We’ve all heard the references. The fight against the coronavirus pandemic is a war, and not just any war. The Detroit Free Press was already noting in mid-March that “2020 America is gravitating to World War II as the go-to comparison for the current battle against a deadly germ.” President Donald Trump has invoked its spirit: “To this day, nobody has ever seen anything like it, what they were able to do during World War II,” he said at a White House briefing. “Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.” At the end of April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made a more granular analogy: “Ventilators are to this war what bombs were to World War Two.”
It’s easy to see why politicians as far apart as Trump and Cuomo would want to invoke the Second World War. It was a shared fight against a remorseless enemy, and its example is heartening. The U.S. decisively won the war against the Axis powers and in the aftermath emerged stronger and globally preeminent, at the start of a growth curve that lasted three decades.
But if you look more closely at the real experience of World War II, and why it turned out the way it did, the comparison is disheartening at best, and—if you’re inclined toward pessimism—genuinely worrisome. For reasons ranging from the nature of the enemy to historical timing to political will, we are in a much bleaker place today than our forebears were when that war that ended 75 years ago. And the economic lesson may be exactly backward.
The war years, from December 7, 1941, to September 2, 1945, were times of genuine anxiety and heartbreak. More than 16 million Americans were under arms during that war; 405,399 were killed, 671,278 wounded. If you adjust for population, Covid-19 would have to kill a million Americans for the death toll to be as high. Most of those were young men in the prime of life; every family with a father, son, husband or brother in the service lived with the possibility of a loved one never coming home. Even families without a relative in uniform felt the impact personally in the rationing of staples like food and gasoline. Travel by road, rail and air was a logistical nightmare.
But the United States itself was still an essentially safe place. Two oceans protected it from attack by its foes; the closest thing to an attack was a near-comical attempt by Japan to float balloon bombs across the West Coast. The nation’s massive civil defense effort, the nightly blackouts in major cities and the distribution of gas masks, were at root “security theater.” No one feared to shake a hand, gather at a coffee shop, spend a night out. By 1943, movie attendance topped 200 million, and there were lines outside restaurants and nightclubs across the country. Home front activity ranged from the planting of victory gardens to scrap metal and newspaper drives to War Bond fundraisers. At the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, major league baseball continued throughout the war, even with stars like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams serving in military uniform. Hollywood celebrities drew huge crowds at events promoting the sale of war bonds.
The contrast between the public energy of wartime America and today’s nation in lockdown, with shuttered schools, theaters, restaurants, shops, and offices—could not be more striking. True, we have other ways of connecting, and thanks to online video chats, some are now closer to their far-flung relatives than before. But that’s far from the sense of collective spirit that animated society during WWII—or, for that matter, after more recent crises like 9/11. In fact it’s almost the opposite: Togetherness is impossible, even banned, and an already atomized America has retreated to tiny family and friend groups, cut off from even basic expressions of community life like church, or parades, or voting in person. At the most basic level, the war has pulled us apart.
It’s the economic contrast with WWII, however, where things really get bleak. With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic this year, more than a decade of economic expansion slammed into a brick wall. At least 30 million Americans lost their jobs in the space of a month and a half; the real number is likely much higher, since those in the gig economy are largely outside the unemployment insurance world. The unemployment rate back in February was 3.5 percent; now, it is officially 14.7 per cent, and by the broader “U6” measure, it is more than 22 percent. We’ve plunged into a recession and could soon learn that the pandemic has triggered a new depression.
By contrast, World War II, horrifying as it was, was an economic jump-start for the country. The Great Depression had gutted the nation in the 1930s. When Roosevelt guided (or pulled) a reluctant United States into a massive defense buildup and a peacetime draft in 1940, the U.S. jobless rate stood at 14.6 percent. By 1942, with the nation’s economy focused on the construction of a massive military machine, unemployment had dropped to 4.75 percent, and kept going down: For the last three years of the conflict, it dropped below 2 percent. A decade of economic privation was swiftly replaced by full employment.
This did not mean that life suddenly became comfortable; wartime housing shortages made it hard for newly employed defense workers to find a place to live. And wage and price controls meant that workers could not use the tight labor market to push for higher pay. (Instead, major companies began to provide workers with fringe benefits, most notably health care, which began the now-widespread practice of employer-based health insurance.)
In the 1940s, the war effort was the way out of an economic collapse. Today, the war effort is what’s causing it—and it’s hard to imagine what kind of buildup could pull us back out on the other side.
In term of shared burden, the contrast with Covid-19 may be even starker. During the war, the country started to converge: While middle-class Americans had to make do with less, forced to ration sugar and meat, and skipping coffee so the troops could drink it, unskilled workers finally found themselves (not just men, but also the army of women who went to work) with useful, rewarding work to do. Thanks to the massive industrial buildup the war required, they were being reasonably well paid for doing their part—a welcome contrast to a decade of aimless joblessness and privation. The sense that “we are all in this together” was powerfully strengthened by the fact that the war effort was an economic boost for millions.
Today, rather than narrowing the gap between Americans, as the war did, the Covid-19 epidemic is highlighting it starkly. The comfortable classes retreat to vacation homes, or at least keep doing their jobs via email and Zoom calls, while grocery clerks, nursing home aides and maintenance workers still need to show up in person and risk their lives for the minimum wage. It’s true that Covid-19 can, and does, hit anyone. But it’s hard to keep a straight face when arguing that we all share a common burden.
As for the political climate, it is as if the United States then was on a different planet than the one we now occupy. Roosevelt had won a third term in 1940 as the debate over preparedness versus strict neutrality was at a peak. The isolationist movement led by Charles Lindbergh—pictured as a pro-Nazi president in HBO’s recent “The Plot Against America”—drew large crowds and a significant slice of the Republican Party. The nation was deeply divided over whether and how much to aid Great Britain in its struggle to survive the Nazis.
But the broader context of civic life, and the picture in Washington itself, was very different. FDR had looked for unity by putting two prominent Republicans in his Cabinet—former Secretary of State Henry Stimson as Secretary of War, and Frank Knox, the GOP’s 1936 vice presidential candidate, as Secretary of the Navy. His 1940 opponent, Wendell Willkie, was also a supporter of mobilization and in the midst of the fall campaign, helped win the passage of a peacetime draft. (Imagine the prospect of a “wartime” Donald Trump standing up a pandemic-fighting Cabinet that included prominent Democrats. Instead, when Trump signed the first stimulus bill, he invited only Republicans to the bill-signing.)
Beyond politics, the mood of wartime America was decidedly unfriendly to those who sought to profiteer from it. Yes, there was a black market; yes, major companies got the lion’s share of government contracts, if only because companies like Ford and General Motors were best prepared for rapid mass conversion to military weaponry. But the wealthy were not just expected to do their part; they were commanded to. The top marginal tax rate was raised to a now-unthinkable 94 percent, and while virtually no one actually paid that, the wealthiest did pay an effective tax rate of 60 percent.
As for those seeking to profit, a Senate committee led by a Missouri senator named Harry Truman conducted years’ worth of investigations aimed at the builders of shoddy defense workers housing and—most egregiously—contractors who provided inferior military ordnance, jeopardizing the lives of soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Today, it’s more or less business as usual that money from the Congressional rescue package aimed at small, independent business was snapped up by established companies with healthy lines of credit, and that loopholes in the legislation provided lucrative tax breaks specifically for the wealthiest of taxpayers. In World War II, not even the most conservative anti-big government politician would have dared suggest that a tax cut for the rich was a plausible wartime public policy.
With luck, the “war” against Covid-19 will be shorter and less lethal than World War II. But when it comes to recovery, it is almost certain to be a different, grimmer story: We’ll be trying to dig out from a painful fight against a domestic enemy that has left us poorer, less equal and less united. Perhaps the Civil War is a better candidate for a metaphor—a conflict on our own territory that presaged a decadeslong “Gilded Age” of massive inequality, racial oppression, widespread poverty and corruption.
To be sure, the common spirit and bounce-back benefits of World War II didn’t extend evenly to everyone. The cheap federally insured mortgages that created suburbia also reinforced a pattern of segregated housing that cut African Americans out of the prosperity; blacks who had found good jobs in defense plants during the war found themselves relegated to more menial roles, while women were swiftly “invited” to leave their jobs and return home, to make room for the returning GIs. And no “spirit of unity” can erase the shame of the internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans—most of them U.S. citizens—forced from their homes, stripped of their businesses and freedom, by nativist paranoia.
Those, of course, aren’t the parts of the effort politicians are invoking. They’re trying to remind us of a struggle in which the enemy was clear, the measure of victory—unconditional surrender—obvious, and the economic upside deep and lasting. The GI Bill of Rights helped raise some 9 million veterans into the middle class. The dominance of American economic might not only triggered a 25-year run of steadily rising fortunes for most—it gave the United States the power to help rescue Europe from privation with the Marshall Plan. The consequence was a nation with a justified sense of world leadership, a broad middle class and a more equal distribution of wealth and income than ever in its history.
If you can find that possibility in what we face today, there’s a speechwriting job at the White House waiting for you.