Japanese surrender signatories arrive Sept. 2, 1945 aboard the USS MISSOURI in Tokyo Bay to participate in surrender ceremonies.

Washington, DC – Sixty-six years ago, August 14, 1945, the bloodiest war in human history finally ended with a radio broadcast by President Harry S. Truman. Even before the instrument of surrender was formally signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, plans to demobilize the 16 million American men and women in uniform were being carried out. Though the conflict claimed nearly 50 million lives – including more than 400,000 American dead and another 670,000 wounded – it was the beginning of an era of great expectations for our “Greatest Generation” and its progeny. 

Unlike those in Europe, Africa and Asia, our cities had not been razed, our fields were not sown with unexploded ordnance and our industries were not laid waste.

Though our losses still were being mourned, and “war bonds” had yet to be paid, our government was nonetheless intact, and prospects for peace and prosperity were deemed realistic.

Words such as “victorious,” “powerful” and “exceptional” were routinely used to describe our people and our nation. Though there were concerns about Moscow’s designs for hegemony, it was reasonable to anticipate that America’s political leadership and our economic and military prowess would remain the cornerstone for global tranquility. None of that exists today. 

The North Atlantic Alliance we created to defeat Adolf Hitler’s fascist legions and protect against the threat of Soviet expansion is now in ruins – incapable of bringing even a tinhorn despot like Muammar Gaddafi to heel. The aircraft, ships and military hardware necessary to protect us and our Western allies – including our former adversaries Germany and Japan – are deemed to be too expensive to build.

New threats, such as a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea, are ignored. Meanwhile, flaccid political leaders in Washington and Europe continue to loot national treasuries to fund unaffordable social programs and “entitlements.”

Whole nations, ours included, are now being bankrupted by catastrophic “sovereign debt.” It’s fair to ask, What happened to those post-WW II expectations for an increasingly better future?
The answer, of course, is an absence of leadership. No leaders equals no future. The good news in this country – unlike in Iran and Syria – is that we can use ballots instead of bullets to fire our leaders. An election can change everything. As we watch images of cars and businesses being torched in Greece and Great Britain, we need to be thinking about the kind of leaders we want to elect 15 months from now.

“We the People” also must answer some tough questions in the days ahead. Is the era of American “exceptionalism” really over? Must our head of state traipse around the world apologizing for who we are and what we do? Do we really want our president and Congress to “balance the books” – even if they could – by unilaterally disarming the U.S. and gutting our military? Will we continue to be subject to the whims of foreign potentates for energy resources instead of using our own? Should we smother the great engine of free enterprise with onerous regulations that destroy productivity and give advantage to our global competitors? Are we to continue a system of taxation that punishes success just to “redistribute” wealth? How can we best care for “the least of our brethren” without making promises that cannot be kept?

Because our current chief executive and Congress have been unable or unwilling to address questions such as these, our armed forces face massive budget cuts while more than 100,000 young Americans are in harm’s way. Social “safety net” programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, are on the verge of insolvency. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and homes. Our nation’s AAA credit rating has been downgraded. And massive gyrations in global financial and commodity markets threaten retirement security for baby boomers – the sons and daughters of those who won World War II. 

To solve all these urgent challenges, a 12-member, bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has been appointed to present a plan for how our government should cut federal spending and increase “revenues.” Congress is now in recess. The president is headed for a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Meanwhile, this “supercommittee” is supposed to deliver its recommendations by Thanksgiving and get it all signed into law by Christmas. It’s mission impossible – and another cop-out by our elected “leaders.”

Real leadership isn’t committed by committee; consensus is built by leaders. Real leaders cannot promise more than they can deliver and expect others to follow. And real leaders know that unfulfilled expectations are the greatest cause of anger on the planet or in politics.