The day the war ended


The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, Aug. 14:

The war was over.

In Washington, Secretary of State James Byrnes got the news by phone from Switzerland, where the Japanese government communicated its unconditional surrender. Byrnes slammed down the handset in excitement, threw on his Panama hat and hurried across the street to the White House to inform President Harry Truman.

The war was over.

It was Aug. 14, 1945. On the final combat mission of World War II, a B-29 bomber called Uninvited dropped its payload on an oil refinery in northern Japan about six hours before Truman’s announcement. The crew, including Sgt. Robert Pizer, a Chicagoan, returned safely to base in Guam. Now every American GI could expect to come home.

The war was over.

In downtown Chicago, thousands gathered to celebrate. Elsewhere in the city, Mrs. Luke Devine heard the announcement on a car radio and cried because it meant her two brothers overseas would be OK. In Washington, Arthur Sears Henning, the Chicago Tribune’s bureau chief, sat down to write the story that would appear under the banner headline, “GREAT WAR ENDS!”

“The Japanese empire,” Henning wrote, “fell before the military and industrial might of the United States, climaxed last week by the projection of two atomic bombs — America’s terrible, new secret weapon — upon two Japanese cities with devastating effect.”

His first paragraph said simply: “The war is over.”

Deep in his richly reported story, Henning noted that victory came “three years eight months and seven days after Japan’s sneak attack on America at Pearl Harbor.”

Less than four years? Yes. As we mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, the lightning speed of America’s victory stands out:

A world at war, tens of millions dead, the Jews of Europe nearly wiped out, the Nazis confronted and defeated, the Japanese countered, a fearsome weapon developed and used, and, finally, the Japanese conquered. All this cataclysmic destruction, aggression and resolute response — all this history — took place between Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland and that August day in 1945 when Emperor Hirohito of Japan capitulated.

America’s direct involvement, that which changed so much in two theaters of war, had lasted just three years, eight months, seven days.

Meanwhile, here in the 21st century, America’s war on terrorism grinds on, nearly 14 years after 9/11. The contrast isn’t meant to invite a comparison of achievements because the conflicts are so different. Rather, it’s to note how extraordinarily quickly the United States rallied to the cause of freedom after being attacked Dec. 7, 1941.

In the closing days of the war, with Japan’s surrender anticipated, a Tribune editorial basked in the coming victory but did not gloat. America’s fighting men “accomplished the impossible. They were backed by American production, which also accomplished the impossible.”

Any discussion of the timing of Japan’s surrender reopens debate over America’s decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. They were two flashes of light that killed tens of thousands of people in seconds. The estimated death tolls are 140,000 for Hiroshima, 70,000 for Nagasaki.

Was Japan already on its knees and poised to surrender, making the bombings a callous, vengeful act? Or were Japan’s fanatical leaders, who were engaged in their own quest for the bomb, so intent on fighting to the point of annihilation that Truman had no choice?

Reappraising history makes for intriguing discussion. Maybe a blockade would have slowly strangled the enemy. But American generals were worried. They had seen the ferocious will of a nearly vanquished foe who fought to the death on Okinawa. Japan was not giving up. What would an invasion of the main Japanese islands cost in American, and Japanese, lives? Military planners shuddered as they sketched out invasion scenarios for late 1945 and 1946. And if Japan did invent its own megaweapon …

Thankfully, the invasion was not required. In 1945, U.S. bombers turned Japanese cities made mostly of wood and paper to char and dust. Still, the Imperial Army fought. And so two bombs fell on Aug. 6 and 9, and Japan surrendered.

Seventy years later, we recall how America won a war it had to win because the freedom of the world was at stake. We pause to commemorate, to express thanks and pay respects to all who died, as we do on each anniversary of Aug. 14, 1945.

The day the war was over.

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