This generation persisted through a period that saw more than 15 million unemployed, followed by a devastating war circling the globe, with our citizens fighting in both the Pacific and European Theaters. 405,000 were killed. There were no heroics, the nation just acted the way they did because “it was the right thing to do.”
I was born during that period, shortly before the beginning of WWII. While I have no recall of the Depression, I certainly heard many stories about our extended family’s resolve and determination. As far as WWII was concerned, I remember much: the air raid practices, rationing, victory gardens, flags with blue and gold stars, and uncles who fought in Germany under General Patton. There were no complaints or blame and very little fear. The government was not the villain. Different perspectives were embraced with respect. There was resolve to keep our nation focused on its beliefs. For the most part, there was a national sense of community.
Lately, I have reflected on those times, assessing why a resolute atmosphere existed and ordinary people rose to the occasions. I have come to the conclusion that it was due to a reality that our nation was experiencing extreme dire circumstances. It was not a time for fear, but a time for coming together for the sake of survival. One might say that as a nation, we had “hit bottom.” There was the choice, in this darkness, of giving up or giving in to the situation that brought us together, with our differences, and find our way out. It was the darkness that motivated the nation to move forward.
This is not a rare situation. Ask any individual who has succumbed to an addiction and has come out on the “other side,” believing that, because of the depths of their addiction, they had experienced the darkest times. They might say that they “hit bottom.” For them, there was the choice, in this darkness, to give up or give in to their addiction and find a source of strength to begin a new life. However, there are many who experience addiction and “hit bottom” who do not change. Many times, they either die from the addiction, become incarcerated or commit suicide.
The results of the effort from WWII propelled our nation into the world’s leader with the most powerful economic system in the world. The GI Bill of rights provided higher education to returning veterans. In addition, the Federal government created a mortgage instrument to provide access to home ownership for returning soldiers and resulted in a powerful construction boom. A positive response to the efforts for our veterans created a strong middle class for the nation’s majority. Unfortunately, people of color were left out educationally and without access to home ownership.
However, success and prosperity can soften people’s will and its value system if the citizen’s focus turns to materialism and consumerism. History demonstrates that when our will and value systems are weakened and are enabled by the culture, it becomes more difficult to respond in a sacrificial way with resolve and determination.
On August 4, 1964, the Bay of Tonkin incident occurred. It wasn’t long before our nation went full fledged into the Vietnam War. Our President stated that this nation was strong enough to have “guns and butter.”
Most of us experienced the devastating attack of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the first time our nation was visually attacked on the mainland with over 2,000 fatalities. I was in another city at the time, we had a worship service of prayer that evening. The next day flags were flying from almost every car. On Sunday, our sanctuary was filled. Within a month the flags were gone and the worship attendance was back to normal. The President of the United States called for patriotism by urging us to spend more money.
Beginning in 1997, we began to experience the Great Recession, the greatest economic downward spiral since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate peaked at over 10 percent with 8.7 million jobs lost. From all that I read, the wealthy ended up accumulating more while the common folk, to this day, have barely recovered, if at all. The hardest hit were the people of color.
What will it take for this nation to come together? Will we need another major crisis such as occurred in the thirties and early forties? Do we need to “hit bottom?” Will our polarization continue to widen that will tear our nation apart with the demise of the great experiment called democracy?
We did have a great spirit as a growing nation. We did have a value system that evolved, for example, from voters being only white, property owner males to recognizing equality for all. Will we continue to evolve or dissolve further into a morass of self interest?
I continue to hope that our nation’s dreams will grow into reality.
Ed Wolff is a retired minister and progressive activist.