Editor’s Note: Meg Jacobs teaches history at Princeton University. She is working on a book about the New Deal and World War II. Follow her on Twitter @MegJacobs100. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Cough into your elbow, wash your hands and stay home. Those are the patriotic acts of 2020 as we live through a global pandemic and each try to “flatten the curve” of the viral spread. Let’s do our part to slow the transmission and not overwhelm our hospitals. The choice to stay away from friends is nothing compared to choosing which sick patient should get a ventilator. Simple sacrifices by American citizens can go a long way toward recovery.
This is not the first time that small, seemingly insignificant acts have taken on life or death meaning. Recycling a rusty screw, a bent nail, an old tire – that might not seem like much. But during World War II that was everything. Thousands of miles away from the battlefield, Americans on the home front could help defeat the Nazis and save democracy if only they listened to their leaders and collected all their scrap metal. Together, piece by piece, towns could donate enough for a bullet or a gun or a tank.
Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, won a local competition for school children, having collected 200 tons of scraps.
It took as much as 900 tons of metal to make one naval ship, but their effort made a dent.
And that was only one of countless ways the country, at the behest of government, rallied behind its troops and made small sacrifices for a bigger cause, so materials normally used for domestic consumption could be allocated for the war effort. Repair a shirt rather than buy a new one, paint on nylons instead of wearing the real thing, go without cuffs on your pants; indeed, women wore pants instead of skirts since that used less fabric. Their bathing suits shrank. The fewer pairs of stockings worn by women, the more nylon available to use for parachutes.
Nearly every consumer item could be – and had to be – re-purposed for war, all the way down to chewing gum. The Army alone ordered hundreds of millions of pants and underwear and half a billion socks for the troops.
The War Production Board banned men’s suits from including cuffs and restricted the length of their shirts. And there were other instructions, too: Buy only your rationed share of sugar, don’t spend extra money at the butcher to get a thicker cut of meat above your government-allotted allowance, make a peanut butter loaf instead of a meat loaf.
Starting with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House, 20 million women signed a pledge to purchase only their fair share and surrender their ration coupons.
As millions of working Americans were brought into the federal income tax system for the first time, the Roosevelt administration explained their contribution through an ad campaign featuring Donald Duck quacking “Taxes to Defeat the Axis.”
Of course many did much more by working overtime and countless shifts to make America what President Roosevelt called the arsenal of democracy. And millions made the ultimate sacrifice by serving in the armed forces. And even these smaller domestic sacrifices did not come without complaints. Strikes, black markets and racial tensions, including Japanese American internment, were as much a part of the wartime experience.
But it was the appeal to small acts of patriotism that made a profound difference. Those rusty nails really did help. More than that, these acts bred a sense of patriotic self-sacrifice and encouraged a mobilization to that end.
That happened because of good leadership. A good president can make you feel the urgent necessity of washing your hands after sneezing into a tissue so that your grandmother will be safe and avoid needlessly adding to the workload of doctors and health care workers tasked with healing the sick.
In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt asked each citizen for an “equality of sacrifice” – each doing their part to assist the nation. As men were dying in combat, he said in a fireside chat, “there is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States – every man, woman, and child – is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, and in our daily tasks. Here at home everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary…”
He went on to explain: “‘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.’”
The precautionary efforts officials are asking of us to fight the coronavirus are an opportunity to renew our civic mindedness – to wake up from our selfish slumbers and take action. If President Trump won’t appeal effectively or directly to our better selves, other than thin comments that came way too late, listen to all the other mayors, governors, corporate executives, union leaders, clergy and doctors who are asking us to make small sacrifices for the greater good. As hard as it is to stay indoors and self quarantine, it will be great to know that in a crisis we each did our part.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a clothing item sacrificed by women to reduce the use of nylon during World War II. It was stockings.