Pandemic restrictions do have a World War II parallel — self-denial in pursuit of victory

Photo of drive-through COVID-19 screening by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed a multitude of economic restrictions on the American public and businesses, actions that would be instrumental in helping America and her allies defeat Nazi Germany and Japan.

We won that war but not until it had extinguished the lives of 405,399 American service members.

Seventy-nine years later, a ranking member of the U.S. Congress from Ohio last week generated news by haranguing the nation’s chief health official about public health restrictions such as requiring face coverings and social distancing, imposed in order to prevail against a global pandemic. A few weeks ago, two Ohio politicians compared public-health measures and the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out to the government of Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust.

The pandemic’s American death toll now exceeds 560,000 with more than three million dead across the globe. Yet another surge in cases is happening in parts of this country and the world at large.

If anyone doubts that America has been at war for the past 14 months, they’ve been living underground. The coronavirus pandemic has touched every corner of American life, every single day, not a world of difference from how World War II dominated every aspect of life in the U.S. from 1941-45.

Yet, we haven’t been fighting this war seriously considering earlier generations’ example of self-denial when confronting and enduring a once-in-a-lifetime national crisis. Politics too often has overtaken the sort of consistent public-health restrictions that would finally put the pandemic behind us, allowing the country to return fully to business and life as we knew it.

Much of this has been due to opportunistic politicians such as U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and others who downplay the pandemic, glorify the rejection of science as fealty to liberty, and equate effective public-health restrictions with the actions of authoritarian governments and evil dictatorships.

During a House subcommittee hearing about the federal government’s response to the pandemic last Thursday, Jordan braced Dr. Anthony Fauci about when social distancing measures and mask-wearing can be eased in the U.S., or as he phrased it, when Americans can pull back their liberty and freedom.

“We had 15 days of ‘slow the spread’ turn into one year of lost liberty,” Jordan stated, with no professed or implied concern about public health.

In addition, here in Ohio we recently witnessed the spectacle of two Republican politicians drawing their own World War II comparisons with the government’s pandemic response.

On March 31, state Rep. Kris Jordan (no relation to Jim Jordan) posted on Facebook, suggesting that mask requirements and the start of optional COVID-19 vaccines would light the fuse to an American genocide similar to the Holocaust in World War II. “It’s just a mask, wear it. It’s just a shot, take it,” according to a March 31 Facebook post from the Delaware County Republican. “It’s just a boxcar, get in. Every step away from freedom is a step closer to dictatorship.”

Former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a GOP candidate for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat, made a similar comparison while criticizing “vaccine passports.” “We’ve seen this before…,” Mandel tweeted on March 22. “Nazi Germany also registered citizens. Our Liberty is under attack!”

The minimize-the-pandemic/showboat-about-liberty routine is old hat, though no less infuriating for being in heavy rotation in the U.S. Capitol and Statehouses across the country, including Ohio. Meanwhile, the death toll from COVID-19 continues rising, ending the lives of well over a half-million Americans.

To put that in perspective, the only war where more American military personnel died than civilians in the ongoing U.S. pandemic was the Civil War, with 655,000 combat and non-combat deaths on both sides. The pandemic could eclipse that sad number later this year.

The United States remains in the midst of not only a war against a deadly global pandemic, but also a holding action against a powerful network of politically motivated misinformation pushed by the Republican Party and its enablers in the conservative media. The result has been widespread non-compliance with public health orders and half-hearted efforts to slow the coronavirus spread in many states.

In Ohio, among other things, this has manifested in a Republican legislative majority taking aggressive steps to revoke the governor and health officials’ authority to enact and enforce public health measures.

IT’S FAIR TO SAY THAT if our World War II leadership had faced the sort of internal resistance we’re seeing against science-based measures to prevail against a relentless global pandemic, egged on by irresponsible political leaders, infinitely darker chapters would have been added to world history after 1945.

Let’s imagine a 1941 version of Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan railing about the loss of liberty when President Roosevelt on Aug. 28, 1941 (more than three months before entering World War II) issued Executive Order 8875, creating an independent Office of Price Administration. Its chief responsibility was placing a ceiling on prices for most goods and limiting consumption by rationing. When the order went into full effect a few months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government implemented a sweeping program of rationing, restricting the amount of a multitude of goods that a person could purchase, including everything from cars to shoes, coal to coffee, fruit to firewood.

It should go without saying that many public restrictions during wartime or similar national or global crises are reasonable and well-intended, with the goal being a quicker and more complete victory over the foes we’re facing.

To believe the offensive public health restrictions/Nazi comparisons by Kris Jordan, Mandel and others, one would have to accept the notion that our nation’s leading public health authorities, rather than doing the things they’ve spent their careers doing — practicing medicine to improve and save people’s lives — instead have a secret plan to implement a dictatorship and kill everyone they disagree with.

Anybody with even a passing acquaintance with sanity — or without an over-arching political agenda — would agree that the more appropriate comparison for ongoing public-health restrictions and actions would be food and product rationing and all-encompassing economic restrictions during World War II.

IN HIS FIRESIDE CHAT OF April 28, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt exhorted Americans to cooperate with a package of harsh economic restrictions necessary for eventual victory. They included higher taxes, low personal and corporate profits, ceilings on prices and rents, forced wage stabilization, farm price control, discouragement of installment buying, and rationing of all essential commodities.

Compared to those actions affecting every square foot of the American consumer, employer/employee and investor economy, public-health restrictions that have covered Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t seem unreasonable, considering the past and future death toll, and how it has affected everyone’s lives.

Consider Roosevelt’s words during that Fireside Chat. It’s almost as if he’s talking to the politicians of today who downplay a national crisis in order to score political and ideological points.

“The blunt fact is that every single person in the United States is going to be affected by this program…” Roosevelt warned. “As I told the Congress yesterday, ‘sacrifice’ is not exactly the proper word with which to describe this program of self-denial. When, at the end of this great struggle we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no ‘sacrifice’…

“This great war effort must be carried through to its victorious conclusion by the indomitable will and determination of the people as one great whole. It must not be impeded by the faint of heart. It must not be impeded by those who put their own selfish interests above the interests of the nation. It must not be impeded by those who pervert honest criticism into falsification of fact.

“It must not be impeded by self-styled experts either in economics or military problems who know neither true figures nor geography itself. It must not be impeded by a few bogus patriots who use the sacred freedom of the press to echo the sentiments of the propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin…”

I’m not entirely sure whom FDR is talking about there, and was briefly entranced by his use of the word “bogus” in 1942. But his message was clear. When a threat to your existence presents itself, you do whatever you can to defeat it.

The Jordans and Mandels of America’s political landscape aren’t crusaders for liberty and the American way; that’s just their chosen brand while they lend aid and comfort to an implacable enemy, the pandemic. Let’s hope our country can prevail despite their words and actions. If we can manage that, FDR would be proud.

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