August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
DID AMERICANS BEHAVE BETTER BACK THEN?
Remember September 11? Or rather, remember how it was supposed to change us all, and for the better? Among all the predictions was one that held that it would lead to “the end of irony,” the sort of earnest prognostication that is bound to seem ironic in retrospect. Yet an even more civic-minded call came from Robert D. Putnam, who let us know that this was our chance to get back to the spirit of World War II.
Dr. Putnam is the Harvard professor who blazed his way up the bestseller lists in 1995 with Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Citing the decline in participation in everything from political activism and labor unions to bridge clubs and bowling leagues, Putnam claimed that America was experiencing an alarming loss of “social capital” and “generalized reciprocity—the practice of helping others with no expectation of gain.” We were letting the very ligaments of our society ossify, abandoning our traditions as a vibrant, participatory, community-based democracy, and becoming a nation of disaffected and distrustful loners.
Meticulously researched, perceptive, and filled with telling anecdotes, Putnam’s book struck a chord in Americans all along the political spectrum. Some, however, argued that his conclusions were overly dire, that fewer people were bowling in leagues, for instance, because more of them were bowling with their families. Yet Putnam returned with an updated edition in 2000 that confirmed most of the trends he had previously noted. Then came September 11 and what seemed like an unexpected opportunity in the midst of adversity.
Writing in The New York Times, just over a month after the terrorist attack, Putnam found a nation “achingly familiar” to the America that had been stunned by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. He went on to depict the vast government-backed grass-roots effort that “taught ‘the greatest generation’ an enduring lesson in civic involvement”—an effort that included everything from the Civil Defense Corps to the Red Cross, from victory gardens to Boy Scouts collecting scrap and selling war stamps.
“All Americans felt they had to do their share, thereby enhancing each American’s sense that her commitment and contribution mattered,” he wrote. “As one said later in an oral history of the home front: ‘You just felt that the stranger sitting next to you in a restaurant, or someplace, felt the same way you did about the basic issues.’”
Dr. Putnam is no doubt well-meaning, but his characterization of the home front in World War II is also an object lesson in just how careful one has to be in making the future over in the image of the past. The war effort at home was undoubtedly one of the proudest episodes—and possibly the most important episode—in our history, perhaps even more vital than the great sacrifices made by our men at the front. It was U.S. production that sustained not only our own forces but those of all our allies and that brought victory around the world. This was not merely a victory of quantity, either, but one accomplished while preserving almost all the rights and privileges of a free people. The war proved that a democracy could triumph over any modern totalitarian ideology, something that had seemed very much in doubt just a few years earlier.
The triumph was incontrovertible, but it did not come out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The America of the Second World War was a turbulent and often frightening place, characterized by immense social upheaval and dislocation. It might well have been true that the stranger sitting next to you in a restaurant felt the same way about things—unless, that is, he or she happened to be of a different race. Inasmuch as color was the deepest fissure in American society, it is not surprising that during the war we fractured most often along this line.
The most infamous case, of course, was the forced detention of some 110,000 Japanese-Americans in barren desert camps while their property was sold off for a pittance—and their sons formed some of the most decorated fighting units of the war. But racial hysteria was hardly restricted to Asian-Americans. In 1943 alone there were 242 race riots in 47 cities as the war sparked an epic migration of both poor Southern blacks and whites into urban ports and industrial centers. The worst was in Detroit, in 1943, where white mobs ended up roaming through the city’s downtown, shouting, “Here’s some fresh meat!” while they beat and shot any African-Americans they found—often with the help of the local police. Before it was all over, 34 people died, and pictures of the riot were gleefully plastered across the pages of Signal , Germany’s leading picture magazine, as proof that a “mongrel” country could not win the war.
Discrimination remained routine in all industries, with blacks making less money than whites for the same jobs, and with whites frequently refusing to work with them anyway. The great black labor leader A. Philip Randolph had to threaten to lead a massive protest march in Washington, D.C., before the Roosevelt administration would commit to equal pay for equal work on war projects.
Elsewhere, protests were not so availing. Mob assaults on black civilians and even soldiers continued throughout the Deep South, and the sad fact remains that the greatest generation was also the last lynching generation.
The other great social transformation the war brought was the mass entrance of women into the workplace, especially into workplaces formerly reserved for men. The enduring image of this phenomenon, and rightly so, is Rosie the Riveter, determined and capable, the sleeves of her work shirt rolled up as she grasps a wrench.
Largely forgotten today, though, is the enormous problem that was posed by two working—or fighting—parents in a country virtually unequipped with day care. Although the federal government funded an unprecedented daycare system for the children of tens of thousands of war-production workers, many desperate mothers were forced to lock up their children in cars or homes, while other youths roamed the streets in new “zip-gun” gangs, and every train and bus depot had its own coterie of underage victory girls. Venereal disease and illegitimacy rates soared. It was during the war that the term juvenile delinquency came into common parlance.
The business of the war was sometimes just as sordid. Harry Truman’s Senate committee turned up one case after another of war profiteering, and at least 20 percent of Americans surveyed admitted that they viewed the black market as a legitimate means of procuring consumer goods. Even the unprecedented wealth now spurring the economy brought on a deep social uneasiness. Boomtowns sprang up all across the nation. They were full of transient men and women, unable to spend their newfound wealth anywhere else, piling into raucous new bars.
“No country could have survived America’s convulsive transformations of 1941-45 without altering its essence and its view of itself,” William Manchester wrote in The Glory and the Dream . “The home front was in reality a battleground of ideas, customs, economic theory, foreign policy, and relationships between the sexes and social classes.”
We should not be too shocked. Democracy is a messy business, and freedom is built on struggle. Government interventions and private initiatives were able to mitigate the worst of the wartime excesses and produce the means for a renewal of liberty at home. Interracial boards and commissions were set up in many cities for the first time, and A. Philip Randolph’s threatened protest would eventually become Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. In Chicago, A. J. Muste and James Farmer began a series of peaceful sit-ins and protests to desegregate restaurants and other businesses. Despite a concerted propaganda effort to get women to return to the home, they never would—not anything like before the war.
A year after September 11 we can take credit for having largely spared ourselves such excesses. True, we have yet to endure, so far, anything like the sustained pressure that World War II brought to bear on our society. And the days after the attack on the World Trade Center saw some deplorable assaults on Arab- and Asian-Americans, and on civil liberties. Overall, though, we have kept a remarkably even keel, compared with past wars. There have been no race riots, no mass imprisonments, no vast social disruptions. Leaders at every level have made strong pleas for tolerance, most civil liberties have been respected, and demonstrations of all kinds have continued to be held without incident. The American reaction has been decidedly free of panic or paranoia.
With nations as with individuals, it is hard to believe that a traumatic event actually changes their character; more likely, it illuminates just what that character already is. Dr. Putnam’s fears not-withstanding, could it be that our ironic, mistrustful, solo bowling society has also reached a new level of democratic maturity, one that serves it very well indeed against the hazards of the twenty-first century?