It has been some time since I compared today's front page to the same newspaper 80 years ago, and the contrast has never been more striking today. The contrast is not quite perfect, because the site frontpages.com does not yet have today's Washington Post front page up yet, and I will have to use Saturday's instead; but since February 19, 1943 was a Friday, that might be a better comparison than one to a Sunday paper. The contrast is especially striking because while the 1943 page has eight columns of stories--the norm in American newspapers, I believe, until 40 or 50 years ago, when they shrank to six columns--the Post has now shrunk to five columns. Most readers, of course, are now reading the online edition, and I will try to do a second comparison using today's online Post.
The Second World War was raging on February 19, 1942, of course, and battlefield developments dominate the four right-hand columns of page 1. A German offensive against American forces in Tunisia was scoring big gains, and the AP reporter who wrote the lead story did not sugarcoat the American defeat. "One Tank Corps Almost Completely Wrecked," read one subhead, and the lead paragraph reported that the Germans had captured 4000 square miles in four days. British reinforcements, it continued, were headed for the scene of battle. The second lead story featured rapid Soviet advances against the Germans around Rostov and elsewhere on their front, where the Soviets had recently won their great victory at Stalingrad. And a third story datelined London detailed a remarkably frank, very frightened speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who had said that "the Red Armies motorized divisions had "broken loose with a power eclipsing all imagination. . . .we did not correctly estimate the war potential of the Soviet Union. . . .We must act quickly and thoroughly or it might be too late." Further down the page a story datelined Chungking detailed seven separate Japanese attacks against Chinese troops, and next to it, another story recounted a speech to a joint session of Congress by Madme Chiang Kai-shek, the "magnetic wife of China's war leader," which had received a tumultuous reception. Two small items reported that Mohandas K. Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, was weakening after a 9-day fast in protest, and that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was ill with a cold and fever in London. And at the bottom of columns 6-7, a London story reported a parliamentary debate on the Beveridge Report, a blueprint for postwar Great Britain that became the basis of the postwar British welfare state.
The domestic war effort dominated the center of the front page. A story by post reporter Christine Sadler--one of the era's leading female journalists--discussed pending legislation to defer more farm laborers and more married men with children from teh draft. Further down, the Rubber Director of the War Production Board announced that rubber inventories would fall to dangerously low levels by the end of the year, and the chairman of that Board, Donald Nelson (formerly of Sears Roebuck) had delegated authority over rubber production to his Vice Chairman Charles Wilson, of General Motors. An amusing item told the story of an anonymous Post reporter who had gotten lost while doing a story in the new Pentagon building, and found himself detained by security personnel. "Theseus in the Labyrinth," it headlined: "Reported Confined in Bastille After Losing Pentagon Escort." I do wonder how many Post reporters or editors would recognize those allusions today. And in another related story, Prentiss M. Brown, the head of hte wartime Office of Price Administration, had bluntly attacked strike threats by the United Mine Workers and bills in Congress designed to raise agricultural prices.
Disasters dominated the two leftmost columns. In Branchville, Maryland, a house fire had killed two of four children while their mother was on her way to the store. In Seattle, a Boeing bomber had crashed into a packing plant, killing 11 on board the plane and an unknown number in the plant. And the War Department announced the names of 17 missing after an Army transport plane had disappeared in the Pacific. Inside the paper at the bottom of the jump of that story, brief items described three different military plane crashes within the US that had taken at least ten lives.
Friday's Post print page 1 leads with a story related to a current war: "U.S. and allies seek to root out Russian spies." A long feature to its left, "236 minutes of terror," deals with the contemporary equivalent of a battle: the shooting at Michigan State University. I think it would be hard to find a wartime story that discussed any battle in such detail, unless, perhaps, it came from a reporter who had accompanied a bomber on a mission. There are only three more stories on the page. "Fox aired false claims to avoid losing its audience" presents text message evidence released in response to a lawsuit that Fox news commentators echoed claims of a stolen election that they knew to be false. "Contenders balk at GOP push to back 24 nominee" deals with dissent within the Republican Party. "The crisis in American girlhood" summarizes a CDC report on the fragile emotional health of young American women. Lastly, "Bing chatbot elicits unease with volatile responses" has no parallel, obviously, in the news of 1943.
And now, to reflect how most people actually read the news today, let's look at today's Post home page. The top story is war related: "Putin, czar with no empire, needs military victory for his own survival," it proclaims optimistically. Datelined Moscow, this story surveys elite Russian opinion--something that obviously would have been impossible in Tokyo or Berlin 80 years ago. Below, one story explains that President Biden's plans to "buy American" as the nation rebuilds infrastructure have come a cropper: much of what we need isn't made here any more. A second story reports that a "far-right election denier" has been chosen over Donald Trump's pick to head the Michigan GOP. A third story mentions that water levels in Lake Powell, our second-largest reservoir, have hit an all-time low. A fourth reports that at least four states are following Florida's lead and evaluating the proposed Advanced Placement course in African American Studies. A fifth deals with a misdiagnosed young mother--one in a series, apparently, entitled "Medical Mysteries"--and a sixth headlines, "Biracial women say Meghan is proof racism and privilege co-exist." And the rightmost column of the top of the page features six different opinion pieces, two of them apparent rehashes of front-page stories from the Saturday paper.
1943 was part of one of the climactic crises of western and world history. All over the world, governments were mobilizing resources and deploying forces, waging the greatest war of all time. What they did both abroad and at home was the backbone of the news, and their readers inevitably felt part of great enterprises that would determine the course of their lives. Today, one very important ongoing war gets much less attention, and far ore of the news deals with unsolved domestic problems, domestic political conflicts, and the feelings of various kinds of Americans. The one article on a major domestic program--infrastructure--argues that it cannot do what it promised. Americans and citizens of most other nations no longer feel part of any great enterprise. We are discovering whether modern society can endure without periodically renewing that feeling, as we have failed to do.
The observable evidence points to renewal coming from abroad. USA won the war, dominated this era and has become wasteful and lazy, complacent in its unparalleled historical position. When challenged by Japan they were defanged in 1990. The Euro area is being fought against as an equal competitor, which is intolerable and of course the Russians, Chinese, Indians, Iranians and Arabs must play by our rules, financial sanctions, random wars. If there were a level playing fielld the USA would be efficient, with a small military, competitive medical services, small govt debt and truthful media. There is a thing called a resource curse. The Netherlands had their gas fields, the Soviets onver reliance on oil and the Brits the North Sea and the City of London's banking sector. America has general hegemony as a resource curse. So there is no possibility of renewal before the action moves elsewhere. One wakes up one day to realize that inventions, finance, trade, culture all are foreign made, outsourced and we are powerless. When a new generation has grown up as foreign slaves then perhaps something will change. Decline however will be long and arduous, much as our climb up out of the shadow of the British and Europe in general.
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