples as it was then.  But it was as real, vicious, hate-filled, and blood-soaked as just about any conflict in world history, as Dower shows, and the relationship today between Japan and America is living proof that, no matter the depths of hatred and killing, there can always be a light at the end of the tunnel if we allow ourselves to look for, and eventually see, such a light.  Our current conflicts—whether the cold war between Republicans and Democrats or the real war between our nation and the likes of ISIS—could most certainly benefit from understanding what Dower catalogs. 

For Dower, writing in his preface to War Without Mercy,

…race hates and merciless fighting…had been so conspicuous in the war in Asia and the Pacific…The war hates themselves, however, seemed to disappear almost overnight–so quickly, in fact, that they are easily forgotten now.

In a world that continues to experience so much violence and racial hatred, such a dramatic transformation from bitter enmity to genuine cooperation is heartening, and thus the fading memories of the war pose a paradox. It is fortunate that people on all sides can put such a terrible conflict behind them, but dangerous to forget how easily war came about between Japan and the Western Allies, and how extraordinarily fierce and Manichaean it was. We can never hope to understand the nature of World War Two in Asia, or international and interracial conflict in general, if we fail to work constantly at correcting and re-creating the historical memory. At a more modest level, the significance of the occupation of Japan and postwar rapprochement between the Japanese and their former enemies can only be appreciated against the background of burning passions and unbridled violence that preceded Japan’s surrender in August 1945.

He elaborates on the inspiration we can take from this moment in history in Embracing Defeat: “The ease with which the great majority of Japanese were able to throw off a decade and a half of the most intense militaristic indoctrination…offers lessons in the limits of socialization and the fragility of ideology that we have seen elsewhere in this century in the collapse of totalitarian regimes.”

Indeed, it is hard to dispute MacArthur’s 1951 claim that “the Japanese people, since the war, have undergone the greatest reformation recorded in modern history,” and while America certainly is responsible for much of this reformation, so, too, are the Japanese.  For Dower, “the ideals of peace and democracy took root in Japan—not as a borrowed ideology or imposed vision, but as a lived experience and a seized opportunity.”  He adds soon after that “what matters is what the Japanese themselves made of their experience of defeat, then and thereafter; and, for a half century now, most of them have consistently made it the touchstone for affirming a commitment to ‘peace and democracy.’  This is the great mantra of postwar Japan.”  And it is a huge part of the crucial legacy of what V-J Day still means as a historical moment.

This tradition of turning enemies into true friends and allies is a hallmark of some of the most successful societies to inhabit the earth, and most notably before us among these—as I have noted in multiple publications—was the ancient Roman Republic, which measured against we are only the second-most successful republic in history.  Thus, the most successful societies in history know when to fight and when to make peace, and that making the best possible peace involves turning one’s enemies into friends and allies.  The example of Japan and the pivotal moment that was V-J Day shows that even the bitterest of foes can soon become friends.

A G.I. on a date with a Japanese woman in early 1946
An American G.I. places his arm around a Japanese girl as they view the surroundings of Hibiya Park, near the Tokyo palace of the emperor, on January 21, 1946.
Alliances are the Best Form of Defense

As the failed vision and tyranny of Soviet Communist swiftly collapsed, all the European Soviet-“allied” satellite states and half the European former Soviet Republics—allies and part of the Soviet Union only through sheer military domination, totalitarian state terror, and attempted indoctrination—ran away quickly from Russia and have since of their own volition joined the EU and NATO, the military alliance that has been the bane of much of the Soviet Union’s and current Russian President Vladimir Putin’s existence.  In fact, of the members of the Warsaw Pact—the military alliance founded by the USSR in response to NATO’s formation—all except non-formally-Soviet states are now NATO members, and three of the six European Soviet Republics—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—are in NATO and the EU.  Of the other three, Ukraine has been trying to hard get into the EU and NATO, though dramatic, massive Russian interference in Ukrainian politics—which I have detailed in an eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics—has considerably delayed and jeopardized these aspirations; Moldova has expressed strong interest in joining the EU; and, while until recently, it seemed Belarus was pretty safe from leaning towards the EU or NATO and away from Russia, a possible revolution unfolding there now trying to oust longtime dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko may change this.  Even in the Caucuses, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia has been eager to join the EU and NATO—two of the causes of the 2008 war with Russia—and is technically on track do so with NATO, though a dormant track.

Thus, recent history proves that the strength of many of the Soviet Union’s alliances were little more than skin deep.  And that is a major reason why the U.S. won the Cold War, in contrasting parallel with America’s alliances, the strength of which has been bone-deep, as also proven by recent history.  And while NATO often gets credit for being “the“ linchpin of the post-World War II international system set up by the United States, a strong argument can be made that the U.S.-Japan alliance is just as important a component of the postwar order and is even more impressive in that it was made between two countries that were very different culturally in ways that were not the case with America’s European allies.  Whereas the Soviets’ and Russia’s most important alliances crumbled at the end of the Cold War, America’s have remained strong, intensified, and only grown more numerous, even through the disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and still intact after nearly a full-term of, by far, the most anti-alliance, anti-NATO, anti-EU American presidential administration since NATO and the EU came into existence.

These arrangements—the security, political, and economic ties that were forged during and just after World War II by America and most of its wartime allies and defeated enemies—have defined the modern world and have become the bedrock of much of what has made the world a better place than the world that saw two world wars almost within two decades.  Despite some myopic neo-Marxist critics referring to this achievement derisively as the “neoliberal” world order, this world order produced a level and duration of peace, prosperity, and stability not seen since before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late fourth and early fifth century C.E.  Not only are we living under one of the longest periods of relative peace in world history, but, literally, billions of human beings have been raised out of poverty as a result of this system.  And in the immediate years after World War II, with so much uncertainty and turmoil confronting the world, the establishment of such a firm alliance between the U.S. and Japan became a steady yet inspiring rock on the world stage, fairly unique in world history.

While Russia seems incapable of understanding that it is better to be loved (or at least liked) and feared than to be just feared, the U.S. realizes that, through our historic network of global allies, we are stronger than we could ever be alone and stronger than any enemy nation who would stand against our collective might.  The ancient Roman Republic owed much of its success to what Arthur Eckstein, in his groundbreaking Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome, termed its “skill at alliance management,” which, for Eckstein, was the distinguishing feature of Rome’s over the “fearsome” “militarism” it shared with most rivals.  He expanded on this theme:

In part it meant extraordinary Roman skill at managing an ever-increasing network of non-Roman (i.e., foreign) allies. But the ability to assimilate and integrate non-Romans in one way or another into a Rome-centered state structure meant in turn that Rome eventually came to possess an exceptional competitive advantage over other polities in the ferocious struggle for security and power ongoing in the ancient Mediterranean—namely the ability to mobilize very large-scale social resources at a great level of intensity.

No other state before or after would practice as well, or owe so much of its success to, this skill until the modern United States in World War II and the postwar era.  Today, like the case with ancient Rome, America’s foes face insurmountable odds when it activates its worldwide network of deep, longstanding relationships, of which our alliance with Japan is one of our oldest and strongest.

Disregarding V-J Day’s Precious Legacy
V-J Day celebrations
V-J Day, August 15, 1945. Victory Celebrations at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, August 15, 1945. Sailors gather around the radio. Official U.S. Navy photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (2014/5/29).

In his final sentence of War Without Mercy, Dower puts it as well as anyone can: “…World War Two in Asia has become central to our understanding not only of the past, but of the present as well.”  The legacy of V-J Day is as much a foundation of the modern world as anything, and in by far mostly overwhelmingly positive ways.  Misguided, short-sighted action by the Trump Administration threatens to destroy this precious, unique system supporting the modern world, of which the legacy of V-J day is so central, a lasting legacy such leaders would do well to consider more thoughtfully before abandoning the values on which it was built, has lasted, and still presently defines so many aspects of our daily lives for the better.

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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