Through the Prism of World War II (Can America Rise to This Occasion?)

This piece was published in mid-June, 2019.


I wasn’t born until the year after the end of the Second World War, but that time is as alive in my consciousness as the history I’ve actually lived through. That’s partly because the America I grew up in was continually processing that history with movies and TV documentaries. But the reasons go well beyond that, as is proved by the way the WW II period has recently become still more vivid to me.

I’ve been turning to that time in our history lately for inspiration about how we could deal with the challenges of our own times. The example of WW II relates to both of the major historical crises that beset us now – crises to which our response so far has been woefully inadequate.

Then and now, our nation (and humankind generally) faces a possibly nightmarish future.

• Then, had the Nazi regime and its fascist allies won that war, the world would have become a dark and tormented place.
• Now, if we fail to act with dedication and determination, the destabilization of earth’s climate – we are told by the virtually unanimous voice of a whole field of science – could unleash a veritable “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” onto our civilization (famine, pestilence, war, death).

That earlier nightmare was averted by heroic action by the whole American nation. When I read about the extraordinary achievement of the United States in transforming our economy into a war-production machine with astonishing speed upon our entry into WW II, and about all the military skill and valor that used that war machine to gain victory, I am thrilled to behold what this nation was capable of.

For six years now, I’ve been saying: We should bring to meeting the challenge of climate change even a decent fraction of that same determination, skill, resources, creativity, commitment, and sacrifice that those wartime Americans brought to their task.
But so far, we do not resemble at all that more heroic America that saved much of humankind from that nightmarish world of tyranny.

Which brings us to the second of our crises – the one in the American political realm — which connects with World War II in a different, but equally meaningful way.

Despite the differences, we should note the fundamental kinship – in moral terms — between what Americans fought against in World War II and what needs to be defeated in the political battle in America today. In both cases, the powerful force that must be defeated
• Continually employs the Lie in its communication to the people;
• Consistently chooses conflict and domination over cooperation and mutual respect in dealing with others;
• Foments hatred and divisions among groups of people, often along racial and ethnic lines, and encourages in their supporters feelings of superiority over people unlike themselves;
• Shows contempt for the rule of law, and instead weaponizes the law to serve the power of the rulers.

Both battles – in their essence — should be understood as different versions of the ancient human drama in which forces that might reasonably be called Good and Evil fight to see which will shape human destiny.

It’s just that now, both sides of the battle are contained within our borders.

Which brings me to one other major factor that has made World War II so vividly alive in my day-to-day consciousness: The failure of those on the side of the Good in these times to bring the necessary spirit to turn back the Evil.

For almost a decade, I’ve been quoting a famous line from “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity.”

It was not thus in World War II, and a vital part of the reason is the inspiring leadership of the two great wartime leaders of the English-speaking allies: President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is my yearning for the Good Guys to have such leadership in today’s battle that has led me, for almost a decade now, to read biographies of FDR and Churchill (perhaps a dozen of each) for inspiration and hope.

We need leadership of the kind they provided.

In a piece a few weeks back, I asked the question “Can the Democrats Find Their Churchill for 2020?” Churchill — the one man in Britain who understood what they were up against before it was almost too late, the man who was fearless in his determination to fight with everything Britain could muster, and whose words inspired his people to play the role of heroes to assure that the Good would prevail.

As for the Democrats and whether they will find and choose a leader who fills that bill—that remains to be seen.

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