Posted by Anita Folsom
Is this the most difficult of times for Americans? As a comparison, let’s look at two earlier periods in our history.
On this date 150 years ago, the Civil War finally came to an end as General Robert E. Lee surrendered to U. S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. About 620,000 men had died during the previous four years of fighting, all on American soil. Almost another half million men had been wounded. Many cities in the country were devastated waste lands. And four million former slaves were free, but where could they live and what was to become of them?
Such wars have long lasting effects on society. The Civil War created hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. Among soldiers on both sides, doctors estimated that there were 60,000 amputees, which meant that tens of thousands of men had to adjust to a different way of life after the war.
The national debt had exploded to $2.7 billion, and some wondered if the country would ever pay that debt. But because of limited government after the war and frugal budgets, two-thirds of the national debt was paid in the next 28 years. With a society that valued inventions and entrepreneurs, the United States became the world leader in industrial production.
On this date seventy years ago, World War II was coming to a climax. American soldiers, sailors, and Marines were fighting in every corner of the globe. U. S. deaths in WWII totaled 405,000, not as many as during the Civil War. Better medical treatment was the reason that more soldiers survived, including the immunizations given to all American personnel when they entered military service. In World War II, epidemics didn’t ravage our troops. And penicillin became available by 1944, saving thousands of lives. DDT is controversial now, but during WWII its use saved millions of people in Europe and the Pacific from contracting typhus, malaria, and dengue fever, spread by fleas, lice, and mosquitoes. (See FDR Goes to War for more on this.)
About 14 million American men served in the military during the war. Many were away from their families for years at a time. In 1945, Americans were also prisoners of war in German and Japanese camps. The odds of surviving captivity varied from camp to camp. POWs in Germany – 93, 941 Americans – usually survived because German policy followed the guidelines of the Geneva Convention for the Treatment of Prisoners of War (unless the Americans were also Jewish). POWs in Japanese camps suffered a different reality. With a death rate of 40%, American POWs in Japan received starvation rations and performed hard labor for their captors.
On the home front in the U. S., shortages of everything from tires to shoes to sugar were the reality during the war years. Intrusive government regulations covered every aspect of society. Taxes devoured extra income of two-thirds of Americans.
Yet at the end of WWII, Americans chose to cut taxes and abolish many wartime regulations. FDR had loved high taxes, because he wanted the government to direct the economy. But with lower taxes in 1946 and 1947, politicians were amazed to see the economy soar while the federal government still reaped larger tax amounts than expected. Why? Because the American people were free to invest and build and invent without much government interference, and without federal taxes that sucked away productivity.
So, how does our current situation in the United States compare to 1865 and 1945? Are times uncertain? Yes. Does violence seem to abound? Yes. Is government too intrusive? Yes! Are many Americans sacrificing themselves to defend our country? Yes.
During these challenging days, if we study history we learn that generations before us faced huge problems. Times have been uncertain. Yet the standard for each generation of Americans is to deal with the problems at hand while maintaining the principles that have made the United States an exceptional nation: limited government, rule of law, charity and compassion for those in need, property rights, equality of opportunity. And each generation has been forced to press through the problems of its time, believing that these American principles are worth preserving. That is the challenge of our time.