After Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a national address making eight references to the “sacrifice” that would be needed in the impending war and three mentions of the “self-denial” we would have to endure.
“Every single person in the United States is going to be affected,” Roosevelt said. “(Business) profits are going to be cut down to a reasonably low level by taxation … (Americans) will have to forgo higher wages … All of us are used to spending money for things that we want, things, however, which are not absolutely essential. We will all have to forgo that kind of spending.”
For its honesty and purpose, the speech remains the shining example of leadership. For its bravery in telling painful truths the country needed to hear and for Americans’ subsequent rise to the challenge, the address today stands as a sad commemoration of a tragically lost ethos.
That is the only conclusion to draw when comparing Roosevelt’s clarion call to those following the last decade’s Pearl Harbor-like calamities. Rather than being encouraged to sacrifice or accept self-denial in the face of emergency, we are now instructed to simply embrace our inner hedonist.
That’s no exaggeration. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush told us not to prepare for austerity measures in the name of the common good. Instead, he exhorted citizens to “do your business around the country, fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots – go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Then he gave us tax cuts and wars whose costs were rung up on the national credit card and passed on to future generations.
The same aversion to sacrifice now defines the response to the ecological Pearl Harbor on America’s Gulf Coast. In his first press conference since the oil spill, President Obama only briefly noted that the drilling at the center of the disaster highlights “the urgent need for this nation to develop clean, renewable sources of energy” and get off petroleum. But he avoided suggesting that this need requires any collective effort, abstinence or forfeiture.
“Americans can help,” he said, “by continuing to visit the communities and beaches of the Gulf Coast.”
Put in bumper-sticker terms, FDR’s “Profits are Going to Be Cut” and “Forgo Higher Wages” have become Bush’s “Go Shopping” and Obama’s “Go Sunbathing” – and the question is why?
One obvious answer is presidential shortsightedness.
Bush characteristically refused to believe sacrifice is ever necessary, even during war. Obama, meanwhile, surely knows the Gulf disaster warrants sacrifice, but he cravenly refuses to discuss that fact for fear of being lampooned as a sweater-clad Jimmy Carter.
But, then, let’s be honest – when it comes to difficult lifestyle changes that Pearl Harbor-sized crises demand, many of us are as willfully ignorant and plagued by denial as Dubya. And truth be told, had Obama asked us to do something – anything! – more than have fun in the sun, many Americans wouldn’t have praised him as a new FDR; many indeed would have berated him as Carter incarnate.
Thus, as easy as it is to blame two flawed presidents for eschewing FDR-style leadership, we haven’t seen that leadership, in part, because we don’t seem to want it. And we don’t want it because we’ve stopped valuing the concept of shared sacrifice.
That’s the true change since the original Pearl Harbor attack – and it’s a crying shame because while trips to Disney World or the beach are certainly fun, history suggests that genuine sacrifice will be the only way to solve our most pressing problems.