Seven days ago I had the opportunity to relive the American experience in the Second World War in one morning. In reverse. As part of the Regal Princess‘ stop at the port of Honolulu, I took part in a tour of the memorials to the USS Arizona and USS Missouri. In case your command of WWII facts is rusty, the Arizona is a battleship sunk during the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on 1941 December 7 – the date that will live in infamy. The Missouri is part of the American response to that act. It’s an Iowa class battleship, the largest ever built and the last in service. On the decks of the Missouri, on 1945 September 2, the Japanese government signed the papers surrendering to the United Nations. In between, tens of millions of people died – nearly half a million of them American.
For reasons having to do with long lines and scheduling, my tour group actually explored the Missouri memorial first. The Missouri Memorial is, in fact, the Missouri – all of BB 63, anchored and refit as a floating museum. It’s not exactly a WWII monument. During the half century between VJ Day and its decommissioning, the Missouri served as a flagship of the United States Navy. It saw action in Korea, in Viet Nam, and even in the (first) Gulf War. During this span it was modernized and upgraded: the seaplane replaced with helicopters; the machine guns replaced with gatling anti-air. A full complement of Tomahawk cruise missile launchers was installed. In case all of that should fail, though, the Mighty Mo’ kept her main armament, nine 16-inch cannon in three independent turrets.
For all of the intimidating bigness of the battleship, the most stirring part turned out to be the surrender documents. Both copies – American and Japanese – are displayed. I was struck by the contrast of grand and mundane. At one glance are all the grandiose phrases calling for the end of war and the dedication to new peace. But look a little closer and you see the mark of a very human moment, where the representative of Canada, in his nervousness, signed on the wrong line and necessitated a hurried penciled correction. MacArthur insisted that the proper titles be penciled in and each signatory initial next to his correct line. How bizarre – between them, these men had fought the most devastating war ever known, had overseen barbarities of a nature hard to contemplate, had rained down obliteration on entire cities and had sent thousands of men to their deaths to do it. Yet here they were, worried that somehow, a signature in the wrong place could render the document worthless and the exercise moot.
Yet that’s the way of it, isn’t it? Paper covers rock. We think it’s the things that matter, but somehow, it’s the pieces of paper that seem to actually change the course of history. World War I became World War I, in a sense, with the British treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality – dismissed as just a “scrap of paper” by the German High Command. World War II spread to the West and became a World War with the Allied treaty of defense with Poland, again dismissed as just words on a page. In both cases, the powers that derided the words went on to be humbled by them.
The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution of the United States. The Magna Carta and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Emancipation Proclamation. The Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter. Words on a page. Scraps of paper. But nothing more feared by tyrants, more despised by despots. It’s no accident that the Soviet Union registered all typewriters and made private possession of a mimeograph a felony offense.
And here, under glass, on the gently rolling deck of the mightiest warship ever constructed, was a piece of paper that had ended a war because it said so. The history of the war was written in the blood of its combatants – but it was ended through ink. The document contains little in the way of soaring oratory or grand pronouncements. It is a legal thing, a dry thing, a weary thing yet resplendent. That piece of paper recognized a changed reality and so enabled it.
Scraps of paper.
Word on a page.
Paper covers rock.
May it always be so.