Today’s Americans have more in common with their ancestors from nearly 80 years ago than they might realize. The instinct to hoard, and feelings of fear and isolation, were just as common at the start of World War II as they are in the face of a global pandemic that is disrupting virtually every aspect of life today.
But the ultimate lesson from those long ago days is pertinent today, as well. Americans eventually banded together and learned to help each other.
In a book that lays to rest many of the myths about Americans rallying in lockstep after the attack on Pearl Harbor, author William K. Klingaman points to hoarding as one of the biggest problems of the day. “The Darkest Year” recounts how a dozen major retailers banded together in February of 1942 to buy an ad in newspapers that sarcastically featured Adolph Hitler presenting an iron cross to an American couple.
The inscription read, “For distinguished Service to the Axis — for Hoarding.”
It didn’t specifically mention toilet paper, but people at the time were grabbing much of whatever they could from store shelves, just as some are today.
Klingaman goes on to describe how Americans tried to cheat with gas ration cards and in other ways. He quotes Hanson Baldwin, a military analyst of the day, who said, “The people’s emotions are not yet fully enlisted in this fight.”
It’s safe to say emotions today are fully enlisted, only because the enemy, COVID-19, already is ashore and disrupting life. After spending a weekend without congregating at church services and without some of the nation’s most cherished sporting traditions (March Madness was to announce its seedings on Sunday), Americans on Monday learned that a growing number of local governments, including Salt Lake County, were ordering all dine-in restaurants and entertainment venues to close their doors. Schools either were closed or offering online courses. Many Americans were asked to stay home and telecommute, airlines were cutting back flights and tourist-centered vacation destinations were empty.
As a result, you may be dealing with feelings of isolation and loneliness, or perhaps you are exasperated trying to entertain homebound children while meeting the demands of your employer. And you may be watching your investments lose ground as you wonder about the extent of economic hardships to come.
This is precisely the time when it pays to stay calm, count your blessings and keep a firm perspective on the crisis that engulfs us. Americans have a history of rising to any occasion. This should be no different.
In 1942, people at least had a logical reason to hoard. War was cutting supply chains, and military demands were creating shortages of a host of items, from rubber for tires to gasoline. Rationing was being implemented.
Today, the situation is not so dire. Grocery chains have reiterated that they have plenty of supplies. There is no need to hoard. There is, however, a need to help.
There is no need to hoard. There is, however, a need to help.
The greatest toll today may be on the human psyche, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Everyone should take time to think of someone they know who is elderly or who is living alone. Reach out with a word of encouragement and love. Make a phone call. Offer to make a run to the store for someone for whom age or health issues might create vulnerabilities.
Help a struggling neighbor watch children for an afternoon so they can attend to important duties. Look for other ways to help each other without unduly risking contamination.
Today’s generation may share much with those who faced wars and pandemics in the past, but we are much more blessed thanks to technology, science and instant communications.
This is not a war in the traditional sense, but it may feel like it for a while. The greatest struggle may come after, when the nation tries to restart its economy and resume a semblance of normalcy.
We have no doubt Americans will rise to that challenge, as well, just as they rebounded after defeating enemies of the past.