The fight against COVID-19 has been equated to a war by some political leaders. While the analogy is appealing, Charles Maier, Leverett Saltonstall Research Professor of History at Harvard University and Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES) resident faculty, and Ian Kumekawa, Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard and a CES graduate student affiliate, weighed in on the argument in a recent white paper and argue that it is critical to think now about the aftermath.
The paper “Responding to COVID-19: Think Through the Analogy of War” was published as part of a series of white papers written for the bipartisan COVID-19 Response Initiative, spearheaded by Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Maier and Kumekawa discussed their paper with the Center for European Studies by phone.
Charles Maier and Ian Kumekawa
CES: In the white paper you argue that the joint mobilization of government and business in the U.S. and Britain during World War II did not happen overnight and was fraught with resistance, missteps and confusion. How were the governments able to mobilize forces despite all this and how did this effort shape their aspirations for the post-war era? Do you see any parallels to the present?
Kumekawa: Our paper shows that the start to wartime mobilization — principally in the U.S., though a similar story can be told in Britain — was beset with organizational difficulties. It was not clear which authorities had responsibility for what. There were frictions between elements within the state and between the state and private industry. Much of this confusion could have been avoided by clearly delineating who was in charge of what. This is a lesson to be learned from World War II.
An equally pressing purpose of the paper was to show how important it is to begin thinking about what the aftermath of the current crisis should look like. Major crises — whether wars or pandemics — are often powerfully transformative events. It is important to begin thinking as soon as possible about the aftermath, and the steps that the government takes now will have ripple effects and implications for years into the future.
Maier: The analogy of war has been used to describe the fight against the virus. As the paper explains, the analogy remains appealing — Americans deploy it for many of our national challenges; it implies we can act as a united people with purpose and competence. But I believed that while appealing, the analogy of war obscures many important differences. First and foremost, young people fight a human enemy in wars, not an impersonal force. Still, when we set out to write this paper, we thought that since the notion of being at war remains so appealing, let us look at why is it compelling, and how the real record in World War II stacked up against the almost sentimentalized collective memory. And the record is, as Ian said, that we stumbled a lot trying to organize the economy, and our effort was beset by all sorts of organizational difficulties.
I think we can find a parallel today with respect to testing for COVID-19. Why can’t our country come up with almost universal testing in the way that South Korea, Taiwan, and other places have? We have been rather bumbling in this because it is not clear how to coordinate these responses.