On the cool, cloudy morning of Sept. 2, 1945, a Japanese delegation led by Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu and Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu boarded the U.S. battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. On the galley deck, dozens of Allied generals and admirals stood in ranks. Two copies of the Instrument of Surrender rested on a green-baize-covered table.
Japanese Emperor Hirohito had agreed to surrender 18 days earlier. No one knew what to expect of the coming occupation of Japan.
As the Japanese and the other dignitaries waited on deck, coffee and cinnamon rolls were served in Adm. Bill Halsey's private wardroom to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied Powers, and Adm. Chester Nimitz, chief of the Pacific Fleet.
In one corner of the compartment, a handcrafted leather saddle was on display. Halsey had publicly declared that he would seize Hirohito's famous white horse as a trophy of war. The saddle had been sent as a gift by his admirers in the United States.
At 9 a.m., MacArthur stepped out on deck, followed by Nimitz and Halsey.
As the Japanese delegation later descended the gangway, hundreds of American B-29 bombers and carrier planes thundered overhead at low altitude. The message was clear. Japan lay prostrate, and the conqueror's power was absolute.
While returning to Tokyo, the Japanese listened to MacArthur's radio broadcast to the American people.
Japan, he said, would be liberated and rebuilt on democratic foundations. Its economy would recover by building "vertically rather than horizontally"--that is, at home rather than through foreign conquests. Japanese ingenuity and energy would be redirected to constructive ends.
Toshikazu Kase, an aide to Shigemitsu, later said he was "thunderstruck" by the speech. The Japanese had dreaded the coming occupation.
Retaining Hirohito as a constitutional monarch, MacArthur made the emperor a vital ally. He oversaw the drafting of a democratic constitution guaranteeing basic rights to all citizens, and introduced social, legal and economic reforms.
When the moment came for MacArthur to speak for the victorious Allies, he exceeded his mandate by speaking for all nations, including the defeated. Halsey would never ride the emperor's white horse, and the Japanese people would not starve. Japanese democracy, which turns 75 years old today, is MacArthur's greatest legacy.
Ian Toll is the author of "Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945," the final entry in his nonfiction trilogy about the Pacific War.