The last two major conflicts in which the United States was a combatant ended (or will end) poorly because shared and universal sacrifice was not demanded (or even suggested) by the government.
I was six years old when the United States was attacked by Japan on December 7th, 1941. On the following day, pursuant to a treaty between Germany and Japan, the former declared war against this country. World War II differed from the Vietnam conflict or the two wars in Iraq in that our country was attacked and clearly forced into war. It was not an elective conflict or a preemptive war; we were attacked, our citizens were killed by a foreign nation and it was absolutely clear to the American public that going to war was necessary. Those people who, on December 6th were isolationist or had doubts about becoming involved in what was, to many, a European conflict or a south-east Asian matter, rushed to enlist in the armed services and in other ways resolved to do his or her part in safeguarding our freedoms.
The president spoke often of the need for sacrifice by everyone. With able-bodied men entering the service, jobs that were previously performed by men were taken by women. Rosie the Riveter was born. Women were enlisting in the Women’s Arms Corp (WAC), Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) and an greatly expanded Nurse Corp.
In the United States during World War I, the use of an allotment system for food and supplies was mostly voluntary. However, World War II was another matter. The federal government set up the system of laws used throughout much of the war. It was used to assure American soldiers and citizens both received a fair distribution of goods. Rubber, which was first conserved voluntarily, became scarce due to Japan’s successful invasion of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. President Roosevelt instituted a “scrap drive.” He asked the American people to turn in “old tires, old rubber raincoats, old garden hose, rubber shoes, bathing caps, gloves,” etc. at local gas stations. The stations paid the public one cent per pound for the items and then were reimbursed by the government. This campaign instilled patriotism but did not forestall rationing. It was instituted early in 1942.
Gasoline was the next rationing target. May 14, 1942, a direct result of German U-boat attacks in the Atlantic Ocean, marked the day motorists in seventeen Eastern states had their gas usage restricted. It was expanded to the rest of the nation in December, 1942. Ration stamps were issued and pasted to an automobile windshield. A person’s gasoline allotment was determined by the class of stamp displayed. Class of stamp was determined by the primary use of the car. There were four classes to begin. Class A received the least amount of gas because the car usage was deemed “nonessential”; Class B cars belonged to people who needed them for work (traveling salesman); Class C cars usually belonged to doctors and law enforcement persons; my father had a “B” sticker on the lower left corner of the windshield and a ration book with stamps to be exchanged for gasoline.
Food prices were monitored by the Office of Price Administration (OPA). About one third of civilian food items were rationed during a majority of the war. The OPA issued “ration books.” These books, containing the red, green, brown or blue stamps, were administered at the local level by volunteer rationing boards. Registration began in April of 1942. One member of each household registered themselves and each additional household member with the board. The person performing this task was required to list supplies on hand. They received a book for each member of the household. Coffee stamps were taken from the books of children under the age of fifteen and books required to be turned in for departing servicemen. Shoppers had to get used to reading price tags including not only a dollar and cent amount, but a figure for “points”. Points were valued by the color of the stamp in addition to the points. ( Ham would have been 51 cents and 8 points per pound, canned and bottled goods varied…a can of tomato juice was 16 points and a 14-ounce bottle of catsup was 8 points): red stamps for meat (except poultry which was not rationed), butter, fats, cheese, canned milk, and canned fish; green, brown or blue stamps for canned vegetables, juices, baby food and dried fruit. A shopper could earn two extra red points for every pound of meat drippings and other fat turned in. This was part of a “save-fats campaign.” In addition to these measures, people planted “Victory Gardens” to supplement fresh vegetables and to can or preserve for colder months. Those living in rural areas kept chickens both for eggs and meat. And lucky was the family in possession of a cow or goat!
Taxes were increased to meet the cost of war. And people accepted this as a shared sacrifice with the troops in the European and Pacific theaters of war. The president did not pretend that less than a complete and universal effort could succeed.
Compare this approach to that of President Johnson pursuing the Vietnam war in the 1960’s and the similar approach of President Bush in Iraq.
When President Johnson made the war in Vietnam an American war in 1965, he worried about the impact of his policies on the home front. He could have rallied support for his decisions to bomb North Vietnam and assume the dominant ground combat role by telling the nation that it faced a crisis vital to its national security. However, he feared that in response to such a message, the public would demand a full-scale, no-holds-barred war that could have led to Chinese and Russian intervention. For Johnson and his advisers, the Vietnam War was the prototype for future limited wars that would have to be fought without arousing public passion. However, by underselling the war, the president presented an opening to critics who asked why he was expending so much human and material treasure in such a remote conflict.
In fact, President Johnson had a more practical and “political” motive for playing down the commitment in Southeast Asia. After the Democrats won by a landslide in the 1964 election, the president believed he had a two-year window of opportunity to push through Congress legislation for his Great Society, the most ambitious set of reforms since the New Deal. He was painfully aware of what happened to Woodrow Wilson’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s comparable reform programs when they fell victim to “guns-over-butter” decisions. Escalating by stealth in Vietnam, Johnson was able to have “guns and butter” without increasing taxes to pay for both projects. This irresponsible decision had a profound impact on the American economy. Budget deficits, a creeping inflation (that would be addressed by Johnson’s successor) and a deterioration of the American economic standing followed. All because President Johnson was determined to minimize “his” war, and avoid calling upon the American people to sacrifice. The anti-war movement kept growing and, in the end, Johnson’s ploy to be popular by not calling for national sacrifice did him no good.
As Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, has stated, President Bush is taking the same mis-steps. By catering to his coterie of affluent supporters and corporations by reducing taxes, he has taken the mutually exclusive paths of asserting that “victory” in Iraq or, at least, the creation of stability in the Middle East is of vital importance to the United States and risking popularity by suggesting that sacrifice by the Unites States need not be universal and can be made wholly by the men and women serving in the armed forces and their families.
We need to engage all Americans in the effort to bring stability to the Middle East. Each and every one of us. And that means taking some positive, and potentially, politically unpopular steps, now.
First, we need to announce that, as of a specific date, if the Iraqi government has not a firm hold on internal security and has not disarmed all of the militia groups, including those allied with the Prime Minister) we will leave. Period and end of story. What will happen? There will be a period of intra-Iraqi conflict that may take a decade or so to be resolved. There will be either a Kurd, Sunni, Shia federation or three differed countries, but this will be the Iraqi’s making the choice. The price of oil may jump to $80 a barrel or more, but, in the long run, that’s not all together bad. (More about this later.) There will be many Iraqis who will be in harm’s way due to prior cooperation with the United States; we owe these people entry into our country since we have made certain that they cannot remain in theirs.
Next, stop all of the talk about reducing taxes. The Administration needs to be honest and explain to the country that more money is necessary. For what purpose? For one thing, to better equip our troops and increase the size of the armed forces. We have spread ourselves so thin, between Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea that we could not participate in humanitarian efforts to control genocide and violence, for example in Africa. One idea for an additional tax would be to impose a large tax on gasoline. If gasoline cost $5 or $6 per gallon, auto manufacturers would find a diminished market for SUVs and an increases demand for economical vehicles. Really, does one need a eight-passenger SUV, with off-road capabilities, to trek two miles to a supermarket?
A tax increase could provide funding for mass transit in major cities throughout the country. Trolleys, light rail, buses, all depending on specific local needs could be utilized.
What else would we use with additional tax revenues? Establish a coherent energy policy, develop alternative fuels, insist on fuel-efficient vehicles and develop them if the major automobile companies are so wed to petroleum products to participate. At this time, one of our “closest friends”, or at least the Bushs’ closest friends, is the Saudi family and government. The Saudis control much of the oil reserves and unimaginable wealth. How is this wealth utilized? To create and support Islamic schools teaching a particular and isolationist brand of Islamic thought: the Wahhabi, which teaches that only followers of that sect will be accepted in Heaven and are superior to all others, Christian, Jew and, indeed, other Muslims. The Saudi family are the main funding source for radical Muslims, including those who were participants in the September 11th attack on the United States. If it were possible to eliminate the Saudi’s reliance on oil revenue, then perhaps they could address the needs of their nation and others in the region, introduce secular and scientific education. The average person needs to be empowered and as long as the only issue for the royals is where to drill next, other needs will not be addressed.
Will the American people accept sacrifice. If it were explained clearly and without political jargon, I would hope so, But first the government must re-establish credibility, something that has been squandered, by partisan name-calling, lack of mutual respect between members of varying political thought. This establishment of trust may be the most difficult task of all.