The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real lesson of World War II for mobilizing against covid-19

Pushing Americans to tackle a massive challenge requires far better messaging

President Trump speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus in the briefing room of the White House on Tuesday. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg)

With the covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on our health, economy and our very lives, there is an almost irresistible temptation to compare the situation to the 1940s mobilization of the greatest generation.

Examples are plentiful. Last week, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, discussing health-care professionals in the crisis, channeled Winston Churchill by declaring: “Never will so many ask so much of so few.” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proclaimed that “ventilators are to this war what missiles were to World War II.” Even Germany is comparing the crisis to the war, with Chancellor Angela Merkel calling the pandemic her country’s biggest challenge “since World War II.”

These comparisons are powerful because from scrap metal drives to Rosie the Riveter and everything in between, the World War II home front was arguably as essential to winning the war as the troops themselves. But while the United States celebrates its wartime mobilization, our collective memory has forgotten the messy reality of what actually happened — and what elements of persuasion were required to mobilize people.

Though forgotten today, the home front was not seamlessly united immediately after Pearl Harbor and the populace often resisted following directions from the government. But we must remember the government’s initial struggle to sell war bonds and to overcome divisions on the home front. Recalling what it took to surmount these obstacles is essential to overcoming the medical and economic perils of the coronavirus outbreak today — which might require an even bigger effort.

Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was far from inevitable that the United States would enter the war. While interventionists loudly advocated for outright military support of the besieged Allies, predicting that failure to do so would bring war to America’s doorstep, a powerful bloc of isolationists demanded the nation stay out of the conflict, warning ominously about a repeat of World War I.

At first, Pearl Harbor seemed to bring these divided Americans together in support of the war effort. But the wave of unity disguised continuing divisions. Throughout much of 1942, in fact, secret government polls repeatedly found nearly one-third of the country favored the idea of peace talks with the German enemy. This opposition didn’t just fade away as American troops prosecuted the war. Two years later, an American Institute of Public Opinion study revealed 66 percent of respondents believed that most of their fellow citizens were not taking the war effort seriously.

The bitter prewar split between interventionists and isolationists, in other words, didn’t vanish forever on Dec. 7, 1941. It instead reemerged in a subtler way, with a minority of citizens on one side quietly questioning the need for the war effort while those on the other side grew frustrated because they sensed the lack of commitment from this minority.

Some of the public also resisted the government’s wartime leadership. Occasionally it was personal: A sizable minority of the country simply reviled President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whether they viewed New Deal policies as fascist or believed that he had manipulated the country into war, many such critics despised the commander in chief so much they even refused to use his name aloud (instead, they called him “that man”).

But as the government asked more of the public as the nation shifted to an all-out war footing, defiance of the government’s dictates was not uncommon across ideological boundaries. Early appeals to gather scrap metal for munitions production were widely ignored. Government rationing of fuel and food staples faced underground black markets. The Roosevelt administration’s plea for nonstop factory production angered many laborers, eventually fostering wildcat strikes and work stoppages.

Then there was the matter of war bond sales. It was clear the American war effort would be the largest expense in the nation’s history. To support it, the Treasury established a program in which average citizens were asked to purchase war bonds for $18.75 with the promise of a $25 return 10 years later. In the meantime, the citizens’ money was critical to training, equipping and feeding our fighting forces.

Imagine how distressed the Treasury became, then, when in 1942, just eight months after Pearl Harbor, sales of war bonds reached a dangerous low point. There were two problems: The Treasury’s sales force wasn’t explaining the urgency of war bond purchases clearly enough and, at the same time, too many Americans were reluctant to sacrifice what little money they had in the wake of the Depression. By mid-September, the war effort itself was teetering on the edge because the public wasn’t financially chipping in.

The Treasury was forced to go to the hard sell. From late 1942 all the way to the end of the war, it staged all-out war bond drives that cajoled and hectored citizens with everything from sob stories to images of bestial enemy “rapists” to gruesome photographs of American war dead. This was part of a much larger propaganda campaign. The War Advertising Council, for example, originated in efforts to provide no-cost campaign guidance to the wartime government.

These campaigns worked, bringing the public around. The massive Treasury drives led to surges in war bond purchases. Scrap metal collections reached a crescendo. Americans even began to plant some 20 million victory gardens, providing food for their communities and ensuring the nation’s farm output could supply the military.

While American patriotism and wartime fervor played important roles in these successes, it was active leadership from the Roosevelt administration, especially its rhetorical campaigns and — to be frank — its propaganda, which secured the buy in. These governmental efforts contributed tremendously to winning the war by assertively (one might even say aggressively) explaining to Americans what was needed and why it was important.

An analogous effort is needed today. Convincing Americans to sacrifice for the greater good to overcome the coronavirus will require more than World War II analogies to spur action. It will demand every persuasive tactic in the government’s communications arsenal.

To do so, the Trump Administration must adopt clear, consistent, repeated messaging as much as possible to encourage Americans to take steps needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This message must outline the stakes in easy to comprehend terms and offer clear guidance for action. As a recent example‚ the Republican language guru Frank Luntz has suggested eschewing new terms like social distancing in favor of simpler messages, like simply asking people to stay home.

Americans today can be reached more directly by online messages than the World War II generation ever was, and any covid-19 messaging needs to take advantage of that circumstance. One key lesson from World War II was that it took the full might of the government’s persuasive resources to mobilize the home front and win the war. Developing and disseminating clear messages to keep people safe is critical today.