World War II, the most brutal, destructive, and murderous conflict in human history, was finally, mercifully racing toward a close 75 Augusts ago. In early May, German units and personnel had rushed to surrender, preferably to the Western allies. On May 7, General Alfred Jodl signed his country’s formal surrender.
Alas, the war in the Pacific continued. At that time U.S. forces were in the midst of the battle for Okinawa. That fight did not conclude until June, after roughly 130,000 military deaths, the vast majority Japanese. Even more civilians died, roughly half of the island’s population of 300,000. Imperial Japan’s cause was hopeless — its navy had disappeared beneath the seas, remaining planes were vastly outclassed, isolated island garrisons were starving, main armies were marooned in China, industry was destroyed, major cities were wrecked and burned. And Japan had become the first, and so far only, target of nuclear weapons. But Tokyo’s war party demanded a fight to the national death.
Once the shooting stopped there were celebrations, but not everywhere. The aggressor states were wrecked, overrun, occupied, desperate.… Power was violently asserted, redistributed, and consolidated in numerous countries.
Only the intervention of Emperor Hirohito forced a decision to end the slaughter, and even then renegade soldiers invaded the palace in an attempt to seize his recorded surrender message. That effort failed, and on August 15 in one of the great circumlocutions of all time, he told his countrymen in a national address that the war was over. His speech was a wonder in understatement: “Despite the best that has been done by everyone — the gallant fighting of our military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the State and the devoted service of our 100,000,000 people — the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.”
Yes, indeed, the situation had “developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”
Although the surrender decision had been made, men, many men, still had to lay down their arms. The roughly 1.4 million Japanese soldiers — and more than a half million Japanese civilians — in China were not officially surrendered until September 9. Although U.S. forces were rapidly demobilized, Americans were left to garrison Germany, Japan, and the southern half of the Korean peninsula, which had been a Japanese colony. The Red Army remained even busier, turning Moscow’s “liberated” territories into “people’s democracies,” in which the will of real people mattered not at all.
Once the shooting stopped there were celebrations, but not everywhere. The aggressor states were wrecked, overrun, occupied, desperate. What would be a four-year civil war, with momentous consequences for the world, restarted in China. Asian colonies were declaring their independence. Power was violently asserted, redistributed, and consolidated in numerous countries.
Moreover, as the lengthy, terrible, very hot war ended, another global conflict, longer and colder, began. On March 5, 1946, the wartime British prime minister, Winston Churchill, ousted by British voters the previous year, joined President Harry S. Truman in Fulton, Missouri, and famously declared, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” Indeed it had.
What lessons were learned?
- Modern industrial states managed by creative, evil human beings were capable of extraordinary achievements and correspondingly hideous levels of destruction. Casualty levels were extraordinary, and concentrated in China, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. The estimated death toll exceeded 70 million and may have reached 85 million. More civilians than soldiers died, an estimated 50 to 55 million. Entire cities were destroyed, some wrecked block-by-block, others essentially vaporized from the air. The carnage was unimaginable.
- People matter. In summer 1939, there may have been only one person in Europe who really wanted to go to war. Unfortunately, he was dictator of the nation with the continent’s largest economy, biggest population (save the Soviet Union), and finest martial heritage. Even most top Nazis wanted peace — a gang of misfits, cretins, and ruffians mostly incapable of organizing a local bank heist, they had ended up powerful and wealthy beyond their dreams, in charge of a nation. But not Adolf Hitler. He was determined on war and proceeded to set much of the Earth aflame.
- Policies matter. “What if”s are impossible to answer. Yet the mistakes made filled cemeteries across America, Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. Although the Versailles Treaty ending World War I was tough, it fell between two extremes, both of which might have avoided a new conflict a generation later: a Carthaginian peace, to effectively destroy Germany, preventing a future conflict, and a conciliatory, Congress of Vienna approach to conciliate Germany, investing Berlin in the settlement. The subsequent refusal, pre-Great Depression, to grant democratic Weimar Germany any concessions was followed by acquiescence to Nazi Germany’s unilateral dismantlement of Versailles, which became a precursor for war. Initiating economic war against Japan forced it to choose between aggression and surrender, with predictably destructive consequences.
- A new descriptive term of evil was added to the global lexicon: Holocaust. Genocide was hardly a new phenomenon. Few ancient empires were genteel affairs. The Old Testament featured conflicts in which losers — men, women, and children — were “put to the sword.” Yet to have a modern, liberal society embark upon the mass slaughter of an entire people, to see Teutonic efficiency applied to murder, to create a systemic process for wiping out six million people put an entirely new, more malign, horrific, and frightening face on the basest human instincts. That this horrific crusade was directed against Jews, so long the scapegoat of demagogues everywhere, added to the tragedy.
- In the face of danger otherwise righteous moral fervor can prove dangerous. Benito Mussolini proved to be an almost comic figure. Italy’s alliance with Germany may have been a net negative for the latter. However, the Italian dictator’s shift from his nation’s World War I partners to Nazi Germany provided Hitler with a vital boost at a critical time before the conflict’s start. The shift was spurred by opposition to Rome’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). In 1935, British and French public opinion killed the Hoare-Laval Pact for partitioning Abyssinia on Italy’s terms; early the next year Mussolini launched a new offensive. He also dropped his previous aversion to the Nazis and accepted Berlin’s warm embrace.
- Choosing the lesser of two evils still results in evil. After Hitler had conquered his neighbors, their liberation looked far away until he invaded the Soviet Union. Even then it was a close run affair: the offensive’s late start, failure to concentrate on Moscow, and inaccurate assessment of USSR military strength, all played a role in Germany’s defeat. The West rightly assessed the communist giant as the less proximately dangerous force, equally brutally totalitarian but less internationally aggressive. However, the U.S. and United Kingdom should have been better prepared for the consequences. The war greatly expanded Soviet power, left Central and Eastern Europe under foreign occupation, and enabled another half century of communist tyranny.
- Dependency once established is hard to break. World War II left Western Europe and Japan in ruins. An American defense shield allowed them to revive, economically and democratically, in the face of Soviet and later Chinese threats. However, 75 years on these highly industrialized and prosperous societies prefer to leave the military heavy lifting to Uncle Sam. Japan spends slightly under 1 percent of its GDP on the military; Germany devotes 1.38 percent of GDP to the military. With the world’s third and fourth largest economies, respectively, they could do so much more. The vast majority of NATO’s European members fall far short of the alliance’s 2 percent objective.
- Prosperity matters for defense and survival. The German military was the conflict’s most effective fighting force, but was buried by American industrial production. The U.S. became the “arsenal of democracy.” Which made this nation central to the “united nations,” as the anti-Axis alliance styled itself. American military personnel fought bravely and well, but backing their success was the mountain of materiel behind them. U.S. productivity also supported the UK, with goods originally flowing through “lend-lease” even before Washington entered the war, and the Soviet Union. Indeed, while it is oft said, correctly, that Moscow did the most to defeat Germany, on land, anyway, that was made possible by American industry. The U.S. motorized the Red Army, giving it even greater mobility than the German military. Without Washington’s support the USSR might not have survived the onslaught, and certainly would not have fought its way to Berlin nearly as quickly as it did it after finally seizing the strategic initiative.
- Big conflicts leave manifold unresolved issues. Absent World War II, Mao Zedong likely would have ended his life on the run with a small guerrilla band in some distant province of China. But Japan’s invasion weakened the Nationalist government and Japan’s defeat created an opportunity which Mao ruthlessly exploited. Related was the civil war on the Korean peninsula, a Japanese colony temporarily occupied by the U.S. and Soviet Union, then capped by the Korean war. The Balkans featured equally bitter and complex struggles between communist, monarchist, and democratic forces. Although there was some Soviet consideration after Joseph Stalin’s death of allowing a united, neutral Germany, the “German Question” remained unanswered until 1989. Even more fundamental was the status of the Russian Empire, dissolved in 1917, reborn at the conclusion of the civil war that followed, and augmented at the conclusion of World War II through creation of a half dozen “satellite” states in Central and Eastern Europe.
Seventy-five Augusts ago, Japan’s emperor finally put his people’s interest first. In announcing Japan’s surrender, he played an essential role in concluding six years of global slaughter and destruction. The decision-makers from that terrible time are all dead. Those who played supporting roles are fast disappearing from the scene.
Indeed, World War II continues to recede in the mists of time. It is as distant from Americans today as the Civil War was from Americans when they entered World War II. The final anniversary reunion of the 1863 battle of Gettysburg with nearly 2,000 Civil War veterans was held in 1938. Participation of World War II veterans in commemorative events today is similarly dwindling.
Nevertheless, conflict will not soon be forgotten. Its impact on the current world remains profound. Necessity left America no choice but war after Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. However, different policy decisions would have yielded a different future. Our objective today must be to prevent another plunge by humanity into such a deep, terrible abyss.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.