World War II brought out the fight, resilience, and sacrifice of a nation who had lost over one hundred thousand men in a war twenty-four years earlier. The country had to fight another global war. A war that for the United States would last four years and cost over four hundred thousand lives. A war that would deploy Americans overseas to fight on six different continents.
The Americans of 2020 are fighting a whole different battle. One not waged with bullets and bombs, but has ravaged us just the same. The global pandemic is going to be seen as a defining moment of American history the same way World War II was to 1940s America. Eighty years later, not all Americans are willing to sacrifice as much as people did when the country entered the war on December 7, 1941.
It’s 1943. Mom and Dad shuffle the kids into their Chevy Suburban and head to the supermarket. Mom carried the ration books in her purse. Rationing was something that all Americans had to do during the war. They were instructed to ration everyday household items. According to the Ames History Museum in Ames, Iowa, “War ration books and tokens were issued to each American family, dictating how much gasoline, tires, sugar, meat, silk, shoes, nylon and other items any one person could buy.” This meant families would have to be smart in what and how much they needed to buy at the stores. Shopping during this time was coordinated and organized from top to bottom.
The government established rationing from the start and had a process. The job fell onto the shoulders of the Office of Price Administration (OPA), created by Franklin D. Roosevelt. A plan for rationing was put into place even before America entered the war. According to the National Park Service, FDR established the OPA through Executive Order 8875 on August 28, 1941. It was the OPA that would put a cap on a lot of what was being sold and have the nation begin to ration. It would be not until 1942 when the ration books would get into the hands of Americans. This being the duty of the OPA to make sure everything ran smoothly. History.com writes that, “On January 30, 1942, the Emergency Price Control Act granted the OPA the authority to set price limits and ration food and other commodities in order to discourage hoarding and ensure the equitable distribution of scarce resources.” American people took to living this new way of life. The government set norms at home to assist the war effort abroad. It was seen by most Americans as a worthy sacrifice.
History professor Johnathan D. Awtrey of Central Connecticut State University tells of his grandfather’s life before and after World War II and what rationing meant to his generation. “My grandfather was one of nine children. He had thirty or forty cousins. They all sort of pitched in together as a big family. You didn’t leave food on your plate. As a little kid growing up in the 1980s, he made me eat everything on my plate. Nothing was left behind. Nothing was thrown away. Everything was recycled. This was his generation in the 1930’s who then would go and fight this war in the 1940s. Now you’re asked to ration. No big deal. Let’s do this. We’ve been doing this for most of my life. I’m engrained in this.”
American backyards also sprouted victory gardens as a part of this effort as well. According to History.com, the spring of 1942 saw the American people motivated to grow their own fresh produce since they had to begin to ration these products when they went to the store. History.com would go on to say that the American people would find places such as small flower boxes, apartment rooftops, backyards or deserted lots of any size to plant their precious produce. The gardens were of great value to American people. The value of these gardens went beyond just having this food at the dinner table. Central Connecticut State University history professor Juan Coronado explains, “the gardens supplemented the goods being rationed and at the same time boosted morale with Americans on the home front.”
We have seen this type of sacrifice play out a little bit differently during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was not a coordinated effort right off the bat to make the shopping experience organized for people the way FDR did with rationing. There was no nationwide effort to ensure the public would only buy what they needed. When the pandemic first started, people bought as much as they could. Americans were not thinking of their neighbor. The idea of buying just enough to get by had not been around in America for decades. Some stores have been trying to ration certain items; signs at Stop and Shop limit Purell to one bottle per person. Still, there is no getting around the fact that it was a whole new world for Americans in 2020. Professor Awtrey puts it well, saying, “We don’t want to sacrifice things. Today’s understanding of sacrifice for the larger community is very different. We haven’t experienced the depths of crisis,” It seems not all Americans practice the sacrifice that was so common during the Second World War.
But some Americans are doing things a little bit differently. Professor Coronado stated, “During the pandemic, many folks have resorted to producing their own gardens and baking their own bread. It is comparable to the boosting of morale and in the case of many Americans who are quarantining, a way of keeping their families fed.”
Homebound Connecticut resident Ava Couchon has taken to doing just that. Ava, via video call, explained how her latest hobby gardening began.
“My mom does this every summer and it has to be around March, which is when you’re gardening [and] you start the seed so they have time to grow into little sprouts. Sometimes when you put seeds directly in the ground they just die. It doesn’t work. Basically it was because I had a lot of free time and it seemed like an interesting activity to do.”
Making bread has become a bit of a craze during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sourdough bread specifically, because of the shortage of yeast on grocery store shelves. In her piece, “Why Everyone is Baking Sourdough Bread During COVID-19″ for the food and wellness magazine clearplates.com Leigh Weingus writes, “Unlike other types of bread, sourdough doesn’t require dry yeast. It requires ‘wild yeast,’ which is present in all flour. When you combine flour with water, you’ve got sourdough starter — and neither flour nor water are going anywhere.”
Ava started when a bread-making friend invited her to bake with him. “He’s really into baking and pastries and yeast and stuff. He has memorized bread recipes. He was like ‘you should come over and help me try to make this new kind of bread.’ I was like okay, ‘exciting, I’d like to make bread.’” There are Americans out there who don’t think of changing up their daily routine in this way. Ava has learned and developed these skills that now can be used for the rest of her life. Ava looks back on her time in the garden and the kitchen.
“I have plans for next summer for me and my friends to get together and continue [to garden]. Because of the gardening I got more into cooking. I want to be able to have fresh basil and stuff. The ability to just go outside and pluck basil off of a plant and add it to your food immediately is literally so cool. I am going to continue to do that, because I am going to have that for the rest of my life. The ability to add nice fresh herbs and stuff. It was so great and I already miss it.”
“We don’t want to sacrifice things. Today’s understanding of sacrifice for the larger community is very different.
The act of gardening has really grown on Ava through this troubling time. “Every single day you’re getting worse and worse news and things are continuing to decline. It was sort of my safe haven where I was like I could go here and for an hour I could pretend everything is normal. I can just enjoy plants.”
The 1940s and the 2020s bring to mind so many different notions of sacrifice. Both moments tested the will of the American people. While each time period has their different intricacies, one word makes the American people similar—resilience.
The domestic response to this pandemic has not been as well organized as the response during World War II. There is no cohesiveness in this effort. But, there is a small glimmer of hope. Professor Awtrey brings it all together when he says, “most Americans still kind of have this deep sense of it’s going to be okay. We’re going to find a way to get through this crisis and come out on the other side.”
I have faith that we’ll get through this fight too. I believe that there is a deep-seated effort to make it through this pandemic the same way we made it through World War II. We need to start planting those seeds of sacrifice now in order to produce a good harvest for the coming season.
Amedeo Maturo is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Header photo credit: The Library of Congress