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Scott MacKay’s Victory Day Musings

August 6, 2010

Rhode Island is the last state to commemorate the Allied victory over Japan in World War II with a legal holiday. Why do we so cherish this holiday that every other state has abolished.? In his Monday morning essay, WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay takes a look at this Rhode Island quirk.

If ever a state was at the center of the American war effort in World War II, it was Rhode Island. From Westerly to Woonsocket and everywhere in between, Rhode Island was focused on winning what has become known as, in Studs Terkel’s famous words, `The Good War.’
Newport was home to the Atlantic destroyer fleet, where thousands of sailors trained for service abroad. Quonset hosted thousands of troops who built Quonset huts and trained engineers and Seabees to work on ships. PT boats were built in Bristol and the man who was to become the most  celebrated PT commander in history, John F. Kennedy, received his training at the navy’s station at Melville.
Kennedy was one of three future presidents who had Rhode Island on their war time resumes. A young navy pilot, George H.W. Bush, learned night flying skills at the naval station in Charlestown and Richard Nixon was stationed for a time at Quonset. It comes as no surprise that young Kennedy had the best time here of the three; he had a fancy convertible and became popular for taking his navy buddies on weekend forays to the Providence Biltmore Hotel’s Bacchante Room to meet and dance with women.
But the naval presence was only a small part of the Rhode Island war effort. When Franklin Roosevelt said that the United States would become the arsenal of democracy, he could have been speaking about Rhode Island. A state that suffered through the Depression suddenly blossomed into an industrial powerhouse when war came. Liberty ships were made in Providence, torpedoes in Newport, army blankets and uniforms in textile mills all over the state. The machine shops of the Blackstone Valley thrummed with parts for guns. Even the jewelry makers flourished, turning out medals for the armed forces.
The war also brought social change – with men at war, women and minorities, even black women, got jobs in war plants and on military bases.
This holiday was originally called VJ – Victory Over Japan Day. But president Truman changed it to Victory Day shortly after the war. In 1948, the Rhode Island General Assembly followed suit, changing the name to Victory Day. Still, many Rhode Islanders persisted in using the term VJ Day.
In the 1980s and 1990s, local Japanese-American groups tried several times at the State House to change the name of Victory Day to `Rhode Island Veterans Day.’ But every time the legislation came up the local American Legion halls emptied and World War II vets thronged the State House.
The veterans lobby was too strong to buck and in recent years there have been no erious efforts to change the name. In 1999, the Asembly did decree that state agencies take care to use Victory Day and not VJ day as the official name of the holiday.
Despite some historical revisionism, World War II still resonates to Americans as a just war, one in which the country was united and held the moral high ground. Except in small circles, the belief in a righteous war that defeated the monstrous Hitler and an imperialist Japan has not wavered. And World War II was a war with a definite goal _ unconditional victory_ and it was met.  The U.S. involvement lasted roughly 4 years,  much less than wars since.  On the home front it is remembered by many as a sweet time of national purpose around a unified mission. It had none of the ambiguities of wars since, including Vietnam and the current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The two wars that Americans still fight about politically and culturally are the Civil War and the Vietnam conflict. Not so with WWII.
Now, Japan is one of our nation’s most important allies. And for most Rhode Islanders, Victory Day signifies little more than a mid-summer three-day weekend. There is no equivalent of the Bristol Fourth parade today. So fire up the Toyota, pack some Sushi in your picnic basket and head for one of Rhode Island’s fabulous state parks or beaches.  Or curl up on the couch and flick on the Sony big screen to watch the Yankees play the Red Sox. Have a happy holiday.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:30 and 8:30.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Whewellene & Al Fischer permalink
    August 8, 2010 12:08 am

    Scott,

    This is a great article! You are really a history expert.

  2. Jim Roehm permalink
    August 9, 2010 1:36 pm

    I heard your comment on WRNI this morning and thought it was terrific. Didn’t know Pres. Nixon had been at Quonset. I had already made a post on my Facebook about RI being the last state to honor WW2 valor, unity and courage and now I just posted your comment link. Good stuff, Scott.

    May RI continue to honor this observation.

Trackbacks

  1. Happy Victory Day, an only-in-RI institution since 1975 | WPRI.com Blogs
  2. Happy Victory Day, an only-in-Rhode Island institution since ’75 | WPRI.com Blogs

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