On September 2, 1945, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan's surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri, it was clear that the world would not survive another total war in the atomic age.
"Today the guns are silent," MacArthur said. "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 ... We have had our last chance. If we do not now devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door."
Germany and Japan both surrendered unconditionally. Both countries were utterly devastated by the war, and America's principal allies-Great Britain and the Soviet Union--had paid a tremendous price as well. Britain's cities had been bombed heavily and great parts of the Soviet Union were scorched earth. In addition, war-time spending had stretched thin their economic resources. Not a single bomb, however, had been dropped on America's contiguous 48 states. The U.S. economy was booming in 1945, and the country emerged from the war as the world's only superpower.
"The United States had become a different country during the war," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and a consultant on HBO's miniseries. "Women were more prominent in the workforce, and for the first time great numbers of African-Americans broke into middleclass jobs. The country developed a permanent military-industrial complex and took on new global responsibilities, among them the reconstruction of the economies of its former enemies."
For the discharged veterans streaming home to the states, the contrast was stark. The men had left a militarily vulnerable country which had not yet emerged from a decade-long economic depression. They returned to a victorious United States with an economy invigorated by years of military spending. Many of the 16 million men and women in uniform transitioned into new jobs, aided by the training they received in the military and the GI Bill. But for the 800,000 or so veterans who saw prolonged combat overseas the transition to peacetime life was more difficult.
"A lot of combat vets tell me, 'My war lasted 20 years.' That's how long it took them to overcome the trauma of combat. And some men never recovered," Miller says. "For those who lived through the worst of it, it was a war that was never over. For years, men continued to be haunted by violent night dreams that startled them into wakefulness. Combat was so terrible that they had difficulty talking about it. And if they tried, they found that friends and family couldn't fully understand what they had been through. Nor could folks back home fully understand the comradeship and love that kept Marines like Eugene Sledge together under the most awful assaults on their humanity. In a very real sense, these guys carried the war home with them, in their heads, and many of them were never able to exorcise the demons that plagued them. As General Omar Bradley said at the end of the war, 'The shooting may be over, but the suffering isn't.'"
"Combat veterans suffered in other ways," says Miller. "Killing Japanese is not something that qualifies one for a peacetime job." Rear-echelon soldiers returned with experience as clerks, mechanics, and air traffic controllers, but among the frontline troops, especially, unemployment was rampant. On top of that, returning veterans had, for years, a divorce rate double the national average, and housing was extremely hard to come by - in 1947, half of married vets were living with family and friends.
Many of these problems melted away in the 1950s, but the transition from wartime was not easy for men who were at the face of battle. "Combat made a permanent imprint on their souls," says Miller. "As one veteran wrote long after the war, 'Nothing in the present ever seemed quite as compelling and real as the war, nothing on such a grand scale as what had gone before, terrible as it was... And that experience has taught me that the greatest defeat, in anything, is to forget.'"
"For those who lived through the worst of it, it was a war that was never over. For years, men continued to be haunted by violent night dreams that startled them into wakefulness."