Americans Used to Sacrifice for the Public Good. What Happened?Roundup
Brandon T. Jett is a professor of history at Florida SouthWestern State College and the author of Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South (out from LSU Press July 7, 2021).
Christopher McKnight Nichols is an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, associate professor of history and director of the Oregon State University Center for the Humanities. He is the author of Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age and editor of the forthcoming volume Rethinking American Grand Strategy (out from Oxford March 1, 2021).
Leading public health scholars and officials have begged Americans to eschew holiday gatherings, travel and celebrations because of the risk of viral spread. Millions of people refused to listen and spent Thanksgiving visiting friends and relatives. And now, some members of Congress are criticizing public health restrictions as treasonous efforts to “cancel” Christmas. Growing lawsuits against restriction orders claim that individual freedoms should supersede emergency health guidelines for the collective good.
Why won’t a large swath of society make a sacrifice proven to save lives?
History provides insights. Although the language of collective sacrifice worked to mobilize the country for war and to tackle the 1918 influenza pandemic, more recently our language has shifted. For the past half-century, politicians have suggested that what makes good citizens is Americans’ willingness to carry on in their daily lives, in particular, continuing to work and spend money, even in times of crisis. Normalcy has come to be viewed as a sign of strength in the face of adversity. The United States has lost the language and practice of collective sacrifice for the common good.
When the United States mobilized for World War I, getting people on board was a hard sell, because the war was far from American shores, and to many it did not seem in the nation’s vital interests. To address this, President Woodrow Wilson built up the nation’s first modern propaganda machine. The Committee on Public Information (CPI) headed by muckraking journalist George Creel aimed to generate public support through modern advertising know-how and new technologies — pamphlets, posters, films, records, the iconic image of the crusading “Uncle Sam.”
It was a unique moment in U.S. history. The nation’s first war in Europe seemed to signal a sea change in the United States’ role in the world. The symbols and tropes of patriotism, including the eagle and the notion of the citizen-soldier, were found everywhere. Promulgated by the CPI and with the added exigence of the wartime state (the draft, war work, rationing), Americans came together in church groups, clubs, schools, workplaces and a host of other local and state organizations and locations nationwide to back the war effort. They gathered supplies, planted war gardens, marched in support of the troops, competed to raise money, developed lesson plans and made speeches, organized “loyalty leagues,” bundled neatly under the banner “Americans All!”
There was a dark side to this effort: The unprecedented new federal reach compelled regular citizens to “stress duty, obligation, and responsibility over rights and freedoms,” as historian Christopher Capozzola explains. There was a rise of surveillance of citizens, suppression of dissent, increasing anti-German sentiment and an astonishing ascent of hyper-patriotic groups seeking to enforce sacrifice on fellow citizens, often through coercive violence. This, in turn, led to “slacker raids,” in which vigilante groups sought to round up those they thought had dodged the draft or were acting unpatriotically.
More dangerous than war, however, was the flu pandemic that arrived in 1918, including the second deadly wave that fall, which killed nearly 675,000 Americans (almost six times as many as died in the war). The federal response was woefully slow, but eventually wartime martial language and patriotism were redeployed to rally citizens to fight the flu — to cover coughs and sneezes, to wear masks, not to congregate and to close schools, churches and businesses. Arrests and scorn for “mask slackers” took the place of hyperpatriotic activities to curtail draft slacking.
In both instances, federal and state government worked to unite people by encouraging certain behavior — saving a loaf of bread, rationing fuel, walking instead of riding or driving — and an array of inconvenient, sometimes difficult actions for the greater good, “to help win the war.” Many of these collectivist efforts fell unequally, with more demands on people of color, women and the working class — and yet large swaths rallied to the cause nevertheless, by volition as well as coercion.
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