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Today's Americans Will Live Up to Legacy of World War II Generation, Esper Says

Gerald Scroop

September 6, 2020

Just like America's World War II generation, today's citizens will defend "democracy, liberty, sovereignty, human rights, mutual respect and the rule of law," Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii today.

The secretary spoke at the ceremony aboard the USS Missouri commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II — the most destructive war in world history.

Some World War II veterans attended the ceremony who were present when representatives of Japan signed the surrender documents on the deck of the American battleship in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. Many more veterans of the war had to attend virtually due to COVID-19.

The USS Missouri is docked astern of the USS Arizona Memorial. They represent the alpha and omega of America's World War II timeline, beginning with the Pearl Harbor attack and with the surrender aboard the Missouri.

Esper noted that the Americans were united in the will to fight and win the war. "Throughout the war, millions of our countrymen answered the nation's call with great courage and selflessness," he said. "Americans of all faiths, races, and ethnicities; from all walks of life and vocation, rich to poor; and from all corners of the country, from cities to suburbs to farms — they left behind their loved ones, men and women alike, to sail across oceans and join allies in a desperate fight for liberty."

And triumphed.

The litany of defeats the nation first suffered — Bataan, Corregidor, Wake Island, the Battle of the Sulu Sea — were soon succeeded by victories in both Europe and the Pacific — Coral Sea, Midway, Tunisia, Normandy, the Bulge, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and many more. 

The scale of the U.S. effort was incredible. More than 16 million Americans served in the armed services during the war. American factories and farms not only supplied U.S. troops but those of the allies. The U.S. Third Fleet, by itself, was larger than any country's Navy. 

Three people examine a plaque set into the deck of a ship.

The sacrifice was commensurate. Between 60 million and 85 million people died worldwide in the war. In the United States, more than 400,000 service members were killed with another 600,000 wounded. Every family in America was tragically affected by the war. 

No one wanted a repetition, especially since the war saw the development and use of nuclear weapons.

"The human toll of the deadliest conflict in history led to the creation of a new world out of the rubble of the old, one that began with Japan's surrender on this ship, 75 years ago," Esper said. "The war fundamentally altered the global balance of power and reshaped the international order into one led by like-minded nations, grounded in common purpose and shared values that prepared them well for a decades-long struggle against Soviet communism that would soon follow."

The United States assumed "the mantle and responsibility of leadership." In a nuclear age, vast oceans no longer were guarantees against overseas conflicts, destructive ideologies or from those with malign intentions. "It was America's time to lead, and we did so guided by our founding principles and core values," the secretary said.

After the war, successive administrations "built relationships with like-minded nations based on reciprocal trade, not predatory economics; based on respect for the sovereignty of all countries, not a strategy of 'might makes right;' based on a commitment to always honoring our international obligations, not just when they serve our interests; and most importantly, based on our enduring values and beliefs," he said.

A plaque on the deck of a battleship surrounded by floral tributes.

In the 75 years since the surrender, while there have been conflicts and wars, there has not been a cataclysm like World War II. Today's international rules-based order has provided security, prosperity and stability to billions of people around the world. "It set new standards and protocols when it comes to matters of trade and diplomacy; it raised the bar when it comes to human rights and individual freedoms; and it created new expectations regarding the use of force and the way countries should treat one another," Esper said.

Two countries — Russia and China — are challenging that rules-based order. Strangely both nations lost a combined 45 million people in World War II, and arguably both gained the most from the rules-based order. 

The United States and its allies are defending that system and America is working to build an even broader coalition of partners "to protect the hard-fought gains of generations past and present — especially in the Pacific," Esper said. 

The United States is reaching out across the world really, but especially in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania to reinforce support for the rules-based order that has served so well. America also works to strengthen ties with long-established allies like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore. 

"Growing, deepening and unifying this network must remain central to our collective strategy to ensure peace and prosperity for another 75 years and beyond," Esper said. "We welcome every nation — especially those that have benefited the most from today's international system — to join us in this effort."

Two people speak to World War II veterans via a computer.

The system may be imperfect, the secretary said, and it may need work, but it "is worth fighting for. And while this system has largely remained intact, we cannot take it for granted or leave its future up to chance. That is why, together, we are committed to improving it and remain ready to defend it — much like the Greatest Generation did when history called and fate challenged them."

The youngest of the Greatest Generation is in their late 90s now, and the secretary spoke with them via a Zoom conference after the ceremony. Some are mobile, others not. 

But in their youth, those men strode across continents, M-1 Garand rifles in hand, liberating people they never met. "We need an academy of peace," Joe Pedersen told the secretary. Pedersen witnessed the surrender aboard the Missouri as a Marine private first class. "War is not an answer. We need to teach peace."

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