In New Orleans last week to give a speech, I planned to entertain myself with food and music. It was only when trying to get the weather forecast on my phone that I discovered Crescent City (for reasons related to the location of the factory that made the landing craft that proved critical to the D Day invasion) is also home to the National Museum of World War II, which is rated TripAdvisor as best place to visit in this city. Granted, it’s listed as the seventh best tourist attraction in the United States, and, since I’ve visited the other top ten (well, not the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is for reasons tied to Universal Studios, in Orlando, Florida), I figured why not. And a tribute to the museum’s curated art: moving, informative, and (even while celebrating the heroism of the time) sensitive to the ways America has changed in the postwar decades. Today, as Earth Day arrives on a planet where temperatures in Antarctica have just risen seventy degrees above normal, and where, two days ago, Vladimir Putin tested his new intercontinental ballistic missile, that history seems particularly touching.
In our collective memory, America immediately rose to meet Hitler’s challenge. But, of course, that’s not entirely true—after Hitler invaded the Sudetenland and Poland and even France, America was content to leave Europe to war on its own. In the winter of 1940, Gallup discovered that only twelve percent of Americans wanted to declare war on Germany. Then in the fall, the country split over the question “Should the United States risk going to war to help Britain?” Major sections of the establishment—the Chamber of Commerce, for example—opposed even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s loan-lease plan to send material to defend Europe. Meanwhile, the America First movement attracted a large following, including a young John Kennedy and Gerald Ford, not to mention Walt Disney—and, famously, Charles Lindbergh. The museum records the involvement of Kingman Brewster, Jr., who later became US Ambassador to the UK and president of Yale; However, in those years, as a student activist, he organized across America to keep the country from being “trapped” in a foreign war.
FDR, as the exhibition explains, does his best to keep Britain going as he works to change public opinion. The Japanese attack on the US was finally successful; Brewster enlisted in the Navy right after Pearl Harbor, and so did the rest of America, at least metaphorically. The displays on the front of the house are absolutely stunning — you can use weapons like the real-life Rosies used in factories and shipyards. There are food ration books and cookbooks, some published by the government, to help people cook with those rations. (“The Victory Cook Book,” free with the purchase of Lysol, instructs women that “every housewife’s job is to maintain the health and spirit of her family.”) There are piggy banks in the shape of bombs given to children so they can save for war bonds, and , to remind Americans to keep recycling metal, a grisly poster of the Axis plane catches fire. (“Your Memo Smashed It.”) Looking at the displays brings to mind one of the rather puzzling facts that, so far, even as we witness the daily horrors that befall the Ukrainian people, we have not been asked to change our daily habits. in any way to help them.
For example, it is widely recognized at this point that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was financed by fossil fuels, and that Putin exploited his control of European oil and gas to fuel it. Too late, the Europeans seemed aware of their involvement; Germany has announced plans to accelerate their conversion to renewable energy, and, on Saturday, President Emmanuel Macron, of France, eight days from his reflection bid, called on his country to stop fossil fuels altogether.
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President Biden did stop imports of Russian oil into the country. But, since oil is traded on world markets, that does little to deter Putin. Indeed, as oil prices have surged around the world, Russia’s receipts of salable oil have also soared: the country reported that its current account surplus nearly doubled in the first quarter of this year. In order for prices to fall, the demand for all oil needs to be cut. Anyone who can work from home can continue to do so, at least on, say, Monday, ending national travel day. Carpools can be arranged, taking special advantage of the fact that there are now two million electric cars on the road. More bike lanes could be provided, and, when AC season kicks in, Americans could raise their thermostats to higher levels. And we can build and ship millions of electric heat pumps to Europe, and install them in our own homes. As Ari Matusiak, CEO of Rewiring America, a nonprofit working on the transition to clean energy, and Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, recently wrote for Hill, “It’s been too long, we want to help in the fight, but there is no way to go to war. Shocking your home one engine at a time is Victory Garden today—things you can do to fight tyranny, inflation, and runaway emissions.”
But we have been asked not to do these things. Joe Biden has done a nuanced and furious job of dealing with the military threat posed by Putin, walking a fine and frightening line between aid and provocation. But on the home front he and his government seem to think America can’t afford much. Instead of asking us to save energy, which would also help with its climate goals, they are giving in to the demands of the fossil fuel industry. Last Friday, the White House announced that it would open a vast new section of public land to drilling for more oil, even though it would take years to bring gas prices down—and the policy violates a very specific Presidential campaign promise. It only takes us deeper into a world dominated by oil and gas—the kind of greenhouse in which Putin’s despots thrive.
During the Second World War, victory demanded more oil—the museum in New Orleans documents the construction of a large pipeline from Texas to the Northeast, and the construction of a large Navy oil tanker. (There’s also a story about how Esso, the forerunner of ExxonMobil, organized a special training program for “female chemists.”) In the wars that dominate the world today—Putin’s land grabs in Ukraine, and global land grabs caused by rising sea levels and deserts. the vast expanse of sand—a triumphant demand to stop fossil fuels as soon as possible. Just as Biden has so far failed to match FDR in getting key spending programs through Congress (which, frankly, is much more narrowly divided than it was in Roosevelt’s time), so he has failed to match his predecessors in explaining to Americans why some sacrifices—or even some changes—would. be a tonic. This Earth Day, the silence seems very deep.