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70 Years Later, We Can Still Learn From V-J Day

Japan’s defeat, occupation, and reconstruction after WWII exemplifies the virtues of American leadership in an unstable world—virtues that the Obama administration now openly rejects.

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Amid the hand-wringing and moral equivocation over the 70th Anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings last week, one might easily forget what the bombings accomplished: V-J Day, Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies on August 15, 1945, which effectively ended World War II.

On August 6 and 9, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 129,000 people (possibly more than 250,000). The next day, the Empire of Japan conveyed its intent to accept, with some conditions, the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, a statement the Allies drafted in July, 1945 that outlined the mandatory terms of surrender for Japan. The Allies rejected Japan’s offer. The declaration itself was clear: “Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.”

Five days later, Japan accepted the Potsdam terms in full, without conditions. Among those terms was the renunciation of militarism in favor of “a new order of peace, security and justice.” Until that new order was established, however, Allied forces would occupy Japan “to secure the achievement of the basic objectives we are here setting forth.”

Yet the total defeat and occupation of Japan offers the clearest example of how to use American military power to create stability and security in a tumultuous region.

The occupation lasted six-and-a-half years, ending only after the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which was signed in September 1951, and took effect in April 1952. But the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, where vicious fighting in the spring and summer of 1945 killed more than 18,000 U.S. troops and some 120,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians, remained under U.S. occupation for years. Iwo Jima was not returned to Japan until 1968, Okinawa in 1972. Under a treaty signed in 1960, nearly 50,000 U.S. troops are now stationed in Japan—not as an occupation force, but as allies.

Occupation on this scale would never be tolerated nowadays. The Obama administration had such little tolerance for even the whiff of occupation that it prematurely pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, plunging the region into chaos and giving rise to ISIS. Yet the total defeat and occupation of Japan offers the clearest example of how to use American military power to create stability and security in a tumultuous region.

Japan’s transition to democracy and its integration into the postwar global order were possible only because of a years-long U.S. occupation that transitioned into a decades-long strategic alliance. Without the total surrender of the Empire of Japan, including the renunciation of imperial ambition mandated by Potsdam the ensuing military occupation, Japan might never have emerged from the ashes of the war to become a stable, robust democracy—now America’s strongest ally in Asia.

This is no small thing, and it was not easily won. The 1960 treaty was met with some of the most massive protests in Japan’s history. The so-called “Anpo” protests drew hundreds of thousands to the streets on a daily basis, forcing the cancellation of a visit by President Eisenhower and the resignation of conservative Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. About 10 million Japanese citizens signed petitions against the treaty, and yet it was finally passed and signed into law. A decade later, amid renewed protests, the pact was renewed. To date, it has lasted longer than any treaty between two major powers since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

Japan became the foundation for a Pax Americana that spread across the globe, eventually overwhelming the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War.

The American occupation gave Japan’s political and commercial institutions time to sink deep roots and develop a democratic, capitalist system. Japan became the foundation for a Pax Americana that spread across the globe, eventually overwhelming the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. Japan’s defeat, occupation, and reconstruction after WWII exemplifies the virtues (and necessity) of American leadership in an unstable world—virtues that the Obama administration now openly rejects, clinging instead to a narrative in which America goes about the world spreading tumult and war, exploiting weaker nations.

This narrative isn’t altogether new. It was held up by some Japanese politicians opposed to the postwar U.S.-Japan alliance, and has been used by opponents of U.S. involvement abroad ever since. But President Eisenhower persuaded enough detractors to win support for the 1960 treaty—not an executive “deal” of the kind we’re being forced into with Iran, but an actual treaty.

It’s hard to imagine, 70 years after the surrender of Japan, an American leader able and willing to defeat, occupy, rebuild and forge a lasting alliance with a nation that had once been our sworn enemy. Right now, even the first step—defeating the enemy—seems impossible.