It’s still a post-war world

I’ve just started Don’t You Know There’s a War On?, a book by Richard Lingeman. He originally wrote it in 1970, and it was reissued after the 9/11 attacks. I found it in the $2 bin at my local bookstore. It’s worth a read if you are interested in World War II.

The book looks at life in the United States during the war through a combination of statistics, news and magazine reporting, and personal anecdotes. It casts an interesting light on a period most of us see through a haze of nostalgia. It turns out we didn’t all just drop our personal concerns and merge smoothly into the war effort. As always, the picture is more complicated than you might think. Nor did the war automatically end the Depression as latter day historians and politicians are fond of pointing out. The transition to full employment was uneven and traumatic — as was the transition back to peacetime.

For years, I’ve used a standard line that all our problems stem from World War II. This book suggests my smart-alek comment may be more on the mark than even I thought.

Examples: I developed my standard line in talking about our nation’s unique employer-based health insurance system. It came from a war-time freeze on wages. The Supreme Court ruled that benefit packages weren’t to be counted as wages, so employers started offering medical insurance to attract scarce workers. Now, 65+ years later, we’re still trying to figure out how to make that cockamamy system work, or how to get out of it, depending on your political persuasion on the matter.

Another example, this one from the book, is that our current economic upheaval is at least in part an unwinding of the unprecedented growth of big manufacturing corporations during the war. Previously, the U.S. was a country of small businesses. But when the country needed lots of planes, tanks, guns, and other materiel, and needed it fast, the government money went to companies with large capacity. It simply would take too long for a network of small machine shops to gear up to build war equipment, and the management infrastructure that would be needed to pull all those little efforts together was beyond the capacity of a nation with a war to fight.

So we quickly became a nation of large corporations. Over half a million small businesses went under in the early years of the war. Today, after those large corporations worked through several wars, including a cold one, the pendulum is swinging back toward a small business economy. In recent years, a majority of new jobs are created by small businesses. Large corporations have been downsizing for years. Those large companies that have shown growth have done so from mergers and acquisitions more than innovation.

Perhaps most strikingly, the U.S. auto makers, which shut down auto production during the war to build military vehicles and weapons, then rode the post-War boom for decades, are now poor shadows of their former selves. Detroit, which was a magnet for people seeking good-paying jobs, now has high unemployment and boarded up factories and houses.

In fact, mobility is another legacy of World War II. For prior generations, people tended to stay near where they were born. (No I’m not forgetting the nation’s Manifest Destiny or the Gold Rush, but not everyone had the fever to go West. Most people found a locale and stayed put.)

The result was relative stability. You tended to know your neighbors because your grandfather knew their grandfather. Culture and language were highly localized. Even up until the 1960s linguists could tell within a few miles where you were “from” by having you read a list of words.

World War II set off major migrations to places where factories expanded or were built. People began to be more comfortable with the idea of moving for a job. After the war the trend continued, until today. I think people are beginning to reconsider that prevailing attitude, though. If your job has little permanency (and you no longer have the expectation of working for a large corporation for your whole career), does it really make sense to move so easily?

Staying in one place lets you put down roots, as the saying once was. It also helps you save your resources if you aren’t packing up and moving every few years.

Lingeman’s book shows lots of other things, large and small, good and bad, that I think have continued into the current day. Recycling, for instance, came from scrap drives during the war. In fact, Lingeman points out, the scrap drives were of mixed and somewhat limited effectiveness in bringing in materials that could go directly into war production. But they were kept up because they involved the public in direct, morale boosting activities.

So was the Civil Defense movement. It turned out that we spent millions of dollars setting up a national bureacracy to protect against a small threat of enemy bombing of the homeland. But even after it became clear that people would ultimately be on their own if an attack did come — and could handle almost any conceivable situation better than distant government bodies — the Office of Civil Defense continued to operate its programs and make impractical recommendations because it was deemed important to civilian morale.

Public officials kept telling the citizens of Chicago, for instance, that they were closer to the Nazis by the Great Circle Route than New York and thus should consider air bombing a distinct possibility. Never mind the fact that New York wasn’t likely to be bombed, either. Turns out the threat was more about securing public support — and funding — for civil defense than it was about a true possibility of enemy bombers over Lake Michigan.

Several versions of hit lists circulated indicating how the Nazis or Japanese ranked American cities as priority targets. It became a matter of perverse pride to note that your city was ranked ahead of a rival city on the Nazi’s bombing list. No one seemed able to explain how we knew the priorities in such detail, but it didn’t matter much. Nor did it stop them from lining up for government funding for Civil Defense.

These lists persisted into the Cold War, incidentally. I remember my elementary school principal proudly telling us that Charlotte was #21 on the Soviet list of targets for the A-bomb. Our school was stocked with canned food marked CD, and we were all encouraged to buy or build a backyard bomb shelter. Alternatively, we were given directions to drive to the other side of the county if (when?) the Commies sent an ICBM to bomb Charlotte. No one ever managed to explain why driving a few miles would make much difference after we and our surroundings were contaminated by fatal radiation, assuming we weren’t instantly vaporized by the initial explosion. But no matter. Our morale must be kept up.

Today, little towns all over the country have stockpiles of hazmat suits, and there seems no local government that didn’t receive Homeland Security grants for who-knows-what equipment and training just in case someone from Al Queda ever sees our dot on the map. Meanwhile, we are all faced with the prospect of flying in the nude (after being x-rayed and hand-searched) on commercial airliners, while individual citizens seem to be providing the most direct and effective security: if some guy’s shoes or underwear start smoking, grab him.

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