A Virginia Tech historian who studies World War II says America once again requires that kind of bold effort if we’re to best mitigate effects of the novel coronavirus’ spread.

“The lesson of that costly war is that government officials cannot count on voluntary measures alone,” Ed Gitre wrote recently in The Washington Post. “Even as President Trump now encourages Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 and eating out, these guidelines will probably fail. Instead, the entire country must be compelled to do what it takes to support one another and to beat our new enemy.”

Referring to the preemptive conscription that ultimately took place during the buildup to war, Gitre wrote: “Opponents argued that volunteers would make better soldiers and be more committed to the cause, whereas conscription was an ‘alien system of military regimentation.’ Voluntarism was the ‘American way,’ while compulsory military training was fascist, in other words.”

“Proponents of the measure argued that not only was universal compulsory military training the most effective and efficient way — what they called the most scientific method — of raising an army, but that it was also the most democratic.”

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The mandatory military service was not without problems, Gitre noted.

“But the most powerful part of the law — its penalties — was what compelled many millions to comply: a fine up to $10,000 (in 1940s dollars) and/or up to five years imprisonment. The draft was imperfect, resulting in untold men ending up in an army occupation for which they were ill-suited. Although the FBI would investigate nearly a half million cases of draft evasion between 1940 and 1945, and many eligible men sought loopholes to evade service, the vast majority of Americans complied.”

“As the nation stares down a new emergency of global proportions, World War II can serve as a model of how we might address this new challenge,” Gitre said. “Leaders then did not rely on good will alone. The challenge was too great and onerous, and human nature, left to its own devices, too fickle.”

Gitre wrote that while “millions may be listening,” and heeding the call (or in some states, now orders) for social distancing, “far too many have not.”

“These measures impinge on our freedoms. But, being compulsory, they promise not only to be more effective, but also fairer, and more equitable, demanding sacrifice of all Americans, not just the willing or the well-informed.”

About Gitre

Edward J.K. Gitre is an assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech, with research focused on World War II, war and society, and transatlantic modern U.S. cultural and intellectual history, among other areas. He is director of the digital history project, "The American Soldier in World War II." See his bio.

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