The '40S

THE 1940S BEGAN WITH 8 MILLION Americans unemployed in a Depression that had already dragged on so long, more than 10 years, that some thought that it would never end and that American capitalism was finished. Even the communists were rooting around in what they thought were the ruins of the American economy and attaining a modest degree of respectability. And beyond that a fourth to a third of the public were furious at President Roosevelt because they thought, and thought rightly, that he wanted the United States to join in the war against Adolf Hitler, who was already ravaging half of Europe and waiting impatiently to ravage the rest.

They wondered: who needed another war and why? It was only a little more than 20 years since American armies bad crossed the Atlantic to join in another war to help the British and French fight off the Germans in World War I. They had come home in bitterness. And so a question often asked in these years was: "What did we get out of the first world war but death, debt and George M. Cohan?" Even American grade-school children had learned a little antiwar poetry including, "in Flanders fields the poppies grow/between the crosses row on row." Then there were the veterans, including two of my father's brothers, sent home from France to await slow and painful deaths with their lungs burned out by German mustard gas. They had been assured by President Woodrow Wilson that they were going to war to make the world safe for democracy. As it turned out, they had only made the world safe for Hitler.

Sen. Robert A. Taft, Republican of Ohio, was speaking on the Senate floor in his raspy, nasal voice, sounding like a rusty hinge. Despite his dignified bearing it was difficult not to notice that but for the ears he looked like Bugs Bunny. He opposed any and all "foreign entanglements" and said that when Roosevelt talked of aid to Britain, "The president confuses the defense of Britain with the defense of the United States." About the most fervent isolationist in the Senate was Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, who made the single remark Roosevelt found most offensive. Recalling a New Deal program to plow under crops to push up farm prices, he said, "If the president drags us into this European war he will plow under every fourth American boy." Roosevelt was livid with anger, but helpless.

So the 1940s were off to a poor start, finding Americans cranky and irritated after watching Roosevelt try one economic nostrum after another, all meant to end the Depression and create jobs. They all failed. But help, of a sort, was on the way. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Navy, was working day and night on his plan to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor and to settle all these questions for Roosevelt, Taft, Wheeler and everyone else. When he did attack, on Dec. 7, 1941, with Hitler declaring war soon after, the unintended result was to put millions of Americans back to work and end the Depression. A sweating construction laborer, working full time plus overtime in his first job in years, digging the foundations for new wartime government buildings and enjoying the unfamiliar sensation of having money in his pocket, was heard to exclaim, "Thank God for Hitler!"

In four years of war, probably a majority of Americans at home worried and wondered every hour about their sons, husbands, brothers, fathers, friends and acquaintances threatened with death on war fronts around the world from Singapore all the way westward to the English Channel. They collected maps of the war fronts in magazines and newspapers and sat with them at the radio, waiting for the war news-a ritual nearly religious. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the United States of America came to a halt. Everything stopped. Everything. People waited to hear of the Allied landing on the beaches at Normandy in the greatest military operation in the history of the world. They waited eagerly, hungrily, tearfully to hear Edward R. Murrow, H. V. Kaltenborn and Lowell Thomas tell them the landing was doubtful for a time, but then a success--and that the end of the European war could be seen faintly in the distance. The Pacific war? Nobody had yet heard of the atomic bomb that would end the war with Japan more than a year later.

In four years of war, the government stopped the manufacture of every item that used the materials needed for building military goods--including metal and rubber and much else. And so there were no new automobiles, radios, appliances, golf clubs, golf or tennis balls and no vacations, because the gasoline ration was only a few gallons a week and air and train travel required a priority hard to get. There was simply nothing much to buy.

But there were soaring new taxes. Difficulties arose when men were drafted into the military services where new recruits were paid 68 cents a day, about enough to buy the soap and toothpaste the army did not give them. And they still owed the tax on their previous year's income as civilians. With that ridiculous military income, they could not possibly pay the taxes. Something had to be done. Here, under pressure of war, the withholding tax was born. It is doubtful that without war Congress would ever have voted for a tax so intrusive and troublesome. Because of the withholding tax, the term "take-home pay" entered the language. Had people been forced to count out their taxes in hard cash for some government collector, taxes in such stratospheric amounts almost certainly could not have been collected.

The cost of the war was so high that the top rate eventually went to about 92 percent. It was explained to Roosevelt that his rich enemies would be soaked, even fleeced, beyond their deepest fears. They paid the 92 percent, hated it, but could not escape. It made Roosevelt so happy, Press Secretary Steve Early told me, that once or twice he saw the president spend hours poring over records sent to him from the Internal Revenue Service showing who paid how much.

As for Roosevelt's own finances, all that was ever known was that his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, until she died in 1941, every month or so handed him cash in a sealed envelope.

Members of Congress were happy to find they now had a Niagara of money flooding into Washington, all ready for them to spend. Even when the war was long over, there was never any thought of ending the withholding tax. (They held the top rate at about 70 percent for another 16 years.) Did the enormous tax rates pay the cost of the war? No. Did the government run the war on credit and leave billions in debt? Yes.

1945. In February the American flag was raised on Iwo Jima. In March the first invading army since Napoleon crossed the Rhine. In April, President Roosevelt, seated at a card table in his little house in Warm Springs, Ga., said, "I have a terrific headache" and died in the afternoon. Germany surrendered in May. In June Japan surrendered Okinawa, a victory that cost 13,000 American lives. In July the Philippines were taken back from the Japanese and 12,000 Americans died there. And in August, the end. After the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the pilot quickly turned his plane around to face it toward the bomb; if the blast had hit his plane sidewise, it would have blown it out of the sky. Harry Truman announced the war was over and set off an unrestrained explosion in the streets--shouting, singing, dancing and drinking. A sailor on 14th Street in Washington vomited into a mailbox. A young couple walked into the doorway of a closed store and copulated standing up.

Even their self-centered political leadership could not diminish the Americans' pride in simultaneously winning two wars on both sides of the world in perhaps a million or more individual acts of bravery and sacrifice.

The worries about communist expansion began soon enough, but the next several years of peacetime brought something like an American golden age. It was the only country in the war to come out stronger and richer than when it went in; the only country in the war to come out at the end in 1945 without a scratch. People unable to buy much of anything in the war years were now in the happy position of needing cars and a hundred other items unattainable for four years and having the money to pay for them. The cruise ships driven off the wartime seas by German submarines were coming back. Gasoline was plentiful at 14 cents a gallon. A Cadillac cost $2,000. RCA, Zenith, Philco, CBS and others were arguing about technical standards for the television system soon to appear--how many lines per inch and so on. Most of the RCA system was adopted and is used today. Plus all kinds of adult goodies. A generation that grew up playing scratchy, 78-rpm records with three minutes of music on each side was now promised long-playing records with better sound and 20 minutes on each side.

NBC sent me to look at something called the Southeastern Automatic Computer, called SEAC. It was in a sort of warehouse at the National Bureau of Standards on Connecticut Avenue. I recall it as being about 50 feet high and a hundred feet long, covered in dials and knobs and to me totally incomprehensible. They said it was the second computer built in the United States. I have since learned it had less power than the computer that now sits on a corner of my desk.

On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, my family and I were preparing to go to church in Honolulu. I dragged my father out into the street and we looked toward Pearl Harbor and a all of a sudden three aircraft flew over us. They were gray in color and they had recd dots on their wings--the Japanese. I knew my life had changed suddenly. I thought all the plans I had for going to college and becoming a physician were down the drain because these people who piloted the fighter planes looked like me. As it turned out, I saw action for the U.S. Army in Italy and went to college on the GI Bill. With in half a decade, the bill lifted the intellectual level of the United States by quantum leaps. It provided millions of Americans with an opportunity for higher education, something that would have been virtually impossible before the war.