At a private New York meeting in October 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 U.S. 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 2 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 Donald Trump, however, has chosen a different response.
He has repeatedly decided not to get out in front of the virus. Instead of taking 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.
The first example, of course, was his effort to play down the virus for almost two months, starting in late January. He falsely said that the number of cases was falling and that the virus might just go away, “like a miracle.” Even as medical experts were warning about the lack of testing, Trump did nothing to fix the situation, and the United States fell badly behind other countries.
The biggest current example of Trump’s relaxed response is his refusal to use his authority – from a 1950 law, the Defense Production Act – to order a sweeping mobilization of medical supplies. It could resemble the old overhaul of Detroit, with companies directed to produce millions of masks, ventilators, gowns, inhalers, prescription drugs, virus tests and more.
If you spend any time talking with doctors, nurses and other front-line workers, you will hear how badly they need these supplies. You will also hear them explain, sometimes in tears, that the lack of supplies will have deadly consequences. Patients will die needlessly, and so will doctors and nurses.
Esther Choo, an emergency-room doctor in Oregon, started an online campaign called #GetMePPE (which refers to personal protective equipment), and it’s led to an outpouring of anguished stories. Vidya Kumar Ramanathan, a Michigan doctor, has had to reuse the same mask all day, which makes it impossible to cleanse herself of the virus while working. Jessica Varga, a New York-area anesthesiologist, had to buy her own eye protection on Amazon. Amy Silverman, a Colorado nurse, says some of her colleagues have used the same mask for weeks.
The federal government has lamely suggested that doctors and nurses use bandannas or scarves to shield their faces “as a last resort” – even though those items may not offer protection. It’s a far cry from the can-do spirit of 1940.
Some private companies, to their credit, are increasing production of medical equipment. But it’s not happening quickly enough. It’s also not happening in any organized way: Caregivers have had to create Google spreadsheets to do their best to match supplies and need. The only way for a national mobilization to happen quickly and efficiently is with presidential leadership.
Instead, Trump has taken to the White House lectern to boast that he has invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act, which is technically true. He has then made vague and often incorrect claims about all the good it’s doing. On Sunday, he tweeted that Ford, GM and Tesla had “the go ahead” to make ventilators, a statement that appears to have little meaning. His advisers, in anonymous interviews, have admitted the truth: He doesn’t want to direct companies to produce medical supplies because doing so would violate the administration’s free-market economic views.
I want to emphasize that blaming Trump for the appearance of coronavirus would be unfair. No matter who was president, the virus would likely have created a crisis, as it has in Europe.
But it’s also important to be clear about the responsibility that does fall on Trump. His months of denial – and his acceptance of the testing fiasco – meant that the United States failed to isolate people with the virus, as South Korea and Singapore did. His refusal to fix the medical-supply crisis means that the virus is unnecessarily spreading in hospitals and that Americans will unnecessarily die.
The severity of the virus will make the economic downtown worse and longer lasting. And Trump will be partly at fault. A reality-based response in January and February would have produced a different economy in April and May.
There is still a lot of uncertainty about the next few months. Maybe coronavirus will turn out to be much less bad than now seems likely. If so, that would be wonderful. If not, the president will deserve significant responsibility – for the human toll, for the depth of the recession, for his refusal to act when he could have.
David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times.