In a 1976 book Plagues and Peoples, the historian William McNeill surveyed world history looking for the impact of two kinds of parasites who preyed upon the human race. At one end of the scale, macro-parasites—powerful human beings and the armies and movements they led—preyed upon their fellow human beings, and at the other, micro-parasites—bacteria and viruses—did the same. 80 years ago, the United States mobilized successfully to defeat and destroy macro-parasites that threatened to rule much of the globe for a long time. Today, COVID-19, a micro-parasite, also threatens our way of life. Our differing responses to the two crises illustrate what has happened to leadership and political life in this country during those 80 years, and do not bode well for our political future.
Hitler’s conquest of France in 1940 corresponded to the spread of the COVID-19 virus outside China earlier this year. President Franklin Roosevelt had already used the metaphor of a quarantine to call for some steps to keep wars then raging in Asia and threatening in Europe away from the Americas in September 1937. Now, as I showed in my book No End Save Victory, with France gone and Britain threatened with invasion, virtually all Americans agreed that Hitler posed a threat to the western hemisphere that the US must prepare to meet. In September 1940 that threat became broader when Germany, Italy and Japan all agreed to go to war with the US if the US became involved in war either in Europe or in Asia. By that time, Roosevelt and the Congress were taking dramatic steps to strengthen American defenses. Roosevelt shocked the nation in May for calling for the annual production of 50,000 war planes. The Congress, almost without dissent or debate, passed a new naval appropriation that would double the size of the Navy within five or six years about a month later. And in that same month of September, Congress passed the country’s first peacetime draft. Roosevelt also created a new agency to plan defense production. All this, however, aimed at a straightforward, limited goal: the defense of the western hemisphere against aggression. It might be compared, then, to our recent, more limited goal, of making adequate provision for the treatment of severe COVID-19 cases in our hospitals, by providing enough protective equipment for hospital staff and enough ventilators for critically ill patients. Even that effort has so far been only a partial success. Roosevelt had also made the preparedness effort a truly national one in June by appointing two prominent Republicans, former Secretary of State Henry M. Stimson and former vice-presidential candidate Frank Knox, as Secretaries of War and of the Navy. (The Department of Defense did not yet exist.) President Trump has taken no parallel steps.
The threat to the western hemisphere did not materialize as rapidly as many had feared, because Britain refused to make peace with Hitler, and Hitler, after the failure of the Battle of Britain, decided late in 1940 to begin preparing for an attack on the Soviet Union rather than moving troops and planes into Spain, North Africa, or onto various islands in the Atlantic, as his naval leadership wanted him to do. By the spring of 1941 it had become clear that the limited goal of defending the western hemisphere was effectively putting a cap on the extent of US war planning and production. Then, on June 22, Hitler’s attack on the USSR began. This, President Roosevelt saw, opened up new strategic possibilities. On July 9, less than three weeks later, he sent Stimson a critical letter. “I wish that you and appropriate representatives designated by you,” he wrote, “would join with the Secretary of the Navy and his representatives in exploring at once the overall production requirements required to defeat our potential enemies. I realize that this report involves the making of appropriate assumptions as to our probable friends and enemies and to the conceivable theaters of operation which will be required.” Stimson and the War Department got to work on what became known as the Victory Program: a plan to put together the necessary manpower and resources completely to defeat Germany, Italy and Japan. Should the USSR survive, Roosevelt now understood, this objective had become possible. Stimson also set the goal of having the necessary forces available within two years—by July 1, 1943.
Much as we would like to eliminate COVID-19 from the face of the earth, we have no assurance that we can do so. Our broader goal now seems to be to reduce the spread of the virus and improve its treatment to the point where the country can return to work and begin to rebuild our economy, while working on vaccines that may or may not prove effective. To achieve that goal we obviously need to know a great deal more about the actual incidence of the virus, and we need to be able to trace contacts rapidly to control its spread. That in turn requires—as every medical authority confirms—a massive expansion of our testing capacity.
The War Department and the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board—the latest in a series of agencies FDR created to handle production—worked on the Victory Program for the rest of the summer. When completed in September, it set astonishing targets, including nine million men under arms (five million more than currently planned), a force of seven thousand bombers, and further increases in the Navy—all requiring massive new quantities of raw materials, aluminum, iron, and steel. Roosevelt indicated during the fall that he wanted the program to go ahead, and even referred to it publicly in a press conference, but he could not even submit it to Congress before the United States was in the war. On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and diplomatic intercepts had already made clear to Roosevelt and his military leaders that Germany would carry out its obligation and declare war on the US immediately as well. Then, on December 9, came one of the most extraordinary moments in American history. At a meeting of the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board, Secretary of War Stimson asked William Knudsen, the chairman of the board of General Motors who had come to Washington without pay to plan war production, if the country could meet the July 1, 1943 target for the completion of the Victory Program. “We can’t do it by July 1, 1943,” Knudsen replied—“but we can do it by July 1, 1944.” Two days into the war, Knudsen had in effect predicted the date at which the decisive offensives against Germany and Japan would begin—ending in victory about a year later.
By this time, with effective national leadership, we would know just how many tests for the virus and for antigens and antibodies against it we need, we might have found what tests we can rely on, and we might at least have let contracts for their production. We could be clearly on the road to achieving our goal and heading off a devastating economic crisis. Our current national leadership, however, has not been capable of such steps. Torn by partisanship and a mistrust of expertise, we have not been able to use our brains to define the problem clearly and figure out how to solve it. This remains our real test. Much more than the lives threatened by the virus may depend upon it.