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In the latter stages of the war, Gen. Curtis LeMay and his aide, Robert McNamara, oversaw unprecedented firebombing of major Japanese cities, with mainly civilian casualties, which claimed hundreds of thousands. They also pushed for and oversaw the dropping of nuclear weapons on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unleashing a nuclear-weapons race which is still proceeding, most notably now in Iran. No time was given to the Japanese, between the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, to consider terms of surrender. The carnage simply proceeded. Just as at the beginning of the war, an alternative blockade-and-isolation strategy could have starved the homeland of vital energy and other resources and forced an eventual Japanese capitulation.
There never was an inevitable choice between dropping the nuclear weapons and/or undertaking a massive and costly land invasion of Japan. But war fever still ran high and President Truman OK'd the dropping of the nukes.
My most vivid recollection of VJ Day (Victory in Japan Day) was of horns and bells coming from the direction of downtown Bellingham. I saw two young wives, with husbands in the Pacific, race from their homes across the street and embrace each other in the middle of the intersection. They were sobbing with joy. I ran downtown to see similar street scenes. Not a day to forget. A few weeks later, a formal victory parade came down Holly Street downtown. It was led by Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, a Washington-state native who had succeeded MacArthur in command in the Philippines and been imprisoned by the Japanese. He rode a white horse. He was pale and weak and could not have weighed 130 pounds. A real hero, I thought, which the narcissistic MacArthur was not.
Thanks to films and books, Dec. 7 and the Pacific War will not be forgotten. Few days pass when I do not think of events of the time and of families I knew which were tragically touched by them. Our old high-school baseball coach, for instance, was a man in his 50s. But he looked much older and always had a sense of sadness about him. He often would ask one or more of us to go hiking or fishing with him on a Saturday. I learned only later that his melancholy came from the loss of a beloved son in the Pacific. I had an older cousin who served on the submarine which sank a Japanese capital ship in Yokahama harbor. He returned to tell the tale.
Among the after-effects of the war which began Dec. 7, 1941:
- A strong centralization of power in our national government, as in those of other warring countries, in order to organize, finance, and fight the ensuing World War II. That centralization has continued.
- The death knell of colonialism in Asia (as in Africa, as a result of the European war) and the emergence of independent countries.
- The establishment of a Stalinist North Korean government, as a result of the Soviet Union's late entry into the war against Japan. It later would invade South Korea and remains today a threat to regional and global peace.
- The re-emergence of China as a pre-eminent Asian power, after the withdrawal of occupying Japanese troops.
- The establishment in the United States of what President Eisenhower would call "a military/industrial complex" with a continuing interest in furthering a national-security state.
- The emergence of a democratic, peaceful Japan (as a democratic, peaceful Germany) with a strong aversion to militarism and, of course, to nuclear weapons.
- The United States' abandonment of its prior isolationist role and its active engagement — sometimes not wisely (as in Indochina and Iraq) — in parts of the world both important and unimportant to its national interests.
- In domestic life, the speeding of minorities and women into roles that mainly were closed to them prior to Dec. 7, 1941. President Truman, after the war, ended segregation in U.S. armed forces. It was the first in a rush of major executive and legislative initiatives unprecedented since the Emancipation Proclamation.
It is easy to forget, now, that there was a real danger in the 1930s that totalitarianism of the Right or Left might prevail globally.
Global financial and economic distress were pervasive. Utopian solutions were alluring, even though they entailed sacrifices of freedom. Leading American citizens returned home from Germany and the Soviet Union — though not from imperialist Japan — to report that Hitler and Stalin might be breaking a few eggs along the way but were making delicious omelettes. Many here were perfectly content to accept the unacceptable. President Roosevelt, at the time, remarked that he might be "the last democratically elected president of the United States." Things were that chancy.
World War II was, mainly, a more bloody and ideological continuation of World War I. In the Pacific, it was nightmarish. During my years in Washington, D.C., I periodically would walk through Arlington National Cemetery, read the headstones, imagine the shortened lives of those beneath them, and wonder about the families and loved ones left behind. Were their sacrifices in vain? It is up to us to prove they were not.
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