Very few of the roughly 330 million Americans living through the Covid-19 pandemic can remember a time when the country was asked to make collective sacrifices for the greater good. Indeed, it has been more than 75 years since the start of World War II, when Americans both in combat and at home were forced to make individual concessions to contribute to the war effort. For 16 million Americans, that meant military service. For others, it entailed working in factories where tanks, torpedoes and other kinds of weapons were made. And for every American, regardless of occupation, personal sacrifice came in the form of rations — imposed on everything from meat and sugar to firewood and penicillin — or the institution of price controls on clothing to prevent inflation.
Today, in a nation that takes pride in the principles of individualism and free enterprise, social-distancing guidelines have been met with some resistance, most notably among people who perceive themselves to be less at risk or who cite the primacy of their personal freedoms. “If I get corona, I get corona,” a college-age spring breaker said in a video that made him an object of scorn online (and for which he later apologized). Elsewhere, religious leaders have continued to hold church services in defiance of emergency orders from their local governments. But different crises call for different reactions: As a slew of viral memes have pointed out, if sacrifice once meant joining the military, or the mass-mobilization of factory workers, today it means staying at home on your couch.
On March 27, The Times spoke to Robert Citino, the executive director of the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, about the imperative of personal sacrifice, and the similarities and differences between how it was perceived in both the 1940s and today.
Since Covid-19 reached the United States, we’ve been hearing about the varying degrees of seriousness with which different Americans are taking the virus. During World War II, was there ever a crisis of public apathy toward the war effort?
America entered World War II, quite literally, with a bang, and the bang was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Over 2,000 people were killed, and this bolt out of the blue suddenly demarcated peace from war. This current pandemic is a little bit different. The enemy is silent and microscopic and tasteless. There’s never been a big bang day. I’m 60, and I hear from my age group about young people not taking this seriously. I think if the nation calls on them, young people will step up as they always have. You’ve probably seen this meme, about how in World War II, to defend your country, you were charging out to Omaha Beach. And in 2020 to defend your country, and it shows a guy lying on the couch eating cookies. Now, that’s a little unfair because if this is a war, a lot of people have already lost their jobs. So staying home isn’t fun if you just lost your job. When we say people aren’t taking this seriously, or are apathetic, many people have sacrificed a lot already, and that is their job.
You mentioned speculation about the way Americans of different generations have responded. Was there a similar dynamic in World War II, in terms of different sacrifices being asked of different demographics?
A lot of guys went off and got a limb blown off on Omaha Beach. Other guys were told by the government to stay home and remain in their skilled occupation in a factory or on the railroad, which is a lot less dangerous. Certainly, those tensions arose in small towns, when a soldier would come home and see the same three guys hanging out in the same bar that he used to hang out in, because they were working on the railroad or in a defense plant or a military production facility, and that’s how they were chipping in. Obviously, one of those jobs is a lot more dangerous than the others.
Americans received their ration cards in 1942, and rations were imposed on things like cars, tires, nylon and firewood. What was the public response to that?
Certainly nobody likes having the family car put up on blocks for the duration of the war. Pleasure drives in the countryside were more or less outlawed. The government wanted the rubber from your tires. You weren’t going to be able to get gas. What’s a better sign of American prosperity than the family car? That’s the first thing you had to sacrifice in World War II. By and large, most Americans went through with that. Did they grumble? Certainly. If you look at the ration system, you had to make decisions like, “Do I want to have a pound of ground meat or do I want a jar of cheese spread?” We didn’t have enough sugar or butter or lard, because they were used to make explosives. But people understood that. It’s an intellectual proposition, but that’s not to say it made anybody happy. Workers weren’t happy about wage controls. Businesses weren’t happy about price controls. Landlords weren’t happy about rent controls. It’s a big country, so there’s always going to be anomalies, but most Americans realized these things were probably necessary for the war effort and were willing to go along.
During World War II, were the institutions in place equipped to respond to the implementation of things like rationing? Were there debates about whether these solutions were commensurate to the problem?
I’m certain there was resistance up and down the board. People probably gamed the system and cheated it on occasion, because that’s the way systems are. You can game them and cheat your way through them. But by and large, the systems held. There’s been a lot of debate about whether it was even necessary. America produces a lot of food, but the Roosevelt administration determined that things like rationing, things like tin drives in your town, where you collect all the cans and what not, were important in giving Americans a shared sense of purpose.
Were global supply chains ever disrupted during World War II to the point that the U.S. was unable to obtain something essential to the war effort?
Because America and Britain controlled the global oceans, I’m not sure America was ever really cut off from any one strategic item. But there’s one, and it’s kind of in the news now. Quinine was really the only anti-malarial drug at the time, and the Japanese conquered Indonesia, which was the Dutch East Indies at the time, and more or less cornered the market on quinine. So U.S.-allied scientists came up with the synthetic substitute for quinine called Atabrine. That’s not so much sacrifice, because malaria is not a big factor in American life, but it’s another example of government and industry and scientist cooperation to cover crucial wartime needs.
President Roosevelt introduced an executive order capping wartime salaries, which was a popular initiative with the public but was vetoed in Congress, where it was seen as an attack on free enterprise. How did Americans reconcile the imperative of sacrifice with other, potentially contradictory American ideals?
There was this notion in World War I that some companies and some sectors had fattened themselves on the war, that they hadn’t produced what they said they would but came out of the war with pockets bulging with government money. So the government saying, “Look, it’s going to be tough on everybody, but nobody’s going to have any advantage over anybody” was a pretty popular move. During the Second World War, Roosevelt’s enemies in Congress argued that wage controls were positively un-American. This country is based on the notion of making as much money as you can, for heaven’s sake. But, by and large, it was a popular measure because it made sure that the burden was being shared.
How did religious institutions help encourage or promote sacrifice?
Though we have separation of church and state, the American church, whether it’s Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, has always been remarkably supportive of the American political system and certainly was in World War II. You’re fighting Hitler. A priest can literally stand up in front of his congregation and say, “This is a struggle with evil.” Priests don’t normally get to say that, because politics muddies the water. But you could literally stand up and say, “These are the people that bombed us at Pearl Harbor.” Even beyond the church, Americans policed one another and helped enforce those sacrifices. And that’s because virtually every one of them had a loved one in the military. You could legitimately say: “You’re hoarding toilet paper? That’s not fair. My son’s over on Guadalcanal getting shot at right now.” Someone who had a few bottles of Scotch squirreled away would not necessarily get a good reaction.
Given that climate of skepticism, did Americans demand to see the collective benefits of their individual sacrifices?
There was not complete labor peace in America during World War II. There was also not complete social peace. There were race riots in Detroit and attacks on black or African-American arrivals by white folks who already lived in Detroit. There were the Zoot Suit Riots, tensions between U.S. sailors and young Hispanic men wearing zoot suits, which had a lot more fabric than you needed and almost deliberately flouted wartime restrictions. This is America, this is a fractious place, and not everybody suddenly stops being fractious because there’s a war. You can find all kinds of moments when Americans argued with one another, or accused one another of all sorts of nefarious activities. All those things happened, but none of them rose to the level of disrupting the social contract or making it impossible to fight the war.
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Jake Nevins is the The Times Magazine’s editorial fellow.