Willem Lange: Americans Seem to Be at Their Worst When Fighting Each Other
I can’t say I remember it as if it were yesterday, but I do remember it. We were at my grandparents’ place for the usual Sunday dinner when the radio broadcast a special bulletin. Pearl Harbor had been attacked by planes and submarines of the Japanese navy. Family legend has it that my Uncle Alvin went straight from the dinner table to the induction office in downtown Albany so as to be the first in line the next morning. A pharmacy student, he ended up a medic in the European theater. He managed to circumvent the military censors and tell the family where he was by using family-specific encryption. (“I met Jeff Whiteflake whose folks live up on Emburgh Street” meant he was currently in Luxembourg. His sons, raised on his benevolent misdirection, are whizzes at the Sunday Times crossword puzzle.) He was rotated home in 1945.
The run-up to war had been rocky and contentious. U.S. citizens of German extraction were numerous, and many belonged to the so-called German-American Bund, which held a “Mass Demonstration for True Americanism” (sound familiar?) in Madison Square Garden in February 1939. Many prominent Americans supported Hitler’s reforms, among them Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Father Coughlin spread anti-Semitic and pro-fascist rhetoric among thousands of followers until the Roosevelt administration found a way to put his microphone out of business. It’s fair to say our country was far from united in its preparation for the clearly gathering storm. Thus it was amazing to feel the difference the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war on the United States Hitler made in our solidarity.
Hundreds of thousands of young men and women disappeared from everyday life (over 400,000 never returned alive). Essentials for the war effort — sugar, meat and butter — were rationed. Little stickers on the windshields of vehicles showed what level of gasoline ration their owners qualified for. Cigarettes, chewing gum and razor blades almost disappeared from stores. We kids collected scrap metal, rags, newspapers, and even ripe milkweed pods (a substitute for unavailable Indonesian kapok used in life preservers). City buses reduced their stops by at least half. Air raid drills, neighborhood air raid wardens and blackout shades became a regular part of life. Oil slicks from tankers torpedoed off the New Jersey coast fouled Eastern beaches.
Every inconvenience, sacrifice and shortage was referred to as “for the duration.” Little service flags hung in front windows everywhere, one blue star for each service-person, and gold stars for those who had died. Women went to work in factories, taking for the first time jobs it had always been assumed they couldn’t do. We had trouble getting coal: If we could find it, the seller often couldn’t deliver it. So my little sister and I made occasional trips of about a mile to People’s Coal Co. with our sled or wagon, depending on the season, and dragged home (a long uphill!) a 50-pound bag, which our mother fed into the furnace very sparingly. Government propaganda that today seems amateurishly laughable — posters, radio dramas, newsreel clips at the theater — urged us toward our common goal: when Johnny would come marching home again.
We had a common enemy, and that sustained and united us. After the surrender of Germany and then Japan, we almost immediately leaped into helping to rebuild the shattered economies and governments we’d destroyed in over three years of bombing. The Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift and the design of the new Japanese constitution monopolized our attention and efforts. Then the Soviet Union obligingly got the atom bomb and took over the role of major antagonist.
Considering what we’d just accomplished — defeated two major military powers on two different sides of the globe — we felt we could do anything. But then a worm appeared in our apple. I don’t have to read history to identify it; from a vantage point of almost 80 years I can remember it well. Because of the global reach of our weapons delivery systems and the cataclysmic power of the weapons themselves, security became a major concern. And because of the perceived need of rival governments to ferret out each other’s secrets, we began to imagine spies everywhere.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy achieved instant fame by claiming in a speech in 1950 that he had a list of members of the Communist Party and a spy ring, as well as homosexuals (who could be blackmailed by our enemies) within the State Department. He never could produce the evidence, and was finally censured by his colleagues; but the damage was done. We had begun looking at our fellow Americans as possible enemies of the state.
Consider the trillions we have spent since then on presumed security — the DEW line across the American Arctic, ICBMs poised in hardened underground silos, antiballistic missiles, Star Wars — and then consider whether we are more secure now than in 1947. We’ve fought four wars, in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and achieved almost nothing with them. With no credible threat from any other sovereign nation, but a constant danger of asymmetrical suicide attacks from terrorist groups and cells, we’ve begun to turn on each other.
The media are currently excited about the possibility of a government shutdown triggered by the refusal of one party to authorize the payment of our nation’s debts unless it’s given a hostage, the Affordable Care Act. The government that once mobilized us so brilliantly to defeat seemingly impossible odds, has for many become the embodiment of evil. Husky grown men walk about the streets with lethal weapons hidden inside their clothes “for personal protection;” threaten darkly to protect their homes and weapons with their lives, if necessary; and even enter coffee shops with semiautomatic weapons strapped to their sides. Tom Brokaw may be right, that the World War II generation was our greatest. It’s hard to imagine this one is.
Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.