GUEST COLUMN: What we do and do not celebrate
After several days of building anticipation, the news flash came around dinner time on Aug. 14, 1945. This 10-year-old kid and his mother rushed the few blocks from the West Side apartment to the 72nd Street subway station and hopped the southbound express to join the most massive Times Square celebration in history.
Saturday is the 65-year anniversary of that momentous day when euphoria abounded and the lights could go on again all over the world. Japan, the nation that launched the sneak attack on the United States more than three years and eight months earlier, had just surrendered. World War II was over. A mighty united nation mobilized for its common defense could now unwind and transition to grow in peace. Citizen soldiers, sailors and marines could share the excitement and soon muster out of military life. Revelry would replace reveille.
After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, the world waited anxiously for Japan’s reply to a note that Secretary of State James Byrnes had conveyed, reinforcing the Potsdam Declaration’s demand for unconditional surrender. Several days of teasing rumors and premature reports preceded Tokyo’s final capitulation.
Early on Aug. 14 the war still raged. The New York Times reported that “patience with the enemy’s long delay in replying was growing thin.” The cruiser Indianapolis was sunk resulting in 1,196 casualties. Japanese suicide attacks were continuing and 400 American B-29s attacked Japan at noon.
But at 6:10 p.m. the Swiss Legation in Washington forwarded a note to the State Department affirming that Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration. Responding through the same channel, State ordered the end of hostilities.
The war was over! About 7 p.m. the message scrolled across the Times Building electronic board: “Official – Truman announces Japanese surrender.”
There would be no more air raids, no more blackouts with wardens yelling orders through the neighborhood, “Lights out!” Images of civilian defense that we had been living with would soon disappear: the street lights painted over, the city’s traffic signal globes reduced to tiny red and green illuminated “T” figures, the boulevard curbs painted with alternate black and white markings.
Service station “Sorry, no gas” signs would become less evident. The rationing of food products and other commodities would be history by 1946.
The combined sense of relief and delirium that Aug. 14 evening can never be exaggerated. Two million people packed the Times Square area. It’s impossible to adequately convey the emotions of those moments to people who never lived through it, to those who can only read about it in books, or view it through the medium of old newsreel film, or see it only depicted in drama based on fact. From sea to shining sea, Americans had shared in personal or familial sacrifices, tightly bound in the common cause of total war.
It’s similarly incomprehensible that these 1945 celebrants could imagine that the nation they saved would be eating its own 65 years later, that our country which fought for the principle that right makes might would someday invade and occupy a country that did not attack us. Additionally, who among us who sacrificed for the common good could picture that the most raucous segment of our political landscape would some day be pushing fiscal measures that enrich the country’s top 2 percent at the expense of the other 98 percent? Who could picture that domestic extremists would denigrate the man elected to preside over our nation, dressing him in the vulgar symbology of an enemy that we sacrificed so much to defeat between 1941 and 1945?
With the tyranny of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan long gone, maybe we should focus more on what the best of this 220-year American experiment has been and what should be sustained. It’s not slamming the Fourteenth Amendment which grants citizenship to those born here, or reflexively condemning a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan whose construction is legally protected by the First Amendment. Instead, we might heed the message of the song “The House I Live In,” made popular by Frank Sinatra as the war drew to a close. He reprised it many times over his career, including on July 4, 1986 when the Statue of Liberty was rededicated under President Ronald Reagan.
It’s especially appropriate these contentious days. Among the song’s original lyrics are the following:
“What is America to me? A certain word, democracy/All races and religions/ The worker by my side/The air and feeling free/The big things and the small/My neighbors white and black/The people who just came here or from generations back/The house I live in: The goodness everywhere/A land of wealth and beauty with enough for all to share.”
– Michael Zucker is a resident of South Lake Tahoe and a stockbroker with Regal Securities, Inc.
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