Aug. 10, 1942: Politics is politics, war or not.
My distinguished colleague George Skelton, who understands Sacramento like a watchmaker knows the inner workings of a precision timepiece, has gazed rather fondly into the rose-colored rearview mirror with a column on how the Pearl Harbor attack unified Americans with a common goal of defeating the Axis.
Greater minds than mine, notably Emily Rosenberg in “A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor and American Memory,” have examined the repurposing of Pearl Harbor, so I won’t explore the matter in detail. It’s a noble view – part Norman Rockwell and part Steven Spielberg – that the “Greatest Generation” put its shoulder to the wheel as eminent statesmen of both parties set aside political squabbles “for the duration.” Demanding a tax cut, Skelton tells us, would have been “unpatriotic.”
In these uncertain times, we like to glorify the past, and it makes us aging Baby Boomers proud to salute our parents, most of whom are gone now, as we view history through the prism of childhood, which filters out so many of life’s complications.
It’s comforting to believe that the war years were a “kinder, simpler time.” But no era in American history was ever a kinder, simpler time, especially not World War II.
As must be clear to anyone who has read “Catch-22,” “The Caine Mutiny” or “King Rat,” the war did not inoculate the armed services against human weaknesses. Films like “All My Sons,” based on Arthur Miller’s play, and particularly “The Best Years of Our Lives” (based on the book “Glory for Me”) further undermine the notion of a unified, harmonious America of the 1940s.
Let us remember the Zoot-Suit Riots of 1943. And the fact that the armed services weren’t integrated until 1948 under President Truman. (The African American troops you might see in a documentary shown at Pearl Harbor are clips from Hollywood movies made decades later and converted to sepia/black and white).
We need to look no further than The Times of the war years. Did the pillar of the Republican Party suddenly embrace Franklin D. Roosevelt on Dec. 8, 1941, and transform itself overnight into a Democratic paper?
No. Nor did partisan bickering vanish from Washington, despite Roosevelt’s plea for unity. Politics is politics and finger-pointing did not suddenly disappear.
Feb. 23, 1944: President Roosevelt vetoes a tax bill, calling it “a tax relief bill providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy.” Legislators overrode Roosevelt’s veto in what was called the congressional tax rebellion.
Skelton contends that “It would have been unimaginable — unpatriotic — to demand tax cuts.”
In fact, history shows that Earl Warren was elected California governor in 1942 on the platform of abolishing the state income tax. And in 1944, Roosevelt vetoed a tax bill, calling it “a tax relief bill providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy.”
None of this means that there weren’t heroes and heroines during the war. Of course there were, and it is right to honor their sacrifices. And Americans did attempt to pull together. But the “Greatest Generation” wasn’t infallibly great. There was a reason the British coined the expression “Oversexed, overpaid and over here.” And we should also recall how the “Dear John letter” entered the American vernacular.
It is possible that my mother was the only one who bought her beloved Camel cigarettes on the black market and that my father was the only man who pulled some strings to avoid the draft (his father-in-law was on the draft board).
But I doubt it.
To me, the true heroism of my parents’ generation is not that they were born great, but that they were as deeply flawed as anyone living today and yet when called upon, they found it within themselves to – mostly — rise above their shortcomings and defeat a formidable enemy.