The Imperative of Personal Sacrifice, Today and During World War II

Certainly nobody likes having the family car put up on blocks for the duration of the war. Pleasure drives in the countryside were more or less outlawed. The government wanted the rubber from your tires. You weren’t going to be able to get gas. What’s a better sign of American prosperity than the family car? That’s the first thing you had to sacrifice in World War II. By and large, most Americans went through with that. Did they grumble? Certainly. If you look at the ration system, you had to make decisions like, “Do I want to have a pound of ground meat or do I want a jar of cheese spread?” We didn’t have enough sugar or butter or lard, because they were used to make explosives. But people understood that. It’s an intellectual proposition, but that’s not to say it made anybody happy. Workers weren’t happy about wage controls. Businesses weren’t happy about price controls. Landlords weren’t happy about rent controls. It’s a big country, so there’s always going to be anomalies, but most Americans realized these things were probably necessary for the war effort and were willing to go along.

During World War II, were the institutions in place equipped to respond to the implementation of things like rationing? Were there debates about whether these solutions were commensurate to the problem?

I’m certain there was resistance up and down the board. People probably gamed the system and cheated it on occasion, because that’s the way systems are. You can game them and cheat your way through them. But by and large, the systems held. There’s been a lot of debate about whether it was even necessary. America produces a lot of food, but the Roosevelt administration determined that things like rationing, things like tin drives in your town, where you collect all the cans and what not, were important in giving Americans a shared sense of purpose.

Were global supply chains ever disrupted during World War II to the point that the U.S. was unable to obtain something essential to the war effort?

Because America and Britain controlled the global oceans, I’m not sure America was ever really cut off from any one strategic item. But there’s one, and it’s kind of in the news now. Quinine was really the only anti-malarial drug at the time, and the Japanese conquered Indonesia, which was the Dutch East Indies at the time, and more or less cornered the market on quinine. So U.S.-allied scientists came up with the synthetic substitute for quinine called Atabrine. That’s not so much sacrifice, because malaria is not a big factor in American life, but it’s another example of government and industry and scientist cooperation to cover crucial wartime needs.

President Roosevelt introduced an executive order capping wartime salaries, which was a popular initiative with the public but was vetoed in Congress, where it was seen as an attack on free enterprise. How did Americans reconcile the imperative of sacrifice with other, potentially contradictory American ideals?

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