America First: An Idea with Deep Roots

By Heather Marie Stur, University of Southern Mississippi

Isolationism before Pearl Harbor

American popular memory of the World War II homefront centers on the notion that U.S. citizens came together to support the war effort. Families planted victory gardens, bought war bonds, and delivered scrap metal to recycling sites. Housewives followed rationing guidelines, and young men answered their draft notices. There is truth in these images, but they depict a post-Pearl Harbor America. Prior to December 7, 1941, some Americans believed that the U.S. should stay out of the war, that involvement was not in America’s best interest.

The America First Committee was an organization that articulated the U.S. antiwar sentiment prior to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Founded in 1940, America First embodied the ideals that the U.S. Congress had already codified in the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s. In 1935, Congress passed a law prohibiting the U.S. from exporting arms and munitions to other countries, including allies. At its height, the America First Committee had 800,000 members, the aviator Charles Lindbergh the most famous. In a speech he delivered a few months before Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh asserted that England was trying to draw the U.S. into a war that it could not win. The U.S. should remain “isolationist,” Lindbergh declared. Focus inward on domestic issues, and let other countries solve their problems themselves.

President Trump’s America First Approach to COVID-19

U.S. President Donald Trump has articulated the ideas of the America First Committee in his responses to global efforts to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. The U.S. has established partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine for use first by American citizens. The governments of Germany, Italy, and China are also working on a vaccines for their constituents first. The World Health Organization, which Trump has said the U.S. will abandon, is working with a coalition of global health groups to create a vaccine it would distribute to poor and developing countries. At issue is the question of whether the U.S. should work with international partners on a COVID-19 vaccine that would be accessible globally or make a “nationalist” pact with drug companies for a vaccine that U.S. citizens would be the first to get.

History of Isolationism & of International Cooperation

The concept of America first, varying in meaning from keeping the U.S. out of a war on foreign soil to privileging domestic over global public health, predates the America First Committee of the 1930s and 1940s. We can trace it at least back to the aftermath of World War I, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson emphasized the League of Nations as the way to prevent another global conflict. Congressional opponents of the league argued that it would hamstring U.S. policymakers who might need to make quick decisions regarding national security. The U.S. never joined the League of Nations as a result of Congressional resistance to it.

By the end of World War II, though, Americans had changed their minds about international cooperation, widely supporting the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. At that time, Americans saw an opportunity to lead in the crafting of a postwar order according to the needs and aspirations of U.S. security and economic primacy.

More Deaths Than Pearl Harbor

So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed Trump’s mind regarding the potential value of international cooperation even though other countries have been more successful in containing it. Absent a vaccine, Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea have kept death rates low with strict enforcement of masking, quarantining, testing, and tracing. More than 2,000 Americans died at Pearl Harbor, the event that awakened the “sleeping giant” to enter World War II. COVID-19 has killed 140,000 Americans so far, yet in a July 19 interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Trump dismissed the death toll with the words “it is what it is.” Trump’s America first approach to COVID-19 has involved ignoring international containment strategies that have worked while Americans continue to die.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final post in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow in USM’s Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is the author of three books, most recently Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties (Cambridge 2020) and co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II (Johns Hopkins 2017). In 2013-14, Dr. Stur was a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam.

Photo Caption: Charles Lindbergh speaks at a rally of the America First Committee at Madison Square Garden in New York, on May 23, 1941. (Source: AP, NPR:

Posted in American exceptionalism, Covid-19 Pandemic, diplomacy, Donald Trump, Foreign policy, international relations, Post-Cold War, war and society, World War II | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How Poorer Eastern European Nations Have Largely Kept Covid-19 Cases under Control

By Derrick Dyess, University of Southern Mississippi

The entire world has been grappling with the deadly effects of the Covid-19 virus. The virus spread quickly across oceans, continents and countries without mercy. Millions have fallen ill with Covid-19, and more than half a million people were left dead in its wake. The number of cases, and deaths continue to rise, especially in the United States. Although the virus is indiscriminate as it brings destruction from country to country, the scale of the pandemic is not the same in some countries and some regions.

Puzzle of Lower Numbers in Eastern Europe

Several countries in the Eastern European region have experienced significantly lower numbers of Covid-19 cases than most. At first glance, they appear to be ill-prepared to handle Covid-19.  These countries are not known for having robust and healthy economies. They are also not known for the quality or size of their healthcare systems. Furthermore, most of these countries belong to the European Union, so workers and trade move freely in and out of those countries. So, given these factors, how have they managed to contain transmission of Covid-19, and not be as devastated as the rest of the world?

Legacy of Authoritarian Governments

The answer seems to be that countries in Eastern Europe, such as Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic, have a long history of being governed under authoritarian regimes, which created a society that is more reactive to government actions and government demands. These countries, overall, acted faster than most nations to enforce a strict lockdown, limit travel, ban public gatherings, ban international travel, etc. These measures were bold, and more successful in slowing the spread of the virus, thanks in part to having a history of strict governance over their people.

The Czech Republic, for example, reported it is first Covid-19 case on March 12th, and by March 16th, the country was under full lockdown. The country did not see its first death until March 22nd.  By contrast, most countries to the West, such as the UK, US, Italy, experienced swift increases in deaths from Covid-19 before lockdown efforts were fully in effect. Many Eastern European nations have used similar strategies as the Czech Republic and have managed to slow the spread of Covid-19. The swift lockdown actions came into effect to not overburden their already poor healthcare systems. If cases were to spread as they have in Italy and in the United States, it would decimate their populations. These factors play a role in Eastern European countries experiencing less suffering and death as compared to other countries. However, this is not the only cause of such a phenomenon.

Countries like Slovakia are making use of a controversial tactic to limit the spread of Covid-19 by tracking its citizens. The country is making use of harnessed telecoms data. This technology allows the government to track locations of Covid-19 positive patients, where they have been, whom they may have become in contact, and can be used to monitor and enforce quarantine lockdowns. This tactic is highly controversial and is in use in only a few countries, as it raises significant privacy issues.  Yet tracking citizens appears to be a factor in slowing the spread of the virus.

Assessing the Numbers

The data for assessing the effectiveness of authoritarian measures in Eastern Europe is incomplete.  It is important to note that countries of Eastern Europe test on a much smaller scale for Covid-19, and only report positive cases. As a result, the number of cases is likely higher than reported. It is easy to count suspected deaths from the virus, so there are other means to monitor the spread of Covid-19 than just relying on testing. The death rates, measured by this approach, still remain low in comparison to elsewhere. Although some of these measures to fight Covid-19 could be characterized as being draconian, the measures nonetheless appear to indicate that the measures have achieved positive results in the combating Covid-19.  

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Derrick Dyess is a Graduate Student at the University of Southern Mississippi – Gulf Park. He is currently working on his Master’s Degree in Political Science in the School of Social Science and Global Studies. His Master’s thesis examines the adaptation and focus of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

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Dancing in the Time of Corona

By Allison Abra, University of Southern Mississippi

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

A couple of weeks after the social distancing and lockdown measures designed to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus in North America were first implemented, a good friend of mine in my hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, turned 40 years old. Given the prohibitions on celebrating this milestone in any of the customary ways, she invited people she knew all over the world to participate in a virtual dance party over Zoom. Friends from Asia, Australia, Europe, and across Canada and the United States logged on at the same time, and we danced together for about 45 minutes to music she played from her laptop. From my home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, I danced along with her and her family, and 65 other screens worth of people, to many of our old favorites, including  “Home For A Rest” by Spirit of the West (which basically makes any Canadian around 40 go completely wild on the dance floor… or living room carpet). Still only at the beginning of our strange new reality, with the shock of the abrupt changes to our everyday lives created by the pandemic feeling really visceral, this virtual dance party lifted my spirits, and helped me to feel connected to the friends, and the strangers, also on the call.

Dancing during World War II

Dancing has served this same purpose at many moments in history. In my book Dancing in the English Style, I discussed the ways that this artistic and leisure form was put to work in Britain during the Second World War – in service to the war effort, and to help people grapple with the life-altering events that erupted around them. When the war first broke out in 1939, Britons talked of a “dancing boom,” and public dancing spaces continued to do a robust business throughout the war. Military personnel often received free or reduced admission to dances, which were also used to raise money for wartime charitable causes or to build airplanes and tanks. New songs and dances were written around war themes, from the “Black-out Stroll” to the “Tuscana,” which was designed to mock the military setbacks of the Italian Army in Greece (“one step forward, three steps back”). Both of these were so-called “party dances,” which were simple and accessible to even the most amateur dancer, and all performed together in a group (think “hokey pokey,” another example from this era).

These group dances and dancing in general helped to forge and express the good cheer and community spirit that became such a part of Britain’s self-image during the war. As a magazine correspondent described the scene in a Manchester dance hall one night, “before a few dances were over, I found quite happily that all the dancers were singing as well as dancing – in fact, it almost became community singing – and it really did help us all to feel more cheerful.”

Perhaps most evocatively, dancing became one of the most visual and dramatic expressions of the so-called “Blitz spirit.” Britons sang and danced in Tube stations and public shelters, or refused to leave the dance floor even in the midst of an air raid. As one report described it, ‘Dancing has often continued while bombs were falling and when the crash of anti-aircraft guns has almost drowned the music.’[i]  People also danced in rubble-strewn streets after a raid to display their fortitude and resolve, such as in the case of the photograph that serves as the cover image for my book.

Dancing during the Covid-19 Pandemic

With this history in mind, I have been struck by the ways people around the world have danced their way through the pandemic, and the expressions of feeling that have been conveyed in these moments. As “shelter in place” orders spread across the world, people danced to alleviate cabin fever, cheer themselves up, and feel connected to others. Residents of the Italian city of Turin performed the 1990s song and dance hit the “Macarena” from their respective balconies. A professional dancer in Britain danced down the road in an exuberant parody of Tina Turner performing “Proud Mary,” entertaining onlookers and thousands of YouTube viewers. A large number of professional and amateur DJs have hosted socially distant dance parties for their neighbors, while professional dancers have staged at-home performances online, and thousands of housebound people have participated in virtual dance classes, or tik tok dance challenges. A simple google search of “dancing during the lockdown” yields countless results.

Nor has dancing remained confined to those enduring the lockdown: it has been an inspirational and moving part of the experience of patients and medical professionals on the front lines of the pandemic. Back in February, patients and medical staff danced together to raise their spirits in one of the temporary hospitals established in Wuhan, China. When an 84-year-old woman in Massachusetts recovered from the virus, she  danced a few ballroom steps as she made her way back to her room in a nursing home. And there is a hospital in Ontario where health care workers dance in the halls to celebrate each occasion when a Covid-19 patient is removed from a ventilator. Similar stories about dancing health care workers abound.

It should be noted that in both contexts, people have danced despite – or sometimes in response to – profound social fissures and conflicts that have transcended the root crisis of global war or global pandemic. For all of the ways that Britain’s World War II experience produced predominant and long mythologized ideals about national unity, equality of sacrifice, and community spirit, it has been well established by historians that significant social inequalities persisted or were even exacerbated by the war. Social unity could be tested even by events in dance halls, where, for instance, tensions or even violence occasionally erupted over interracial dancing.

It has been a similar story during the Covid-19 pandemic, where we have witnessed unequal levels of suffering owing to job losses and food insecurity, differing access to quality health care, disproportionate burdens placed on frontline workers, and higher rates of infection and death within communities of color. Just as during Britain’s war experience, dancing itself has sometimes produced additional tensions, if it has caused people to breach social distancing regulations, or when it has been associated with affluent celebrities who were accused of being tone-deaf or out of touch. It’s worth noting too that participating in a Zoom dance party is dependent on reliable internet access, which not all people have.

Dancing during Protests

Even as I have been developing this post, the current global crisis has deepened in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, with feelings of grief and anger being expressed, and protests erupting across the United States and around the world. But significantly, this too has induced some to dance, as a part of marches (which have sometimes become spontaneous dance parties), as a specific form of protest, or in a bid to inspire and “spread joy.”

Why People Dance in a Crisis

So what is it about dancing that has moved so many people to, well, move during this current crisis, and during other moments of great challenge across time and place? First of all, it’s just fun. As one of the DJs providing socially distant block parties suggested, dancing brings people “a lot of joy.” It’s physical, and provides exercise when other options for that might be limited. It can often involve interaction with other people – face-to-face or virtually – creating feelings of connection and camaraderie. It offers a way of celebrating cultural traditions and expressing identities. In all of these ways, dancing can be a form of escapism, and provides a distraction from the anxieties of the moment. And yet, I would argue that a desire to dance is not simply about disconnecting from or forgetting the crises that swirl around us, but rather about finding ways to absorb, acknowledge, and ultimately power through and resist them.

Earlier this month, Adrienne Burns, a 38-year-old North Carolina woman who had been hospitalized for 43 days battling Covid-19, including periods on a ventilator, recovered and was released from the hospital. As she left the building, she danced alongside some of the nurses who had cared for her, and later explained this impulse to dance in a local news report: “It’s fun. And you want people to know you overcame something.”

I think the idea of overcoming – but also perhaps to be witnessed overcoming – is key here. Following a description of the raucous scene at a New Year’s Eve dance at the height of the German bombing campaign against London, journalist Phyllis Warner recorded in her diary: ‘Would that Hitler could have seen us. I think he’d have found it darned disheartening.’ As the comments of both Adrienne in 2020 and Phyllis in 1940 reveal, in times of historic crisis, dancing offers a very visible and whole-bodied display of continued existence and resolve, whether it’s in the face of a dangerous disease or of an enemy leader, or outside a hospital or in a bomb-ravaged street. Through the feelings of fun and joy it bestows, it enables people to dance out or through some of the fear, suffering, and grief, and expresses their hope and their determination to survive.

Allison Abra is Associate Professor of history and a Fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. In 2018-2019, Dr. Abra was honored as the Mississippi Humanities Council Teacher of the Year for Southern Miss. She was also recently named 2019-2021 Blount Professor in Military History in order to support the research and writing of a new book on gender and emotion in British espionage during World War II.

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History Lessons Ignored: The Trump Administration and the Mobilization for World War II

Mark Wilson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Trump Administration Fails Mobilization

It is now clear that in the early weeks of the current coronavirus crisis, in February and March 2020, the Trump administration failed Mobilization 101.  By late February, we know now, several government officials, including White House economic advisor Peter Navarro and Rick Bright, then head of the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, were calling for the ramping up of industrial output of key items.  But in March, it became clear that the effort to acquire ventilators and masks, among other items, had become a chaotic mess, comparable to the early months of the Civil War in 1861, with individual state governors bidding against one another to acquire scarce supplies.  President Trump, at a press conference on March 19, endorsed this decentralized approach. “[G]overnors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work,” Trump stated. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items, and then shipping.  You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

Although the Trump administration refused at first to oversee procurement, in more recent weeks, the administration has edged toward doing more to coordinate industrial mobilization.  In March, the General Motors Corporation (GM) negotiated an agreement with Ventec, a manufacturer of ventilators, to have GM mass-produce those items in a big Kokomo, Indiana plant, in which it had formerly made electronic components for automobiles.  At the end of March, President Trump signed a memorandum declaring that the Defense Production Act (DPA) would be used to facilitate the GM effort; in early April, the government signed a $500 million contract with GM, for ventilators to be delivered in the coming months.  The government then announced similar ventilator contracts, again invoking the DPA, with several other companies. 

Strong Echoes of World War II

GM Buick Melrose Park aircraft engine plant July 1942, Library of Congress

Here there were strong echoes of World War II, not just in the use of federal powers, but also in the deals such as the one between Ventec and GM, in which a specialty producer allowed a big industrial corporation to mass produce its designs under license. That was one of the main methods of US military-industrial mobilization in World War II, which saw big automakers, including GM, Ford, and Chrysler, turn out thousands of units of aircraft engines, bombers, and other weapons that had been designed first by specialty firms, such as Pratt & Whitney, Consolidated Aircraft, and Sperry Gyroscope.

Despite this evidence of a policy shift in the direction of a more World War II-style industrial mobilization, President Trump’s comments in mid-March suggested that today’s leaders remain ignorant, perhaps willfully so, of many relevant historical lessons.  During the world wars, the Cold War, and even more recently, US leaders took it for granted that national authorities could and should use the available legal authority—including the National Defense Act of 1916, the First and Second War Powers Acts of 1941-42, and the DPA—to coordinate crash mobilization programs. 

During World War II, when close to half the national economy was mobilized for war, the government, working through emergency civilian agencies such as the War Production Board, as well as military organizations, allocated key materials, prioritized orders, and compelled companies to produce for the war effort.  During the Korean War, the DPA provided legal authority for similar actions, without much controversy.  (It was the DPA’s provisions for price and wage controls, not its powers over allocation and production, which caused most of the political struggles over mobilization on the Korean War home front.)  During and after the Cold War, the DPA has been used frequently to provide priority for Defense Department orders.

Ignoring the Lessons of History 

Although there are some recent indications that US leaders are beginning to apply lessons from history, by using more national coordination and expert leadership for ongoing efforts such as the crash vaccine development program, “Project Warp Speed,” it is far from clear whether the tide has turned in the right direction.  In 2020, more than in the early 1940s, there is a widespread reluctance, at all levels of American government, to increase levels of public coordination and regulation, even in cases where the need seems obvious. 

This is a result of a decades-long, bipartisan effort to denigrate government, while celebrating private entrepreneurs and capitalism. As I and other historians have argued, this ideological assault on public capacities has been going on for nearly a century, and has warped our understanding of the history of the US industrial mobilization for World War II, among many other subjects. It is likely that many American leaders in 2020 misunderstand the World War II record as one in which the industrial mobilization was won by heroic entrepreneurs, without any positive contributions from government (or workers). 

World War II Showed the Government Is Essential

This misreading of past and present helps to explain the Trump administration’s missteps in February and March; unfortunately, it may well limit the efficacy of current and future programs, including the race to develop and produce vaccines.  During World War II, political leaders and mobilization officials did not hesitate to combine a diverse assortment of solutions, which ended up including not only conversions of private plants and creative licensing deals, such as the one struck between Ventec and GM, but also a heavy reliance on government-owned, company-run factories, along with some fully government-run facilities.

In the coming months, we would benefit from similarly pragmatic, heterogeneous, and imaginative approaches to tough problems, some of which may rely mainly on agile private actors, and some of which may require heavy national intervention.  With thousands of lives and billions of dollars at stake, we will all benefit from thinking about the real, complex records of past crises, including the Great Depression, as well as World War II.

Mark R. Wilson is a professor in the Department of History at UNC Charlotte, where he also directs the program in Capitalism Studies.  He is the author of the books Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), and The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).  He is presently working on a history of the U.S. military-industrial complex since 1950.

Posted in Covid-19 Pandemic, Historians, Military history, Mobilization, War and memory, war and society, World War II | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

World War II: When the Government Protected All Essential Workers

By Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

“Sickout” Protests Over Coronavirus Safety

Strikes, work stoppages, and protests on International Labor Day (May 1) at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, and other workplaces may not have done much to shut down the nation’s stores and warehouses, but they sent America a very loud and potent message nonetheless. The thousands of men and women who pick and pack at hundreds of giant fulfillment centers, the millions who stand behind retail counters, and the legion of gig workers tasked with delivering food and medicine to your doorstep now stand at the vital heart of the world’s largest economy. The fact that such work is now dangerous, that these low-wage workers are “first responders,” highlights the social and economic indispensability, as well as the insecurity and impoverishment, of this multi-million segment of the American working class.

If coal miners, mill hands, and auto workers once stood at the iconic heart of our 20th century industrial imagination, this crisis has finally, but decisively, put those who staff the nation’s retail/distribution complex in their stead. East Asia is now the “workshop of the world,” so world capitalism, and most certainly that in North American and Europe, could not run without a series of global supply chains. The connective tissue consists of all those seamen, longshore workers, truck drivers, distribution center workers, retail clerks, and delivery workers whose labor power holds it all together.

And yet they are getting the short end of the stick. For most pay is low, hours are erratic, benefits are skimpy, turnover is rapid, and in a further insult, the wizards of Silicon Valley have constructed a set of apps and legal scams designed to force millions into a spurious world of “independent contracting.” Except for some grocery chains, most retail/distribution employers—from Sam Walton to Jeff Bezos—are militantly anti-union. It is time for workers to organize and the government to protect their right to do so, at the same time that it mandates the safety protocols demanded by this pandemic.

War Labor Board Protected Worker Rights

It happened before, in World War II, another crisis that highlighted the centrality of once marginalized workers now recognized as essential to the larger national purpose. During the war a higher proportion of Americans worked in factories than at any other time in history. But they had to eat, dress, and buy household goods. So grocery stores, gas stations, warehouses, and retail outlets were all deemed part of the war economy. The Office of Price Administration rationed—and set the price of—meat, candy, tires, and gasoline; dressmakers were required to limit their use of fabric; and the government determined when and if consumer goods manufacturers could get back in business. Sewell Avery hated all of this. In 1944 he was the 70-year-old autocrat who ran Montgomery Ward, one of the great catalog sales and retail store empires headquartered in Chicago.

Avery was violently hostile to President Franklin Roosevelt, to the New Deal, and to the unions that were trying to organize his warehouses and stores. His lawyers argued that wartime regulations, including protections for the right to organize, should not apply to the civilian goods Montgomery Ward distributed across the country. But the work clothes, auto parts, and farm equipment the company shipped were deemed essential war goods by both the New Dealers and the dollar-a-year corporate executives who ran the wartime mobilization agencies. The showdown came in April 1944, when Avery refused to comply with yet another order of the National War Labor Board mandating that his company fully recognize the United Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The union went on strike and FDR promptly seized the company.

A Famous Photograph

The photo was a sensation because to Avery’s like-minded business associates, it demonstrated just how powerful the wartime New Deal had become. To unionists and other workers, it seemed to assert that the power of a militarized federal government could be enlisted on their behalf.

Donald Trump is in the White House, but in our own moment of national peril, we again need a powerful, progressive state to stand with those on the front lines. The federal government’s failure will undoubtedly be responsible for many unnecessary deaths in the supply chain. Meanwhile, state and city governments, no matter how well led, simply lack the power and resources to insure that workplaces in their jurisdictions are safe.

Jeff Bezos has far more public relations savvy than a Sewell Avery, likewise executives at Instacart, Grub Hub, Walmart, Uber, and other service sector employers. A direct confrontation with the government, state or federal, seems unlikely. But these firms are just as recalcitrant as the Montgomery Ward chieftain. To weather the pandemic, executives at these firms have grudgingly conceded as little as possible when it comes to sick leave, safety standards, and worker voice. They want to get back to an autocratic normality once it is all over. Our job, following the lead of this month’s heroic supply chain strikers, is to make sure we construct a new order post-pandemic, one where workers are valued and have the power to protect themselves.

Nelson Lichtenstein is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. He is the author or editor of 16 books, including Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (1982); The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business (2009, 2010); and Achieving Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy (2016). His reviews and opinion pieces have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Dissent, New Labor Forum, American Prospect, and academic journals.

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Historians Explore Comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II

By Douglas Bristol, editor of Reflections on War and Society

On March 31, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the Covid-19 pandemic is the worst crisis since World War II because the virus threatens every nation.  Other world leaders joined him in making that historical comparison. At the epicenter of the pandemic, President Xi Jinping invoked the People’s War, fought against the Japanese Army during World War II, to explain how China would win the battle against the disease.  Queen Elizabeth II, in a rare broadcast, urged her subjects to emulate the discipline and resolve that Britons displayed in World War II.  President Donald Trump said U.S. efforts to fight the virus called for shared sacrifices like Americans had made during World War II, drawing a parallel between young men volunteering to serve in the military and workers sleeping on the floor of PPE factories.  These historical references to a global conflict that symbolizes duty, unity, and above all victory make sense for leaders who need to rally their countrymen, but one has to wonder: are they true?   

Several journalists have investigated this comparison, but their findings are at odds with each other.  Greg Ips of the Wall Street Journal said the innovative responses of corporations to the pandemic, such as True Value Hardware producing hand sanitizer, amounted to “a 21st-century version of the ‘Arsenal of Democracy,’ the mobilization of industrial might that helped win World War II.”  By contrast, Arthur Sullivan, a reporter for Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, said “that the current crisis, as serious as it is, is not comparable with what Europe and the wider world faced when confronted with the rubble, both literal and metaphorical, of summer 1945.” Each reporter, much to their credit, interviewed historians for their articles, and historians ultimately will answer the question of whether the Covid-19 pandemic should be compared to World War II.

To add more scholarly viewpoints to this public discussion of history, Reflections on War and Society will publish a series of posts by four distinguished historians, who explore the parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and World War II from the perspective of their field of expertise.  The posts will start on Friday, May 15 and will continue through July 15.

  1. Nelson Lichtenstein, the author of Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II, will use the Sick-Out protests by workers at Amazon, Instacart, Target, Walmart on International Labor Day (May 1) as a point of comparison with the government treating retail supply chain workers as essential workers during World War II.
  2. Mark Wilson, the author of Creative Destruction: American Business and the Winning of World War II, will discuss similarities and differences between the federal government’s efforts to use the Defense Production Act to obtain medical supplies to fight Covid-19 and the federal government’s mobilization of industry in World War II. 
  3. Allison Abra, the author of Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50, will discuss the ways dancing is being deployed as an expression of community, morale, and fortitude during the pandemic, comparing that to its uses during the Blitz.
  4. Heather Stur, the author of the forthcoming Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties, will offer some context regarding the “America First” movement of the World War II era as a point of comparison for the Trump administration’s responses to the international dimensions of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
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War Stories: The Mississippi National Guard’s 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team Deploys for Operation Iraqi Freedom

By Kevin Green, University of Southern Mississippi

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about the National Guard and the Reserves.

In January of 2005, The Mississippi National Guard’s 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team (155 ABCT) mobilized and deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the end of 2004 until January of 2006. This deployment marked the first for one of Mississippi’s largest National Guard units.  The 155th had previously mobilized for deployment to Iraq in 1990 for the Gulf War, but the brigade never left the United States. In the fifteen years between the two American Middle East conflicts, the Mississippi National Guard and the 155 ABCT transformed dramatically. In less than three decades, Mississippi’s weekend warriors and disaster-relief response teams evolved into a globalized, kinetic fighting force trained for combat and capable of landowning important strategic cities in and around Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.

One soldier’s career in the Mississippi National Guard has mirrored this important, but overlooked transition.  Lieutenant Colonel Paul A. Lyon commissioned with the MS Guard in 1992 and has been involved with 155 ABCT’s 150th Engineer’s Battalion since 1990, even serving as Battalion Commander from 2017 to 2019. During the 155’s first deployment throughout 2005, Lyon served as a Captain and Bravo Company Commander for the 150th Engineers.  Lyon remembered of his first deployment:

So on 18 January [2005] we went in, and then on 24 January we got a change of mission before the unit even got there, so when we arrived, we actually did an assessment, initial assessment, and we started upgrading some of the bunkers.  We were in the tent, me and Sergeant Odom and Sergeant Cooley, my two platoon sergeants, and when I laid down in my first bed in Iskandariya [Iraq], I looked up, and there was a burned-out hole in the tent that’s been patched.  I was like, “What happened there?”  He said, “That’s where a mortar shell went through.”  I’m like, “Well, great.  Maybe lightning doesn’t strike in the same spot.” And then we got hit with a bunch of mortars.  It was my first mortar attack, there was a bunker out back, so we’re grabbing gear, and we’re all sitting in the bunker, nervous.  It was the first hit.  And I looked down; I had my flak vest on backwards. Crazy nerves get you your first time, and anyway, it was kind of funny, looking back on it.[1]

These types of stories are incredible.  More important, they highlight the transformational experiences of National Guardsmen and women as they have become integral cogs in the US military’s machine against the global war on terror. SFC Sean Cooley would later give his life in February, 2005, becoming the fifth Mississippi Guardsman killed in Iraq.  The 155 has since deployed two other times, once more to Iraq in 2009 and to Kuwait in 2018.  And the 155 is but one of dozens of Army National Guard brigades from across the fifty states and four territories deployed to the Middle East over the last few decades.  Right now, there are over 400,000 men and women serving in the United States Army and Air National Guards, many of whom have deployed multiple times and whose stories are as equally rich and revealing as LTC Lyon’s.

This change in the role of the Guard has formed a quiet revolution in the way that the United States fights its wars.  It also has transformed the relationships between the Guard and the local communities it has hereditarily served.  These transformations must be understood and documented as matters of international strategy and national security.  On the local level, in some cases, entire communities sent guardsmen and women to multiple deployments, devastating families and straining local economies.  The War Stories: National Guard project aims to capture and chronicle the documents and oral histories of the Guard to make them publicly available for researchers, students, and teachers.  Every branch of the military has research centers and archival collections through which official histories and warfighting strategies are created.  Sadly, the National Guard—one of the spear points of American warfare in the twenty-first century—does not. 

Right now, Southern Miss’ Dale Center for the Study of War and Society and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage are developing critical partnerships with the National Guard Association of the United States (NNGAUS), The US House of Representatives, The Mississippi Army National Guard, and The Mississippi Department of Archives and History to perhaps make this critically important work a reality.  Our hope was to have things up and running by the late spring and early summer.  COVID-19 has certainly slowed our progress but not our resolve. For more information about this project please contact Dr. Andrew Wiest ( or Dr. Kevin Greene (       

Kevin Greene is the Nina Bell Suggs assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities, Director of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, and a fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of war and Society. Through the Center, Dr. Greene is currently the principal investigator for the Mississippi Oral History Project, a research initiative funded by the Mississippi state legislature to document Mississippi’s culture and heritage in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is the author of The Invention and Reinvention of Big Bill Broonzy, a cultural and intellectual examination of William “Big Bill” Broonzy with the University of North Carolina Press for their catalogue in African American Studies.

[1] Greene, Kevin and Andrew Wiest. Interview with LTC Paul A. Lyon. The Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, The university of Southern Mississippi, December 18, 2017.

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“The New Normal? Heightened Use of the National Guard in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars”

By William Taylor, Angelo State University

Note: This is the third in a series of posts about the National Guard and the Reserves.

He was many things to many people: a loving husband, a devoted father to seven children, and an admired and respected leader in both civilian and military contexts, serving as the mayor of North Ogden, Utah, and a major in the Utah National Guard. In many ways, Brent Taylor (no relation to the author) also personified the devoted service and significant sacrifice of the National Guard in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. On November 3, 2018, Taylor was killed in action during his fourth deployment, having already completed two in Iraq and on his second to Afghanistan. Like many of the citizen soldiers in these wars, Taylor enlisted after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, along with his five brothers, out of a tremendous sense of duty and patriotism, wisely reminding us all that “we have far more as Americans that unites us than divides us.”[1] Taylor was not alone.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars witnessed, or some would say precipitated, a much-heightened use of the National Guard. Some sources estimate that National Guard and Reserve units comprised nearly half of the total force deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered nearly 20 percent of all casualties there.[2] Compare those numbers to America’s previous longest war in Vietnam, where less than one percent of the deployed force and a mere .2 percent of the casualties were members of the National Guard.[3] That is quite a shift indeed.

The National Guard is part of the seven reserve components of the U.S. military and includes the Army National Guard, nearly 340,000 soldiers, and the Air National Guard, roughly 110,000 airmen, in the Ready Reserve. Therefore, the National Guard encompasses roughly 450,000 of the nation’s slightly more than 1 million Ready Reserve personnel.[4] With the end of the draft and the advent of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973, the use of the National Guard slowly began to swell. These changes were somewhat subtle until the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, where they became both stark in their presence and troubling in their implications.

Commentators have increasingly critiqued these trends. Andrew Bacevich characterized the problem as “too much war and too few soldiers” and revealed the tragic consequences for guardsmen and reservists, and indeed the nation.[5] Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich, U.S. Army (retired), emphasized that one of the most significant changes in the recent use of the National Guard has been its shift from a strategic to an operational reserve, resulting in vast numbers of citizen soldiers experiencing overseas deployments, many of them multiple times.[6] David R. Segal and Lawrence J. Korb demonstrated how over time the AVF has become less representative of broader American society, including overuse of the National Guard and more demands placed on fewer people.[7] I too have highlighted how the National Guard and professional military contractors have become two of the newest substitutions for the dearth of available active duty military personnel in the AVF.[8]

The National Guard has served this country remarkably well throughout its history. The recent use of the National Guard in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, however, has not always done that service and sacrifice justice. U.S. leaders will hopefully begin to realize that national power is both finite and precious and start to match the nation’s foreign commitments to the available personnel, either reducing demand by paring back requirements or increasing supply by augmenting personnel in the active forces. If they fail to do so, however, one can only hope that the amplified deployment of the National Guard in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars will cause pause at continuing its regular and repeated use as an operational reserve and instead encourage policy makers to address the underlying challenges of the AVF that result in such higher demand for the National Guard in the first place. Subsequent endeavors, however, including President Trump’s deployment of the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border, indicate that heightened use of the National Guard might simply be the new normal.[9]

William Taylor
William Taylor

William A. Taylor is the holder of the Lee Drain Endowed University Professorship, previous department chair, and award-winning Associate Professor of Global Security Studies in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University. He is the series editor for the new book series Studies in Civil-Military Relations with University Press of Kansas and the author or editor of four books, including George C. Marshall and the Early Cold War: Policy, Politics, and Society (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, forthcoming 2020).

[1] Julie Turkewitz, “Brent Taylor, Utah Mayor Killed in Afghanistan, Was on 4th Deployment,” New York Times, November 4, 2018,

[2] “National Guard: Service in the War on Terror,”, December 13, 2019,

[3] Lawrence J. Korb, “Overuse of the Guard Could Undermine Its Effectiveness,” Center for American Progress, September 24, 2004,

[4] Lawrence Kapp, “Defense Primer: Reserve Forces,” Congressional Research Service, January 6, 2020, 1–3,

[5] Andrew J. Bacevich, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), esp. 105–7.

[6] Dennis Laich, Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2013), esp. 77–82.

[7] David R. Segal and Lawrence J. Korb, “Manning and Financing the Twenty-First-Century All-Volunteer Force,” in The Modern American Military, ed. David M. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 111–33.

[8] William A. Taylor, Military Service and American Democracy: From World War II to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016), esp. 279–91.

[9] Maya Rhodan, “National Guard Troops Have Already Begun Patrolling the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Time, April 12, 2018,; Rebecca Gordon, “Trump Is Exploiting the National Guard,” Nation, February 11, 2019,

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Honors and Officers: The Impact of the National Guard on African Americans in the 369th Infantry Regiment

By Douglas Bristol, University of Southern Mississippi

A Surprising Military Parade

On February 17, 1919, black soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment marched through the streets of New York City past cheering crowds.  The military parade was led by Lt. James Europe’s band, which had made itself and the new American music—jazz—famous throughout France.  The returning veterans marched the length of Manhattan, beginning on Fifth Avenue, where they passed banners that read: OUR HEROES—WELCOME HOME.  The mood grew even more high-spirited when they reached Lenox Avenue and began marching through Harlem.  When Jim Europe’s band of sixty brass and reeds, trumpets and drums swung into the song, “Here Comes My Daddy Now,” all Harlem went wild.  The parade ended at the armory of the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment because the 369th had started as a National Guard unit.

The Impact of the National Guard

The 15th New York illustrates the positive impact the National Guard has had on African Americans historically by letting them fight for their country and by training black officers to lead them.  Politics had a dominant influence at the beginning and ending of this story.  In response to lobbying by the African American community in Harlem, the New York State Legislature passed a bill on June 2, 1913 authorizing a black National Guard regiment.  The Governor appointed his former campaign manager William Hayward, who was white, to serve as the commanding officer.  Haywood turned out to be a good choice because, in addition to his experience in politics, he had been a colonel in the Nebraska National Guard.  Haywood also recognized the importance of having black officers and promoted their training from the start.

Valor Fighting in World War I undefined

In April 1917 the U.S. declared war on Germany, and the men of the 15th New York began a legendary journey on which they faced discrimination even as they won fame.  The 15th New York reported for training at a camp in New York in May 1917, but the following October, they were sent to a camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where racial tensions led to their rapid deployment.  They arrived in France on December 27, 1917, only to discover they had no orders.  Haywood made a personal appeal to American Expeditionary Force Commander John Pershing that his unit be reassigned to combat duty. Pershing, having already promised the French reinforcements, sent the all-black unit to the 16th Division of the Fourth French Army.  Beginning in April 1918, the renamed 369th Infantry Regiment remained in combat for 191 days, longer than any other U.S. unit in the war.  The Germans, impressed with their prowess, gave them the nickname the Harlem Hellfighters.  The French government decorated the entire unit with the Croix du Guerre, and in addition, gave 170 members of the 369th individual medals for their valor.

Colonel Benjamin Davis, Sr. Take Command

The unit survived demobilization after the war by rejoining the National Guard as the 369th Coast Artillery.  Despite always having some black officers, the 369th had never had a black commanding officer after twenty-five years, and New York’s progressive governor Herbert Lehman lobbied the army in 1938 to appoint Col. Benjamin Davis, Sr. as the commander.  Davis had much to recommend him.  He was the highest ranking black officer in the army, and he had spent five years as an instructor with the Ohio National Guard.  The army made him commander of the 369th on April 27, 1938.

When the U.S. began mobilizing for war in 1940, Davis proved he was the right leader for the unit.  Governor Lehman had asked the War Department to convert some of the state’s National Guard units, including the 396th, to antiaircraft units, only to be turned down. Davis took the issue up in person with the army chief of staff George Marshall, and warned him of the potentially negative reaction from the African American community if it seemed the army had decided that black units were unsuited for combat.  Marshall believed Davis could oversee the conversion and signed off on it.

The First Black General undefined

Davis’ success at the job attracted favorable notice in the black press and led to an unexpected promotion.  When the promotions list appeared in late September 1940, Davis’ name did not appear among the 84 new generals, and with less than a year before he reached the mandatory retirement age for his rank of colonel, it looked as though Davis had lost his chance to become the first black general.  But 1940 was also an election year.  The Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie made civil rights an issue in the campaign by promising black voters that he would end segregation in the military.  In turn, black newspaper editors at the Pittsburgh Courier and the Amsterdam News took up the issue of fair treatment in the military by saying Davis should be put in charge of an all-black division.  President Roosevelt, running for an unprecedented third term, worried about losing black support.  The week before the election, Roosevelt disregarded the objections raised by his Secretary of War Henry Stimson and approved the promotion of Davis to brigadier general.  The National Guard had, therefore, given Davis the exposure necessary for a successful campaign to break the glass ceiling in the army officer corps.

Honors and Officers

In conclusion, the National Guard played an important role in expanding the opportunities of African Americans for honors and officers.  At a time when military leaders thought African Americans were best assigned to unskilled labor battalions, the National Guard provided African Americans in New York one of the few opportunities to fight in combat and be led by black officers during World War I.  The celebrated exploits of the 369th Infantry Regiment on the battlefields of France disproved claims that African Americans did not make good soldiers and gave hope to African Americans everywhere.  The National Guard also kept the unit alive as the military shrank following the Great War.  Moreover, the tradition of black officers in the New York National Guard, established by its first commander William Haywood, set a precedent for New York Governor Lehman to call for a black commanding officer and ultimately secure the appointment of Col. Benjamin Davis.  In turn, the political aspects of Davis’ appointment help explain why the National Guard had such a positive impact on African Americans.  The National Guard units drew on community ties and political connections at the state level to persuade the army to accept black combat units and a black general.  Consequently, the experience of black soldiers in the 369th is significant not only for African American history, but also for military history.  The story of the 369th demonstrates that the National Guard, during World War I and the 1930s, helped bring needed reforms to the army.

Douglas Bristol is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi and a Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of war and Society. His most recent book, for which he was a contributing co-editor, is Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II.

First image: The 369th in action. After being detached and seconded to the French, they wore the Adrian helmet, while retaining the rest of their U.S. uniform. Seen here at Séchault, France on 29 September 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, they wear the U.S. Army-issue Brodie helmet, correct for that time. This image is a work of a U.S. Army employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States. [accessed on 01252020].

Second image: Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.), awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Storms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, Cpl. T. W. Taylor. By an unknown photographer – ARC Identifier: 26431282 US National Archives website [accessed 10252020].

Third image: Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. watches a Signal Corps crew erecting poles, somewhere in France. August 8, 1944. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 531202. [accessed on 01252020].

Further reading: Jeffrey T. Sammons & John H. Morrow, Jr., Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality (University Press of Kansas, 2014).

Posted in African American soldiers, Military history, Military integration, National Guard, Officer Corps, war and society, World War I | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

War Stories–The National Guard

By Andrew Wiest, Ph.D.

In 2005 I viscerally knew that the old National Guard was no more.  My closest friend, the godfather to my eldest son, was leading a company of the 150th Combat Engineer Battalion of the Mississippi National Guard on combat operations in Iraq.  The unit, locally raised, had just suffered serious losses before Hurricane Katrina swept through the area, laying many of their homes waste.  Disaster relief, for their own families, was needed.  But the men and women who normally would have been tasked with that relief were a world away on a dusty battlefront.

As a historian I knew that this was an important moment in history, as the National Guard shifted from being weekend warriors to a combat force relied upon for multiple deployments.  As a local product I knew that the stories of my neighbors, the men and women who served in the National Guard, deserved to be told.  So, as a veteran of many a book project, I set out to gather and tell the story of the 150th and to use that story as a lens through which to view the wider saga of the transformation of the National Guard.

Next stop?  The archives, of course.  I knew exactly what I needed.  Operations orders, after-action reports, and historical unit summaries – the basic hammer, screwdriver, and saw in the toolkit of the military historian.  And to humanize those dry documents I knew that I would also need oral histories – the personal stories that make warfare come alive on the printed page in all of its horror and glory.  To my researching dismay, though, I quickly discovered that there was no true central repository for all things National Guard.  For the Army – head to the National Archives or to the Center of Military History.  For the National Guard?  Well, it turned out that the National Guard story was nowhere and everywhere simultaneously.  The National Guard story was in armories, attics, local archives, and individual memories spread all over the state.  And, if you wanted to take the story further, this wasn’t the situation just in Mississippi, but in 49 other states as well.

What had started as a book project had mushroomed into something much larger.  My colleagues and I at the Dale Center, in tandem with the Mississippi National Guard, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, The Mississippi Humanities Council and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at Southern Miss, decided to launch the program, “War Stories – National Guard.”  Our goal is to gather the diffused story of the National Guard together into one place for the first time.  Our goal is to conduct oral interviews with a new generation of guardsmen and women to collect their stories before it is too late – a task all the more important in an age where most personal documents of war were digital and, thus, maddeningly lost in the ether and to time.

“War Stories – National Guard” is just getting started.  The first few major documents have been located, and the bedrock oral interviews are ongoing.  It is our hope that through this process we will be able to capture the story of the National Guard during this important moment of transformation.  With the documents and oral testimonies in place we hope to provide a research home for the legacy of the National Guard.  A place where researchers worldwide will be able to access the tactical, cultural, and social stories imbedded within the greater whole.

And, in the end, I hope that I can also finally get down to writing my new book. Continue reading

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