V-J Day and 21st Century America: a Juxtaposition

After several days of building anticipation, the news flash came around dinner time on August 14, 1945. This 10-year-old kid and his mother rushed from the 74th and West End apartment to the old subway head house at 72nd and Broadway and hopped the southbound express to join history's most massive Times Square celebration ever.

It's been 70 years since that momentous day when euphoria abounded and the lights could go on again all over the world. Japan, the nation that launched the sneak attack on the United States more than three years and eight months earlier, had just surrendered. World War II was over. A mighty united nation mobilized for its common defense could now unwind and transition to grow in peace. Citizen soldiers and sailors and marines could share the excitement and soon muster out of military life. Revelry would replace reveille.

After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, the world waited anxiously for Japan's reply to a note that Secretary of State James Byrnes had conveyed reinforcing the Potsdam Declaration's demand for unconditional surrender. Several days of teasing rumors and premature reports preceded Tokyo's final capitulation.

On Sunday, August 12, as 600 Allied planes assaulted Kyushu, The New York Times reported that "unless a Japanese surrender ... has been received in Washington by tomorrow noon there is every prospect that all the other pent-up fury of the overwhelming Allied strength, including more atomic bombs, would burst again with inconceivable violence on Japan." United Press wires briefly carried a false surrender report. On August 13 the White House press secretary had to quash rumors that Japan had quit.

Early on August 14 confusion reigned as Domei, the English language news agency controlled by the Japanese government, issued sequential statements, first reporting that Tokyo was starting deliberations on surrender terms and later that "an Imperial message accepting the Potsdam proclamation" was forthcoming.

The war continued as the Times reported that "patience with the enemy's long delay in replying was growing thin." The cruiser Indianapolis was sunk resulting in 1,196 casualties. Japanese suicide attacks were continuing. 400 American B-29s attacked Japan at noon.

But at 6:10 P.M. the Swiss Legation in Washington forwarded a note to the State Department affirming that Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration. Responding through the same channel, State ordered the end of hostilities.

That was it! "Official -- Truman announces Japanese surrender" scrolled the message on the Times Building electronic news board about 7 P.M.

There would be no more air raids, no more blackouts with wardens yelling orders through the neighborhood, "Lights out!" Images of civilian defense would soon disappear: the street lights painted over, the city's traffic signal globes reduced to tiny red and green illuminated "T" figures, the boulevard curbs painted with alternate black and white markings.

Service station "Sorry, no gas" signs would become less evident. The rationing of food products and other commodities would be history by 1946.

The combined sense of relief and delirium that August 14 evening can never be exaggerated. Two million people packed the Times Square area. It's impossible to adequately convey the emotions of those moments to people who never lived through it, to those who must of necessity read about it in books, or view it through the medium of old newsreel film, or only see it depicted in drama based on fact. From sea to shining sea, Americans had shared in personal or familial sacrifices, tightly bound in the common cause of total war.

What Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation" had saved a provoked nation from foreign invasion and domination.

It's painfully incomprehensible that our country which fought for the principle that right makes might would someday invade and occupy a country that did not attack us, or that the celebrants of 1945 could imagine that the nation which they saved would be eating its own 70 years later. Additionally, who among us who sacrificed for the common good could picture that the most raucous segment of our political landscape would someday be pushing fiscal measures that enrich the country's top one percent at the expense of the other 99 percent? Who could picture that 21st century domestic extremists would denigrate the man twice elected to preside over the nation, dressing him in the vulgar cartoonish symbolism of an enemy that we sacrificed so much to defeat between 1941 and 1945?

With the tyranny of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan long gone, perhaps we can focus more on what the best of this 226-year American experiment has been and what should be sustained. That means celebrating the multi-ethnicity that is a core American element rather than slamming the current generation of immigrants who are today's version of masses yearning to breathe free. It's celebrating expanded civil rights and voting rights which slowly bloomed in the wake of World War II, instead of instituting voter suppression laws and intimidation that run counter to what was fought for. Instead, we might heed the message of "The House I Live In," composed by Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson and made popular by Frank Sinatra as the war drew to a close. He reprised it many times during his career, including on July 4, 1986 when the Statue of Liberty was rededicated under President Ronald Reagan. Among the song's lyrics are the following:

What is America to me?
A certain word, democracy;
All races and religions;
The worker by my side;
The air and feeling free;
The big things and the small;
My neighbors white and black,
The people who just came here,
Or from generations back;
The house I live in,
The goodness everywhere,
A land of wealth and beauty,
With enough for all to share.

The poignant sentiments cry out for attention these days.
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[A variation of this article appeared in the Tahoe Daily Tribune in August 2010.]