WASHINGTON - For most Americans alive today, the idea of shared national sacrifice is a collective abstraction, a memory handed down from a grandparent or passed on through a book or movie.
Not since World War II, when people carried ration books with stamps that allowed them to purchase meat, sugar, butter, cooking oil and gasoline, when buying cars, firewood and nylon was restricted, when factories converted from making automobiles to making tanks, Jeeps and torpedos, when men were drafted and women volunteered in the war effort, has the entire nation been asked to sacrifice for a greater good.
The civil rights era, Vietnam, the Gulf wars, 9/11 and the financial crisis all involved suffering, even death, but no call for universal sacrifice. President George W. Bush encouraged people to buy things after the terrorist attacks to help the economy - “patriots at the mall,” some called it - before the full war effort was underway. People lost jobs and homes in the financial crisis, but there was no summons for community response.
Now, with the coronavirus, it’s as though a natural disaster has taken place in multiple places at once. Millions will likely lose their jobs. Businesses will shutter. Schools have closed. Thousands will die. Leaders are ordering citizens into isolation to stop the virus’ march.
Suddenly, in the course of a few weeks, John F. Kennedy’s “ask what you can do for your country” injunction has come to life. Will Americans step up?
“This is a new moment,” said Jon Meacham, a historian and author of “The Soul of America.”
“Prolonged sacrifice isn’t something we’ve been asked to do, really, since World War II,“ Meacham said. ”There was a kind of perpetual vigilance in the Cold War - what President Kennedy called ‘the long twilight struggle’ - but living with the fear of nuclear war is quite abstract compared to living with the fear of a virus and of a possible economic depression.”
The second world war involved a common enemy and common purpose, with clear sides drawn across the globe. While President Donald Trump has at times tried to summon that feeling about attacking the coronavirus, he has abruptly changed course, suggesting Monday that restrictions he has sought on American life may be as short-lived as his slogan about “15 days to slow the spread,” even as others are warning that most of the country is about to be hit by a crush of new cases.
As a nation, Americans are accustomed to seeing swaths of the country destroyed by hurricanes, floods, wildfires and blizzards. But there is then a season of rebuilding and renewal. The coronavirus, with its rapid spread, is giving Americans a public-health Katrina that knows few borders or boundaries, even though some parts of the country are suffering far more than others.