There seems to be a growing consensus that the best way to deal with the coronavirus is with authority. Absent a true global authority, which may never be, we still look for this authority to be central in a nation state, flowing from the one to the many, in a president or a prime minister or even, still, a king.
In the U.S. there is also the sense that if we could just get back to those storied times in our past when we all pulled together to surmount tremendous obstacles, led, perhaps, by a president who told it to us straight and laid down the law, then we would be all right – a time when we would act first and ask questions later; a time when we would just follow orders. But have we ever been those people?
In part this seems to be a confusion with Winston Churchill leading Britain through its darkest hour, although he was not asking for more than people were already giving owing to the Luftwaffe trying to kill them. It’s right church, wrong pew.
World War II began later for Americans, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in December of 1941. On Christmas Day, the British garrison at Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese. A few days later, American forces fled Manila, barely ahead of the Japanese. On Feb. 15, Singapore fell to Japan, opening the beginning of the way to India and Australia – and all of this imperiled the fortunes and even the national security of the U.S., which had always been guarded by its two great oceans.
As Japan swarmed across the Pacific, Germany was in the Atlantic. Hitler had declared war on the U.S. the day after Pearl Harbor. That month, German Admiral Karl Dönitz launched Operation Drumbeat. Three long-range, black-painted German submarines were dispatched to patrol within a few miles of the North American coastline with orders to remain submerged during the day, surface at night and destroy Canadian and U.S. merchant ships. The British, having two years’ hard experience with German submarine warfare, offered advice: All coastal cities should be under nighttime blackouts to avoid silhouetting merchant ships. It was ignored.
On Jan. 14, 1942, the subs struck, sinking two tankers, and then another, and another, 19 more in all in the first wave of Drumbeat, which German submariners called the Happy Time. Hundreds of lives and more than 100,000 tons of supplies were lost. The merchant ships, according to German reports, were made completely visible by the coastal lights, from Portland, Maine, to Miami. Dönitz ordered more attacks.
Floridians could see the war blazing on the horizon at night. They found some of the dead washed ashore by daylight. But many, including vacationers and operators of beach-front hotels and restaurants, resisted the idea of blackouts because they thought it would be bad for business and recreation, which they deemed essential. It took three months for military authorities to override civilian objections, even though the attacks were cutting supply lines to Russia, which was fighting the Germans, and to Britain, which was still bracing for invasion by them. It was another Pearl Harbor.
We like to think at some point when the chips are really down we will revert to the motto we profess, “Out of many, one.” And perhaps we will. But so often what our experience has shown us, ever since we fled the too-close embrace of a mad king, is that you can lead us to water – and then everything just breaks down for a while.