Understanding V-J Day | The End of World War II (2024)

MATT: Hi, Jeff, thanks for joining us today.

JEFF WALLENFELDT: Hello, Matt, how are you?

MATT: I'm good. So we're diving back into history. And today we're talking about V-J Day, which is really the end of World War II.

DOUGLAS MACARTHUR: I now invite the representatives of the Emperor of Japan to sign the instrument of surrender at the places indicated.

MATT: When really is V-J Day? Because I've heard it's August 14, I've heard it's August 15, and then I heard the actual day of celebration is actually in September.

JEFF WALLENFELDT: Right. So defacto V-J Day is August 14. And that's sort of the on site date in the United States. The Japanese actually surrendered on August 15. But because the international dateline, it's still August 14 in the United States. Again, that's the facto surrender. The official surrender is celebrated by the American government on September 2, which was the date that the Japanese actually signed this document of surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

MATT: So I want to talk about the events leading up to that signing. About three months earlier, the war in Europe ended. Germany surrendered and the Potsdam Declaration was drafted outlining terms for the Axis powers to surrender. But at the time, the war in the Pacific was still raging on. Did this declaration also serve as a warning to Japan? Was it kind of us saying, look, if you don't surrender along with Germany, we're going to bring all of our forces to you?

JEFF WALLENFELDT: You know, I think that's a common misconception of the Potsdam Declaration. There really are two documents that come out of the Potsdam Conference. There's the Potsdam Agreement and then the Potsdam Declaration. So in Potsdam, they discussed the substance and the procedures that there would be for the surrender treaties of the various countries involved in the war in Europe.

The details of those were put off, however, to be handled by a conference of foreign ministers. And basically, what the Potsdam Declaration was, an ultimatum to the Japanese for unconditional surrender. It was more than a warning. It was an ultimatum that said, time to surrender.

MATT: Two of the most historic events that occurred during World War II were the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My question is, was the destruction of the bombs really what forced Japan to surrender? I did read that there were some other factors that contributed to it. Japan's inability to really produce more resources. And also, that the Soviet Union did declare war on them.

JEFF WALLENFELDT: Yeah. Look, all of those things contributed. So if you look at the state of Japan in August, 1945, there was a Naval blockade, a very successful Naval blockade of the Japanese islands, mostly by submarines. That was cutting, really cut them off from the world and from their recently acquired colonies. So they weren't getting natural resources. There was a shortage of fuel, there was a shortage of food. Japanese economy was in freefall, not a good situation in Japan.

That said, it was widely accepted among the allies that the Japanese would not surrender. The idea of surrender was dishonorable. It was thought we would have to continue this advance on the main islands of Japan. The decision by Harry S. Truman to use the atomic bomb was thought that it would save lives, in that if the Japanese were going to fight to the very last, otherwise this might convince them that that would be futile.

MATT: What did it actually mean to surrender? I'm assuming that it was a little bit more than just signing the intent to surrender.

JEFF WALLENFELDT: It's more a matter of what that Declaration, what the Potsdam Declaration told the Japanese that surrender would going to entail. Letting the Japanese know that there was going to be occupation. Let them know that there would be an expectation that democratic government would be restored.

MATT: And what were some of the social and political changes that were going to be instated?

JEFF WALLENFELDT: A lot of those changes came about under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers. He oversaw the occupation of Japan from 1946 to 1951, MacArthur did. We were there for another year, '52. But then he also oversaw the creation of a new constitution.

And as a result of that constitution, some of the things that came out of it were the complete demilitarization of Japan. They got rid of the armed forces altogether. The role of women changed. Women got the right to vote. Agriculture changed. Japan had been a nation of tenant farmers, and there was land reform. And rule of the emperor. He no longer lives as much of a religious figure. He became a symbol of the nation, but largely the government and religion were decoupled, sort of the separation of church and state.

MATT: So, Jeff, obviously this is one of the most celebrated days in history. Can you talk a little bit about how the United States learned about it?

JEFF WALLENFELDT: So basically, in the 1940s, Americans got their news three different ways. Got it from the newspaper, they got it from the radio, and they got it from newsreel. When people went to motion pictures, before the feature would start, there would be basically a sort of a mini documentary that was a kind of a news report of the state of the world.

During the Second World War, some of Hollywood's greatest directors went to work for the American government. And they were filming events as they happened during the war. People would see them when they went the movie theater. So how did people get the news of V-J Day? Likely, they heard it first on the radio. When they heard it on the radio, probably the first people to know of it were very early in the morning of August the 14th, 1:50 I think, something like that, there was a radio broadcast via remote broadcast of Cab Calloway's orchestra performing in New York City. It's great era of swing jazz.

And that was interrupted with sort of a tentative report of the end of the war. And then throughout the day, in different reports on the radio with again, with different levels of certainty, and then finally Harry Truman had a press conference at the White House, in which he announced to the network going out on radio. And that's the sort of thing that then showed up in the news reels days later.

HARRY TRUMAN: I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government in reply to the message forwarded to that government by the Secretary of State on August 11. I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan. In the reply, there is no qualification. Arrangements are now being made for the formal signing of the surrender terms at the earliest possible moment.

General Douglas MacArthur has been appointed the Supreme Allied Commander to receive the Japanese surrender. Great Britain, Russia and China will be represented by high ranking officers. Meantime, the Allied armed forces have been ordered to suspend offensive action. The proclamation of V-J Day must await upon the formal signing of the surrender terms by Japan.


SPEAKER 1: Newsmen rushed the president's report to a waiting world. And through the early evening, Tuesday August 14.

Understanding V-J Day | The End of World War II (2024)
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