It has been some time since I have compared the day's news to the news of 80 years previously in an attempt to show how much we have changed. This post will compare last Sunday's New York Times Sunday Review Section (August 8), to the Times News of the Week in Review from August 9, 1942. I could have compared that piece to those found on the nearest Sunday to August 8 in 1941, but I have chosen 1942 instead because by then we were in the midst of active participation in the Second World War, that decade's equivalent of the COVID epidemic. It was the lead article in last week's Sunday Review that set off this train of thought.
Today's Sunday Review is the descendant of the Times's News of the Week in Review, which my father spent much of Sunday reading 70 years ago and which I too went through eagerly for decades after that. That section on August 9, 1942 began with a full-page survey of the world situation, "Global Prospect," which minced no words. It quoted Elmer Davis--the Walter Cronkite of his time, whose sharp commentaries may be sampled on youtube--who was now working for the federal Office of War Information. Our efforts, he said, were so far inadequate to produce a decisive result. "Our allies have carried most of the load," he wrote, referring to the British and the USSR, "and we have not given them as much help as we had led them to expect. . . .We have not been producing war material in the maximum of available capacity, and we have not been getting that material to the fighting fronts int he time and in the volume that will be needed to win. As a nation we are not yet more than ankle deep in the war." The greatest peril, the article continued, was the German drive southeast into the Caucasus and toward the Volga River. Meanwhile, much talk, but no action, related to a possible allied second front in Western Europe. Several columns related to British India, where Mahatma Gandhi has just called for a non-violent rebellion against British rule with Japanese armies on the eastern border. The survey of the war situation took up the entire eight columns of the section's first page.
The following page, The Nation, led with the execution of six of eight German saboteurs who had been landed from submarines to bomb some critical industrial and transportation sites. The two whose lives were spared had turned themselves and their comrades in spontaneously upon landing, but that did not spare them from very long prison sentences, which Harry Truman eventually commuted, deporting them to the American occupation zone in Germany. Several other men around the country, the paper reported, were on trial for treason or sedition as well. Next, President Roosevelt had vetoed a bill to establish an independent rubber supply agency to increase production of that vital commodity on the grounds that it would make the situation work, and appointed his own commission to look into the situation. It would take two years, this item concluded, before synthetic rubber production could match prewar supplies, now largely cut off by the war. Next the paper reported a large seaplane contract for Henry J. Kaiser (no relation), the prominent industrialist who had already turned from dams to shipbuilding, and whose medical plan for his employees was one of the first HMOs. The nation's two umbrella labor organizations, the A.F. of L. and the CIO, were both meeting in convention in Chicago and discussing a possible merger, which did not take place until 1955. Then the section turned to nonmilitary developments abroad, in Britain and neutral Argentina.
The third page of the section included three by-lined news stories on related developments. In an interesting article, Arthur Krock, whose career continued for another 20 years, argued in effect that President Roosevelt, like Lincoln in the previous great crisis, had too much power over strategy, and that he needed to turn the major decisions over to a single commander, as Lincoln finally did with Grant in 1864. A second article datelined London explained that the Churchill government was determined to hold on to India, and a third explored the great German offensive in the USSR at length, including some discussion of German vulnerabilities, which led to the great Soviet victory at Stalingrad just a few months later. The next page continued with more broad news stories related to the war: another on the implications of Hitler's big Russian offensive for Europe as a whole, a London report that the British would like a unified command for the British and American armies, featuring a snapshot of Lt. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, already the commander of U.S. forces in Europe--even though the forces that he would lead into North Africa three months later would sail directly from the US. A third article discussed the situation in Palestine, governed by the British, and its contribution to the war effort. Three long foreign stories followed on p. E4, one of the massive use of slave labor by the Nazis in Europe, one of what Tokyo radio was telling the Japanese people about the war, and one about neutral Sweden.
After a full-page ad for the steel industry, the section resumed with four domestic stories on p. E7. Two dealt with labor--attempts by FDR to bring the A.F. of L. and CIO together, and demands by the musicians union for more money from radio stations and jukeboxes--and two with industry, one on a looming shortage of heating oil and one on increased production of cargo planes. The last page featured four editorials. The first praised the allies' decision to undo the Munich agreement and pledge to restore Czechoslovakia. The second criticized the British economist Harold Laski and other leftwingers for arguing that the allies could only win the war by turning to socialism. The third suggested that British soldiers in their tanks now viewed them the way cavalrymen used to view their horses, and the fourth pointed out that American films were now banned all over Nazi-occupied Europe, and in Vichy France as well. The op-ed columnist had not yet been invented.
Now let us turn to last week's Sunday Review in general, and its lead article in particular. We are in another world crisis today, to be sure, but it is so far mainly a crisis of disintegration rather than a world war in which most of the world is fighting within one of two coalitions. Only three articles in the review dealt with overseas developments, however, one about Hungary and how Americans see it, and one about the aspirations of the rebellious Cuban people. The third explores the danger posed by tens of thousands of Colombian mercenary troops, some trained by the US, who are offering their services around the world, and, according to the author, helped in the assassination of the President of Haiti. Two articles deal with the fall of Andrew Cuomo. Another op-ed discusses the problems of Olympic athletes who have given birth to children and what they say about society, and another, by Jamie Dimon of Goldman Sachs, argues for more economic opportunity for Americans who have been convicted of crimes--a very real problem from which his colleagues in the financial industry are almost exempt. The only editorial calls upon Americans to get vaccinated and continue to wear masks where appropriate.
I turn now to the lead article, an extraordinarily revealing commentary on what has happened to the United States in the last 50 years or so. Written by a midwesterner named Sarah Smarsh, author of a memoir called Heartland about poor farm folk, it is entitled, "What to Do with our Covid Rage." Vaccinated people, she uses anecdotes to show, are incensed that about 1/3 of eligible people have refused to get the vaccine, and have thereby fueled the new outbreak of the Delta variant. Liberals (as I can confirm from my own facebook feed) welcome the death of unvaccinated conservatives, calling it their own fault. Smarsh has shared that fury, which she compares to the fury she felt in the 1980s when government policies helped destroy the family farm economy. She resents that popular images of the unvaccinated focus on people like her white rural neighbors, even though they do not outnumber the urban unvaccinated. She wants to channel that anger into something good. What?
Class, she argues, is the real villain. Among Americans the least vaccinated group documented by the Kaiser foundation (a link to 1942!) are the uninsured. Systemic racism, she says, is also to blame. Yes, I certainly agree, health insurance is still much too hard to get in the United States--but no one, to my knowledge, has yet had to pay a penny to get vaccinated for COVID-19. The federal government has funded the entire effort. It is, in short, an example of socialized medicine--as I think the mass polio innoculations of the 1950s must have been as well. "Most importantly," she concludes, "we can direct our rage not at lost individuals but at systems of power that made our grim national death count the only plausible outcome. Is it so shocking that a caste-based society that exalts individualism and prioritizes profit above wellness — one of the only industrialized nations without universal health care — would fail to rise to the challenges of a collective health crisis?"
There are two comparisons to 1942, it seems to me, that emerge at once from this piece. To begin with, the items from our 1942 text dealing with opposition to the war effort related to a few saboteurs and accused traitors--and, though I did not mention it, several thousand interned aliens--while the opposition to the vaccination effort includes tens of millions of adult Americans. That is the real measure of our national decline. We could band together and make enormous sacrifices to win a world war then; we can't reach a real national consensus on the simplest steps to fight a national pandemic now. Such a change obviously has very profound causes, and I have tried to explore them here many times, going all the way back to 2004 when I created this blog.
The second parallel is equally interesting: Smarsh really sounds like Harold Laski, the British economist whom the Times editorial board attacked for suggesting that Britain and the United States had to turn to socialism to win the war. Both nations, in fact, outperformed the Axis in production without turning to socialism (although Britain did for three or four decades after the war was over.) To claim that our elites--corrupt though they are--have done so much harm that we cannot expect to pull together to meet a crisis is a somewhat narcissistic counsel of despair. The covid crisis could instead be the beginning of a different national feel.
We did have to ask what to do about our rage about the war in 1942--with very rare exceptions, we used it, first and foremost, to win the war. That does not mean that other Americans, such as black soldiers in segregated units, did not have other very legitimate grievances; it meant that most understood that for the moment, something else was more important. That is the feeling we may need to restore to survive as a nation, and writing off our system as hopeless will not help.