General Douglas MacArthur signs the formal surrender onboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Behind him stand General Wainwright and General Percival.

On September 2, 1945, the USS Missouri sailed into Tokyo Bay.

As far as the eye can see, the bay was filled with American naval ships.

On the deck of the Missouri stood representatives of nine different nations, each there to sign the documents that confirmed Japan’s unconditional surrender. Japan would then be transferred to foreign control and answer to American authority, as well as to Great Britain and other victorious nations.

President Truman placed General MacArthur in charge, naming him Supreme Commander of Allied Powers.

When it came time to sign the papers, MacArthur symbolically places two men with him on the Missouri’s deck: American General Jonathan Wainwright and British General Arthur Percival. Both generals had spent years of captivity in the Japanese POW camps. Now their haunted eyes and emaciated bodies testified to the horrors inflicted by Japanese soldiers. The Japanese had showed no mercy to the POWs.

So what should MacArthur do? Should he kill all the Japanese soldiers who mistreated the POWs? Or should he just forgive the crimes, and tell everyone to get along with each other?

But MacArthur’s first action was simple: He fed the people.

Japan was starving. Food had been scarce for years. Now, with its cities bombed out and its government collapsed, Japan had no way to distribute food. So MacArthur created a food distribution network, and he forbade every Allied soldier from eating any food intended for the Japanese people.

Next, MacArthur repaired the government. Although some Allied leaders disagreed with his choices, MacArthur had lived in Asia for decades, and knew Japanese culture. So he refused to try Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. MacArthur knew that the Japanese people still saw Hirohito as a god; condemning him would only increase their general feelings of shame and resentment. That bitterness could infect these defeated people and lead them to rise up against the occupying Allied military force.

Also, there were more than five million Japanese soldiers still in Japan. Usually an unconditional surrender means the conquering army strip the defeated enemy of their weapons. But MacArthur, once again understanding Japanese pride, allowed the soldiers to disarm themselves.

MacArthur also earns Japan’s profound gratitude by blocking one of its worst enemies: the Soviet Union.

There were four major powers that were supposed to be part of the post-war rebuilding of Japan: the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union.

But, like Japan, MacArthur didn’t trust the Soviets. So he told Soviet leader Josef Stalin that his country could only join in the rebuilding Japan if the Soviets also created their own constitutional government. It was a brilliant maneuver: The Soviet Union was a Communist nation, without any democratic principles whatsoever, including simple freedoms of choice and personal liberty. MacArthur also added a tight deadline.

His plan worked. The Soviets missed the deadline.

And Japan realized this fierce American military leader, who had conquered them in the Philippines, was actually looking out for Japan’s best future.

One day, when MacArthur arrived at his hotel, a line of Japanese soldiers turned their backs on him. To Americans, this gesture was a sign of disrespect. But in Japanese culture, turning one’s back meant you were not worthy of looking directly upon a great man. And here he was: A man who was once their avowed enemy.

However, in the court of justice, MacArthur clenched an iron fist. After disbanding the Japanese army, he prohibited all military officers from holding any leadership positions inside the new democratic government. He also changed the Japanese rules for owning land, expanding rights for private property, and shifted businesses toward more free market capitalism, so more people to earn more money. With the creation of a new constitution, Japan’s Emperor could no longer control the country. Political power was placed in a parliamentary system, which further increased the rights of women. And Japan received no rights to wage war.

In 1945, America placed 430,000 troops in Japan to oversee this post-war occupation.

The next year, that force was cut in half.

In 1947, it was cut in half again.

Despite all the blood shed during four brutal years of fighting and the ashes of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan showed no signs of rebelling against its new rulers. MacArthur’s leadership was seen as a resounding success. Japan not only turned into a democracy, but by 1950, America was encouraging it to re-arm itself.

But alongside this peaceful success, an International Military Tribunal delivered justice for war crimes committed by Japanese, and German, soldiers during WWII. These trials continued until 1951, in large part because the United States obeyed its own Constitution and Bill of Rights. America spent several years and millions of dollars making sure that even the war’s most monstrous soldiers received fair trials in a court of law.

Of course, not everyone agreed with providing fair trials for soldiers who refused to obey the most basic parts of the Geneva Convention.

But American troops fought in WWII to preserve freedom, and the rights of all men, created equal, even the worst among us.

And just was served. General Homma, for instance, the man responsible for the Bataan Death March, was tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946. He was not the only soldier executed after the war. But each man had received a fair trial.

“It is my earnest hope,” MacArthur said, “and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.”

Today, Japan claims the world’s sixth largest army.

And it is one of America’s strongest allies.

American solider with Japanese children during the Occupation, 1945

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