Alan Zendell, March 5, 2023,
I just had a milestone birthday, the kind that makes you step back and think. My family made it really special for me – one son bought me a ride next to a NASCAR driver taking curves at the Daytona Raceway at 180 mph, my wife hosted a wonderful dinner at one of Central Florida’s finest restaurants; and my other son gave us round trip plane tickets to visit him in California. I had a party with my grandsons, and I netted $52 from the lottery tickets people gave me.
My sister gave me a wonderful gift, a beautiful, hardbound book filled with New York Times front pages from the day I was born and each of my subsequent birthdays. It’s especially fitting. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and those pages reminded me of what life was like in the city where I grew up.
The first page, from the first day of my life, was a startling reminder of how different the world was. I was born sixteen months after Japan destroyed our Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Europe was overrun by the Fascist/Nazi armies of Germany and Italy, and most of east Asia was occupied by Japanese forces. March 3, 1943 was a dire time for Americans. We were at war, but most of those sixteen months was needed to rebuild our Navy and gear up every factory capable of producing warplanes, tanks, and every kind of munition and weapon.
The British were carrying most of the combat load in Europe, but American industry had enabled them to halt the Nazi advance, and a rapidly growing force of newly trained American soldiers and sailors were itching to join the fight. In the Pacific, in addition to massive gains on the Asian mainland, the Japanese occupied every strategic island within bombing distance of their homeland, until the American, British, and Australian navies halted their expansion.
We’ve spent the last few years in an environment of constantly worsening divisiveness. We’re still experiencing the worst pandemic in a century, and after living with nuclear weapons for my entire life, we are engaged in an existential fight for survival with revisionist elements in Russia and a more subtle, but equally critical struggle with China. My life began twenty-four years after the end of “the war to end all wars,” yet, one generation later we were involved in an all-out battle for world domination.
Today’s headlines are about finding a way to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine without setting off a nuclear conflagration, about a worldwide struggle between authoritarianism and democracy, and about an insurrectionist element in our own Congress who seem to treat the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U. S. Capitol as the starting point for a second civil war, rather than the one-time act of madness it was. But overall, despite our very serious problems, Americans are far better off today than they were in 1943.
War news back then was more government propaganda than facts. President Roosevelt’s assurances that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, and Winston Churchill’s exhortation to every Brit to fight on the beaches to the bitter end needed to be backed up with positive news. Thus, the headlines on March 3, 1943 were about the RAF staging a massive bombing raid on Berlin, 900 tons of bombs in thirty minutes, and American forces in North Africa pushing the enemy back in Tunisia. They were about rationing meat, cheese, sugar, butter, and gasoline, and practicing air raid drills. We applauded advances by Russia’s forces on three fronts, but those fronts were the same ones we read about today in Ukraine. 2022 wasn’t the first time Ukrainians had to defend their territory against an overwhelmingly superior force, and they did so brilliantly. General Douglas MacArthur was lauded for disrupting Japanese convoys, and way down in the lower left-hand corner of page one was a warning that New York was about to be inundated in heavy snow.
It was a terrifying time, whether you were directly involved in combat, or a wife, mother, or child of someone who was. German and Japanese submarines lurked off our coasts and wreaked havoc with our shipping and troop transports. Today, the defense of Ukraine has cost us in increased defense expenditures and higher prices for energy, but more Americans have jobs, enough to eat, and a safe place to live than ever before. Despite the risk of allowing Russia to continue its expansionist policies, some of our elected leaders prefer to use that struggle for political gains.
In 1943, Americans accepted the need for sacrifice, because the threat to our nation was visible and imminent. But there was another difference. It may have been misguided, but we believed almost to a person, that we were in the right. We knew America was where the good guys lived, and that freedom comes with a price.
I was lucky. My father and my uncles got home safely. They celebrated a great victory. Today, we gripe about taxes and the cost of gasoline, when back then a good day was one on which no one received a letter from the War Department informing them that their loved one had died bravely defending his country.
Happy Birthday Alan!