August 1945. My father-to-be, an Army sergeant and a combat infantryman in Italy, was on his way back to the United States to participate in the invasion of Japan. His brother was a doctor in the Army Medical Corps. My future father-in-law was in the Army in the Pacific and was also gearing up for the attack on the Japanese homeland.
On Aug. 6, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
On Aug. 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.
On Aug. 9, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
On Aug. 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies.
After that announcement, my mother-to-be, still a teenager, found herself wading through a river of celebratory confetti in the streets of Detroit, part of the throng rejoicing that the war had at last ended.
On Sept. 2, representatives of Japan signed the surrender document aboard the USS Missouri, officially ending World War II.
This summer marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, yet few of us will celebrate that historical victory over the forces of fascism and tyranny. Our attention is consumed by more immediate trials and troubles. In addition to the chaos caused by the pandemic, we are facing riots in some of our cities and calls to eradicate our culture and our Constitution. Many, including some of our politicians, deny the idea of American exceptionalism, the concept that America is unlike any other country in the history of the world. They contend that America was and is evil, a blackhearted nation with an ugly history whose Constitution and ideals must be eradicated or altered.
Are they correct? Is there nothing special, nothing unique, about America?
The Rubble Heap and the Communists
Let’s pay a visit to August of 1945 and the postwar years, and take a look.
By the war’s end, much of the world lay in ruins. The British Isles would continue a system of rationing for years. The economies of France and Italy were flattened, their factories closed, with many of their citizens living in poverty. Germany was a landscape of bombed-out cities, Japan a country of smoking ruins whose population initially was terrified by a possible American occupation. In 1947, Winston Churchill described Europe as “a rubble-heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, which had suffered millions of military and civilian deaths, was turning Eastern Europe into a communist bloc, locking up entire nations behind what Churchill would call the “Iron Curtain.” In China, Mao Zedong’s communist party seized control. Some countries—Korea, Vietnam, and Germany—were eventually split in two between capitalism and communism, between freedom and dictatorship.
Standing in sharp contrast to this devastation and the communist power grabs was the United States of America.
Physically untouched by the war, American factories in the postwar era turned from putting out tanks and warships to the production of consumer goods: automobiles, refrigerators, radios, televisions, kitchenware, and hundreds of other items. Our system of free enterprise flooded the country with these goods, and the standard of living skyrocketed. Suburbs grew outside of cities, the construction of a massive interstate highway system was underway, and every day brought new wonders of science and technology, including medical advances and travel into space.
America also advanced the cause of liberty among its people. Within 20 years of the end of World War II, segregation was dead or dying, African Americans had won the right to vote, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended discrimination in schools and the workplace.
Moreover, while communism around the world was bent on subjugating people and suppressing liberty, America reached out to preserve freedom and to rebuild a world ruined by war. With its billions of dollars in aid, the Marshall Plan and other American programs helped prevent communism from gaining ascendency in Europe and allowed countries like Italy and France to reopen for business.
Particularly significant was the assistance given by America to Germany and Japan. Throughout history, the old adage “To the victors belong the spoils” has applied, and conquered peoples were often enslaved or reduced to penury. In some cases, they were simply exterminated, like the Carthaginians after the Third Punic War.
Instead of keeping the Germans and Japanese on their knees, however, the United States brought both these nations back to life by shaping them into democracies and by providing them with massive economic assistance. Coupled with the work ethic of these two peoples, this tactic worked so successfully that within 20 years Japan and Germany were competing internationally in trade, were developing new technologies, and saw the bulk of their citizens earning middle-class incomes.
And in both countries, again largely by American guidance, democracy flourished. Gone were the goose-stepping armies, the dictators, the concentration camps, and the secret police. Replacing them were voting booths, political parties, and constitutions. Japan and Germany stand today as living monuments to American benevolence and generosity.
Keeping Democracy Alive
In addition, postwar United States offered economic and military support to countries around the world. South Korea remains a vibrant country to this day because America and its allies defeated the attempted conquest of that tiny nation by the North Koreans and the Chinese communists. During this time, the United States assisted other struggling nations as well, many of them in places like Africa and Asia, with financial aid and other incentives to retain their liberty.
The contrast between these real democracies and communism was glaring, with the most vivid example of that difference found in the city of Berlin. In 1961, the East German government, hand in hand with the Russians, built a wall separating East and West Berlin, a concrete barrier designed to prevent refugees from fleeing to West Berlin and freedom. On one side of that wall was East Berlin with its breadlines, its government stores with their empty shelves, its darkness and silence at night. On the other side was West Berlin with its busy shops and streets, its restaurants and fine hotels, its bright lights, clubs, and bars.
Did the United States have ulterior motives in its support for these countries? Of course. They served as markets for our goods, provided us with locations for our far-flung military bases, and were allies against the worldwide threat of communism. To bring democracy and free enterprise to the world was in our best interests.
But so what? If I give five dollars to someone in need on the streets, does it matter to him whether that small generosity makes me feel better about myself?
Real American Radicalism
But where does it come from, this American wealth and the love of liberty? Why did Abraham Lincoln once describe the United States as “the last best hope of earth?” What were the roots for an American prosperity so vast that we boosted half the postwar world into economic recovery? Why do we so often battle dictators and advocate for democracy?
We find the answer to these questions in a single sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those words from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence constitute the most radical political idea ever conceived. Here are not suppositions, but “truths,” and “self-evident” means that these truths are clear to the most casual observer. “All men are created equal” means that rich and poor, black, white, and brown, and citizens from all walks of life have equal rights in the courtroom and the polling booth, and need bow to no one. “Certain inalienable rights” means that human beings are born with rights no government can bestow or take away. “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are the lifeblood of the American Dream.
Keeping the Dream Alive
When we fail to remember those words, or cast them aside as old-fashioned and useless, the Dream dies.
Consequently, we must ignore those who today have turned their backs on Jefferson’s Declaration and want us to do the same. As we have done in the past, we must work to correct real injustices when we find them, but we must refuse to heed those who tell us that America is inherently evil and who advocate canceling our culture and our uniqueness.
This August, let’s put on a new pair of glasses and take time to look back at a postwar nation that not only brought prosperity and greater justice to its citizens, but also did the same for countries around the world. Let us remember leaders of that age—men like Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower—all of whom believed in the American Dream of liberty and its concomitant prosperity.
Let us also remember those 400,000 Americans who died in lands far from home fighting against fascism and tyranny.
In the midst of our troubles, let’s pause to remember and celebrate the goodness of America and the unique vision of the American Dream.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.