ISWD Roundtable: Individual Liberties, World War II, and the Present Crisis

The roundtable discussion explores how history offers lessons for understanding the clash between individual liberties and collective effort.

To our Readers:

This marks the third installment in a series of roundtable discussions on “World War II and the Present Crisis.” Today our contributors consider the subject of individual liberties in the context of World War II, and the challenges facing Americans today.

Robert M. Citino, PhD, is Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, and Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian at The National World War II Museum. We are also delighted to welcome guest contributions from two distinguished historians who are longtime friends to the Museum.

William I. Hitchcock, PhD, is the William W. Corcoran Professor of History at the University of Virginia, where his work and teaching focus on the international, diplomatic and military history of the twentieth century. His most recent book is titled The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, about which he presented at our 2019 International Conference’s Symposium on Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Beth Bailey, PhD, is Foundation Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Military, War, and Society Studies at The University of Kansas. Her books include America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force.

They offer possible lessons from the War that Changed the World as we face—and inevitably overcome—the challenges before us today.

William I. Hitchcock, PhD

To preserve the common good in times of crisis, citizens of every nation are called on to make sacrifices. It is a principle that governments going back to ancient Athens have insisted upon. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles hailed the virtues of his city-state and then declared it “only natural that every one of us… should be willing to undergo hardships in her service.” Countless generations of citizens have lived up to this expectation, serving their countries—as soldiers, sailors, doctors, nurses, fire fighters, and policemen.

Marble Bust of Pericles, ca. 430 B.C. Photo by Jastro from Wikipedia.


Pericles, a great war leader, also knew the danger of an unseen enemy: disease. In the midst of the generation-long war against Sparta, a plague broke out in Athens. The spread of this infectious disease did more than threaten lives. It threatened public order, as Thucydides tells us: “men became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law,” and Athens fell into a state of “unprecedented lawlessness.” Citizens began to blame Pericles for all the troubles they faced, and the great leader chastised them. “Now that a great and sudden disaster has fallen on you, you have weakened in carrying out to the end the resolutions which you made.” Stick together, he told his fellow citizens, and we shall win out together against this new threat.

Pericles argued that in times of crisis, citizens must discipline themselves and accept limits on their personal liberties in the name of public safety. Do Americans agree with such logic? In the spring of 2020, the people of the United States, facing a public health calamity caused by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, are once again fighting over the appropriate limits on personal freedoms in times of crisis. In order to slow the spread of infection, we have been asked to give up jobs, the right to travel, to spend time with loved ones, and even to comfort a dying family member. That is real sacrifice in the name of a greater good.

We might take some comfort from knowing that our country has passed through similar moments in the past; arguments over restrictions on our personal freedoms form part of our democratic culture. During the US Civil War, Abraham Lincoln responded to dissent and disloyalty by suspending habeas corpus. Martial law, Lincoln argued, was a constitutional action by the Executive when facing a rebellion. When outspoken agitators sought to hinder enlistment of men into the US Army, Lincoln asserted they must be silenced, in the name of public safety. It was a controversial decision then, and still stirs debate today.

Poster condemning "enemy agitators" in the USA, 1917. Photo by the Library of Congress.


Similarly, when during the First World War, two Socialists distributed leaflets urging that Americans disobey the draft, they were arrested for violation of the 1917 Espionage Act. The case made its way to the US Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that “words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances as to create a clear and present danger.”

During World War II, the American press adhered to a general code of conduct that required the media to suppress information that could be helpful to the enemy. Just 12 days after Pearl Harbor, the United States established the Office of Censorship, which monitored international communications and also issued a Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press. To an astonishing degree, the press adhered to this code without undue pressure, agreeing that protecting the lives of US servicemen was more important than getting a “scoop.”

But World War II also left an important legacy with respect to federal powers to protect public health. The Public Health Service Act, signed by Franklin Roosevelt in July 1944, established the federal government’s quarantine authority for the first time. Worried about the spread of tuberculosis and venereal disease in light of the mass population movements in wartime, the government strengthened its powers to protect public health by controlling people’s movements. In 1967, responsibility for quarantine was transferred to the Centers for Disease Control.

Today, it is uncomfortable—and inconvenient—to feel the heavy hand of the state limit our freedom. You might even say it is “un-American.” But restrictions upon our speech as well as on our movements have a long history. They form part of the tension between individual rights and the common good that characterize a democratic and well-ordered society. We know there are voices who angrily call for a lifting of all restrictions, suggesting that exposure to the risk of infection should be a personal choice. But they forget that the spread of a highly contagious and often fatal disease threatens all of us.

Almost 2,500 years ago, Pericles asserted that the greatest enemy of a strong society in times of crisis—whether facing war or a pandemic—was selfishness. Instead of obeying laws and thinking of the common good, some Athenians “began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence…. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence.” The results of such selfish behavior? Athens lost one-third of its population to death by plague. Pericles himself was among the dead. Thus weakened, the city was unable to sustain the costs of a long war, and ultimately suffered a tragic and complete defeat at the hands of its mortal enemy, Sparta.

In recent weeks, our generation, like so many before us, has been asked to make a sacrifice for the greater good of the country. If history is our guide, we will willingly rise to the challenge.

Beth Bailey, PhD

The promise of liberty lies at the heart of the American experiment. As a founding creed, it is one of our strengths. It also presents one of our greatest challenges. Over the nation’s history, our emphasis on liberty—on individual liberty, in particular—has made it difficult for us to confront crises that demand collective action. That’s not to say that we can’t do so. We have, and with extraordinary success. But Americans, for a whole range of reasons, often haven’t been willing to subordinate their individual liberties to some version of the common good. And we, as a nation, have spent centuries debating the proper reach and limits of liberty, struggling over what seem inherent tensions between the American values of liberty and equality, or between liberty and democracy, or between liberty and the common good.

In the midst of a global pandemic that has infected millions worldwide and now is killing, on average, 42 Americans an hour, those tensions come into stark relief. How does a nation that values individual liberty confront a virus that will exploit anything less than a universal, collective response? The answer is not easy, particularly in a nation so divided, but history offers some parallels. In times of extraordinary crisis, Americans have accepted a temporary trade off, recognizing, perhaps, that survival is a precondition for the exercise of liberty. That unity was nonetheless hard won, fostered—and at time compelled—by an active and powerful national State.

Pennsylvania Steel Workers, 1942. Photo by the Library of Congress.


We remember World War II as a time of shared, collective sacrifice, and that is undeniably true. Almost 16 million Americans served in uniform—not for a specified term, but “for the duration.” Four hundred thousand men died; a million more were wounded. Factories at home fought the war “on the production front,” operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. War work was often repetitive and physically exhausting, and over a hundred thousand men and women were killed on the job during the first two years of the war.

We honor those who sacrificed for the future of the nation. But that shared, collective sacrifice—that national unity—did not simply well up from the people and did not always display the best of our nation. Unity was shaped by government action, whether by the calculated release of images from the “Chamber of Horrors” in an attempt to motivate war workers to stay on the job, or by expanding the number of Americans paying federal income tax (at rates ranging from 6 to 94 percent) by 1100 percent, or, perhaps most significantly, by compelling American men to serve in the nation’s armed forces.

In the fall of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt—his eyes on the approaching clouds of war—instituted the first peacetime draft in the history of the nation. This was an extraordinary act. From the nation’s founding, the majority of Americans had seen military conscription as (in the words of Daniel Webster) “incompatible with any notion of personal liberty,” an extreme measure, justified only in moments of acute danger. As Senator Robert Taft complained that conscription interfered with the “principles of individual liberty,” many of the young men forced into service in 1940 bitterly resented their loss of freedom. Mutiny was brewing as their original terms of service were extended, though the Japanese attacks of December 7/8, 1941, put an end to such frustrations. Men lined up to volunteer.

But even as Americans stepped forward, the government—for good reason—constrained their choices. By presidential order, the military stopped accepting draft-age volunteers in December 1942. Faced with the challenge of filling military ranks while producing the armaments of war and keeping the civilian economy running, the government centralized control, allocating men as its War Manpower Commission saw need. Of the men who served in World War II, most—more than 10 million—were draftees, their liberty to volunteer denied, their conditions of service determined for the common good.

Most Americans expected the draft to end when the war did; only times of acute and immediate danger, many still believed, justified such sacrifice of individual liberty. But when Congress allowed the draft to expire in March of 1947, too few men—or women—stepped forward. Congress reinstated the draft in 1948; it would last until the last US ground troops left Vietnam in 1973. While frustration over the failed war in Vietnam helped end conscription, the case against the draft was made in the language of liberty. In his call for an all-volunteer military, President Nixon condemned “permanent conscription in a free society” and described the draft as an “infringement on . . . liberty.”

Constraining liberty has never come easily to the American people, whether in times of world war or of global pandemic. That some Americans claim their right to individual liberty, even as that liberty risks the lives of others, is not unprecedented. It has never been easy to find the balance between individual liberty and the common good, but in times like these, we must admit the necessity.

Robert M. Citino, PhD

In reading the contributions of my fellow roundtablers Will Hitchcock and Beth Bailey, I see general agreement on the inevitable tension between civil liberties and the needs of the state during a time of emergency. As Bailey points out, the draft is itself a sign of state power: young people forced to put their lives on hold and to risk injury and death in the interests of national policy. Hitchcock references Pericles and his great “funeral oration” during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. It was “only natural,” the great statesman argued, “that every one of us… should be willing to undergo hardships” in the service of Athens.

Indeed, history is replete with examples of civil and human rights being put on hold and/or violated wholesale during wartime. Hitchcock mentions Pericles. I’ll go one better and back up 50 years before Pericles. During the great Persian invasion of Greece, with Xerxes leading a gigantic host on land and a vast fleet sailing along to help supply him, the Greeks were overmatched. The 300 Spartans and their Allies had gone down at Thermopylae, city after city had submitted to the Persians, and Athens seemed finished. In these dire straits, the Athenian wartime leader, Themistocles, offered the Athenian people some hard medicine. With Athens temporarily indefensible, he ordered the people to abandon it. They had to leave their homes and property and “take to their ships.” Meanwhile, he would try to lure the Persian fleet into action, where the odds were not so unfavorable. I’m sure there were grumbles, disputes, and outright opposition. The Athenians trusted Themistocles enough to follow him, however. Their reward: Xerxes took Athens and burnt it to the ground. That same month, September 480 BCE, the Greeks won a signal naval victory over the Persian fleet at Salamis. The Athenians had lost everything, but may very well have saved Greece.

Joseph Stalin, 1941. Photo by the Library of Congress.


Pick a century and you can find similar dramatic occurrences. The French defended their Revolution of 1789 against the kings and queens of Europe by making everyone in the country liable for some kind of military service. It was a levée en masse, a “big call-up,” and with every last man, woman, and child pitching in, it warded off a foreign invasion of France. In 1941, Stalin’s regime pressed the civilian population of the Soviet Union into hard labor, digging gigantic antitank trenches outside of Leningrad, for example. Imagine your grandmother with a shovel, toiling for the Soviet Motherland. Frankly, most of use us who read these accounts at least understand: when it’s a question of “to be or not to be” during a war or national emergency, insisting on your own personal prerogatives—no matter how important they may seem to you—can come off as selfish.

But let’s circle back to Pericles for a moment. He demanded obedience from the citizens of Athens, he compelled men to fight whether they wished to or not, and he sent men to their deaths. But he did not simply compel his people to do things they did not wish to do. He based his appeal to the Athenian people on something very different: their love for their country. It was love for Athens, Pericles argued, that should be the basis of the citizen’s willingness to sacrifice. “What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day upon the greatness of Athens as she really is,” he said, “and should fall in love with her.”

And that seems crucial in our own case. The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a medical issue. It has inevitably become politicized in our own hyper-political environment. President Trump galvanizes his supporters and his opponents, the two parties seem in a perpetual state of war with one another, and the 24/7 cable and digital news environment is hardly conducive to calm and dispassionate evaluation of our options. It’s mainly conducive to hype.

But maybe Pericles was right: maybe we can put aside our differences just enough that we understand a simple fact: we’re all in this together. Every morning, perhaps, we could put aside a moment or two to reflect on the privileges—rather than the problems—of living in a free society. We can (re)learn to love our country. Oh, sure, we can still debate issues of the quarantines and lockdowns, how extensive they should be, how long they should last, indeed, whether such strategies work at all. We can still criticize and disagree: it’s practically our birthright as Americans.

But we’ll be doing so as a community—not as a group of hostile factions. After all, the virus isn’t the real enemy. We’ll overcome that. The political and social viruses—mistrust, disunity, mutual antagonism: these are the gravest threats of all to a healthy and thriving democracy.


ISWD Roundtable: World War II and the Aftermath of the Present Crisis

The Institute for the Study of War and Democracy Historians and Special Guests Discuss How World War II's Aftermath Presents Lessons for the Aftermath of the Present Crisis.