It’s tempting to think that the most instructive antecedent of the covid-19 pandemic is another pandemic, in particular the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918.
But what countless pictures of many still crowding bars, restaurants and theme parks have shown is that to truly confront this threat we need to think bigger, to the greatest challenge the US has had to face in the modern era, and yet overcame: World War II.
The lesson of that costly war is that government officials cannot count on voluntary measures alone. Even as President Donald Trump now encourages Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 and eating out, these guidelines will likely fail. Instead, the entire country must be compelled to do what it takes to support one another and to beat our new enemy.
As one European state after another fell in the spring and summer of 1940, the United States found itself completely unprepared for the German threat.
The near destruction of the British Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, followed by the German Luftwaffe’s direct aerial bombardment of British cities, brought home to Americans how dire the situation in Western Europe was. This likely tipped the American debate, and in mid-September, Congress passed — however reluctantly — the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, some 15 months before the US would go to war.
Drafters of the legislation anticipated that it was likely to “induce” many men to enlist; they included a provision in the bill that provided selectees — men whose numbers had come up in the draft lottery — the “opportunity” to volunteer into either the land or naval forces before their formal date of induction, giving them the choice of where to serve.
Yet, the most powerful part of the law — its penalties — was what compelled many millions to comply: a fine up to $10,000 (in 1940s dollars) and/or up to five years imprisonment. The draft was imperfect, resulting in untold men ending up in an army occupation for which they were ill-suited.
But while the FBI would investigate nearly a half million cases of draft evasion between 1940 and 1945, and many eligible men sought loopholes to evade service, the vast majority of Americans in fact complied.
That widespread compliance ensured the United States was far better prepared when war did come. And the system of selective service proved crucial to Allied victory.
As the nation stares down a new emergency of global proportions, World War II can serve as a model of how we might address this new challenge. Leaders then did not rely on good will alone. The challenge was too great and onerous, and human nature, left to its own devices, too fickle.
Today, the same is proving true, as we’ve seen frequently since experts started pleading with Americans to “flatten the curve” and “social distance.” Millions may be listening. Far too many have not. Nor has the federal government offered the necessary leadership in the midst of crisis. That’s why governors and mayors are starting to institute sweeping, compulsory measures to mitigate the threat.
These measures impinge on our freedoms. But being compulsory, they promise not only to be more effective, but also fairer, and more equitable, demanding sacrifice of all Americans, not just the willing or the well-informed.
During the Second World War, governments took bold, aggressive action. Today, elected officials must do the same. And they must do far more than discourage large social gatherings.
In particular, the federal government must take measures to make life possible for people in the coming weeks and months, by, for instance, freezing evictions, ensuring access to public utilities, food, housing and medical care regardless of ability to pay and perhaps instituting income assistance for the millions of people who are losing hourly wages and jobs. Our livelihoods, as well as our very lives, are on the line.
Edward Gitre is assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech