It turns out that the Greatest Generation left us the greatest example of how to proceed in the greatest health threat of our time.
The Greatest Generation is the one that conquered the Great Depression and then won World War II. Now, 362 World War II veterans die every day, a toll far greater than that extracted by the coronavirus. About 2% of them remain alive, many of them ill or frail. They and their homefront fellow combatants — who built history’s most formidable industrial offensive and then shared in the very good years that followed — left us a great legacy.
Now it is time to follow their example and to redeem their hopes about America.
“This is a biological war on a global basis requiring the same unified esprit as a shooting war,” Tom Brokaw, the veteran NBC newscaster whose 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation,” put that label on the wartime generation, told me the other day. “It is time to set aside cheap partisan divisions and develop an approach that rewards real accomplishment, (with) the president and the speaker, side by side, empowering the experts to go bold now, without worrying who gets the credit.”
In this war, the homefront is the front line.
This war may have begun with an insidious germ invasion from abroad, but it will be won or lost at home. The phrase “social distancing” is the Victory Garden of today.
This is a different country than the United States of 1941, when there were only 133 million Americans, when Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games, Ted Williams batted .406 and “Dumbo” played in the nation’s movie palaces. Today there are 327 million of us, we generally are wealthier, we communicate in ways inconceivable more than three-quarters of a century ago — and we are far less familiar with, and congenial to, sacrifice.
But we know what to do, if only we measure ourselves to our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. They conserved fuel by driving more slowly. They used ration coupons to buy food, clothing and gasoline. They limited their consumption of meat, sugar, fat and butter.
When new ration books were introduced in October 1943, an announcer on Boston’s WHDH radio station made this comment:
“Today thousands of Massachusetts citizens stand ready to accept any inconvenience or make any sacrifice that will help to bring victory one hour sooner or save one more American life.”
This period will impose enormous social change. We simply do not know what it will be.
World War II encouraged the mass migration of blacks to industrial centers, mostly in the North. There won’t be migration this time, but powerful social changes will be unleashed. Perhaps some will rival the impact of Rosie the Riveter, the movement of women into wartime industrial plants, one of the principal forces in the transformation of the role of women in our society.
“We’ve been through many crises before,” Robert Dallek, a leading historian and author of books about Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wartime years, said in an interview. “We pulled the nation together in the Great Depression and in World War II, and then we stood together in the Cuban missile crisis. Even the Civil War, which drove us apart, put pressure on the Union to come together. It’s never 100%; FDR faced dissent. But generally there is enormous coordination and support. Right now it will have to do with the fact that the country is so well off and there is such a relatively large middle class that people fear losing their comfort.”
We can take lessons from the Greatest Generation and make some use of our Great Disruption. It will enhance the nation’s health and safety and may enhance our lives when this is over. But in the meantime, these words of Abraham Lincoln from his second inaugural address — perhaps the greatest speech ever delivered on this continent — would do us well:
“Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge ... may speedily pass away.”
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.