Searching for information on the government’s reaction to polio during war time, I stumbled upon Jacob Bryant’s thesis on the subject, named The Invisible Enemy: The Effects of Polio on the American War Effort during World War II, 1941-1945. Its second chapter, titled “The Home Front”, gives a helpful description of the ways of transmission, the symptoms of the disease and the attitudes towards the latter, particularly the way polio began to rival the war for the population’s attention. I would like to share some of the ideas that came to mind when reading this chapter.
Bryant mentions that although the disease had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the Nineteenth Century that it became an epidemic (pg 29); contrary to what we might expect from improves sanitation. The explanation provided is that improved sanitation prevents the immune system form encountering bacteria and viruses that allow it to build up, weakening it against more dangerous pathogens. Another explanation is migration, because it leads people to new places and diseases for which they’re not prepared; the example employed was of the Great Depression, but the mention of the 19th Century makes it difficult not to think about the Industrial Revolution. All this movement of people and innovation and development evokes Angels in America’s argument that the progress of mankind had brought upon us the disease and God’s neglect.
In the thesis it’s also discussed the comparison between disease and war (which we saw in the texts by Roth and Camus): how both President Roosevelt and other high ranking officials were enthusiastic to raise awareness of the disease by link it to the war effort. The thesis cites New York Governor Thomas Dewey: “In a time of war the health of our people– and particularly of our young people– is a vital factor for victory.” (pg 56) His statement struck me because it can also be read that the nation needed the young to be healthy because they could be needed for fighting, which contradicts people’s fright at the death of children. Perhaps the distinctive issue is the purpose: perishing to the disease seems pointless, as an abrupt and undeserved ending to a life that still had so much potential (since most of the deaths were perceived to be of children). While at war you’re fighting for your country and its ideals, and a soldier’s death is seemed as the small contribution to the war effort that might have made the entire difference – as seen by Bucky’s hopes in the novel. Nevertheless, it shows hypocrisy for the respect of childish innocence.
This chapter was an interesting and a relatively short reading. Hope you might find use of it.