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 Americans still crowding bars, restaurants and theme parks over the weekend (and beaches on Monday) have shown is that to truly confront this threat we need to think bigger, to the greatest challenge the United States 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.
That May, in fact, the White House had proposed cutting a military appropriation that would increase the number of U.S. troops by 15,000. It was an election year and Americans were wary of getting entangled in another European conflict. Appropriating billions for new airplanes, construction and materiel was one thing, but taking men from hearth and home, factories and families for a year of military training was another.
Yet, close observers of Germany's breathless advance well knew — like medical professionals today — time lost meant more deaths.
As German Panzers rolled across Western Europe, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, George C. Marshall, warned the House Appropriations Committee in congressional testimony of a "tragic shortage of personnel." Marshall then beseeched President Franklin Roosevelt in a tense face-to-face meeting. "We are in a situation now where it's desperate," he implored the president. "We have literally nothing, nothing." Roosevelt relented, restoring the requested troop increase and promising another 38,000 by executive order later that summer.
Still, the addition would only bring the Army up to 280,000 officers and enlisted men, a number one presidential adviser called "pitiful." A league of Wall Street lawyers, financiers and related blue bloods who had served as officers in the First World War took matters in their own hands, drafting what was destined to be a controversial piece of federal legislation - a law that would institute the first peacetime military draft in American history.
The United States had never conscripted an army preemptively. Conscription had always followed declarations of war. When pressed by one of his closest aides to come out in favor of the bill, the president - who was running for an unprecedented third term — bluntly replied, "The answer is No."
The War Department's incoming secretary, Henry Stimson, was a proponent, but Marshall, thinking it not his place, opposed the effort, despite knowing "full-well, many times better than the man in the street," that it was needed.
Religious bodies, labor unions and pacifist groups, spanning the political spectrum, from progressive left to the nationalist right, took out ads and organized letter-writing campaigns against the Burke-Wadsworth bill that had been introduced in Congress. Correspondence deluged the Capitol, overwhelmingly against the bill, despite Gallup polling indicating a majority of Americans actually favored it. Throngs of youths took to the steps of the Capitol then the Supreme Court, while mothers draped in black crepe, calling themselves the death watch, occupied the gallery of the Senate.
Opponents argued that volunteers would make better soldiers and be more committed to the cause, whereas conscription was an "alien system of military regimentation." Voluntarism was the "American way," while compulsory military training was fascist, in other words. As Sen. Rush Holt, D-W.Va., put it "I don't like Hitlerized Methods in America to conquer Hitler overseas."
Proponents of the measure argued that not only was universal compulsory military training the most effective and efficient way — what they called the most scientific method — of raising an army, but that it was also the most democratic.
NBC radio network, on Aug. 10, 1940, broadcast an address from Sen. Carter Glass, D-Va., defending the draft bill as "the most democratic way" of meeting the present crisis. "I am in favor of universal conscription, certainly in favor of the pending bill now before the Senate, because that equalizes that matter," he asserted. "That is real democracy; that makes every individual, young and old, realize his responsibility and his duty, and not leave it to those who have spirit enough to volunteer."
Other supporters contended that the choice was not as stark as opponents asserted, that compulsory training was not anathema to American principles and traditions. As someone named James Roe wrote in a letter to the New York Times, "This universal obligation would do more to create a genuine physical and spiritual democracy, a commonwealth in which the emphasis is placed upon the citizen's duty and the individual's responsibility to the community rather than on privileges and rights and escapes. "
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 U.S. 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 J.K. Gitre is assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech. He teaches the history of World War II and is director of the digital history project, "The American Soldier in World War II." This piece was written for The Washington Post.