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Reshaping the World as the Atomic Age Dawns

World War II effectively ends in 1945 when the United States detonates an atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, and another over Nagasaki on August 9.

Photograph shows atomic bomb mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.
Nagasaki, Japan under atomic bomb attack. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. [Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ds-05458].

Six days later, the Japanese Imperial Government surrenders. Formal articles of surrender are signed September 2 on board the U.S.S. Missouri as it lays at anchor in Tokyo Bay.

San Francisco Bay, with its vast natural harbor and multiple anchorages, is a sprawling staging and embarkation point for much of America’s Pacific campaign during the war.

The bay’s shoreline is studded with Army and Navy bases. The Presidio of San Francisco, founded in 1776, overlooks the Golden Gate. Founded in 1854, Mare Island is the oldest naval shipyard in the country.

There’s the Naval Air Station in Alameda, established just prior to World War II, and Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in Marin. Interspersed among the bases and military shipyards are civilian shipyards, support industries, and oil refineries.

As the second world war nears its end, San Francisco plays the first of two significant but largely forgotten roles in shaping the postwar world.

A few months before Victory-in-Japan Day, the city hosts the “San Francisco Conference” in Arthur Brown Jr.’s majestic War Memorial Opera House. The conference produces the United Nations Charter that becomes the “constitution” of international relations in the postwar world.

President Harry Truman offers the Presidio to the newborn United Nations for its headquarters. The Presidio is nearly twice the size of New York City’s Central Park.. The Soviet Union objects, and the current site of the United Nations on the East River is selected.

At the closing ceremony of the San Francisco conference, Truman says this to the assembled representatives of 50 nations:

“We all have to recognize — no matter how great our strength — that we must deny ourselves the license to do as we please. This is the price each nation will have to pay for world peace.”

A few years later, San Francisco again hosts, in the same venue, another conference of nations, this one producing the Treaty of San Francisco. That treaty, signed by 49 nations on September 8, 1951, formally ends the war in the Pacific between Japan and the 49 signatories, among them the United States.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shigeru Yoshida, signs the San Francisco Peace Treaty on September 8, 1951 at the War Memorial Opera House/Wikipedia

The treaty enumerates islands and other territories seized by Japan during the war, and over which Japan, by the treaty, renounces sovereignty.

This treaty not only ends the American-led Allied occupation of Japan but helps create the so-called “San Francisco system” which governs Japan’s relations with the United State, and its role in international affairs, for decades.

The system involves a series of political, military and economic alliances between the “hub” of the United States its five pacific “spokes:” Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. 

View of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction with the Presidio seen in the foreground and the Marin Headlands in the distance. The bridge towers and suspension cables are seen.
Presidio and Golden Gate, 1935 [2009-0568] California State Library


John Briscoe

John Briscoe, winner of the 2020 Oscar Lewis Award in Western History, is a poet, author, and international lawyer. 

He is a Distinguished Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, which will publish his oral history late this year, and is president of the San Francisco Historical Society.