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  These historical references to a global conflict that symbolizes duty, unity, and above all victory make sense for leaders who need to rally their countrymen, but one has to wonder: are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.

About Douglas Bristol

Douglas Bristol is an Associate Professor of History and a Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. In his teaching and research, he focuses on the beliefs, institutions, and strategies that ordinary Americans developed to exercise control over their lives. In his first book, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (reissued in paperback in 2015), Bristol examines the relationship between black barbers and the prosperous white men whose throats they shaved with straight-edged razors from the colonial period to the Great Migration. He co-edited Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II, to which he contributed a chapter on understanding the resistance of black soldiers during World War II. His current book project, Khaki Globe Trotters, explores how black GIs used military service in World War II to claim the New Deal's promise of security. The Art of Manliness podcast and the PBS documentary, Boss: The Black Experience in Business, featured his work.
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