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This day in history—World War II ends

This day, 73 years ago, was a day of unspeakable relief to the American people, as word came that the war in Japan was over. Though the Japanese empire didn’t officially sign surrender documents until September 2, thereby “officially” bringing World War II to a close, it was on August 15 that Emperor Hirohito announced that his nation was giving up its fight.

Why the war finally ended

The week before, America had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan—first on the city of Hiroshima, then on the city of Nagasaki. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people were killed by the bombs—half from the explosion itself and half from sickness in the days following. President Harry Truman announced to Japan that even more bombs would be coming unless Japan surrendered unconditionally.

At the time many Americans were unaware of the horror of the bomb. In fact, the footage taken of Japanese people’s skin melting and being treated for grisly burns was classified and not released to the American people until the 1980s. Newsreels at the time only showed Americans the structural damage in Japan—destroyed buildings and infrastructure. Even on the plane that flew over Hiroshima, the Enola Gay, the pilot himself was aware of the exact nature of the weapon they were carrying, but many of the crew themselves had been kept in the dark.

Whether the atomic bomb was justified during World War II, or in any hypothetical situation, is still debated. As recently as 2015, a majority of Americans polled still believed the bombing of Japan was the right move. Those who support it usually point to the fact that, had the bomb not abruptly ended the war, a land invasion of Allied troops into Japan would have been necessary, and it is estimated that this would have cost upwards of a million lives. The bomb, they say, was ironically a way to save lives. Those who oppose it point out that the vast majority of Japanese casualties were civilian deaths, many of them women and children, which, of course is a violation of traditional “just war theory," which strictly forbids targeting civilians.

The aftermath

For several decades after the war, the threat of all out world wide nuclear warfare plagued the American consciousness. One need only watch 1950 and 60s dramas to see how preoccupied people were with bomb shelters and the very real fear that nuclear weapons would usher in the end of the world.

In the Japanese Shinto religion, the emperor was believed to not only be a political ruler, but also a god. In surrendering the war, Hirohito signed documents officially abdicating any claim to divinity. A representative government was established in Japan. It has been said that the Japanese people not only lost a war, but also a god.

Europe was also in a rebuilding phase throughout much of the 1940s. Hitler, who had committed suicide in the spring of 1945, had left Germany in shambles. German Jews who were fortunate enough to have survived the Holocaust were left trying to put their lives back together after having lost their friends and families. At least six million had been killed.

Because the concentration camps of the Holocaust were kept secret by the Nazis, most Americans had no idea what Hitler had been doing to the Jews until the days following the war. The entire world was filled with horror and shock when they viewed footage taken by the Allies of the horrid conditions of men and women in the concentration camps. Sympathy for the Jews of Europe who’d been unable to escape largely contributed to the United Nations in 1948 finally recognizing the re-constituted state Israel as a home for the Jewish people.

There was widespread hope at the time that World War II would be “the war that would put an end to all wars." Soldiers returned home, thrilled to see their wives, and so the “baby boom” quickly began. The men and women who gave themselves to rescue America from the Axis powers were flawed human beings, just like everyone else, but their bravery in the face of unspeakable evil has rightly given them a revered place in American history. It’s no wonder that Tom Brokaw nicknamed them “the greatest generation."

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