Several years ago, when then-U.S. President Barack Obama was asked his thoughts on the notion of American exceptionalism, his reply was tepid: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, America’s greatness is not so much an empirical fact, but rather a debatable construct based upon one’s perspective. Most nations have aspects about them that should make their citizens proud. Yet the formal Japanese surrender ceremony held on September 2, 1945 on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri should serve as a reminder that, perhaps, the president understated the true greatness of the nation he led.
To understand just what a momentous occasion this was, we must first remember the context of this sublime gathering in Tokyo Bay. Japan had been among the cruelest of conquerors, butchering millions while justifying their rampage of gore with the premise that they were a chosen people, whose emperor was a living god and that the Japanese islands were formed by golden drops from the point of a heavenly being’s sword. Indeed, as historian Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out, the war in the Pacific could be summed up as Japanese soldiers killing Asian civilians, be they among the 200,000 slaughtered Chinese in the Rape of Nanking in 1938, the over 100,000 Filipinos murdered in Manila in 1945, or the Japan’s countless victims in between.
But on this day, with their navy reduced to shipwrecks, their major cities but charred-frame skeletons, over one million civilian and military dead and as many homeless, and even the myth of the emperor’s divinity exposed by his own admission, the Japanese stood before the American and Allied leviathans as the most annihilated and vanquished of nations.
So it was under the shadows of the enemy’s massive fleet anchored in the harbor of their burned-out capital, and an awesome display of a thousand enemy warplanes winging overhead, that the demoralized Japanese delegates were ferried out to their conqueror’s prize battleship to accept whatever fate awaited them at the hands of the victorious Allies and their Supreme Allied Commander, five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Standing on the deck of the Missouri, the Japanese representatives in their top-hats and tails presented the polar opposite image of the fierce Samurai whom they had tried to emulate at the expense of the rest of Asia they once brutalized under the jackboot of the Rising Sun. Now they steeled themselves for the worst — the full wrath of a bloodthirsty foe determined to exact a satisfying vengeance for all they had done.
But when MacArthur stepped to the microphone, the magnanimity and eloquence of this American warrior who had so utterly defeated them on the battlefields of the Pacific stunned the Japanese delegates—and many of the Allies as well.
“It is my earnest hope,” the general said, “and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past — a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.”
After the formal surrender was signed, MacArthur then proceeded to unveil his intentions for the devastated Japanese. He saw in the Japanese people a potential to be pacified, re-built, re-energized, and ultimately welcomed into the family of nations in a post-war world. “The energy of the Japanese race,” he proposed, “if properly directed, will enable expansion vertically rather than horizontally. If the talents of the race are turned into constructive channels, the country can lift itself from its present deplorable state into a position of dignity.”
Standing on the deck of the American battleship, with hundreds of pairs of hostile eyes boring into him and his fellow delegates, one Japanese diplomat, Toshikazu Kase, listened in stunned silence as MacArthur spoke for the Allied nations and reflected later on the extraordinary event: “Here is the victor announcing the verdict to the prostrate enemy. He can impose a humiliating penalty if he so desires. And yet he pleads for freedom, tolerance and justice. For me, who expected the worst humiliation, this was a complete surprise. I was thrilled beyond words, spellbound, thunderstruck.”
One cannot imagine MacArthur’s healing words, and through him those of the American people, coming from a victorious Hitler, Stalin, or, of course, Tojo. When relaying the details of the ceremony to Emperor Hirohito, Kase understood just how lucky they were to have been defeated by the Americans: “I raised the question whether it would have been possible for us, had we been victorious, to embrace the vanquished with a similar magnanimity. Clearly, it would have been different.”
Hating America and yearning for its decline is a favorite pastime across much of the globe. But, as Tony Blair once observed, “[Anti-Americanism] is a foolish indulgence. For all their faults, and all nations have them, the US are a force for good; they have liberal and democratic traditions of which any nation can be proud. I sometimes think it is a good rule of thumb to ask of a country: are people trying to get into it or out of it? It’s not a bad guide to what sort of country it is.”
Perhaps never in our history was America’s being a “force for good” so fully realized than in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, in which we’d finally ended the most destructive and lethal war in human history, and then set about rebuilding rather than enslaving our enemies. If our triumph over Imperial Japan teaches us anything, it is that the United States is unique among nations; our capacity for waging ruthless war against our enemies is only surpassed by our willingness to embrace and empower those same antagonists when the war is won. It should also serve as a reminder to those who surreptitiously yearn for American decline, that their world without a powerful United States would be a far more dangerous and ugly place than their short memories can possibly fathom … and far from exceptional.
More from Brad Schaeffer: The Most Dangerous Pathogen Is Fear, And We’ve Allowed It To Destroy Us
Brad Schaeffer is the author of the WW2 Novel Of Another Time And Place [Post Hill/Simon & Schuster, 2018]
A version of this article was previously published in August 2019.