This week, America will quietly celebrate the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. On Sept. 2, 1945, the surrender of the Japanese on the battleship Missouri marked the official end the war.
I was 10 years old, and remember the huge newspaper headlines in the spring and summer of 1945. First, "VE DAY," then "A-BOMB DROPPED," then "V-J DAY" and at last, on that magic day 65 years ago this week, "FINAL SURRENDER."
More than 50 million people lost their lives in the six years of war (the Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, marked the beginning of World War II). No war in all of human history had such a devastating impact on mankind. America had entered the war late but its contribution to the victory was profound. We had fought on five fronts, created and maintained the "arsenal of democracy" and emerged, by 1945, as the most powerful nation in the world.
What was even more remarkable was our success in securing the peace. This postwar achievement is a story that is often forgotten. It is well worth telling.
Gen, George Marshall, the chief of staff of the Army and the most important strategic planner of his time, made an important decision in the summer of 1943. Realizing that winning the peace was even more important than winning the war, Marshall created, within the Army staff, a large postwar planning division. Headed by a major general, this division devoted two full years to creating a detailed plan that would accomplish great things in the 1945-to-1950 time frame.
MANUALS WERE WRITTEN; officers and enlisted men were trained; linguists were identified; funding was charted; leaders were selected; and potential problems were suggested. No nation had ever planned so well during a war for postwar contingencies.
The concepts were quite simple:
- Identify local leaders who had not been closely associated with fascist regimes.
- Establish the rule of law.
- Develop an electoral process that was fair, honest and credible.
- Place in key advisory positions military and civilian linguists who were fluent in German, Japanese and Italian.
- Lend quiet but substantive support to political parties that were committed to the democratic process.
Having witnessed the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor from the back of an Army truck (I was on the way from our home in Honolulu to Sunday School on an Army post that fateful December morning), I was now off to witness reconstruction and reconstitution of the nation of Italy. My father, an Army colonel, was the operations officer for the military government of Italy. I was 11 years old when our ship arrived in Italy. We lived 20 miles from Naples in a Quonset hut with a pot-bellied stove to keep us warm.
One of my most vivid recollections was an event that took place in Naples in October 1946. My mother, my sister and I were shopping in a large open arcade. We were inside a store when we heard a series of very loud bangs. We raced from the store, looked down the arcade and saw thousands of young men racing toward us. The loud bangs were from large metal grates being pulled down violently by store owners who were trying to protect their goods. We were caught up in a food riot as desperate people were breaking into stores and stealing food or any product they could sell on the black market. We ran to our car and, as we drove off to safety, I looked out the back window and watched as rioters were tipping over streetcars as the riot turned ugly.
SITTING AROUND TABLES and listening to the adults discuss the future of Italy, I remember some saying: "The Italians can never make democracy work. They are nothing but fascists, communists, Mafioso or crooks." And yet Italy, Germany and Japan, none of whom had much previous experience with democracy, soon became thriving democracies. The United States Army, with the help of allies like Britain and France, accomplished a goal of historic significance.
I pinch myself often when I realize that I am one of just a few living Americans to have witnessed both the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought us into the war and the process that set Western Europe on such a positive glide path.
Those who fought in World War II often are described as the Greatest Generation. Thousands stayed around to build the peace in Europe and Japan. Millions returned from combat, went to college under the G.I. Bill and helped build a large middle class with such solid values as patriotism, sacrifice and service above self.
Having been privileged to be an occasional witness to these great accomplishments and having known so many of these humble warriors, I have received a great gift -- a lifelong respect for the military and a deep and abiding love of history.
(The writer, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, is the president of the board of trustees of the Augusta Museum of History, and the secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)