On September 2nd, 1945, the Second World War ended with the signing of surrender documents by a Japanese government and military delegation on board the American battleship USS Missouri. Military representatives of every Allied power fighting in the Pacific were present, along with members of the press, who reported the sights and sounds of the ceremony to a world eager for peace. From beginning to end, the event lasted 23 minutes. And though most people alive at the time did not realize it, the ceremony also marked the beginning of one world and the end of another.
Although history rarely falls into the neat patterns of human expectation, there are dates which clearly mark the beginnings or ends of eras. September 2nd, 1945 marked the end of several eras---cultural, political, and military. It also marked the beginning of the world in which we now live, a world that would be fundamentally different had just a few small events turned out differently in 1945. While most people alive today had not yet been born when the Second World War ended, we live with the aftereffects of that conflagration every day.
As the victorious allied representatives stared at the Japanese delegation on the other side of the table holding the surrender documents, some of them had to wonder what they had won. The Soviet officers present were citizens of a nation that had suffered over 23 million military and civilian deaths, although the exact figure will never be known. That number represented 14% of the USSR's population. Only Poland, with nearly six million dead, had a greater percentage of its population killed by the war.
For Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the war was far from over. Eastern Europe and the area that would become East Germany were subject to communist reprisals for years after the war officially ended in Europe in May, 1945. Anyone living in an area under Soviet control that had fought with Germany or in any way opposed the Red Army was arrested and either sent to the infamous gulags of Siberia or summarily executed. German prisoners-of-war being held by the Soviets did not go home when the war ended; as many as a third of them died in captivity. Those who survived were put to work at various industrial sites inside the Soviet Union and were not repatriated until the mid-1950s. Most of these men were not guilty of war crimes and a majority weren't Nazis; they just had the misfortune of being on the losing side and surrendering to an enemy that did not recognize the Geneva Convention’s rules governing the treatment of prisoners-of-war.
Not that being on the winning side helped many Soviet soldiers held by the Germans when the war ended. Almost all of them were imprisoned upon returning to their home country under orders from Stalin, who probably saw them as an embarrassing reminder of how badly he had blundered during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Some of the Soviet POWs and others, including many Polish soldiers, had no desire to return to areas controlled by the communists because they knew what awaited them. What they did not know, and what the world would not know for another 50 years, was that their fates had already been decided by Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and US President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference in February, 1945. One of Stalin’s demands was for the quick return of any Soviet or Eastern European citizen who had ended the war in territory not controlled by the Red Army. Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to this demand, even though they understood the implications. Apologists for both men claim they were ignorant of Stalin’s plans, but history recent to 1945 had shown the Soviet leader to be genocidal and paranoid. The two Western leaders were, by tacit approval, helping to send tens of thousands of men to certain imprisonment or death.
The Chinese delegation on board the Missouri that Sunday morning was comprised of representatives of the Republic of China, the legitimate Nationalist government of that nation as recognized by all the allies except the Soviet Union. China had been embroiled in a civil war since 1928, a struggle that was largely abandoned while the two sides, the Nationalists and the Communists, fought separately against the Japanese. At the same time the Japanese surrender ceremony commenced in Tokyo Harbor, the two Chinese belligerents were trying to hammer out some sort of agreement on their nation's future. But fighting continued, and by the middle of 1946 the two sides were again fully engaged in a death struggle. The Nationalists could claims superior numbers in terms of manpower, but the Communists controlled the countryside and were soon bolstered by farmers who were promised their own land in exchange for military service, a promise that quickly turned into a fantasy. By the end of the 1949, the war was over and the Communists were taking power in Beijing. The Nationalists escaped to Taiwan and set up a government-in-exile, but from the beginning it was obvious that they would never again control the mainland. They had not only been beaten by the Communists, but by years of struggle against the Japanese occupation.
China would undergo painful upheavals over the next 40 years, including the Great Leap Forward, a plan to make the nation into an industrial giant in the course of just a few years. As a result of mismanagement and the allocation of resources away from agriculture to manufacturing, the years 1958-1962 saw more than 16 million people (and possibly as many as 40 million) die of starvation. This failed movement led directly to the Cultural Revolution, the effects of which shaped Chinese society for a generation.
Also represented on the Missouri were the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. All three had been colonial powers in the Pacific before the outbreak of hostilities, but most of their possessions had been occupied by Japanese forces and, with a few exceptions, would never be fully under their control again. France tried to quell the rising tide of anti-colonialism in French Indochina (Vietnam), but after a stunning military defeat at the hands of Viet Minh communists in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, the government in Paris was done in mainland Asia. Vietnam was divided in two, but the partition solved nothing. In a little over 10 years, American, Australian and South Korean troops would be fighting communist insurgents and North Vietnamese Army regulars in the jungles of South Vietnam.
Of all the colonial powers, the British Empire paid the highest price for victory. The British people and the colonial citizens of the Empire, along with the Dominion nations, had stood alone against the Nazi war machine from the fall of France in May, 1940 until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941. British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, and dozens of other nations' soldiers, sailors, and airmen from across the Empire fought on almost every front during the war. Resources were always strained, even after the United States entered the war in December, 1941.
In 1922, four years after the end of the First World War, one in four human beings lived in lands controlled by the British Empire. It was truly worldwide in scope; when people said the sun never set on the British Empire, they meant it. But even then, cracks were starting to appear. Defending far-flung outposts required the world’s largest navy and a large standing army. The Royal Navy met the challenge, at least until the outbreak of the Second World War. But Britain could not maintain a large standing army as France did during most of the inter-war years. Nor could it fight a two-front war. The Empire had reached beyond its grasp; bravery and a stiff upper lip were no longer enough to win the day on their own. Such was the availability of the Royal Navy, for example, that when the British Pacific Fleet was formally organized in 1944 from smaller area commands, the entire formation was given a single task force number when operating with units of the US Pacific Fleet, itself part of a navy which had strength of more than 6,000 ships in 1945. The British Pacific Fleet contained fewer than 180 vessels during the same period.
The Empire’s largest colony, India, gained its independence in 1947. Within 20 years, almost all the colonial territories would be independent nations. By the time the generation who fought the war reached middle age, the term ‘British Empire’ was no longer in use. Economically devastated, it would not be until the beginning of the 1950’s that the UK’s economy would again show sustained growth.
Of all the allied powers, only the United States emerged stronger overall than when the war began. While the death of nearly 420,000 Americans was a grievous loss, it was actually a smaller death toll than had occurred during the US Civil War 80 years before. And it was a much smaller total than expected, since all but a handful of Americans assumed that victory in the Pacific would require an invasion of the Japanese home islands. While the morality of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki is debated today, the average American of 1945 welcomed the news with relief.
While the economic might of the United States had been evident for decades, it emerged from the Second World War as a superpower in every quantifiable way. But that status came with great responsibilities. By 1947, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was underway. Historians will probably debate the true origins of this standoff for the next few centuries and we will not delve into the causes or merits of it here. The Soviet Union’s military might did not fade immediately after the war; conversely, the United States’ military draw-down was quick and, as later events would prove, excessive. The lessons learned from the Berlin Airlift in 1947-48 and the Korean War (1950-53) led to a situation unique in American history. Until the mid-20th century, the United States had an established tradition of allowing the American military to shrink to alarming levels during times of peace. When war loomed, citizen soldiers volunteered (or were drafted) to fill in the ranks, led by the small corps of professional officers and senior enlisted men. Arms manufacturers cranked up production and makers of other products began making the tools of combat.
So it had been from the War of Independence to the Second World War. But those days had passed. The Cold War required constant readiness, which required a relatively large military. The United States kept troops on permanent station in West Germany, South Korea, Japan, and dozens of other places around the world, armed and trained for the Third World War. This costly endeavor was maintained for 40 years, until the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
Such military strength required the creation of a permanent arms industry in the United States, Europe and Asia. The so-called military-industrial complex is still with us and probably always will be. America’s willingness to out-spend and out-research the Soviet Union in terms of military spending and procurement was one of the leading causes of the collapse of communism in Europe. The Cold War was won not with the force of arms, but by the constant threat of new and better ones.
It doesn’t take much examination to see how fundamentally our world changed because of the Second World War. That war brought an end to the vestiges of 19th century life, mainly colonialism and the idea that wars were only to be fought against a nation’s military, not its entire civilian population. It also created the specter of nuclear annihilation, a reality that probably kept the world out of another worldwide conflagration. But that’s another story.