By David Preston
This post was originally published as an op-ed piece in the Aug 14, 1995 edition of the Providence Journal.
IT IS NO SMALL THING for a democracy to summon the will and discipline required to wage war successfully. Even the philosophers of ancient Greece pondered the question of whether democratic Athens or totalitarian Sparta was best equipped to prevail on the battlefield.
After all, winning in battle requires the single-minded, undivided attention of a nation to the matter at hand – and in a free society, distractions abound. Democracies nurture a free press, which relays bloody pictures and sobering accounts of what battle is really like. Conversely, dictators control the airwaves and printing presses. Members of opposition parties question strategy and exploit battlefield setbacks for political gain. Despots have no opposition.
Free societies endure the protests of those who turn their backs when their country calls. The totalitarians resolve this issue neatly with what Solzhenitsyn called “the knock on the door in the middle of the night.”
Fifty years ago, America endured nearly four years of bloody struggle before defeating the despotic regimes we faced in World War II. As the noble generation that won that victory begins to fade in numbers, we are left with the question of how to commemorate their heroic achievement. The debate is unique to Rhode Island because, alone among the states, we celebrate the day in August 1945 when the war ended for good, a day we call Victory Day.
Fifty years later, the rationale for Victory Day grows murky and obscure. The holiday’s problems spring from three sources – a society that cannot or will not remember its history, a local media that cannot or will not get the name right, and curiously enough, from the holiday’s most ardent advocates.
Sadly, Victory Day exists in an era when the politically correct work tirelessly to transform the noblest achievements in American history into vanilla ice cream made from skim milk, lest we offend the delicate sensitivities of the victims du jour.
To bolster their argument, opponents of Victory Day cite anecdotal evidence of harassment of Asian-Americans in Rhode Island during the days adjacent to the holiday. This behavior is wrong, un-American and deserving of unequivocal condemnation. But it does not even begin to make the case that we should reinterpret our history to achieve the desired, inoffensive result. The ignorant work of bigots will unfortunately go on – with or without the excuse of Victory Day.
A proposed alternative name for the holiday is the cuddly “Peace and Remembrance Day.” Certainly, in a free society, the day when a war ends is a day for peace and remembrance. But this holiday is primarily about the contrast between the dictators we defeated and our own democratic ideals. To name the holiday in honor of our victory is much more appropriate, since without that victory, there would be no peace, and our “remembrances” would be distinctly different. The holiday is fittingly named, since victory is the only thing dictators understand. As Winston Churchill said at the time “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”
Victory Day’s problems, not surprisingly, also spring from inaccurate reporting in the local media. Intent on ginning up controversy, they erroneously refer to the holiday as V-J Day, year after year, portraying it as some anachronism from a less enlightened (read: less politically sensitive) era.
But that has never been its name. It has always been, since its inception in 1948, referred to in the Rhode Island General Laws as simply “Victory Day.” The fact that it occurred when the Japanese surrendered is merely an accident of history. Had the Germans held on for another four months, the colloquial phrase for the day would be V-E Day, for victory in Europe.
Victory Day is not about the triumph of one nation or race over another. Victory Day is about the triumph of free nations over despotic societies, despite the seeming handicaps that democracy brings to the battlefield.
In misunderstanding this point, veterans of the great struggle often do the holiday as much harm as good. Regrettably, some consider it a day of retribution, a day when “we did it to them because they did it to us” at Pearl Harbor and Bataan. But citing these examples as reasons for Victory Day also will make certain that the holiday won’t transcend time – it will remain solely the province of the generation that fought and won the war.
As that generation fades, the prospects of retaining the holiday’s true meaning will fade as well.
And when old soldiers, their language an innocent product of another era, spice their arguments with references to “Japs” and “Nips,” they give revisionists the opportunity to turn, wink and, with a patronizing smugness, whisper, “See, it really is a racist holiday.”
But Victory Day is not about race, the Japanese, or Pearl Harbor. The holiday is about freedom, and what will be required of the citizens of a free nation if they wish to preserve it. Not just in 1945 or 1995, but in 2045 and 2095, and for as long as free men and women are forced to choose between apparent physical comfort, and the difficult, bloody task of stopping tomorrow’s Adolf Hitlers and Saddam Husseins.
The controversy surrounding Victory Day is really a question about what it is that we intend to remember on the second Monday in August.
On this 50th anniversary, we can best honor the day by remembering that once there was a great nation, made free by the blood and sweat of ordinary men and women who came together to defeat evil and win a great victory. They did it not for fame or recognition, but in the hopes that this time would be the last time, and that their children wouldn’t have to endure what they did.
And as the deeds of that generation are recounted this year, it is fitting and right to consider the inherent – though not always apparent – strengths of a free, democratic society. A day such as Victory Day, set aside to commemorate this ideal, is a monument to sacrifice, to common purpose and to freedom that must be preserved.