“At a private New York meeting in October of 1940, William Knudsen made a desperate plea to the automobile industry’s top executives. Knudsen himself had been the president of General Motors until a few months earlier. But he had stepped down to help oversee military production at President Franklin Roosevelt’s request. The position paid $1 a year.
Knudsen told the executives that American military officials surveying the Nazis’ bombing of England had concluded that the country with the strongest airpower was going to win the war. And the United States was badly behind. So Roosevelt and his military advisers wanted the car companies to forget about making cars, Knudsen said. They needed to begin making warplanes.
It was a radical request. It also matched the urgency of the situation. The car executives said yes, and the overhaul of Detroit became crucial to winning the war.
The coronavirus is not an actual war, but it does threaten modern society and human life in ways that nothing has in decades. More than two million Americans could die. Many will do so alone, separated from their family and friends. Funerals will often be impossible. Stores, schools and entire neighborhoods are shutting down. In the second quarter of this year, which starts next week, forecasters predict that the economy could shrink at the most rapid rate since the Great Depression.
This is a moment that calls for the urgency that Roosevelt and Knudsen summoned in the fall of 1940 — when, it’s worth remembering, the attack on Pearl Harbor was still more than a year away.
President Trump, however, has chosen a different response.
He has repeatedly decided not to get out in front of the virus. Instead of taking aggressive steps that public-health experts were urging, he has moved slowly, presumably in the hope that things would somehow work out for the best. Only when it’s clear that they aren’t working for the best has he followed the advice that experts had been offering for weeks. He has then tried to rewrite recent history and claimed that his response had been aggressive from the start.”