Forgive me, but I don’t think Americans are as tough as we used to be.
Specifically, I don’t think many of us see the big picture the way our parents and our grandparents did.
I venture down this treacherous path because I think this lack of toughness is affecting Iowans’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. Stay with me, and we’ll come back to this shortly. But first, some context.
During the 1940s, ordinary Iowans from Ackley to Zwingle, together with Americans all across this land, helped the Allied powers win World War II. The vast majority of them did this without ever putting on a military uniform, shouldering a weapon or digging a foxhole.
Like millions of other Americans who remained at home during the war, these civilians contributed to the victory in important ways, too. And that’s when they showed just how tough Americans were back then.
Recent wars the United States has engaged in — in places like Iraq and Afghanistan — have not affected the everyday lives of Americans, except for those who have loved ones serving in the war zone.
It wasn’t that way during World War II, however.
After the United States entered the war in 1941, the U.S. government imposed significant restrictions on American civilians — restrictions that directly affected how they lived, what they ate and where they could go.
The government began rationing the amount of certain goods a person could buy. Supplies of gasoline, tires, butter, sugar and canned milk were rationed to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding military.
As the war dragged on, fuel oil, coal, nylon, silk and shoes were added to the ration list. Families on the home front had to use their limited supply of ration stamps to purchase a meager amount of such staples as meat, dairy, coffee, jams and jellies, lard and shortening.
Getting by with less became the norm. But that occurred with minimal squawking because families knew they were contributing to the war effort. The government’s Office of War Information distributed posters with a simple message that explained the reasons for rationing: “Do with less so they’ll have enough.”
And Americans knew some families were “contributing” to the war in more lasting and consequential ways.
Al McIntosh, a Midwest country editor made famous in Ken Burns’ documentary, “The War,” described one such contribution in a few haunting sentences in a 1944 column. McIntosh owned the Rock County Star Herald in Luverne, Minn., a few miles north of Lyon County, Iowa.
McIntosh wrote, “The middle-aged man, his shoulders bent just a bit more that morning under a crashing blow of sudden grief, came out of the Western Union office, clutching a yellow piece of paper. … ‘I was just coming down to your place but maybe you’d care to look at this now if you want to,’ and he handed over the telegram with shaking fingers.
“It was one of those ‘we regret to inform you’ type of messages, the kind that hundreds of Rock County parents live in terror of, day and night. We copied down the text of the official telegram.
“What could we say? Absolutely nothing. For words at a time like that are so futile. Nothing, no matter how much you mean it, can ease the heartache the slightest bit.”
From 1941-45, Iowans knew the restrictions imposed by the government were inconvenient and annoying. But like their brethren in other states, Iowans also knew those limitations were a necessary step in bringing an end to the fighting and dying.
Yes, not everyone complied with the rationing program. Yes, there were people who tried to buy extra supplies on the black market.
But historians tell us that vastly more Americans followed government directives on rationing, instead of wanting to debate how effective those restrictions were.
That’s not the case in 2020 with coronavirus.
Admonitions from public health officials about ways to slow the disease are ridiculed or ignored, and some government leaders are too timid about using their authority and influence. All of this is occurring even as case numbers surge past 11 million in the U.S. and past 187,000 in Iowa, as deaths top 250,000 nationally and close in on 2,000 in Iowa, and as medical workers are being stretched to exhaustion.
Many people do not want to be bothered with any limits. Many people talk about being uncomfortable with a mask on. Many people say their freedom is being trampled by such edicts.
America has lost that “We are all in this together” spirit that was so evident for four long years during World War II. Too many people show too little concern these days for how their own actions affect their friends, families and strangers.
These days, our disregard for the big picture is leading to unnecessary coronavirus cases and deaths.
Seventy-five years ago, that same attitude could have cost the United States and the free world dearly. We might have ended up speaking German.