Save only Sept. 2, when final notes will be sounded about surrender ceremonies that took place in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the USS Missouri, we have at last completed commemorating the 40th anniversary of everything.
For months the milestones have passed in endless procession, with each receiving due and clamorous attention: the bloody landings on the Pacific beaches; the portentous unraveling of the Soviet-American alliance, first at Yalta, then at Potsdam; the deaths of FDR and Hitler; the demise of Nazi Germany; the dropping of the bomb; the birth of the atomic age; the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the surrender of Japan and V-J Day; the end of the war, and the dawning of the postwar era.
We have wallowed, collectively, in what The Washington Post properly calls "anniversary journalism." For commentators, this is a risk-free endeavor because the outcome is universally known. Writing with hindsight guarantees avoidance of stupid prediction. And I plead guilty to contributing my share of foolishness to the genre in recent weeks. That is not, I quickly add, the thrust of today's exercise, which is intended to look ahead, not back.
Not that there's anything wrong in looking back, especially for a nation with hardly any memory, even less curiosity about yesterday and no sense -- and seemingly no care -- for tomorrow. In the American present, there is only today. Now! Who cares if those events that the country has noted reshaped modern America and remade the world? So what if we're still living with the political/economic/scientific forces unleashed 40 years ago and the geographical lines drawn then? From that perspective, any pause to reflect upon them has to be worthwhile. The question now is what lesson Americans have drawn from all this uncharacteristic introspection about historic events. Aside from a healthy resurgence of patriotism and pride in extraordinarily common valor and sacrifice, what does it add up to?
My fear, from much of what I've heard and read, is that it reinforces the worst tendencies among Americans -- their failure to face realities and luxuriate instead in the falsities of romantic illusions. This is especially so when it comes to our picture of Japan, then and now. So herewith, some of the myths:
Myth One: the superiority of American technology and weaponry.
This is an old one and seems to have grown stronger over the years. I remember, as a child on the eve of World War II, the belief that Japan was a "junk" society. Its goods were worthless, hardly to be compared to those of America. The "made in Japan" label was a guarantee of tininess and flimsiness. This attitude, inevitably and naturally, carried over into the war. Japanese weapons -- ships, planes, bombs -- were no match for ours. Thus, the prevailing and near universal impression then. It appears to be the overwhelming belief today in the retrospectives on the war.
On the contrary, they were infinitely better. American fighter planes and American torpedoes, to take two examples, were hopelessly outclassed by their Japanese counterparts when the war began. Not until much later did the American models begin to approach the Japanese, and never did they equal the German weaponry whether in tanks, armor or rocketry. In this respect, I wish every American could read two brilliant histories by the late Gordon W. Prange, with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon: "At Dawn We Slept," about Pearl Harbor, and "Miracle at Midway" (both McGraw-Hill), about the decisive naval battle of that name. These provide essential correctives to the widely held myths of American military prowess.
Myth Two: the superiority of American business techniques.
Nowhere has this been more vividly displayed -- and nowhere has it proved to be more false -- than in the record of American auto companies in Detroit. It's probably true that no more arrogant, shortsighted group of executives existed in our history than those who have ruled the automotive industry's destinies in the 40 years since World War II. Consistently and tragically, they discounted foreign competition, misread changes in public styles and tastes and, until far too late, continued to insist they knew best. The workers, too, shared these symptoms. Pride in craft and quality of workmanship declined; the emphasis was on doing less, all the while getting more in terms of pay and benefits for the less they produced. Sloppiness and shoddiness reigned. Now that the inevitable decline has occurred, no one yells louder for protection than auto industry executives and workers.
Myth Three: All's well with America today -- a variation on the enduring "if-it-ain't-broke, don't-fix-it" theme.
We live in a period of false security and dreams of endless, easy bounty like the '20s. Our political leaders and, most notably, our president, create the illusion that no hard choices exist, no fundamental changes in policies or practices are needed. Certainly no sacrifices are necessary. Like Jimminy Cricket, we can cheerfully fiddle and dance away our time.
To anyone who looks closely, these beliefs are transparently false. The fragility of the world economic system, the dangers of the deficit, the high rate of the dollar, the growing trade imbalance imperiling basic American industries, the inability of American goods to compete with foreign counterparts, the mounting levels of Third World debt, the rising calls for protectionism and, most important, the clear lack of national will to deal with them -- all suggest we have entered a period no less fateful and dangerous than in the years immediately leading to the outbreak of the last world war.
But, hey, those are unpleasant subjects and who wants to deal with them. Besides, we won, didn't we? And who's to gainsay that we're still No. 1 and always will be?