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65 years later, V-J Day still a pivotal moment in history
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Listen as Steve Nicklas, an assistant professor of anthropology at Gainesville State College, discusses the significance of V-J Day.

Church bells rang out, fire engines rang their sirens and — as we know from the famous picture — a seaman and a nurse locked lips in New York City's Times Square.

The Japanese surrender 65 years ago this weekend, after atomic bombs had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, meant more than victory over Japan. It signified the end of World War II, the deadliest conflict the world had ever seen.

Specifically though, the United States, which entered the war only after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, had emerged as a superpower.

"The use of the atomic bomb to end the war indicated, I think, more than anything else the relative economic, military and scientific strength of the United States when compared to the other nations," said Chris Jesperson, dean of the School of Arts and Letters at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega.

Richard Byers, an associate professor in the college's history and philosophy department, said the U.S. had become the "most powerful nation, arguably ever, in the history of the world."

"Its victory over Japan and Germany, in coordination with the other nations, is really an epoch-changing moment in global history," he said.

"It's one of those ironic things that our nation has gone on to so many great successes since then that in some ways that moment has been forgotten.

"I think it's (a historic event) that we should always look back on somewhat proudly and recognize what we were able to achieve and what it meant, not only for our own soldiers but for all the peoples of the world."

Northeast Georgia certainly contributed to the war effort. The Freedom Garden at the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University bears the inscribed names of Hall County veterans who fought and died in the war.

The U.S. Navy operated a school at what is now Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville, training personnel in instrument landing and ground control approach systems.

But just as the news broke on Aug. 14, the Gainesville-Hall County area erupted in celebration.

"As soon as the news was received, firemen immediately drove the big ladder truck about the streets of the city, sirens wide open, followed by a parade of citizens in cars, blowing horns," declared the then-weekly Gainesville News on Aug. 16, 1945.

The Japanese surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, but because of the time zone difference, the news hit America on Aug. 14. On Sept. 2, the Japanese and Americans signed formal papers aboard the USS Missouri.

"The public square was filled with people milling about, while youngsters drove cars around, blowing horns, shouting and making merry in every possible way."

The U.S. had reason to be in a festive mood. It had defeated two of the world's most evil regimes and avoided what would have been an extremely bloody Allied invasion of Japan.

"It's the day everyone had been hoping and praying and fighting and dying for, for four years," said Glen Kyle, the history center's managing director.

"... You could say that that day and the following several months were the peak of American political and military power."

Before the war ended, many troops fighting in Europe had been transferred to the Pacific Theater, where Japan was relentless in the defense of its territory, recruiting pilots to engage in suicide missions against U.S. warships.

"I think it can be stated without any fear of contradiction that the United States won the war in the Pacific without too much help from anybody else," said Steve Nicklas, an assistant professor of anthropology at Gainesville State College.

"We took the brunt of the casualties and inflicted the brunt of the casualties on the Japanese."

For countries in the Pacific, the United States served as liberator.

"The end of the war meant the road to independence, the end of colonialism," Nicklas said. "In many ways, it brought about an entirely new world order, and we were responsible for that."

Before World War II, the United States wasn't so inclined to meddle in political troubles across the globe.

"The one thing I would say, with regard to V-J Day, is it's quite clear that the United States has to be engaged in the world," Jespersen said. "Prior to World War II, that was not necessarily the case.

"There was certainly strong sentiment politically during the 1930s that Europe's problems were its own, Asia's problems were its own."

V-J Day would mark the beginning of a new era in history, a tense time of Cold War superpowers Russia and the U.S. engaging in a nuclear arms race. Americans feared and politicians railed against the spread of communism.

"If you look at the geopolitical situation at the end of the war, there was a lot of pressure on the United States to go easy on the Japanese, because at that point and time it had become apparent that we would be dealing with the Russians and we needed allies in that region," Nicklas said.

As far as days go marking military remembrances, V-J Day doesn't have quite the notoriety of a Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Schools will go on and people won't be taking time off for family outings.

But V-J Day has slipped into our subconsciousness, with the iconic images of celebration and ceremony, and become part of U.S. culture.

"World War II is remembered by Americans as the good war," said Sung Shin Kim, an assistant professor in NGCSU's history department.

"It sort of became a reference point for Americans for how war should actually be like," she said. "... These persisting images, like V-J Day, you can see even in 2003 when (then President) George W. Bush (gave) the ‘mission accomplished' speech on the aircraft carrier, which harks back to this memory in '45, the signing of the treaty on the Missouri."