Last week in New Orleans to give a speech, I planned to do some other amusement with food and music. It wasn’t until I tried to get a weather forecast on my cell phone that I discovered that the Crescent City (for reasons to do with the location of a factory) manufactured the landing craft that proved crucial to the D-Day invasion ) is also home to the National World War II Museum, which TripAdvisor ranked as the top attraction in the city. In fact, it’s listed as the 7th best tourist attraction in the United States, and since I’ve been in the rest of the top ten (well, not The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which for Universal Studios-related reasons is in Orlando, Florida), I figured why not. And it pays homage to the museum curator’s art: moving, informative, and (though it celebrates the heroism of the era) sensitive to the way America changed in the post-war decades. This story seems particularly poignant as Earth Day dawns on a planet where the temperature in Antarctica just rose 70 degrees above normal and where Vladimir Putin tested his new ICBM two days ago.
In our collective memory, America immediately rose to Hitler’s challenge. But that’s not really true, of course – after Hitler attacked the Sudetenland and Poland and even France, America was content to let Europe fight its own wars. In the winter of 1940, Gallup found that only 12 percent of Americans wanted to declare war on Germany. Later that fall, the country was split down the middle over the question, “Should the United States risk war to help the United Kingdom?” Large sections of the establishment — the Chamber of Commerce, for example — opposed even the lend-lease scheme President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to send material in defense of Europe. Meanwhile, the America First movement attracted a large following, including a young John Kennedy and Gerald Ford, not to mention Walt Disney – and notoriously Charles Lindbergh. The museum notes the involvement of Kingman Brewster, Jr., who later became US Ambassador to the UK and President of Yale; During those years, however, he organized himself as a student activist across America to prevent the country from being “caught” in foreign wars.
Roosevelt, as the exhibits make clear, did his best to keep Britain going while he worked to change public opinion. Japan’s attack on the US finally did that; Brewster joined the Navy right after Pearl Harbor, and so did the rest of America, at least metaphorically. The displays about the home front are literally captivating – you get to wield a weapon that Rosies would have used in real life in factories and shipyards. There are food ration books and recipe books, some of which are issued by the government to help people cook with those rations. (“The Victory Cook Book,” free with any Lysol purchase, instructed women that “the duty of every homemaker is to maintain the health and spirits of her family.”) There are bomb-shaped piggy banks that have been given to children with it they could save up for war bonds and, to remind Americans to keep recycling metal, garish posters of Axis planes on fire. (“Your Scrap Braought It Down.”) Looking at the displays, one is reminded of the somewhat bewildering fact that until now, even observing the horrors inflicted on the people of Ukraine on a daily basis, we have not been prompted to view our daily to change habits to assist them in any way.
For example, it is widely accepted at this point that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being funded by fossil fuels and that Putin is using his control of Europe’s oil and gas to run it. Belatedly, Europeans seem to be waking up to their complicity; Germans have announced plans to accelerate their switch to renewable energy, and on Saturday French President Emmanuel Macron, eight days before his re-election, urged his nation to phase out fossil fuels entirely.
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President Biden stopped importing Russian oil into this country. But because oil is traded on a world market, that hasn’t hindered Putin much. As oil prices have risen around the world, Russia’s revenue from the oil it can still sell has also skyrocketed: the country reports that its current account surplus nearly doubled in the first quarter of this year. In order for prices to fall, demand must be made everything Oil needs to be cut. Anyone who can work from home could continue to do so, at least on Mondays, for example, cutting the national commute by a day. Carpooling could be organised, taking particular advantage of the fact that there are now two million electric cars on the road. More bike lanes could be made available, and when air conditioning season kicks off, Americans could turn up their thermostats a degree. And we could build millions of electric heat pumps and send them to Europe and install them in our own homes. As Ari Matusiak, the CEO of Rewiring America, a nonprofit dedicated to the clean energy transition, and Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, recently wrote for the hill, “For too long we wanted to help in the fight, but had no way into the fight. Electrifying your home, machine by machine, is today’s Victory Garden — one thing you can do to fight tyranny, inflation and runaway emissions.”
And yet we were asked not to do any of these things. Joe Biden has done a nuanced and measured job of dealing with the military threat that Putin poses, walking the fine and frightening line between support and provocation. But on the home front, he and his administration seem to think there isn’t much Americans can do. Instead of asking us to save energy, which would also help his climate goals, they gave in to demands from the fossil fuel industry. Last Friday, the White House announced it would open up vast new tracts of public land to more oil drilling, though it will take years for that move to lower gas prices — and the policy goes against the president’s remarkably specific campaign promise. This only takes us deeper into a world dominated by oil and gas – the kind of hothouse in which Putin despots thrive.
During World War II, victory required more oil—the New Orleans museum documents the building of great pipelines from Texas to the Northeast and the building of giant Navy oil tankers. (There is also an account of how Esso, the precursor to ExxonMobil, organized a special training program for “women chemists.”) In the wars dominating the world today – Putin’s land grab in Ukraine and the global land grab fueled by the rising sea level and the spread of deserts – victory requires moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Just as Biden has not yet matched FDR in getting major spending programs through Congress (which, to be fair, is far more divided than it was in Roosevelt’s day), neither has he matched his predecessor , as he explained to Americans why some sacrifice – or even some change – would be empowering. On this Earth Day, that stillness seems particularly profound.