70 years ago today: the end of the Second World War

It wasn’t the end of the killing and the dying.  Fanatical hold-outs would continue to fight in the jungles of South-East Asia and on Pacific islands, and the Soviet Union’s invading forces would continue to pound the Japanese Army in China for a few days more.  Nevertheless, on August 15th, 1945, Japan formally surrendered to the Allied Powers, and the Second World War officially came to an end.

If any conflict could be described as ‘cataclysmic’, World War II would qualify, I think.  We’ll never know the exact casualty figures – only averaged totals from numerous sources, more or less trustworthy.  Consider these examples:

  • As an example of a single incident, after the Doolittle Raid the Japanese searched high and low in China for the fliers who’d taken part.  In the process they butchered up to (and perhaps more than) a quarter of a million Chinese civilians who happened to be in the search area.  This was partly in reprisal for the help China gave to the US fliers, and partly out of sheer homicidal rage on the part of the Japanese over the ‘loss of face’ incurred through the bombing.  Accurate estimates of the slain are impossible to make – they were often calculated on the basis of towns, villages and farms wiped off the map in their entirety.  (I often think that the Doolittle Raid should never have taken place, due to the known risk of such reprisals.  I can’t possibly believe that the raid’s propaganda value – its only real value:  it certainly had minimal military effect – outweighed the cost of so many lives.  However, Chinese peasants were of no importance to the US government in the global scheme of things.  It’s a dismal reflection on the lack of morality on all sides during wartime.)
  • To look at a single country, the Soviet Union never admitted the full scale of its losses.  It’s only after the USSR broke up and Western historians gained access to the former ├╝ber-state’s archives that we learned at least 26.6 million (and possibly as many as ten million more) of its men and women, military and civilian, were killed or wounded in one way or another.  That’s more than any other combatant nation.  It’s a horrifying number.  Total war-related casualties, during and after the fighting, military and civilian, from all causes, among all participating nations, probably totaled at least 75 million and may have been as many as 100 million.  It’s impossible to calculate them with any certainty.

August 15th, 1945 drew an official line under the greatest conflict (thus far) in human history.  However, it was not the end of war, as all too many of us have experienced over the seventy years separating us from V-J Day.  We, as a human race, haven’t learned from any of the countless wars in our past.  I guess it’s a built-in lemming-like self-destructive tendency . . . more’s the pity.

My father was one of those who might have had to leave Europe, after achieving victory there over Germany, and head for the Far East to fight the Japanese.  He once said to me, matter-of-factly, that most of those involved (including him) reckoned they probably wouldn’t be coming back, because predicted casualties for the mopping-up of the Japanese Empire were extraordinarily high.  He was profoundly grateful that the atomic bombs made his further participation unnecessary.



  1. The Doolittle raid was indeed a propaganda stunt, but it had a real effect on both Japan and the US. In the US, it boosted morale – we were striking back, be it ever so little. In Japan, the loss of face changed the Japanese military's attitude about Midway, which they had been unsure about attacking. The attack on Midway and the loss of their primary carrier fleet changed the war – the Japanese never recovered from that defeat.

  2. In calculating the effect the Doolittle Raid had on reprisals, I think we should keep in mind that the Japanese seemed to need very little reason to go Genghis Khan on the Chinese. Even assuming that they wouldn't have done something substantially similar over a cup of substandard latte, they were going to do much the same WHENEVER there was a loss of face. So if we had waited until we could hit them where it hurt they would have done th massacre tHEN.

  3. and to your point about war being stupid:
    There are evil men in the world, and there always will be. When those evil men attempt to take what belongs to others by force of arms, those who would rather that they be permitted to keep their belongings only have two choices: surrender, or fight a war.

    So the choice to fight a war is made only be the side who would otherwise be the victims of slavery and massacre. History is replete with examples of people who would rather have peace than make war. Most of them became either slaves or statistics.

    One of the anti war slogans of the US peace movement is "What if they threw a war, and no one came?" This simplistic slogan is answered by: What if they threw a war, and only one side came? The answer to that is to ask the Jews of Germany, the Africans captured for slavery, the Cambodians of the Killing Fields, etc.

  4. In addition to the Midway debacle, Japan pulled a substantial amount of military forces back to the home islands for defensive purposes. Most of this was never actively used against the Allies.

  5. Agreed with above that there was a military effect beyond what is properly called propaganda. I'd call it a morale effect.

    As someone (maybe Napoleon maybe not) once said Even in war moral power is to physical as three parts out of four. There was I think a reordering of Japanese priorities perhaps even personalities that benefited the Allied war effort. Compare with the reported (maybe actual maybe not) effect on Goering's morale of seeing the P51 fly freely over Berlin.

    In war allowing a heckler's veto is IMHO bad policy and bad policy in war is bad indeed. It's a fictional context but I like Donald Hamilton's treatment in Matt Helm – it's a game of ten for one – and the Allies followed up with their own move on the home islands.

    My own father was on a radar picket destroyer in the transport screen at Okinawa when the time on station for the radar pickets tended to be rather short. Halsey was drunk out of his mind and pretty much showing negative leadership. It was a golden hit – negligible casualties but the ship headed stateside for repair and then the war ended. The crew had plenty of combat points so the ship paid off and everybody who cared to went home.

  6. Both my dad and my father-n-law were on Okinawa during the war. Likely both would have been involved in an invasion of the home islands. If it had been necessary, one or both stood a good chance of not making it back.

  7. I am also sure that I would not have been born except for the success of the Manhattan Project. A Navy CPO who's destroyer was shot from under him at Guadalcanal, my dad was not released from service until final victory dispite carrying enough shrapnel to set off airport metal detectors in the 70's. He was one of those men who would tell stories of of onboard hijinks and love of his service, but never spoke of his combat memories. A night action where the "Tokyo Express" sank two destroyers un lucky enough to be caught out of harbor.

  8. Hey Peter;

    Your prior posters said it all. Would the Doolittle raid happen in today's world….nope…the fear of collateral damage. but WWII was a different time, different values. We were in it to win after a string of defeats from Wake Island, to the Philippines and many other places….the Doolittle raid was necessary.

  9. The Doolittle raid did have a beneficial military effect for the Americans as it caused the Japanese to redeploy some fighter squadrons back to Japan to prevent further such raids, and it led the Japanese to definitely want to capture Midway Island. And the Battle of Midway, of course, changed the entire course of the Pacific War.


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