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Secretary of Defense Remarks for the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II

Aloha everyone, and thank you for joining us on this special day. Thank you, Admiral Davidson, for that kind introduction, and thank you to Governor Ige for the warm welcome and hospitality. It is my great honor to be on the deck of this historic ship as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and reflect on the sacrifices and victories of our Service members and allies who helped fight for – and secure – peace.

I would like to extend a very special welcome to the members of the Greatest Generation here with us this morning, whose remarkable stories of courage and heroism are forever etched into our Nation’s heart and history. It is because of your selfless service and sacrifice that we live in peace and prosperity today. And it is your legacy that inspires us in our efforts to uphold the freedoms and values for which you so nobly fought. Thank you! 

It is fitting that we are gathered here on the USS Missouri, where the conflict in the Pacific came to an end on this day, in 1945. This ship, which was built for war, has since been dedicated to peace and reconciliation. It now rests in the very harbor where more than 2,400 Americans paid the ultimate price nearly eight decades ago, at the beginning of World War II. This morning, we pay tribute to all those we lost on that infamous date in 1941, and to the millions more who demonstrated our collective resolve and commitment to freedom in the years of war and hardship that followed.

We remember heroes like Floyd Welch, an electrician’s mate, who helped save the lives of more than 30 sailors trapped in the sinking USS Oklahoma. With pinpoint precision, he cut holes in the ship’s hull, freeing the sailors without igniting fuel cells. 

And, we honor sailors like Mess Attendant Dorie Miller – the namesake of the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. Miller assisted his mortally wounded Captain aboard the USS West Virginia, then manned an anti-aircraft gun, with no formal training, to blunt the onslaught of enemy fighters and bombers. 

Since then, the memory of these men and those we lost in the attack on December 7th has served as an eternal reminder of the consequences of war – the human toll and tragedy – the debt paid in freedom’s name, and the imperative of remaining ever vigilant.

Throughout the war, millions of our countrymen answered the Nation’s call with great courage and selflessness. Americans of all faiths, races, and ethnicities; from all walks of life and vocation, rich to poor; and from all corners of the country, from cities to suburbs to farms – they left behind their loved ones, men and women alike, to sail across oceans and join allies in a desperate fight for liberty. 

From the deserts of Tunisia, to the islands of Midway; and from the beaches of Normandy, to the hills of Iwo Jima, these intrepid patriots stood arm-in-arm, and shoulder to shoulder, with our allies, determined to achieve total victory no matter how long it took.

Meanwhile, on the home front, millions of other Americans served as civil defense volunteers, learning essential skills such as first-aid, air defense, and firefighting. Many more bought war bonds, rationed consumer goods, and recycled scarce materials. 

Entrepreneurs, innovators, and production workers transformed assembly lines and industrial plants into the arsenal of democracy, ensuring military production kept pace with the needs of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen. And, most importantly, though often separated by great distances and different challenges, the American people forged an unbreakable commitment to the cause of liberty, one that lives on to this day.

World War II was an inflection point in the history of our great nation – and for humanity writ large. The global fight against tyranny and oppression cost more than 70 million lives and caused unimaginable loss for the United States and our allies. Virtually no household was left untouched by the scale or scope of its wanton destruction.

The human toll of the deadliest conflict in history led to the creation of a new world out of the rubble of the old, one that began with Imperial Japan’s surrender on this ship, 75 years ago. The war fundamentally altered the global balance of power and reshaped the international order into one led by like-minded nations, grounded in common purpose and shared values that prepared them well for a decades-long struggle against Soviet communism that would soon follow. 

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States assumed the mantle and responsibility of leadership, recognizing that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would no longer protect us from conflicts started abroad; from ideologies with hegemonic ambitions; or from governments with malign intentions. It was America’s time to lead, and we did so guided by our founding principles and core values.

The United States rose to that challenge. We built relationships with like-minded nations based on reciprocal trade, not predatory economics; based on respect for the sovereignty of all countries, not a strategy of “might makes right”; based on a commitment to always honoring our international obligations, not just when they serve our interests; and most importantly, based on our enduring values and beliefs.

The result was today’s international rules-based order that has provided security, prosperity, and stability to billions of people around the world for well over a half century. It set new standards and protocols when it comes to matters of trade and diplomacy; it raised the bar when it comes to human rights and individual freedoms; and it created new expectations regarding the use of force and the way countries should treat one another.

Today, in the face of new challenges to this free and open order, we are working to build an even broader coalition of partners – one that includes both longtime friends and former adversaries – to protect the hard-fought gains of generations past and present…especially in the Pacific. We share an important goal – defending the sacred principles that benefit us all: democracy, liberty, sovereignty, human rights, mutual respect, and the rule of law. 

To do so, we continue to forge new partnerships and strengthen our existing ones across this region – from our alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, to our long collaboration with ASEAN countries, India, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. Growing, deepening, and unifying this network must remain central to our collective strategy to ensure peace and prosperity for another 75 years and beyond. We welcome every nation – especially those that have benefited the most from today’s international system – to join us in this effort. 

For decades, the United States and our partners have based our efforts on the belief that today’s free and open order, however imperfect, is worth fighting for. And while this system has largely remained intact, we cannot take it for granted or leave its future up to chance. That is why, together, we are committed to improving it and remain ready to defend it – much like the Greatest Generation did when history called and fate challenged them.

Seventy-five years ago today, the great American naval hero Admiral Chester Nimitz sent a message to the Pacific Fleet regarding the end of the war. He reflected on the heavy cost of victory, and our “solemn obligation” to the fallen, which was, in his words, quote: “The obligation to ensure that their sacrifice will help to make this a better and safer world in which to live.” 

Our work today continues in this spirit. As we look to the path ahead, we honor the legacy of those who came before us, and recommit ourselves to defending today’s international rules and norms so that the world is safer and better for generations yet to come. 

This means embracing the importance of what President Ronald Reagan called “peace through strength,” and building a military and alliance structure to match that imperative. 

The United States’ commitment to the world today is the same one we made to the freedom-loving people of the world in 1941: that we will remain ready to fight any foe and defend any friend; and, that we will safeguard our values and all that we hold dear, at every turn, in any place. We will not back down, and we will not yield. Freedom is far too precious to do otherwise; and the sacrifice of those who came before us, far too great.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you once again for commemorating this historic anniversary with us today. May God bless the members of the Greatest Generation, and all of our veterans, Service members, and allies across the globe. 

And, may God bless the United States of America.

Thank you.