A New Wave of Patriotism?
~ By William E. Paul ~
During the early 1940s, when as many as 11 million American fighting men were serving in World War II, the population of the United States generally expressed its patriotism by how it related to those men… how they were treated, and what was done for them.
Hundreds of cities and especially small towns across the country operated small “canteens” where military personnel on leave from a nearby army camp or whose ship was temporarily docked nearby, could get free coffee and donuts, and then dance to live or jukebox music with girls where the activity was under careful supervision. Some restaurants furnished free meals to servicemen in uniform, and many cab drivers wouldn’t accept taxi fare from someone in the military. Also, as a gesture of patriotic dedication during those days, families everywhere were encouraged to invite servicemen into their homes for a holiday dinner, and sometimes it even included a picnic or scenic outing. When it was “safe” to pick up hitchhikers, people gladly gave a car ride to a serviceman in uniform, transporting them long distances free of charge. Those who lived during that period will remember fondly those and many other expressions of patriotism.
Some towns even had a group of volunteer ladies who met troop trains passing through and furnished the soldiers or sailors on board with coffee, sandwiches and cookies during brief stopovers. Young high school or college girls from throughout the nation also wrote countless personal letters, some almost every day, to military personnel overseas in order to encourage these lonely young men. They mailed them cigarettes, photos, magazines, candy bars, cookies and other reminders of life “back in the states,” all intended to provide cheer and remind them that they had the support of people “back home.”
On a larger scale was the nonprofit, privately-funded, though congressionally chartered organization, the United Service Organizations (USO), begun in 1941 as a “home away from home” to countless uniformed military personnel from World War II up to the Afghanistan War! Providing valuable morale and recreational services in 160 locations and 14 countries, the USO also furnished “Camp Shows,” featuring live entertainment, (provided by top Hollywood stars who often received only $10 per day!), to the delight and encouragement of American servicemen and women scattered throughout the world. This was intended to offer these men a brief taste of home and respite from the grueling and often heartbreaking horror of battlefield carnage. A huge number of volunteers were utilized by USO clubs that made use of churches, barns, railroad cars, museums, castles, beach clubs, and log cabins for their shows, dances and other social events like Hollywood movies and “big band” music, free coffee and sandwiches, games like checkers, cards, pool and ping pong, or just a quiet place to talk or write a letter home. Sometimes help was offered in locating loved ones for these lonesome soldiers and sailors so far from home. And free tickets to movies, concerts and sporting events were made available by the USO to military personnel, the cost of which was donated by people who wanted to do something nice for the troops. USO promotional literature stated, “The story of USO Camp Shows belongs to the American people, for it was their contribution that made it possible. . . [as] an important part in the life of your sons, your brothers, your husbands, and your sweethearts.”
Back in those days it would have been extremely difficult to find anyone who didn’t genuinely appreciate our fighting men in uniform and the sacrifices they were making daily to save the American way of life. And the ways in which the American people expressed that gratitude are far too numerous to mention here! But during World War II servicemen were “heroes” in the eyes of America even if they had never engaged in a single battle, fired a single shot, or left the shores of the USA! Their uniform itself spoke loudly of their willingness to put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of their countrymen, and that was enough to earn the gratitude of people on the home front.
But then came the Korean “War” (1950-1953)! Why, it wasn’t even called a war, at first . . . it was merely a “police action.” And, unlike WWII it was never really perceived as a conflict endangering U.S. soil or threatening to take away our freedoms or any of the comforts we enjoyed as Americans! The rationing of certain foods, household items and automotive equipment and supplies of WWII days ended in 1946, never to be resumed! That alone made the Korean War, and those that followed, seem much less of an inconvenience to Americans and accordingly the sacrifices of the U.S. military were considered less severe. A pro-military patriotic spirit was at a low ebb during this period and U.S. veterans of that war no doubt felt much less appreciated than during WWII.
Then, although minor U.S. military action was involved in Grenada (Caribbean) in 1983, in Bosnia (Europe) in 1995, and in Kosovo (Europe) in 1999, there were very few expressions of concern for the U.S. military. It wasn’t until almost 45 years after WWII that the American spirit of patriotism was again awakened. It was when wars broke out involving military combat, such as in the Persian Gulf War (Desert Shield/Desert Storm, in Saudi Arabia, (1990-1991); the Afghanistan War (2001-current); and the Iraq War (2003-2011), that the populace began to show its support once again of “our troops.”
Although the actual dates are debated, 1965 to 1973 are often given as when American “active combat units” fought in South Vietnam. As casualties began to be reported, instead of stirring support for the military, this period produced by far the least patriotic period in which the U.S. participated in anything called a “war.” Anti-war propaganda was at a high pitch with protests and demonstrations commonplace. Upon returning, veterans of that war were significantly disrespected and sometimes even scorned! The highly vocal opposition to the Vietnam War was being voiced by such celebrities as Jane Fonda, John Kerry, Muhammad Ali, etc. Numerous slogans stating objection to the war (some containing obscenities) were coined. Instead of a patriotic displaying of the American flag, public burning of it became prevalent. Criticism instead of commendation of U.S. troops became a topic of the public media. Vietnam was undoubtedly America’s most unpopular war!
Some 45 years after World War II, a whole new generation was growing up with little more than a “cold war” to be concerned about. Now there were wars again . . . real wars that took innocent, young lives in mounting numbers. While patriotic fervor during these “wars” never reached the level of World War II days, it did accelerate to a level that manifested itself in renewed displays of the U.S. flag and increased recognition of the role of young American men and women in the military. Rekindled interest and appreciation for service personnel, from all wars, as well as those serving in peacetime, began to flare up all over the land.
Today a WWII veteran, so identifiable by wording on his cap, may have as many as a half dozen persons walk up to him at the grocery store, in a restaurant or even on the street on any given day and offer a hearty handshake, with the words “Thank you for your service.” Some will even send their small children over to the veteran to convey that sentiment. It is not uncommon for total strangers to pay for the restaurant meal of a military person or WWII veteran. Even some restaurants offer discounts to service personnel (both retired and currently serving). It is also quite common today for military personnel and veterans to be asked to stand and be recognized at a school assembly, church service or civic function, something that the current generation had not witnessed while growing up.
This “new wave” of patriotism is to be applauded as a renewed expression of “love for country” and a wholesome appreciation for the sacrificial service of those willing to serve, even when it means endangering themselves with the possibility of loss of life or limb! Service organizations like the American Legion, V.F.W., D.A.V, Vietnam Veterans of America, and others, have all stepped up their activity on behalf of veterans’ benefits. Recent backing of the Wounded Warrior Project by celebrities such as Bill O’Reilly (TV news commentator) and Gary Sinise (movie actor) has focused attention on the high price paid by American service men and women. We should all be thankful for the admiration and gratitude being shown to those serving in the military and regard it as evidence of the return of a neglected and almost forgotten sentiment!
As a World War II veteran I have experienced these patriotic sentiments in both the 1940s and 2000s, and I appreciate it!