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VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Losing our fears, in war and plague

Updated May 16, 2020 - 9:10 pm

Seventy-five years ago this month, Germany surrendered, ending the European theater of World War II. At the war’s beginning, no one believed Germany would utterly collapse in May 1945.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, German invaders were on the verge of capturing Moscow. Britain was isolated. London had barely survived the Blitz. A sleeping America was neutral, but it was beginning to realize it was weak and mostly unarmed in a scary world.

But by 1943, a booming U.S. economy was fielding vast military forces from Alaska to the Sahara. Britain and America were bombing the German heartland. The Soviet Red Army had destroyed a million-man German army at Stalingrad.

How did the Allies — Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States — turn around the war so quickly?

The Red Army would suffer close to 11 million deaths in halting German offensives. Britain would never give up despite terrible losses at home and at sea. Yet the key to victory was the U.S. economy. It would outproduce all the major economies on both sides of the war combined.

Neo-socialist President Franklin D. Roosevelt unleashed American business under the aegis of successful entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Co., William Knudsen of General Motors, Henry Kaiser of Kaiser Shipyards and Charles Wilson of General Electric. They were all given relatively free rein from New Deal strictures to work without burdensome government regulations. The result was a juggernaut that overwhelmed America’s enemies.

Politics went on, but in less partisan fashion. Roosevelt was able to dodge charges of rank partisanship during the war by appointing Republicans to key positions in his administration. The media turned from either propagandizing the success of the New Deal or hyping its failures to warning Americans of the looming existential threat that would soon make their differences irrelevant.

Most importantly, Americans lost their fears.

From 1929 to 1938, the U.S. economy was in ruins. As late as 1938, economic growth had sunk to negative 3.3 percent. Unemployment soared to an unsustainable 19 percent.

Only the threat of war terrified Americans into taking a gamble — to work feverishly and to ramp up industry.

By the end of 1941, the early rearmament effort had spiked GDP growth to 17.7 percent. Unemployment had fallen to about 10 percent and would soon fall to 2 percent. Americans began losing their dread that they could do nothing against a decade-long Depression. After Pearl Harbor, Americans did not stay neutral, wait for government assistance or expect other nations to protect them.

Does World War II offer any lessons regarding our wrecked economy and staggering unemployment from the coronavirus lockdown?

Perhaps. Government cannot restore prosperity. Only entrepreneurs and risk-takers can. Americans must master their fears of the virus and dare to go back to work. Otherwise, locked-down states will continue to borrow to pay out public assistance without creating wealth from labor, production and investment.

The media must stick to reporting on the virus and the ailing economy. Their often petty obsessions with destroying President Donald Trump are long past monotonous. Trump himself must keep working with any Democratic governors who realize they must put their states back to work in order to have the money to pay for the fight against the virus.

Interest rates are low. Gas is as cheap as it’s been in years. Inflation remains moribund. People are tired of being housebound. They want to get back to work to make and spend money. All that is missing is confidence — or rather, the conviction that the virus is no more dangerous than were the Axis powers and can be beaten far more quickly if we show the sort of will our grandparents had.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford’s Hoover Institution Contact via email at author@victorhanson.com.

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