It’s easy to think of Memorial Day as just another patriotic summer holiday. Along with Independence Day, Memorial Day is a reason to fly the flag, fire up the grill, and remember those who have fought for our country. But unlike Veterans Day, which honors all those who have worn the uniform, Memorial Day pays tribute specifically to the fallen. That’s an important distinction, but there’s another distinction that Memorial Day doesn’t make: the reason our soldiers died. Memorial Day honors the sacrifice, in other words, but not the causes that inspired people to die for their country.
The United States does not commemorate the end of specific wars. In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, dissolving the remembrance of World War I in favor of a more universal tribute. V-E Day, which marks the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, has never been a federal holiday. Over 70 years later, World War II’s milestones remain uncelebrated in this country. Well, mostly uncelebrated: Rhode Island commemorates the end of World War II, but it is the only state that still does so.
On August 14, 1945, known as V-J Day, President Harry Truman announced that the Japanese had surrendered, bringing years of brutal warfare to a close. Speaking from the White House, Truman said: “This is the day we have been waiting for since Pearl Harbor. This is the day when Fascism finally dies, as we always knew it would.” Celebrations broke out across the country, including an impromptu parade in Times Square that gave birth to the iconic photo of a sailor kissing a nurse.
In March 1948, Rhode Island’s General Assembly passed a bill making “Victory Day” a state holiday—a rarity, even then. By 1955, Rhode Island and Arkansas were the only two states that officially celebrated the war’s conclusion. In 1975, Arkansas gave Victory Day the boot, leaving the Ocean State on its own—with the exception of annual parades in Seymour, Indiana and Moosup, Connecticut. During the 1990s, Rhode Islanders themselves began to balk at Victory Day. Despite the state’s best efforts, many old-timers still call it V-J Day, while on the other side, activists objected to a holiday that they believed glorified the subjugation of another nation.
As the debate played out, John Alneida, a Rhode Island resident who joined the Naval Reserves in 1941, offered a simple defense of the embattled holiday: “I do support Victory Day, because I believe in liberty and I believe that everybody should be free.” Much like Truman’s victory speech, Alneida’s comment highlights the virtue of celebrating the end of World War II. It’s not to revel in the defeat of a country or its people, but to celebrate the triumph of freedom over its political enemies.
When Rhode Island celebrates the 71st annual Victory Day later this year, it shouldn’t be alone. Now more than ever, America ought to commemorate what took place in 1945. Of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, just under 500,000 remained alive in 2018. World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 350 per day. The last surviving World War II vet will likely die sometime in 2044.
Before that happens, we owe these soldiers a display of national gratitude—but a holiday commemorating World War II will be even more important when they’re gone. Tomorrow’s children will be born into a country that has forgotten the legacy of the war, and not just because those who fought it are no longer with us. The idea of the “Greatest Generation” has gone from honorific to punchline. Today, we’re quick to criticize America’s wartime decisions, whether the firebombing of Dresden or the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even the photo of the sailor and nurse, once the jubilant symbol of a triumphant nation, is viewed by some as a depiction of sexual assault.
National forgetting doesn’t bode well for the future. Today, too many Americans deride any opposing viewpoint as beyond the pale. Political opponents are casually smeared as “Nazis.” We fail to take seriously the evils of twentieth-century fascism, in part because we no longer acknowledge the moral rectitude of the Allies. We’re less equipped now to defeat fascism in its resurgent cultural manifestations.
Those living in the Eastern European countries that bore the brunt of Hitler’s murderous campaigns understand this well. Their countries still mark the end of World War II with pageantry and parades. Nothing less than the fate of the world hung in the balance during those six long years. Had things gone the other way, humanity would have taken an unimaginably dark turn. That is well worth celebrating, now and forever.