WWII showed America’s ability to overcome its divisions

Written by Derek Monson

September 2, 2022

A new public opinion poll was released this week, with sobering results for those who want a thriving America for themselves and their children. The poll from YouGov reported that about two thirds of Americans believe that the nation is more politically divided, with more political violence, since 2021. More than 40% of Americans even report believing that there will be a U.S. civil war sometime in the next decade.

Ironically, a source of hope for a better future than that comes from a period of history when America was engaged in one of its deadliest wars: World War II.

This week marks 77 years since the official end to WWII, known as V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day). Perhaps not coincidentally, Politico Magazine contributing editor Joshua Zeitz wrote a recent article about American politics during the 1930s in the run-­up to World War II. He writes:

In the years leading up to its entry into World War II, the United States was bitterly divided over the New Deal and vehemently at odds over whether it should enter the conflict erupting in Europe. Even during the war, the country remained beset by racial and ethnic animosities that pitted Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Jews and white Americans against people of color. Partisan rancor posed a steep barrier to the extreme measures that mobilization required: mass taxation, rationing, wage and price fixing, conscription, and surveillance. The business community sharply resisted the shift from civilian to military production. Organized labor loudly demanded its share of wartime prosperity. Even as the country fell in line with this vast expansion of state authority, outwardly uniting behind the war effort, discord boiled just beneath the surface, revealing itself in violent homefront outbursts and acid displays of political demagoguery.

The war almost tore America apart. And yet, it didn’t.

A New Deal program that opponents labeled socialism. A racialized lens for viewing world events adopted by a large swath of America. Over-the-top partisan rhetoric seemingly designed to play off (and engender) hate and fear among average Americans. Economic upheaval that often translated into large businesses cutting profitable deals with the federal government.

Does this list sound familiar? It could describe our day as much as the period before WWII. But despite these divisions, WWII is a time in U.S. history often remarked on and remembered for the American unity that led the nation to rise up and lead the Allied forces to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

What can we learn from this historical period for the partisan divisions of our day?

First, our history offers us the concrete hope that unity can be forged out of the deepest political or partisan divisions. Those divisions do not simply evaporate in a rush of good feelings. But they can be put in proper perspective and given a lower priority than the causes promoting American unity.

Second, it doesn’t take many years in the U.S. for unity to form despite seemingly intractable divisions. The circumstances must be right to bring this about. But once things align to encourage unity, it can materialize despite all facts and narratives seemingly pointing in the opposite direction.

Third, American unity requires a shared experience or common purpose. The attack on Pearl Harbor served that purpose in WWII. At other periods of time it was 9/11 or defeating Soviet communism. Clearly a foreign military enemy can serve to unite the nation. But times of peace offer a more difficult challenge: finding shared experience or a common purpose in domestic interactions and affairs.

In a recent essay published in the Deseret News, I wrote that “by improving how we communicate the stories and key facts of American history and civics, we will create the understanding necessary to motivate the solutions to our divisions.” America’s political history immediately prior to and during WWII is a prime example of this.

But we will never be able to overcome our divisions if we as families and as a society refuse to learn or to teach children accurate and rigorous American history. It is incumbent upon us as citizens, parents or otherwise interested individuals to encourage decisionmakers in our local schools – including teachers, administrators and elected school boards – to teach history and civics in ways that will help us overcome our divisions.

We may not be able to change an entire school system overnight, but we can change our local school with organized effort and hard work. If enough parents, teachers, administrators and school board leaders across the state work in their own sphere of influence, we may find one day that our own well-directed efforts saved our schools, our state and our nation.

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