The Ph.D. Program in History

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Congratulations to Marc Kagan and Joshua Freeman on their NY Daily News op-ed!

If this is war, here’s what to do: Coronavirus and national purpose


By Marc Kagan and Joshua B. Freeman

New York Daily News |

Mar 17, 2020 | 3:19 PM


Confronting the coronavirus virus is “like a war,” former Vice President Joe Biden declared on Sunday, echoing previous statements by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor de Blasio, and others. With the CDC projecting a COVID-19 death toll that could surpass that of some U.S. wars, now is a time to learn from the homefront experience of past conflicts.

Wartime leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt moved boldly to fully mobilize society for battle. The federal government reorganized the production and distribution of goods and developed vast new infrastructure, commandeering private resources when necessary. A few bemoaned government expansion, but the notion that Washington had a responsibility to step in and handle tasks previously done poorly or not at all largely prevailed.

Today, we find ourselves unable even to perform an adequate number of coronavirus tests or provide enough masks and other safety gear. Lurking behind is a shortage of ventilators and ICU beds. Once again, we need the government to take decisive action.

Lincoln’s administration built new rail lines at a frantic pace. During World War I, Washington took over the telephone and telegraph networks and all the railroads, which it ran as one system to ensure efficiency. To speed up the war effort during World War II, the federal government built synthetic rubber plants, doubled steel and aluminum production, laid pipeline, and constructed hydroelectric dams. At Washington’s insistence, factories were converted to wartime production and resources were pooled across corporate boundaries. The largest aircraft factory in the world was built by Ford, with government money, to produce bombers designed by Boeing.

A determined and decisive government could ensure similar wonders today, orchestrating the use of private and public facilities to produce needed medical supplies, engage in the crash construction of additional hospital beds, provide services to quarantined people, make sure food, gasoline, and other vital supplies continue to be available, and develop new drugs and vaccines. We face both actual shortages of medical personnel and the coordination necessary to mobilize them efficiently.

Government summoned labor in past wars as soldiers, but also to support the war effort. In the Civil War, the government built a vast nursing corps from scratch. In the more complicated economy of the 1940s, the government determined production priorities, established a partially “planned” economy to ensure that production, and mediated conflicts between capital and labor. To draw women into the workforce, it ran daycare centers. To attract African Americans, it outlawed racial discrimination in war production.

Effective war efforts demand national solidarity, founded on notions of equality and protection of the most vulnerable. During World War II, our government sanctioned and even encouraged the growth of unions and imposed tax rates on the ultra-rich of up to 90%, moves toward what was called “equality of sacrifice.” We should follow suit, making sure that the most needy are protected with income support and free medical coverage, while the wealthiest pay their fair share.Top of Form

Sanders has called for coronavirus medicines to be sold at cost, mirroring the efforts of Roosevelt to ensure equitable distribution of goods in short supply and prevent price-gouging. World War II price controls, enforced by an army of consumers who reported violations to federal authorities, proved largely effective. Washington — or if need be the states — should now act similarly, establishing price caps for such vital goods as disinfectants, wipes, thermometers, and — yes — toilet paper, which are being sold online at outrageous prices.

When wartime administrations vastly expanded their roles, the United States did not become an autocracy. During the Civil War, the country carried out a hotly contested national election, even with fighting going on in some of the states which cast ballots. We picked a President during World War II, too. After 9/11, New Yorkers voted in a primary and then elected a new mayor.

The experiences of past wars, of course, were not without blemishes which we should learn from. During World War II, the government embraced crude racism in its internment of thousands of Japanese-American citizens. Crises always attract the greedy. The term “shoddy” was invented during the Civil War to describe manufacturers who ripped off the government. World War II manufacturers took advantage of “cost-plus” contracts to pad expenses and fund non-vital investments.

But largely, the American experience with wartime governmental activism was positive. Equality expanded and so did economic growth. And, of course, both the Civil War and World War II were ultimately won against mighty enemies.

One striking difference from today was that yesterday’s officials were often highly competent, whereas today many top federal officials are clearly over their heads. Lincoln’s “team of rivals” and Roosevelt’s New Dealers knew that vigorous and inventive government could substantially improve the lives of the American people. That is an idea that has been naysayed by Republicans and neoliberal Democrats, who for over 40 years have worked to undermine the resources and legitimacy of government. Every day we are paying the price for that attitude in the ineptitude of current “wartime” Washington. What we can learn from the past is that it does not have to be that way: War, calamitous as it is, might also lead us toward a more effective and humane society. But only if we make the effort.


Kagan is a Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center history department. Freeman is distinguished professor of history at Queens College at the Graduate Center.