My wife and I revisited the National World War II Museum in New Orleans this recent Memorial Day weekend and came away heartened, not just by our history but with hope for the future. We were reminded again and again that our greatest strength is our willingness to work individually and collectively for the greater good. We returned home from this true national treasure with some questions for Florida.
The museum recounts not only the war and the seemingly endless list of battles, but also makes a point of explaining the circumstances leading up to the rise of fascism and Nazism and the great struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand and authoritarianism and fascism on the other.
Long before the war broke out, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the latent danger that lay ahead, and he began taking steps to defend our freedom and our very democracy. The National World War II Museum does a masterful job of teaching this history. I was particularly struck by the section called “The Arsenal of Democracy.” This term, coined by Roosevelt, was designed to stir the American people to join in and produce the core needs of the coming struggle, which, of course, began when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the imperial naval forces of Japan.
The Arsenal of Democracy exhibit demonstrates how factories were converted to supply arms, armaments, planes and tanks. Farms were expanded to increase crop production, victory gardens and metal drives got the children involved. All these are part of our legend and lore.
But the Arsenal of Democracy also makes another, more important point. Understanding that we would soon face an all-out test of our very way of life, Roosevelt focused on the nation’s most important American resource — its people. The president ordered that factories with government contracts were to be integrated. Soon Black and white workers toiled together in factories producing the products of liberty. Women were no longer limited to household chores, but millions of “Rosie the Riveters” built bullets, bombs and airplanes.
Once at war, Black Americans were consigned to secondary roles in the military. But out of necessity, they were given the chance to prove themselves equal. In addition to the creation of segregated infantry companies, the Tuskegee Airmen were formed, and flew their P-51 fighter planes in heroic combat and support of our bombers over Italy. Americans of Japanese descent, so cruelly confined to American concentration camps after Pearl Harbor, were, in 1943, recruited to serve in the infantry in Europe, where they became one of the most decorated combat units in the war. Native American Navajos, long discounted as “less than,” became U.S. Marine code talkers and served with great risk and distinction in the war in the Pacific.
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It was here in the Arsenal of Democracy that I was hit with a sense of profundity. The museum, the largest tourist attraction in New Orleans, was filled with families of all kinds. Some people brought their toddlers, some their grade schoolers. Many were teenagers, and of course, there were parents and grandparents. To the extent that they could, depending on their age and understanding, they looked, interacted and learned that America is a place where, despite inherent biases and prejudices, everyone has value. Everyone, to one extent or another, contributes to the fabric of this society.
We are almost all refugees or immigrants, separated only by the dates of the arrivals of our forebears. Our strength comes not just from our bountiful resources, but from our willingness to work individually and collectively for the greater good. We go about our business growing our families and our ever-evolving heritage. We bring our disparate cultures to introduce to others. We grow as a country because of our diversity and our inclusion of the newcomers among us.
This is the unmistakable lesson taught at the museum; it is the heart of our breathing democracy. Fascism, authoritarianism and Nazism overran Europe, North Africa and most of the Pacific. It took free enterprise, courage and a sense of community to draw on all of our individual strengths. It took self sacrifice, and the recognition that we are indeed our brother’s keepers.
These lessons are manifested throughout the museum. No matter how badly treated at home by their government and at the hands of their fellow Americans, Americans of Japanese descent knew who they were and were determined to fight for and restore their place as the native-born Americans they were. Jim Crow and segregation kept “Negroes” in a constant state of second class, but their love for America and its promise was an ever-stronger motivator. Some trained at Tuskegee, but were abused and threatened by the locals. They maintained their poise and did their jobs as well as anyone. Women saw the need to step out of traditional roles because the country needed them. They worked in the factories, flew airplanes and nursed troops on the front lines, forever establishing themselves as free and independent humans equal to any man.
Here in New Orleans, I was surrounded by young people learning about our inherent diverse culture, our inclusive need to utilize all of our individual God-given talents, learning of sacrifice, torture, killing and enslavement.
Then, I remembered that I live in Florida.
Why, I asked myself, are our Sunshine State children so coddled that they are not seen as capable of understanding and learning who we really are? The current efforts to “cleanse” our curriculum of inclusion and diversity teachings speaks not to democracy and freedom, but to fascism and authoritarianism. Do we not trust our teachers to teach? Do we not trust our children to ask and to think? Do we not trust our history to teach who we are and how we got here?
That books can be removed from our schools because some few small people see boogeymen everywhere is simply no reason to shut down discourse. We are a great country because we are free to think for ourselves, to challenge ideas, to debate great and small questions and to respect each other for the benefit each of us brings to the discussion.
What the Arsenal of Democracy teaches is that democracy is about all of us. Each of us in our own way moves the country forward toward the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among those are life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Sometimes, it takes a generation or so for our new citizens to grow from self-preservation, with a helping hand from those of us who came before. But soon enough we see these fruits borne out to the benefit of all.
The children of Vietnam refugees now serve in high military ranks; Americans of Japanese descent lead some of our most technological advanced industries. African-Americans are on the cutting edges of medical advancements and of government; Indians, Iranians and Pakistanis, to name a few, see to our medical needs; and current migrants from our Latin neighbors work at labor intensive, dangerous jobs, as they too strive to become part of the American dream and take their place beside those of us who got here earlier.
With this perspective, I am constrained to wonder what our governor means when he uses the phrase “woke mob.” Surely meant as a pejorative, it seems grossly misplaced. To me, it means awakening of spirit causing the lifting of oneself out of second-class status in order to learn to fly P-51s over Italy. It means awakening to the fact that women are needed to work alongside, and not behind men in the factories to produce the means of victory. It means a wakening desire of many Americans of Japanese descent to overcome their confinement in American concentration camp isolation to fight for their country in spite of itself, and to prove and earn their rightful place. It means a wakening to the plight of the oppressed, seeking refuge from death and abuse, much like my grandparents sought refuge from Eastern European pogroms and antisemitism.
We must turn away from the authoritarian bent of our current brand of politicians who seek simple and immediate political gratification by stirring up mass un-American hysteria.
We are better than this. We need to know how we got here. We need to ask questions, we need to challenge our beliefs. We need to trust our teachers who are well-trained educators to teach these fundamental lessons, not politicians who seek to impose their own views of what is best for our children, even when they have no training or expertise.
We need to trust our children to ask, to question, to consider and to think. We need to let them come to their own considered opinions, based on all of the information we can provide to them. They are not fodder for the “woke mob”. They are first awakening to a future they will need to understand and to grasp and in which to thrive. Nothing less than freedom of the world depends on it.
As the National World War II Museum so capably teaches, we did it more than once. By teaching our children about our inherent diversity, our comprehensive inclusivity, and our varied and rich culture, we give them the tools to, as Roosevelt said, “to finish the job.”
Please take your kids to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It will inspire, renew and restore your faith and once again make you so very proud to be part of the American dream. I say this with hope for the future of America — and of Florida.
Herbert M. Berkowitz, a lawyer for 52 years, served as a Hillsborough County judge from 2011-2019. He also served in the Wisconsin Army National Guard (1968-1970) and the U.S. Army Reserve (1970-1974).