INSIDE AMERICA, A RETROSPECTIVE

In the summer of 1941, news of war in Europe found its way into the minutiae of daily life in the United States - right down to the costumes on dolls. Little wonder. France had fallen, London was being firebombed, Panzer divisions were pounding the doors of Moscow, and Americans asked, are we next to enter the fray? The answer to that question was still three or four months away.

Today, there are interesting similarities - as well as crucial differences - between then and now. A customer in a bookstore was heard to remark recently about the growing number of new books about war and famous US generals on the shelves. President Reagan is asking Congress for the biggest peacetime buildup of armed forces in US history. The guns haven't been entirely silent - two US Navy fighters earlier this year shot down a pair of Libyan interceptors while the Navy was on maneuvers off North Africa.

Still, we are at peace. Negotiations with the Soviet Union are under way in Geneva to head off trends that some say could consume Europe in conflagration. In their own way, the talks are an attempt to disprove the old addage that history repeats itself - history that Richard L. Strout sensed and recorded as he toured the nation 40 years ago. . . .

Our driver toes his left front wheel on the double white lines of US 1 as closely as a seamstress keeps her sewing machine on the pattern. The swish of the wet cement outside comes through the slotted personal ventilator at my elbow. A high rural electric line loops along in the mist over the tops of the sandy scrub pines and live oaks and every now and then dashes off on a short-cut across the hills to a point where you know US 1 will soon follow. There is a cloud ceiling about 500 feet overhead. Now and then there is a long-drawn blast of the horn and a swish of somebody we have passed. For we are passing about everybody as we head south, and taste the joys of bus travel in this, our America, in the emergency summer of 1941.

So my first piece begins. ''Emergency summer of 1941.'' Forty years ago. There was tension and anxiety in the air. The war boom was ending the Great Depression, but there was no exultation of national dedication. They were fighting, we weren't. Strikes and shutdowns continued. Isolationism had ruled since 1920. We were insulated by the Atlantic and Pacific. Yet the feeling of menace grew. By bus and train I would make a great circuit within the United States, writing stories on factories, war plants, army camps for the newly instituted draft (Selective Service Act of 1940 - just extended in Congress by a single vote). And everywhere asking people what they thought, and what we should do, and wondering, wondering. . . .

You know, somehow, that it is the emergency summer. The sense steals upon you gradually. At first you do not think much about it. . . . It is a relief to get away from Washington, and put daily newspapers aside and just catch the war news every now and then from the headlines of the man in front of you. . . . There is aluminum galore in this slick and splendid road monster, and it will be lucky if Leon Henderson (who headed President Roosevelt's Office of Price Administration) does not melt it all down for airplanes.

War thoughts kept intruding. Everybody was trying so hard to be normal at a time when FDR was getting reports from ''a former naval person'' (code for Churchill) of appalling losses of tonnage to U-boats; when some thought we were on a collision course with Tokyo (we had embargoed export of scrap iron and barred her ships from the Panama Canal); when we expected Russia to cave in soon (or maybe she wouldn't?); when America was sending lend-lease goods to Britain who was doing our fighting for us; and while we acted as ''the great arsenal of democracy.''

Roosevelt was President. A lot of people downgraded him. But he could communicate. He did it by radio. His clear, beautifully modulated voice came right into the room with you and caressed you in a fireside chat - and he had press conferences twice a week. There were those who despised him. They were isolationists and they said that Europe's wars were none of our business. Look what happened in 1918. Wendell Willkie wavered a bit in the 1940 election and charged FDR was heading to war. But after the election he admitted that that ''was a bit of campaign oratory'' and the isolationists got no value out of him.

War intruded everywhere: at the bus terminals. There was the blue silk banner painted ''God bless America'' with the picture of a man on it you knew was Roosevelt because it said so. And there were other indications of patriotic afflatus: doll boys dressed in khaki were a popular number. Back on board the bus again four black sailors came in and passed unobtrusively to the rear. That was where they usually traveled. Our bus is filled with selectees. Suddenly, out of the road ahead a snub-nosed, olive drab car sweeps by; another and another. They are square, squat, tight-lipped vehicles. They pass us one after another woosh - woosh - woosh. An Army convoy. Is that history rolling up the road?

I contemplate the matter.''

It is hard to think of history in the present tense (I write). History is a thing that is put in books. Call it what you please. But at every turn in this summer of 1941 while eyes are on Europe, America at home is in transition. An old era is passing away. Yes one fact is unmistakable now. The lesson can be set down in five words. The world is grown small. Democracy has competitors in the world (I write). Civilized gentlefolk: There are saber-toothed tigers loose. Shall we work out a peaceful formula for them?'

'Well, it isn't my job to solve these big, pretentious questions. My job is to travel in this bus and take a few snapshots, maybe, of this rapidly changing scene. Someday it may be nice to remember how we talked and acted in the historic summer of 1941. What did people do and say?

Half of us are curled up asleep now. The boys in uniform are still arguing whose contingent that was. The couple in front are discussing rents in Birmingham. The man across the aisle is reading a folded newspaper. Quick - is it war news? No, baseball columns. . . .

You-all folks may know all about bus-riding in the South, but it's new to me. It gets to the heart of things. One story after another comes and takes the seat beside you and practically tells itself. There is the soldier on furlough come home to surprise his people and the photographer who specializes in race horses, and the old farmer from this region which calls the secretary of state ''Cord'' (Cordell Hull), whose granddaughter Mary Josephine climbed into my lap. . . .

I wondered if it would be hard to chat with people on buses. Just the other way. Once out of town and everybody says ''Howdy'' or ''Hiyar,'' or ''Hello,'' or maybe just simple ''Hi.'' You can even get a lot of cordiality into ''Huh-uh'' and many people make it work hard, but it doesn't ask where the other fellow is from or how crops are and things like that. And from personalities they go on to prices and the war, and how you stand on Roosevelt.

Grandpop was taking Mary Josephine back to the hills while Ma and Pa struggled with the other two - the second one just arrived. After Mary Josephine climbed into my lap Grandpop loosened up and told how he had ''riz'' nine children, all born in a cabin, and eight of them now with kids of their own. Twenty-two grandchildren, count 'em. I asked tentatively about that ninth child, a boy, who hadn't produced his quota yet, but it was all right, he was just in the Navy and had been to Honolulu, to a place called Pearl Harbor where they had a lot of ships collected. He hadn't got around to marriage yet. Grandpop spoke rather disparagingly of the new draft law. Out here in the hills they enlist as fast as they get old enough, and sometimes before that, too. After Mary Josephine had switched laps Grandpop felt it was all right to take off his coat and black felt hat and explained about things. Those big hills, with the cow tracks round them we were running through wouldn't grow nothing, but the valleys were right good; put in wheat with beans between them: ''Hit makes a good crop; you turn the beans under and grow corn next year; and powdered limestone helps like thunder.'' He had views on the foreign situation, too, and thought the sooner we ''whopped'' Hitler the better.

War was intensifying. Hitler invaded Russia June 22. What was happening? America had been isolationist for 20 years since rejecting the League. Now some charged that Roosevelt - first third-term president in history - was plotting to involve the US. But suppose Britain fell? France had. The year before, the RAF had won the Battle of Britain, destroying 56 German planes in one day. Suppose they hadn't? Was Britain fighting America's war - was it moral . . . was it safe? So Congress extended the draft act; it squeaked through the House by just one vote, 203 to 202. Japan was expanding, too. . . .

The note of war intruded all the time. Sometimes it seemed hard for passengers to stop talking and get out at their destinations. Buses don't always start or arrive on time. We were half an hour late for Asheville and might miss connections and the dispatcher telephoned ahead and said we were going to ''step on it hard.'' Passengers pleaded, too. The people at the other end said to come along, they'd see. Somebody had put in a hound dog, five weeks old, in a crate, to be delivered along the route, COD. They do that on buses. The animal howled dolefully from the rear storage compartment beneath us, exactly as though we had a cellar. The note rose lugubriously as we made corkscrew curves at breakneck speed through the Great Smokies with all America hanging below us. We stopped for a let-off at one place where a man was standing guard 30 feet below where a truck had crashed over. He had made a fire and pulled out a seat and put his big six-shooter there on the cushion beside him. Our passenger had been in town to arrange help and got off the bus and scrambled down to join him.

Railroads and bus lines show the strain of 1941. I never before saw seven crowded buses at one place, 40 passengers in each, all waiting at one terminal. And I never was on a lost bus before.

This happened in Alabama. We just got on the wrong road. Now that is something that rarely happens to a train. It was a high-crowned, red-clay road by a cabin on stilts under a live-oak tree. There was a woman in a cotton dress coming our way. The driver leaned out.

''Is this toward Selma?''

The woman stopped and thought. ''You lost?''

''Well, not exactly lost. Just don't know the way.''

The woman worked that over.

''Never seed a bus down this hyere road before!'' she observed admiringly.

''Well, how far is it to Centerville?''

''Reckon about two miles, mister.'' She turned and looked after us. The people in the cabin came out and looked, too. The dogs were too astonished to bark. After we had bumped forward another 10 minutes, the next person still said it was ''about two miles,'' and so did the third. ''It don't seem to be gaining on us none,'' observed one passenger hopefully. I will say in the driver's defense that the regular road was torn up and he was forced onto uncharted bypasses. We finally overtook Centerville.America was churning with the war boom and a million and half men, 21 to 35, going or coming from war camps in the newly extended draft. Like everything else, transportation was stretched almost till it snapped.

A couple of hours out of Spokane on the Great Northern's ''No. 28,'' the 20 of us knew each other as though we were old Princetonians. There was no Pullman on our train. They were on the crack express, ''The Empire Builder,'' but that had gone. After I settled in No. 28 and arranged my baggage, and turned over a seat for my feet, and shed my coat, and said hello to people, I was glad I was there. It was as folksy as a church sociable.

We had nine cars on our train with one for passengers. The newsboy had set up light housekeeping at the forward end. Altogether he was occupying six double seats. On the left he had a table with electric stove that burned all through the next 300 miles to Glacier Park. We had hot drinks, toasted sandwiches, cooked eggs, and babies bottles (three mothers exchanged formulas all the way). Cold drinks were on the two seats opposite. He was the traveling library, too. He had hung a wire overhead with movie and comic magazines which fluttered like washing when we went round curves. Occasionally he stretched out and slept and then after a mountain station, if anyone got on, he put on a clean white jacket and went up the aisle selling things or sitting down to chat. It was like traveling in a country store. Later at Glacier Park I got on the ''Empire Builder'' itself, which was fine, but nothing like No. 28.

So that was the travel story of 40 years ago as America hung between peace and war. What were people saying? Mr. Strout tried to analyze it, Aug. 29, 1941.

You get the feel of the country from trips like this. Women told how they couldn't get hired girls any more, they were taking men's places at paying jobs. Everybody told about rents going up. Sometimes deeper questions came up. Sentiment for all-out aid for Britain seemed to be crystallizing out just as I watched. People had been doubtful before. Lots of people told me they had changed their views recently. Many worried about the national debt and the collapse they expected after the emergency. But more than this they wanted to see defenses strengthened and Hitler defeated. . . .

There was little flag-waving, few slogans, no martial airs. There was a subdued mood of realism and sobriety. Hitler's attack on Russia has profound effect. The calculated treachery of the stab in the back of his Axis partner by Hitler was too flagrant. . . . That - I think - was a turning point.

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