David M. Shribman: COVID sacrifices pale in comparison to 1943

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 28, 2021

By David M. Shribman

If you want to understand the world we occupy — the challenges we face, but more important, the failures we endure — forget for a moment that this is a day in late December 2021. Think instead that it is October 1943.

The singer Kate Smith has just completed 18 straight hours on CBS radio, a national-unity effort that prompted 39 million Americans to buy $107 million in war bonds. The fourth in a series of wartime ration books is being distributed. American women are scrubbing railroad locomotives, welding aircraft bodies, packing surgical kits to send overseas. Girl Scouts are planting victory gardens. A poster reads: Have you REALLY tried to save gas by getting into a car club?

October 1943 is about 660 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that thrust the United States into World War II. This week is about 660 days from the World Health Organization’s declaration in 2020 that a global pandemic had broken out.

Americans were weary of war in October 1943; they did not know that nearly two more years of privation and death would transpire before the guns would still. Americans in December 2021 are weary of COVID restrictions; we do not know whether we face another two years of masks, social distancing, overflowing hospitals and death.

World War II accounted for 407,316 military casualties, according to the National World War II Museum. The coronavirus has caused twice that many in half that time. As terrible as World War II was — an unprecedented threat to freedom, a horrifying global plunge into theretofore unknown human depravity — COVID is exacting a far bigger toll among Americans.

And yet, the contrast in national harmony and sense of national purpose is dramatic.

Some 660 days into World War II, Lawrence Bresnahan, the local director of the Office of Price Administration, took to the airwaves on Boston radio station WHDH and said, “Today, thousands of Massachusetts residents stand ready to accept any inconvenience or make any sacrifice that will help to bring victory one day sooner or save one more American life.”

Some 660 days into the pandemic, many Americans regard wearing masks an intolerable inconvenience and practicing social distancing too great a sacrifice and thus defy scientific expertise and governmental authority.

Bresnahan asked thousands of teachers to help distribute new ration books, which included 96 red, blue and green stickers for the purchase of sugar and coffee and other items. No one regarded those as intrusions on personal freedom or unendurable diktats from a tyrannical central government. The hardships asked of 21st-century Americans include the washing of hands and restrictions on large parties.

In the summer of 1943 — the equivalent in the COVID period of around Labor Day this year — President Franklin D. Roosevelt posed several questions in a radio address: “Are you working full time on your job? Are you growing all the food you can? Are you buying your limit of war bonds? Are you loyally and cheerfully cooperating with your government in preventing inflation and profiteering, and making rationing work with fairness to all?”

Then he added: “It is not too much to say that we must pour into this war the entire strength and intelligence and the willpower of the people of the United States.”

Around that time several posters could be seen around American cities and towns:

• Do with less, so they’ll have enough!
• Save waste fats for explosives/Send them to your meat dealer
• Millions of troops are on the move. Is YOUR trip necessary?

About that time, the federal government distributed a training memo for its Volunteer Assistance Program. It began: “This is TOTAL warfare. We are all in it together.”

In those days, there were legitimate reasons for members of minority groups in America to stand aside. They did not. The Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper that had a nationwide audience, partly by subscription, partly by the efforts of Pullman porters who distributed the paper across the country, undertook its “Double V” campaign for the victory of human rights around the world and civil rights at home — and was unstinting in its support of the war effort. Mexican Americans in Phoenix conducted a drive to collect money to purchase cigars and cigarettes for soldiers.

“The patriotic fever infected the entire community,” Christine Marin, an Arizona State University scholar of Latino society, wrote in a 1987 paper presented to the National Association of Chicano Studies. “In spite of the wartime hardships imposed upon the community, the donations remained steady and consistent.”

No child was left behind on the home front. In rural communities, 4-H members mobilized, spurred by this appeal: “Uncle Sam isn’t asking the boys and girls to give away to the armed forces the food they have raised — just eat it and buy less. The more we have to buy, the more we are taking away from the boys in the armed forces who can’t raise gardens, pigs, chicks, etc.”

We do not know what is ahead for us in the fight against the virus, nor whether it will last longer than American involvement in World War II (about four years) or, more perilous still, European involvement in the conflict (about six years).

We do know that American attitudes today are far different, and that Americans do not, as Bresnahan said on the radio in October 1943, “stand ready to accept any inconvenience or make any sacrifice,” even though those inconveniences and sacrifices are, by our parents’ and grandparents’ standards, trivial.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.