In Memoriam

“Lest we forget” was the reminder displayed by the Business Times at the very top of its November 11th issue. The 90th anniversary of Armistice Day was being celebrated throughout most of the world on that day, but a few years ago we Americans decided to refer to that holiday as Veteran’s Day.

That was an easy transition for us because war’s devastation never reached our shores. We heard about those overseas conflicts from returning veterans and from war zone reporters, but we heard no sounds from the fields of battle. So there was nothing we had to forget. We were lucky.

A truce, an armistice, ended the first World War. There was no actual surrender by the participants. All of Europe had been affected, all of Europe was thankful for the armistice, and all of Europe resolved never to forget the terrible events of that war. But they did forget, and this memory lapse led to the horrors of World War II.

Because no bombs ever fell in our midst during either war, American civilians, far removed from hostilities, get credit only for the contributions they made to the war effort. Homage is paid to all those who served and fought at the front lines, however, and so what’s known as Armistice Day elsewhere is called Veteran’s Day in the U.S., the day we pay tribute to the valor of our servicemen.

This might be an appropriate time to remember what was taking place in factories and shipyards back home during the “war effort” though. In the thirties, remember, we were still in the throes of the Great Depression, and most of the people were “on welfare”. Only the WPA provided “make-work” jobs and these jobs were few and far between. We were down and out.

Our leaders knew at that time that the nation’s real power lay in our work forces, not in our armed forces. In fact, without factories and shipyards our armed forces would be a “no-show”. And so the “war effort” was born … or contrived, and it proves the point we’ve been making.

Almost overnight shipyards were built and millions of jobs were created because of those shipyards. U.S. citizens were now gainfully employed, receiving regular paychecks, and spending money like there was no tomorrow. The Great Depression was history and, ironically, glut and war shortages co-existed. We were no longer down and out because of our war effort, and yes, we won a war.

But we’re down and out again. Princeton professor and Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman said last week, “It’s the closest thing to 1932 that I ever expected to see in my lifetime.”

“You got to think big,” he said. “This is not a case where you sort of want to inch up on the problem. This isn’t the time to think about long term fiscal responsibility. This is a time to pump money into the economy.”

[Right, professor. Let’s end this depression the same way we ended the last one. Let’s pump money into shipbuilding jobs again, but let’s build profitable container ships this time, not warships.]