Rhode Islanders are staying home today, marking a holiday that only they observe. Victory Day, or Victory over Japan (V-J) Day, celebrates the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. Though the initial surrender announcement came on August 14, 1945, and the surrender document was signed on September 2, Rhode Islanders have been observing the second Monday of August as Victory Day since 1948. Other states that had recognized the holiday repealed it in the following decades, and when Arkansas abolished the holiday in 1975, Rhode Island was the only state left still observing it.
Why does Rhode Island, of all states, still mark V-J Day, and has the time come for it to follow the lead of the other 49 states?
I suspect that the answer to the first question is rather prosaic. The strength of Rhode Island’s public sector unions makes it difficult to abolish a paid public holiday. But should it cease its observance? After all, there are very few World War II veterans left, and many in Rhode Island treat the day as any other summer holiday.
V-J Day keeps alive the magnitude of the event, and even those who use the day to sail in Narragansett Bay or visit the beaches in Newport have more awareness of the event it marks than they would if it were abolished. It is easy to forget how difficult and bloody the Pacific war was up until the very end, and the million Allied casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of the home islands. It was a war that opened with humiliating and painful setbacks, but the determination and courage of the U.S. armed forces and citizens slowly but surely turned the tide.
The fact that the 1945 victory is receding into history along with the men who made it possible renders continued observance of V-J Day even more significant. It also highlights how long it has been since America’s last unambiguous and total victory. With the unconditional surrender, America was able to create a prosperous Japan on its own terms, and an American ally in a vital region. But total victory often means total war, and the bombing of Tokyo, siege, and atomic bombs were all major contributors to the Japanese surrender.
Were these means justified? Does America still have what it takes to force unconditional surrender? Will we ever face a war quite like WWII again—a conventional clash of major powers, with clear moral lines and a final, and deeply constructive, military and political resolution? These important questions are open to debate, and observance of V-J day reminds us that these questions, as well as the past sacrifice of our fighting men, remain worthy of our reflection and attention today.