NaNoWriMo Day 3: How 2016 is like 1938

Editor’s note: A historian could probably do some really interesting research on this, write a fascinating paper on it. Unfortunately, I’m no historian, but I do have a good thinking brain, and here’s what it’s thinking about, based on my (admittedly fuzzy) recollections from my US History class.

I’m not feeling so much like fiction today. This morning I woke up thinking about the character I invented yesterday, and I wrote some ideas about her story. I’m not ready to go anywhere with that, yet—it kind of seems to want to be a big story, tied to history in a way that means I’d have to actually do more research. I may decide to not worry about getting historical stuff exactly right and just go for the story itself, which is really the spirit of NaNoWriMo; but I want to give the overall arc some more percolating time. It’s been quite a while since I thought of a story that had scope.

As I did some light research yesterday, and then thinking about it today, it really struck me that 1938 was a year really similar to this year, in many ways. Tons of stuff happened in that year—Anschluss, Sudetenland, book burning in Germany, Kristallnacht, opening up concentration camps, British attempts at peacemaking, all the diplomatic jockeying that essentially set up World War II. Yet, through it all, Americans sat back and said, “We want to be neutral.”

Looking back with the advantage of history on our side, now we can say “Well, clearly Hitler was an evil megalomaniac who had to be stopped! We couldn’t just sit by and let them slaughter Jews like that!” At the time, though, things must not have been so clear-cut. I just read that the US didn’t want to take Jewish refugees at the time, and only agreed to accept 27,000 of them in 1938. People were prejudiced against Jews (which seems, to me, really strange, in the way that being prejudiced against Italians or Irish seems just bizarre now) and didn’t want them coming here.

I hope my kid, and his generation, will think it odd that we’d have prejudice against Muslims. Today my perception is that Jews don’t stand out in our culture at all. Some people are Jews and some are Christian and some are other religions, or nothing. We don’t see “Irish need not apply” signs up, right? Yet that sentiment rings loud and clear against Muslims in some communities.

Now, today, it’s easy to look back and be glad we picked the heroic side in World War II. But it wasn’t until Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, that the US finally entered World War II – nearly four years later – and it took a direct attack on American soil to finally give us enough of a kick in the butt to actually make the plunge.

And then what did we do? The exact same thing the Nazis did, internment camps for people we didn’t like, who were different from us and therefore scary. Of Japanese descent? Off you go to some horrible camps in the middle of nowhere, and your guys get to leave by joining the Army, which has got to be a pretty hard hoe to row. Joining the Army of the country that wrongfully imprisoned you? Wow.

Imagine it: Your family rounded up in the middle of the night for no reason; you have to leave everything—your home, your job, heck, your pets, everything—and you maybe have time to ask a neighbor to look after everything for you while you’re gone. Which turns out to be for years while you languish in dusty, impersonal barracks being given menial work to do. Is your job still going to be there when you get back? How do you pay your mortgage, on the pittance paid to you for the labor you do in these camps? Who’s going to look after your property and belongings for the years you’re gone? That’d be a pretty amazing neighbor.

It’s so incredibly wrong, and what’s even more astonishing is that it’s almost the exact thing the enemies were doing on the other side (although thank goodness we never actually deliberately killed anyone in the camps… I think). Nobody said, “Hey, you know, the Nazis are doing this to Jews and other groups they don’t like. Do you think maybe that should make us reconsider? Cuz anything Nazis do, probably not a good thing, right?”

We like to think of ourselves as so moral, a Christian nation, not susceptible to the foibles of other nations; what a load of horse puckey. When the chips are down, we respond exactly like everyone else: selfishly. In fact, if anything, more selfishly than the citizens of many other cultures. Germany has accepted hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees; we’ve taken tens of thousands, into a nation far vaster in area and economy than Germany. And what happens when they arrive? Some cities and people accuse them of being terrorists, and try to refuse to accept them.

Can’t we see the parallels between Syrians today and Jews in 1938? A people group with a religion unfamiliar and different from ours, fleeing from an evil leader (I’m going out on a limb and call Assad evil, based on the last few years of civil war; you have to be pretty evil to use chemical weapons on your own people, including women and children), and we mistrustfully refuse to accept them or even lend much assistance in ousting their evil leader.

In fact, in 1938, a bunch of European countries got together and refused to accept Jews, too. They, at least, seem to have learned something from the experience, because they’re accepting Syrian refugees with compassion and openness.

In 1938, the President and the country in general were firmly in favor of remaining neutral, while sending a little aid on the side to Britain. They were tired from World War I and didn’t want to get embroiled in another massive conflict. They had tons of war-scarred veterans coming home that they had no idea what to do with—remember, World War I, they fought in trenches and used poison gas on combatants. Nasty.

And, of course, Americans in 1938 were worn down by the Great Depression dragging on and on. FDR had taken some definitive action, founding the Civilian Conservation Corps and investing in massive public works to help employ people and pump some money back into the economy; but where was that government money coming from? Not revenue, I bet. Sounds like a lot of government debt incursion, and I’m guessing people then were no more excited about that than we are today—although, thank goodness, we never got to the point of having long lines outside of soup kitchens. Maybe in the Great Depression people were so desperate that they didn’t care where the money came from… But maybe not. I don’t know. (Like I said, if I wanted to do this properly, much additional research would be warranted.)

Sound familiar? Somehow that seems awfully similar to how we’re approaching the Middle East, right? The Iraq War is too fresh in our minds, and the debt too fresh in the budget for us to willingly engage in a new conflict. We have too many veterans and not enough help for them. That war dragged to a pathetic and ragged close, and at the end what we left in place was pretty much the ideal set-up for more trouble in the future. Just like after World War I, with the reparations Germany was forced to pay causing massive inflation and softening the German people up for the arrival of Hitler.

Today we are still recovering from the Great Recession. Although the economy is growing, albeit slowly, our collective psyche hasn’t yet recovered from the trauma of losing 25% or more of our investments, or the mortgage crisis that accompanied that whole mess. We’ve actually had 5 or 6 quite good years, economy-wise, but the funny thing is that people don’t feel like that’s the case. Even though the data show we’re doing decently, economy and jobs-wise, all the rhetoric is around how we need to recover the economy, bring back jobs, raise up the middle class, etc.

In short, today, just as in 1938, we want to remain neutral-ish. We’ll lend aid by sending supplies and experts, maybe use some diplomacy and encourage local Middle Eastern allies to handle it themselves, but generally keep our distance. We are too worried about licking our own wounds and recovering from the traumas we’ve experienced in the last 10 or 15 years to care for others. And we certainly, under any circumstances, do not want to get embroiled in another Middle East conflict.

Our current President has shown what I see as admirable restraint. He’s a thoughtful man, an intellectual, who doesn’t let emotion rule his decisions. He’s careful, and doesn’t seem prone to leaping to conclusions without supporting data. Thus, he’s held back from entering the Middle East in force. The President listens to us citizens, and he knows we’re not interested in sending combat troops to Syria or to fight ISIS. He’s trying to balance that with commitments to our allies and the need to do the moral thing. Overall, I think we’ll look back at President Obama as one of our best leaders. He made many difficult decisions through some seriously hard times, and mostly we’ve come out better for it.

But, on Syrian refugees and the conflict in the Middle East: Are historians going to look back at us and say, as we do of the United States in 1938, “What took them so long?” Will those years of restraint and caring for ourselves first look incomprehensible and, in fact, reprehensible? Do we have a moral duty that lies on a path separate from that of personal (or cultural) gain?

Boy, does history repeat itself.

I hope that this isn’t a year that tips us into the kind of global conflagration that World War II turned into. Yet out of the ashes of that conflict came so many amazing things—cultural growth, massive economic growth, huge leaps in technology and all sorts of other great things. It’s hard, it’s painful, it’s not the way we like it, but sometimes growth only comes when we pass through those hard times together.