I keep hearing news readers say that the United States is “at war”. I am not sure what they mean by the use of that prepositional phrase. Its meaning must have changed dramatically over the past 50 years.
I can recall being at war in the 40s. The first thing I remember is that Congress declared war on Germany and Japan. The president asked Congress for those declarations without fabricating any evidence of the need for them, and received both from a Congress united behind the effort.
I was in what was called ‘grammar school’ at that time. Being at war meant that I collected dimes from my neighbors, aunts and uncles, pushed them into tiny pockets on a cardboard card until I filled it. My school collected these cards and used them to buy war bonds (World War II was a ‘pay-as-you-go’ war). On weekends I collected scrap metal to be used in producing bombs and bullets. My father kept a Victory Garden—a garden city folk cultivated to free commercial food for the war effort, to feed our boys who were fighting overseas.
We didn’t have chrome on our cars and ration books limited the number of tires and gallons of gas we could buy. In fact, anything needed for the war effort was rationed: sugar, meat, candy, and shoes are a few I recall. Every family received a book with a page of tear-off stamps for each rationed essential.
Headlights were painted black except for a narrow quarter-inch line across their middle so that they projected beams too small to be spotted from the sky. In fact, I remember the air raid warnings and drills at night, when we had to close the curtains on all windows and cut off all lights except a minimum that allowed us to function.
A large portion of the movies produced in Hollywood were about the war and supported the war effort. In fact, Hollywood produced many movies solely for the war effort: to promote war bonds, conservation on the home front, vigilance for spies. Many of the new songs of the time were about the war and the servicemen fighting it: Over There, Wild Blue Yonder, You’re in the Army Now. Real music with patriotic words.
Women over here took over the jobs left vacant by our boys over there. I can recall the first woman I ever saw wearing “britches”, as my mother called slacks disapprovingly. The woman wearing those britches was holding down a man’s job. High school and college girls were active in the USO Clubs that provided whole-hearted wholesome entertainment for our boys on leave. Our president, FDR, the Congress, and the country were solidly behind every aspect of the war effort.
Does this sound like where we are today? Or has the phrase ‘at war’ changed dramatically?