It has been some time since I have compared this morning's New York Times front page to its counterpart 80 years ago--the length of the recurring cycle first identified nearly thirty years ago by Bill Strauss and Neil Howe. The two front pages do confirm that the United States, now as then, faces a serious crisis--but the nature of those crises is entirely different. 80 years ago the crisis was international--a European war threatening almost at any moment to become a world war. Today the crisis involves the functioning of many basic American institutions, both because of the COVID-19 epidemic and because of the political crisis that threatens our institutions, as they were not threatened then.
The right-hand four columns of the eight-column front page on August 23, 1940 deal with the European war. Headlines describe the escalating air Battle of Britain, including a nighttime German bombing attack that struck the western suburbs of London, retaliatory British raids into Germany, and an attack by German heavy guns on the French coast on a British convoy passing through the English channel. Meanwhile, the Greek government, a military dictatorship, was preparing for an Italian attack, backed by Germany. Another extraordinary story datelined Tokyo reports that the Japanese Foreign Ministry has carried out an extraordinary purge of its diplomatic service, recalling five ambassadors and nineteen ministers, including its senior representatives in Washington, Paris, Ankara, and Rio de Janeiro--a move frankly acknowedged to be a purge of liberal elements known as the "British-American faction." I am rather astonished that I managed to write my entire book, No End Save Victory, which had a lot to say about Japanese policy and Japanese-American relations in 1940-1, without knowing about this. And meanwhile back at the ranch, column 1 on the left reports the creation of a joint US-Canadian Board to plan the defense of the Western Hemisphere, whose members included Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York; senior military officers from all the services; and a State Department official. This board, I know, had serious business to attend to: American authorities from FDR on down thought that the fall of Great Britain was entirely possible, and should it occur, hemispheric defense would become critical.
Congress remained fully in session that summer despite the election--as it does not now. The House had just adopted a House-Senate conference report on a bill authorizing the President to call out the National Guard and army reserve for one year's training--a measure expected to affect about 400,000 men. One provision sought to make sure that would be able to get their jobs back when they returned. In the Senate, meanwhile, one Senator accused isolationists of abusing Senate rules to carry on an informal filibuster against the bill creating the nation's first peacetime draft. The debate, like the even longer debate on the Lend-Lease Act about five months later, slowed, but did not stop, the passage of this key step in the fight for preparedness.
Both party conventions had taken place at least a month earlier in 1940 than they have this year, but only one story dealt with the campaign. The Republican candidate Wendell Willkie held a press conference announcing his first major campaign swing beginning on September 14 in Kansas and moving to the West Coast. As it turned out, since Willkie supported much of the New Deal and joined FDR in calls to aid Great Britain to the fullest possible extent, he had to rely in his campaign on claims that a third victory for Roosevelt would establish dictatorship in the United States. The New York Times eventually endorsed him, as did most of the nation's leading newspapers, but FDR won very handily in November. And at the very bottom of the page, the Times reported that Sylvia Ageloff, a 31-year old Brooklynite who worked as a Department of Welfare home relief investigator--presumably a state agency--had been identified as the woman who had introduced Leon Trotsky to has assassin in Mexico, where she had gone during a three-month leave of absence from her job. As it turned out, Mexican authorities initially charged her with complicity in the murder but later released her.
That 80-year old front page had ten separate stories; today's has only six. The lead has nothing to do with foreign war, military preparedness or the course of legislation: it tells how Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin orchestrated the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a big contributor to President Trump's campaigns, as the head of USPS, in defiance of a decades-old law that tried to insulate it from political pressure. The lead political story speculates that President Trump will try to defeat Joe Biden the way George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988, by defining him as an extremist. A third story explains that California is having more trouble fighting this year's huge wildfires because a great many of the prison inmates who have served as fire fighters in years past have now been released. The lead local story details the desperate attempts of New York restaurants to survive the pandemic by offering tables outside. A fourth has the self-explanatory headline, "To Stay Open, Colleges Wage War on Parties," a second example of how the pandemic has crippled key national institutions. Lastly, the only foreign news story tells how the Thai government as used Facebook to discredit a domestic critic. And that is that.
We are fortunate, of course, not to have a major war raging on another continent and threatening our own, but we do have a pandemic raging on every continent, and now, centered in the United States, which was merely an interested bystander in the early stages of the Second World War. The 80-year old front page tells the story of institutions coping with that challenge, in Britain by defending against the German air attack, in the United States by mobilizing for war and cooperating with Canada, and even in Greece. Today the stories about Mnuchin and the possible course of the Trump campaign deal with the corruption of our government on the one hand and our political process on the other, while the state of California, New York restaurants, and colleges and universities fight what seems at the moment to be a losing battle against COVID-19. Terrible times lay ahead in 1940, but five years later, the United States was stronger than ever, and on the verge of two decades of prosperity and progress on many fronts. Now, sadly, we are still waiting to hit bottom and begin to improve.