Or so we thought after the Second World War.
The bomb that burst over Hiroshima 40 years ago and opened the atomic age wasn't the only explosion triggered by World War II that was to make a profound impact on our lives. The other was the enormous postwar surge of energy unleashed in this country, as in the rest of the world.
The United States underwent revolutionary change, just as it had 80 years before, after the Civil War. In both instances, revolution was the issue of the marriage of pent-up energies and technologies with public policy.
There were, of course, enormous differences between the two. World War II was a unifying experience, and the national morale and sense of power were never greater. The Civil War, by contrast, was destructive and divisive, and even in the victorious North many weren't sure that they hadn't lost more than they had won.
Nevertheless, the two wars had similar impacts.
After the Civil War, the western half of the continent was settled, and the nation was industrialized and urbanized in relatively short order. Government policy in the form of subsidies to the railroads, encouragement of settlers through the homestead and land grant acts plus a benign attitude toward late 19th-century industrial statesmen and robber barons alike was a major factor in this.
Public policy played a similar role after World War II. For starters, it augmented the awesome energies of the nearly 13 million veterans who were obsessed with the desire to make up what they then considered lost time. The GI Bill of Rights is possibly the most revolutionary document in American history after the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the original Bill of Rights.
It transformed us from a nation of renters to one of homeowners. More important, however, were the educational benefits -- the $75 per month plus tuition, books and lab fees that encouraged more than 8 million of those World War II veterans to continue their education. Intended partly to keep the returning GIs from flooding the job market, it opened up college, which before the war had been the province of the well-to-do few, to nearly everyone.
This demolished the one vestige of a class society in this country. It is impossible to imagine anything that enlarged and strengthened the middle class more than the expansion of opportunities for education and home ownership.
All over the nation, young men and women who four years before wouldn't even have dreamed of going to college trooped off to Harvard, Oklahoma A&M, UCLA and Kenyon to become electrical engineers, doctors, sales managers and school teachers. Many farm boys got degrees in agriculture; the ever-increasing productivity of that industry was one result.
Never was an investment of $14.5 billion, the cost of the World War II GI Bill, so handsomely returned (the total cost of the GI Bill for World War II, Korea and Vietnam through 1982 was $53 billion).
That revolution in education was a major factor in the great national affluence that followed V-J Day, and not just in the production of goods and services. Sales, advertising and marketing, powerful engines of the private enterprise system, benefited as well from GIs who started out to be historians or English lit teachers but turned their education to more mundane pursuits.
Post-war affluence and technology, particularly in the form of the automobile and television, reshaped society, which was and is organized around the automobile. This led to greater mobility and personal freedom as millions escaped the daily scrutiny of family, church, small towns and ethnic neighborhoods.
There is a down side to this, of course -- the loss of community and intimacy and weakening of family ties. Affluence and isolation brought problems of their own, but no one would even dream of turning the clock back on the nation's post-World War II accomplishments.
Looking back points up the dramatic contrast between World War II and the Vietnam war.
With Vietnam, the accounting has been primarily of pain, division, loss and regret. Our victory in the great, two-front effort of World War II, however, was an enormous feat that united us and focused our energies.
Most Americans were confident 40 years ago that there was nothing we couldn't do. Twenty-five years were to pass before that assurance was significantly tarnished.