President Donald J. Trump has compared the national effort to cope with the coronavirus to war. There are important similarities between the two. As in wars, Americans are dying. As did World War II, the biggest war the United States has ever fought—the 75th anniversary of whose ending in Europe falls on May 3—the pandemic has touched the life of virtually everyone in the country. Like that war, it has wrenched almost every American out of his or her daily routine. The two events have other significant similarities—but also illuminating differences.
World War II had its heroes: the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who went into battle, risking their lives and sometimes losing them. The equivalents for the pandemic are the front-line health care personnel who treat infected people, as well as those who must continue to work to keep people alive such as food-store and pharmacy employees.
During World War II, a large number of Americans, operating in safety far from the front lines, also made an indispensable contribution to the ultimate victory: the workers in defense plants who turned out, in impressive quantities, the tanks, trucks, ships, and aircraft for both the American and allied armed forces and thereby made possible the defeat of the far less productive Germans and Japanese. In the Coronavirus pandemic, those engaged in biomedical research and development play a parallel role. Without the efforts of scientists and technicians in laboratories across the country and around the world, COVID-19 will not be overcome.
The American armed services fought in two major theaters in World War II: Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Biomedical specialists are battling the deadly pathogen on three fronts: they are seeking to devise and produce inexpensive, reliable, easy-to-use tests for the virus on a large scale, therapies to treat the symptoms the virus causes, and a vaccine that will render its recipients immune to the pathogen. As in Europe and Asia in World War II, the scientific war against the coronavirus is taking place on all three fronts simultaneously.
Testing is the most urgent priority. President Trump has called COVID-19 an “invisible enemy,” and indeed it can be seen by the human eye only through a very powerful microscope. Large-scale testing, however, will render the virus effectively visible by making it possible to track it: to know, that is, who has the disease. (A number of World War II innovations, such as radar and code-breaking machines, made the nation’s enemies comparably “visible.”) More comprehensive testing is the precondition for beginning to allow Americans to go back to work and to school safely.
The obstacle to adequate testing seems to be the absence of something at which the United States excelled during World War II: production on a large scale. To be fair, war production did not reach its ultimate capacity immediately after the United States entered the conflict in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Full mobilization took months to achieve because factories, and sometimes entire industries, had to be converted from civilian to military uses.
The second front of the biomedical fight against COVID-19 involves the search for effective therapies, mainly by testing existing drugs for effectiveness against this particular virus. Unlike the government-supervised war production in World War II, this tends to be a decentralized process, with many different laboratories throughout the country and the world taking part. This is as it should be. Although there have been exceptions to the rule (such as the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs in World War II) in general scientific discovery and innovation do not flourish under centralized control.
A reliable and widely-available therapy would turn COVID-19 into an ordinary virus: unpleasant, often nasty, perhaps debilitating in some cases, but not fatal. Demoted to that status, it would no longer paralyze the societies that it has invaded.
An effective vaccine would return the United States and the world to what was normal before March of this year. In almost all cases, even those most vulnerable to the virus would be able to resume their pre-pandemic lives. A vaccine will, it seems all but certain, take longer to devise and distribute than large-scale testing and viable therapies. It is the clinical trials that take up the most time between discovery and approval. The relevant government bodies will surely do whatever is prudent to expedite that process.
To take the parallel between the war of the 1940s and the pandemic of 2020 further, the development of effective testing will correspond, in World War II terms, to perhaps the most important naval victory in American history: the Battle of Midway from June 3rd to 6th, 1942. That battle stopped Japan’s six-months-long post-Pearl Harbor series of military triumphs and marked the point at which the United States stopped losing the war in the Pacific. The appearance of effective therapies would match the greatest of all American military operations (undertaken with the British and the Canadians), the invasion of France across the English Channel from Great Britain on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the moment when the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany became all but certain. The day that a vaccine receives official approval for widespread use will be the functional equivalent, for this pandemic, of VE (Victory in Europe) Day and VJ Day (Victory over Japan, September 2, 1945) rolled into one. Perhaps it will even be remembered 75 years later.
Two further similarities between the war and the pandemic are worth noting. First, in World War II, as in previous American wars, the sense of emergency, and the suspected presence of domestic forces sympathetic to the adversary, led to violations by the government of civil liberties—in the 1940s, the interning of Japanese-Americans in relocation camps in the western United States. In present circumstances, a debate has begun about the lawfulness of government officials prohibiting the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly that the American Constitution protects in ordinary times. Another civil-liberties debate is likely to take place over the power of governments at all levels to make use of cell-phone data to track potential carriers of COVID-19.
Second, in World War II, a number of generals, the symbols and leaders of the war effort, became well-known and widely admired. The Army’s Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, the commander in the southwest Pacific Douglas MacArthur, and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower were the most prominent. All three went on to hold important postwar positions, with Eisenhower becoming the nation’s 34th president. In the present crisis, it is the physicians who have taken center stage: Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Admiral Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General of the United States.
Neither in that war nor in the present pandemic, however, have the specialists had, nor should they have had, ultimate authority over national policy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized that the war had a political as well as a military dimension. He approved Operation Torch, the 1942 invasion of North Africa, over the objections of his chief military advisors on the grounds that sustaining public support for the war—always the first and often the most difficult responsibility of the commander-in-chief—required that the army see action during that year rather than waiting for many months until it was ready to invade Western Europe. Similarly, the present crisis is an economic as well as a medical one, which makes it necessary to balance the needs of public health, on which the physicians have the expertise, against the requirements for national economic well-being. Only democratically-elected officials have the political legitimacy to strike that balance.
Finally, for all their similarities, these two episodes in the history of the United States have two defining differences. Both summoned contributions from virtually all adult citizens, but in the 1940s those contributions involved doing something: serving in the armed forces, working in defense plants, buying war bonds, even planting “victory gardens” to expand the national supply of vegetables. Now the American people are being asked—indeed ordered—to do nothing. This has, to be sure, nothing to do with laziness and often entails sacrifice. As the 17th-century English poet John Milton wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Moreover, while Americans died on both occasions—400,000 combat deaths in World War II, a little more than ten percent of that total thus far in the pandemic—the deaths were concentrated in different parts of the population. In the 1940s, it was young, healthy Americans who paid the ultimate price. This year, by contrast, it is predominantly the old and the infirm who have perished. In that crucial way, the coronavirus pandemic is not at all like the national experience in World War II.