Opinion: Invoking the Spirit of World War II

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic deepens, we’re hearing more and more references to the past — and with good reason.

Part of it is an attempt to put this crisis in perspective, and for perspective, you have to look to the past and things to compare this to. That’s why we’re hearing and reading references to 2008 and 2009 — the Great Recession — as well as 9/11, 1987 (the great stock-market nosedive), and, increasingly, the Great Depression of the 1930s, especially as the estimates for unemployment come in; indeed, some of the latest projections are for 20% or more, numbers not seen since 1932.

But we’re also hearing references to World War II, for reasons that involve not so much perspective (although there’s some of that) as inspiration. We’re hearing and reading references to everything from the Manhattan Project (which produced the atomic bomb) to the arsenal of democracy, the phrase coined by Franklin Roosevelt to describe what the United States should — and did — become as the war became a global conflict.

These references and comparisons are essentially spot on. What this country needs right now is a response similar to the one perhaps last seen during World War II — and on all kinds of levels.

Like the arsenal of democracy. In very short order, the U.S. economy went from a struggling peacetime economy — yes, the Great Depression lasted, in most all respects, into the early ’40s — into a thriving wartime economy where manufacturers retooled and produced items needed for the war effort. Examples abound, but the best known is Ford shifting gears — literally and figuratively — and producing B-24 Liberator bombers instead of cars at its famous Willow Run plant (where ‘Rosie the Riveter’ worked). In fact, at peak production, it was rolling out a new bomber every hour.

As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, it’s clear that we need what amounts to a different kind of wartime production — the war against this virus. Just as Ford made bombers, Caterpillar made tanks, Packard manufactured aircraft engines, and Studebaker produced trucks during World War II, today’s manufacturers need to step up, retool, and make surgical masks, respirators, and other items desperately needed in hospitals across the country.

And some are already volunteering to do just that, including Ford, GM, and Tesla. Meanwhile, cruise lines have proposed converting some of their ships into hospital ships, perhaps to care for those who need care but do not have COVID-19, and hotel owners have suggested perhaps converting their facilities into hospitals during this crisis.

These are the kinds of things that happened during World War II, and they need to happen now.

Meanwhile, on the home front during that war, there was sacrifice and a willingness to pitch in and do what was necessary, with drives to collect everything from rubber to aluminum for the war effort. Not everyone was happy with the rationing of many products, but they coped.

Contrast those images with those of people hording toilet paper and partying on the beaches of Florida during spring break, and it’s easy to see that the current generations can learn a lot from the Greatest Generation.

But there are many, many signs of generosity and caring being seen today — everything from MGM Springfield and other venues donating food items to food pantries to the Community Foundation’s creation of the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley, to NBA players donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to help arena workers who are now among the unemployed.

To get through this, we’re going to need a lot more stepping up, sacrificing, and using all our talents and imagination to help in this new war effort.

For inspiration, all we have to do is turn the clock back 75 years.

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