With solemn words of remembrance for more than 300,000 American war dead, President Clinton marked the 50th anniversary of the official end of World War II on Saturday and urged the nation to recapture the spirit of unity it found in battle half a century ago.
In a long day of military ceremonies capped by a parade of thousands of aged veterans of the Pacific war down the streets of Waikiki, Clinton said America's victory over Japan in 1945 was won because in "that brilliant time . . . our people cared for each other and sacrificed for others."
"For America, World War II was the pivot point of [the] century, the moment when we understood more than at any other time the core of the American spirit, the ties that bind us together and the duty we owe to one another," the President said in a speech at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where more than 33,000 military dead are buried in a grass-carpeted extinct volcanic crater known as the Punchbowl.
As thousands of veterans watched under somber, clouded skies and flurries of gentle tropical rain, Clinton laid a wreath in memory of the Americans who died in the war, with a ribbon reading "A Grateful Nation Remembers." Marine gunners fired a 21-gun salute, and two bugles played a sweet, sad taps that echoed across Oahu's green hills.
Later in the day, Clinton laid a second wreath at the sunken hulk of the battleship Arizona, destroyed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, an attack that left 1,177 dead. Almost four years later, on Sept. 2, 1945, after a grueling naval and amphibious struggle across the breadth of the Pacific, the Japanese empire signed the instruments of surrender aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, ending a global war that killed 55 million worldwide.
Clinton's remarks in the day's commemorations were studiously nonpartisan and apolitical. He even made a point of noting the heroism of his Republican predecessor, President George Bush, who was shot down in the Pacific as a young naval aviator and rescued by a U.S. submarine exactly 51 years ago--on Sept. 2, 1944.
He paid tribute to the citizen soldiers who fought "on the front lines of fear," in "rain-drenched jungles and on rocky ridges, under the seas, over the waves [and] in the clouds." And he remembered, as well, those on the home front: "They built democracy's arsenal. . . . They planted the victory gardens. . . . They learned to do with less in every part of their lives so those in uniform could conduct the war."
Still, the President's invocations of the wartime spirit of unity and sacrifice carried a quiet but unmistakable echo of his favorite themes in current American politics: the need for more civility and the value of common efforts, coordinated by the federal government, to tackle national problems.
"Americans found in World War II unity a shared mission, strength in a common purpose," he said. "More than ever in World War II, our United States were truly united."
That commitment to national effort continued into the postwar years, he continued.
"In peace, as in war, they understood that developing and uniting the energy and genius of every American is the best way to fulfill our country's potential.
"Before the war, in the darkness of the Great Depression, millions . . . could only have dreamed of going on to college, could only have dreamed of building a better life than your parents had," he said, addressing the veterans. "But after the war, you seized the opportunities a grateful nation offered. You took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights. You became graduates. You bought your first home."
Clinton did not mention it, but in a conscious attempt to recall that time, he has dubbed his own package of proposals for education benefits and tax cuts a "middle-class bill of rights." Those proposals have made almost no progress in the Republican-led Congress.
In his weekly radio address, the President delivered a V-J Day message with a harder edge, accusing Republicans of breaking faith with current military personnel by proposing to reduce their retirement benefits.
The GOP-led House Committee on National Security has approved a plan to cut benefits for as many as 800,000 members of the armed forces who retire after Sept. 30 this year as part of a budget-trimming effort. The plan, which has not been passed by the House or Senate, would cut some retirees' benefits as much as $200 per month.
"When the veterans of World War II came home, America was ready to pay its debt to our soldiers," Clinton said. "For over 50 years, all Americans who have joined our military have known that they are making a bargain with America, and that in return for their service to our country, our country will stand by them.
"I think that kind of broken commitment is unconscionable.
"When the veterans of World War II came home, America was ready to pay its debt to our soldiers. . . . As long as I'm President, we're not going to break our word to members of our armed forces or our veterans."
Clinton, who avoided military service during the Vietnam War, has had a prickly relationship with many veterans--and even some active-duty military personnel. In response, the President has made a point of championing benefits for the armed services and its retirees.
For the estimated 10,000 veterans who took part in the day's ceremonies, though, such issues seemed distant as they remembered the battles of their youth and their comrades who were lost.
"One of my high school buddies is buried here," said Jake Terhall, 76, who spent much of the war as an antiaircraft gunner at Camp Callan near La Jolla, guarding the San Diego County coast from Japanese attack.
"Rod Kluberdanz," he recalled, looking across a field of gravestones, each with a tiny American flag fluttering at its head. "He was at Pearl Harbor. All they found was his little finger."
"Well," he smiled. "I'll be here next."