Segment from Mission Accomplished

When Did World War II End?

Brian explores the meaning of “wartime” with Mary Dudziak, an historian at Emory University’s School of Law.  Well after V-J Day, Dudziak explains, American courts didn’t always consider World War II to be “over.”

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

PETER: We’re going to end this show today with the war that seems like it has the cleanest ending in American history. That war, of course, is World War II.

BRIAN: So let’s run through a couple of dates here. Dates that could be considered the end of the war. August 1945.

ED: That’s when Japan surrendered, and we get the memorable picture of the sailor kissing a woman in Times Square.

BRIAN: December of 1946.

PETER: That’s when President Truman declared an end to hostilities with Japan.

BRIAN: But what about four and a half years later, 1952? It’s the official end of hostilities with Germany, though the fighting had been over for years at that point. Suffice it to say, there are lots of options. So I put the question to Mary Dudziak, a legal historian at Emory University. You know, I think this is going to be very short interview. I really only have one question, and it’s pretty obvious. Can you tell me when World War II ended?

MARY DUDZIAK: The short answer is no.

BRIAN: [LAUGHING]. Well, great. Because we have a lot of radio time to fill. So maybe you can elaborate.

MARY DUDZIAK: Well, the Supreme Court actually had to decide your question. It had to decide, when did World War II end? And this came up in the context of a murder case. Lee v. Madigan. And Lee was accused of a murder that happened in a US Army prison in June 1949. And he was tried by a court martial and sentenced to death.

So the case went out all the way up to the Supreme Court, because under Article 92 of the Laws of War, you can’t be tried by court martial for rape or murder in the United States during times of peace. So Lee’s case hinged on the question of whether the date of the crime, June, 1949, was part of World War II, or whether World War II had ended before that.

Justice Douglas, he says, “The United States could be more for some purposes and at peace for others.” And so the question for this case was whether the United States was at war or peace for the purpose of Article 92 of the Laws of War. So it’s as if war and peace co-exist at any one time for the United States, depending upon what statute or regulation you’re looking at.

BRIAN: We’re talking about Supreme Court Justice Douglas. And what did he decide?

MARY DUDZIAK: And he decided that it was peacetime for the purpose of this case, essentially. And so therefore, the court martial and the death penalty were unconstitutional.

BRIAN: So if war existed or did not exist at different times, were there other instances where either the court or the legislative branch decided that war still went on?

MARY DUDZIAK: Absolutely. So Congress passed the Housing and Rent Act of 1947. This act allowed for rent control in certain defense areas. And this case was applied to the Cleveland defense area. So–

BRIAN: And I gather this was more than just the military base included.

MARY DUDZIAK: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BRIAN: These were commercial properties that we usually think of with rent control.

MARY DUDZIAK: So you couldn’t raise the rent more than 15%. There was a question about congressional power, because Congress usually isn’t involved in setting rents in localities.

BRIAN: Right.

MARY DUDZIAK: Right? But right after the act goes into effect, this landlord in Cleveland raises his rents 40% to 60% in violation of the act. So he gets sued. So the act comes up to the US Supreme Court. Supreme Court upholds it, and says that the effects of war on the economy can linger. There are continuing effects on the housing market from the war, largely because veterans were coming home in large numbers in ’45, ’46, ’47.

And then you had a slowdown in the housing market and housing construction during the war. And this combination of factors that was war-related was resulting in a housing shortage, which was then causing landlords to be able to spike up rents. So from the court’s perspective, this was a war-related effect. So the War Powers essentially continued beyond the war, and they appropriately sustained this legislation.

BRIAN: How could they argue the war was still going on in 1948?

MARY DUDZIAK: Well, we still had troops overseas. We had troops in Japan. We had troops in Germany.

BRIAN: You know what? We still do. So is World War II still going on, Mary?

MARY DUDZIAK: One of the ways I actually figure out start/stop dates is the US government issues military campaign service medals for particular hostilities. And if you look at start/stop dates for US military service medals, which are not medals for valor, they’re medals for honorable service during a particular conflict, those actually have firm dates.

BRIAN: And this is the military’s own decision as to whether there’s a war or not.

MARY DUDZIAK: Congress passes legislation authorizing these medals. So it’s actually a US government imprimatur. Here’s a war. Here’s where it ended. And so one way of answering your question, we still have troops in Germany and Japan, are we still in World War II? And one answer would be, well, you can no longer get a medal for that as a World War II campaign service medal, so no, we’re not at war.

BRIAN: When was the last World War II service medal handed out?

MARY DUDZIAK: Basically, it’s really complicated. But the official World War II medal ends December 31, 1946, which is the date that Truman declares the end of hostilities. But then we have all these ongoing medals that are available. Because you’ve got American troops stationed. So Austria, Germany, Italy, China, Korea, Berlin, and Japan, you basically have ongoing US deployments, but they’re going to call the medal something different.

And this happens in other contexts, like at one point in 2010, Obama announced that the conflict in Iraq had ended.

BRIAN: He didn’t say “mission accomplished,” did he?

MARY DUDZIAK: I call it his mission accomplished moment. Because basically, it was a media event. And the only people who seemed to think that the conflict in Iraq had ended were the Obama administration and NBC News that had all these embedded reporters. Embedded in trucks driving across the border. And so what happened right after that is, of course, there were 50,000 soldiers still in Iraq under dangerous conditions.

And so they said to their commanding officers, well, if conflict in Iraq has ended, does that mean we don’t get a medal anymore? Does that mean that our combat service pay goes away? And the army had to come right back and say, no, no, no, no. Combat in Iraq has ended, but combat conditions persist. And so, you’re still going to be able to get combat service pay and medals.

BRIAN: So Mary, judging just by looking at when medals were handed out, or perhaps judging by when combat pay was paid, using either measure, how long have we been at war since 1940? And how many years have we been at peace?

MARY DUDZIAK: Well, since 1940, there hasn’t been any peacetime.

BRIAN: Oh, come on.

MARY DUDZIAK: Again, if we look at campaign service medals, a soldier could always get a medal for being deployed under war-related circumstances since 1940. We’ve had soldiers deployed all over the world in conflicts large and small, in conflicts that break through to the radar screen of the American people and show up on TV, and conflicts that don’t.

BRIAN: Given everything that you’ve told us about really continuous war, why is it that we continue to divide history and time into wartime and peacetime? Why is it that we continue to expect Johnny to come marching home?

MARY DUDZIAK: The concept of wartime itself assumes that a war has a beginning and an end. Because outside of wartime is something that we call peace. And we persist in thinking that peace is actually the normal time and wartime is just a temporary disruption.

So this idea that peace is really the normal thing is a central cultural assumption. And so that’s one reason, I think, that we read these eras that are so full of war as eras that are peacetime.

BRIAN: Mary, thanks so much for joining us.

MARY DUDZIAK: Thank you so much, Brian.

BRIAN: Mary Dudziak is a legal historian at Emory University. She’s the author of Wartime– An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences.