National unity during crisis? Look to lessons from WWII. (video)

Why We Wrote This

We may remember World War II as a period of patriotism and solidarity. But the years leading up to the war were marked by deep social and political rifts that may sound familiar today. As we again face the threat of a deadly – if faceless – enemy, what can we learn from the last time Americans banded together to confront a crisis? Here’s the fourth installment of “Precedented,” a video series about how history can help us understand today’s issues. 

Health care workers clashing with anti-lockdown protesters. Members of Congress arguing over safety measures. And debates around public health that map out over racial, socioeconomic, and ideological lines.

In today's age of hyperpartisanship, it seems not even a worldwide pandemic can bring Americans together. If anything, the crisis appears to be intensifying existing divides.

But this isn’t the first time the U.S. has faced a global emergency while wrestling with deep internal divisions. We often remember the World War II era as a period of fervent patriotism and national unity, but the country back then was also confronting serious social and political rifts around race, the economy, and America’s role in the world.

There are some important differences: World War II supplied clear enemies to rally against in Nazi Germany and Japan, while the coronavirus is “faceless and invisible,” says American University historian Allan Lichtman. We are also more divided along partisan lines today, and trust less in government and institutions than we did under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Still, “we didn’t go into World War II a united nation,” Professor Lichtman says. “The recognition, in a bipartisan way, of a dangerous common enemy brought us together.”

In this episode, we explore the fissures that existed leading up to the war years, how they compare with what we’re dealing with now, and what we can learn about our nation’s ability to come together during a crisis.

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