We are all of us children of earth; grant us that simple knowledge. If our brothers are oppressed, we are oppressed. If they hunger, we hunger. If their freedom is taken away our freedom is not secure.
– FDR, 1942
Everyone wants a map. Just a simple guide to what’s going to happen next.
In search of a map it’s become common to try to match our current situation to past crises.
Is this like 2008?
Similar to 9/11?
Is this like the 1918 flu pandemic?
Or maybe the Great Depression?
But none of those fit today’s ordeal.
Today’s halt in economic activity is worse than 2008. The enemy is more invisible than 9/11. Our medical knowledge far exceeds that of 1918. Policy response is now faster and deeper than in the Great Depression.
None of those events offer a map of what might happen to us next. Few historic events ever do. Big events grow big because they’re complex, and complexity never repeats itself in its exact form.
But as Voltaire said, “History never repeats itself; man always does.”
We can’t look at history to tell us what might happen next. We can, though, use history as a guide to predict the kind of behaviors people are susceptible to when faced with a similar event.
And that’s where there is a historical map.
It’s World War II.
Not the battle or the geopolitics. But World War II united most of the world against a common enemy in a way that’s incredibly rare. Cooperation within, and between, countries surged.
The fight against COVID-19 is nearly identical in that respect. This may be the first time since the 1940s that so much of the world is united so firmly against such a specific foe.
What unity did to people’s behaviors – their abilities, their outlooks, their incentives – surprised many during World War II. If history is any guide, we’re about to be surprised again.
The day after Pearl Harbor the nation gathered around their radios to hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plan for the war.
We are now in this war. We are all in it, all the way. Every single man, woman, and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories.
This was a new feeling for America because so much of the previous decade was devoted to fighting about the causes of and solutions to the Great Depression.
The depression affected people differently – some were crushed, some were unscathed, others profited. The war united Americans because an enemy attack would not discriminate by income or net worth. The risk was both catastrophic and equal among all Americans. Everyone had to chip in because everyone was at risk.
To win the war, four things needed to happen immediately that would completely upend American life.
Private factories would have to halt production of everyday goods – cars, clothes, appliances – and retool to build planes, tanks, and guns. This was done by federal order. Fewer than 200 civilian vehicles were built in the United States from 1942 to 1945. Every assembly line was devoted to war.
Second, wages had to be stabilized. No big raises, no big cuts. FDR told the nation in 1942: “Do you work for wages? You will have to forego higher wages for your particular job for the duration of the war.”
Third, everyday goods had to be rationed. Gasoline, sugar, rubber, steel – limits were placed on how much and when you could buy.
Fourth, taxes would be raised. Income would be effectively capped. FDR again in April, 1942:
Are you a businessman, or do you own stock in a business corporation? Well, your profits are going to be cut down to a reasonably low level by taxation. Your income will be subject to higher taxes. Indeed in these days, when every available dollar should go to the war effort, I do not think that any American citizen should have a net income in excess of $25,000 per year after payment of taxes [roughly $375,000 adjusted for inflation].
The most amazing part about all of this is that, to generalize – but I think accurately generalize – Americans were OK with all of this.
In the late 1930s a group called The American First Committee formed to argue America should not get involved in the war under any circumstances. It dissolved soon after Pearl Harbor. Its chairman Robert Wood said:
The time for military action is here. Therefore the America First Committee has determined immediately to cease all functions and to dissolve … There is no longer any question about our involvement … and can be completely defined in one word, victory.
Political rivalries melted virtually overnight. Republican House Minority Leader Joseph Martin said: “There is no politics here. There is only one party when it comes to the integrity and honor of this country.”
Across America men and women were either sent to war or to a factory or office to support it. People didn’t just have jobs; they had a role in keeping the free world alive. Historian Frederick Lewis Allen wrote in 1952:
The war crisis brought together as never before the pure scientist, the applied scientist, the manufacturing executive, the military officer, and the government administrator, and put them into a partnership which mightily affected their future understanding of one another.
The physicist or chemist who had been cloistered in a university laboratory, and had taken a special pride in paying no heed to the possible practical application of his findings, was thrust into emergency work of the most lethally practical sort, and hauled off to Washington to consult with generals and admirals and bureaucrats and engineers and manufacturers; and these others acquired a new respect for his scholarly ardor, now suddenly so vital to them.
A year after Pearl Harbor, FDR toured the nation and reported in one of his fireside chats:
It is the plain fact that the American people are united as never before in their determination to do a job and to do it well.
This whole nation of one hundred and thirty million free men, women and children is becoming one great fighting force. Whatever our individual circumstances or opportunities – we are all in it, and our spirit is good, and we Americans and our allies are going to win – and do not let anyone tell you anything different.
Keep in mind, this was during a point in the war when it was not at all clear that we would win. In mid-1942 Japan was about as strong as it had been and the Nazis controlled nearly all of Europe and were advancing on Russia.
But by most accounts, Roosevelt’s rah-rah wasn’t propaganda. It was how people actually felt. Presidential approval rose from 58% in 1939 to nearly 80% by 1942. In 1939, 61% of Americans thought we should stay out of Europe’s war. By 1942, 91% supported our involvement.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes:
Because the mobilization included the ideological argument that the war was being fought for the interests of common men and women, social solidarity extended far beyond the foxholes. Public opinion held that the veterans should not return jobless to a country without opportunity and education. That led to the GI Bill, which helped lay the foundation for the remarkable postwar expansion that followed.
And across the allied world – in Britain, in Canada, even stories from occupied France – the feelings were similar. Lewis Allen wrote:
In the reports of the British productivity teams there has been frequent mention of the extent to which management and unions have been found to be working together toward the improvement of manufacturing and administrative methods. One reason would seem to be that common-sense people recognize that they work better, and are happier, when their loyalties are not in head-on conflict, but overlap.
England is a fascinating example because of the relentless night bombings that took place during the Blitz. Sebastian Junger writes in his book Tribe:
Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people, but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down. Emergency services in London reported an average of only two cases of “bomb neuroses” a week. Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.
Junger writes about the bomb shelters nearly all Londoners crowded into while their city above was decimated:
Conduct was so good in the shelters that volunteers never even had to summon the police to maintain order. If anything, the crowd policed themselves according to unwritten rules that made life bearable for complete strangers jammed shoulder to shoulder on floors that were at times awash in urine.
Back in America the solidarity bound people in ways that seemed unfathomable years before. Women entered the workforce in record numbers. Racial equality – though far from perfect – surged. “Probably the most important thing that has happened in the United States in the field of race relations,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “is that so many things are now taken for granted where the integration of the two races is concerned.”
After the 1945 inauguration the First Lady wrote about an African American reporter who told her:
Do you realize what twelve years have done? If at the 1933 reception a number of colored people had gone down the line and mixed with everyone else in the way they did today, every paper in the country would have reported it. We do not even think it is news and none of us will mention it.
You can go on and on. The war was both the most tragic event the country had seen and perhaps the strongest social unifier it had ever experienced.
After the war sociologists around the world went to work studying how the tragedy affected the human mind. One of them was an English man named Charles Fritz, who spent years in America studying the psychology of disasters. His broad thesis is the opposite of what you might expect: disasters do not make societies panic. They bring them together in calm solidarity.
Fritz’s theory was that modern society has gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterized the human experience, and that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating. Disasters, he proposed, create a “community of sufferers” that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat, Fritz found, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that, Fritz felt, is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.
I don’t know what this means in the context of COVID-19. The world seems to change by the hour and it’s too early to know where we go from here.
But already the virus has become the most common enemy to the greatest number of people since perhaps World War II.
It threatens nearly everyone on the planet.
It’s already disrupted the economic lives of billions of people.
It doesn’t care what you believe or who you pray to or how much money you make.
It’s indiscriminate and vicious. Which – for the first time since World War II – makes the response both within and among countries unified and determined in a special way.
Pandemics kill people and recessions ruin people. Saying they have silver linings is a step too far.
But I wonder if the best map we have that tells us what to expect next is the kind of extreme cooperation, solidarity, and empathy we last saw in the 1940s.
And I wonder if we’ll look back at COVID-19 as one of the worst things to happen to us, yet triggering something positive that couldn’t be achieved any other way.
History never repeats itself, but man always does.