As we watch the pandemic spread in spite of the president’s denials, and as we watch him put the military into cities in rebellion even though the governors and mayors do not want or need the help, we are chagrined. As we watch the debacle of a presidential campaign unfold with lies and misstatements, we should take a moment and look back at what our parents and grandparents faced. We should admit that in spite of masks and social distancing, in spite of a downward spiral of our economy, and in spite of the loss of our sports and school seasons, we do not have it so bad.
Let’s compare. My father was born in 1915 and my mother in 1916. The world was just facing World War I. In those four years of war, more than 22 million deaths would occur. This was almost immediately followed by the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1919 -20 that took another 50 million lives worldwide in those two years.
Within 10 years, when he was just 14, the stock market crashed and the world entered the greatest depression ever. Unemployment reached 30 percent. There were no bailout programs to meet the needs of the poor. The dust bowl gripped the middle states, and people were starving. I once read where in Oklahoma a baby had swallowed a dime and the family had to wait for her to pass it so they could take that dime to the grocery store and buy the family a loaf of bread. Was there ever a more poignant illustration of poor?
The only thing that brought us out of that depression was the start of World War II. Germany invaded Poland when my father was enjoying his 24th year. He had struggled but made it through college and had married my mother. He had bought a filling station and automotive repair shop and was earning real money. On Dec. 7, 1941, when he was 26, Pearl Harbor was attacked and America was in for its second bloody conflict in the 20th century. And then there was no gas. It is believed that more than 75 million people died during that six-year period. My father went to work in a defense plant making parts for airplanes, including the B-29. That war finally ended in 1945 with the world’s first nuclear bomb being dropped on Japan.
But the world and our country was not yet done fighting wars. In 1953, we entered the Korean Conflict and before it was over, there were 5 million more deaths in all. At the same, polio was raising havoc throughout the world. Over a half-million people died each year from that virus until Dr. Salk introduced his vaccine in 1955. At the same time, as these other tragedies were happening, no vaccine for small pox had yet been developed and over a period of generations, it is believed that some 300 million people succumbed to that disease.
By the 1950s, North and South Vietnam were at war. As early as 1963, America was sending its troops there as advisors. Soon, we were involved in a full-fledged war again. The draft of young men dominated the headlines, as every healthy male was subject to being drafted and sent to war. Protests against this war tore the country apart with marches and sit-ins, draft card burnings and young men abandoning their country of birth to avoid being sent to war.
Unlike many early wars of the world where the brightest and most prestigious men went into battle, this draft forced those of the lower economic spectrum into being the major troops in Vietnam.
Student deferments, political jobs that gave exemption to the draft and political favoritism helped keep the brightest and wealthiest from being massacred in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The real number of deaths in that war is hard to determine but almost 60,000 U.S. citizens gave their lives in that contentious war. By that time, my father was in his 60s, but his son was 1-A.
America was not done. We had more wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that took lives, just not as quickly. Our country was attacked by terrorists both at home and abroad, and the century changed numbers.
Now, we have a new disaster. We have a leader who believes this pandemic to be a war and he is in charge. Unlike Woodrow Wilson in World War I, Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II, Dwight Eisenhower in Korea, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in Vietnam, we truly have had no war leader. As a consequence, we have a disaster that could have been much better controlled. We could have had more time to develop a vaccine like Dr. Salk did, and we could have saved thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. We just do not yet know the ultimate consequences of this problem.
But let’s look at a more positive side. We know more about this dilemma than most of the other disasters mentioned above. We have some control. We can wear masks and stay safe if we choose. Sure we miss the gyms, the hair salons, the bars, restaurants and the movie theaters. But we have television, unlike the people of World War II. We have Netflix and Amazon Prime, unlike any of the other wartime civilians. We have safety from attack. No one is burning our homes. We have food in most cases. We have each other, perhaps, sometimes apart, but we have Zoom and FaceTime. We have the internet and instant communication. We have civilization, just in different forms. We have many jobs where people can work from home. We have so much more to comfort than my father ever had during his life facing the above disasters.
So, we should work to beat this enemy as we did in World War I, Spanish Flu, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, small pox and polio. We need to stay strong. Clearly, what the medical experts are telling us is the only solution until that magic vaccine is found. In the months of July and August in the early 1950s, my sister and I were not allowed to go to a movie for fear of polio. We stayed home, and it worked, at least in our case. So, why is it so contested to wear a mask, stay out of the bars, spas and restaurants as we beat this latest pandemic? We don’t want to break any of these old records of death. We should want history to marvel about how smart we became and how we won this war, with or without a leader.
My thanks to Mark Logue for his YouTube video that inspired me to write this column.