Today marks the 70th anniversary of a date that has indeed lived in infamy: December 7, 1941 — the date on which the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and thrust America into World War II. The next afternoon, before a joint session of Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, to thunderous applause, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” He then, in accordance with our Constitution, asked Congress for a declaration of war. That same afternoon, he received and signed that declaration.
Across nearly four years, victory in the Pacific was achieved through the heroic and brave sacrifice of uniformed Americans and their allies, the diligent efforts on the home front to supply them with arms, and the leadership of the Allied commanders, headed by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. Each of these men commanded a part of the Pacific theater — Nimitz to the east of the 159th degree of east longitude (which, appropriately, includes mostly water), MacArthur to the west of that line (which includes Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines, and many other islands).
MacArthur’s brilliance, in particular, contributed immeasurably to the victory — as he employed an island-hopping strategy to circumvent key Japanese strongholds and keep the Japanese commanders on their heels for all but the earliest stages of the war. Winston Churchill called MacArthur “the glorious commander,” George Marshall called him “our most brilliant general,” Bernard Montgomery called him America’s “best soldier” of World War II, and Lord Alanbrooke called him “the greatest general and the best strategist that the war produced.”
MacArthur’s extraordinary biographer William Manchester writes, “For every Allied serviceman killed, the General killed ten Japanese.” Elsewhere, he writes, “The shortening of the Pacific war and of Allied casualty lists was incalculable.” He adds, “John Gunther would write, ‘MacArthur took more territory, with less loss of life, than any military commander since Darius the Great.’”
Manchester observes that, for MacArthur, “every battle was invested with the air of a lurid morality play. After one he said with satisfaction, ‘The dead of Bataan will rest easier tonight,’ and after American fighter planes had ambushed [Isoroku] Yamamoto’s Mitsubishi over Rabaul, and killed the admiral, MacArthur fancied he could ‘almost hear the rising crescendo of sound from the thousands of glistening white skeletons at the bottom of Pearl Harbor’” (Yamamoto having been the mastermind behind the Japanese attack).
MacArthur was surely right to view his cause as just. It does no discredit to our peaceful allies, the Japanese citizens of today, to take honest note of a vastly underreported fact — the extraordinarily brutal character of the regime whose forces attacked the United States. Never was this more evident than upon MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, at which point he found the capital city of Manila — which he had declared to be an open city (like Paris, Brussels, and Rome) upon his departure, in an attempt to spare it from harm — decimated by the Japanese. Manchester writes, “The devastation of Manila was one of the great tragedies of World War II. Of Allied cities in those war years, only Warsaw suffered more. Seventy percent of the utilities, 75 percent of the factories, 80 percent of the southern residential district, and 100 percent of the business district were razed. Nearly 100,000 Filipinos were murdered by the Japanese. Hospitals were set afire after their patients had been strapped to their beds. The corpses of males were mutilated, females of all ages were raped before they were slain….” There is worse, but I’ll spare the reader any more.
Yet when MacArthur boarded the U.S. battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay to accept the formal surrender of the Japanese on September 2, 1945, he displayed no anger but only magnanimity, no hatred but only goodwill. Wearing no medals, and having received no instruction from Washington as to what to say or do, MacArthur stepped to the microphone and began,
“We are gathered here, representatives of the major warring powers, to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored. The issues, involving divergent ideals and ideologies, have been determined on the battlefields of the world and hence are not for our discussion and debate. Nor is it for us here to meet, representing as we do a majority of the peoples of the earth, in a spirit of distrust, malice, or hatred.
“But rather it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purposes we are about to serve, committing all our peoples unreservedly to faithful compliance with the undertakings they are here formally to assume.
“It is my earnest hope 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 founded upon faith and understanding — a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish — for freedom, tolerance, and justice.”
Listening to MacArthur, Toshikazu Kase, the Japanese diplomat who had been appointed to record that day’s events for the Imperial Palace, thought, “What stirring eloquence and what a noble vision! Here is a victor announcing the verdict to the prostrate enemy. He can exact his pound of flesh 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. For the living heroes and dead martyrs of the war this speech was a wreath of undying flowers.”
Shortly thereafter, MacArthur addressed the American people from across the wide Pacific:
“My fellow countrymen, today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — the seas bear only commerce — men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed, and in reporting this to you, the people, I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way.”
Let us remember them today.