Next weekend, I will be attending a World War II-themed swing dance. This is an event I try to attend every year, and I enjoy it greatly. This is a popular event, drawing hundreds of people from across Southern California. While a few attend in modern clothing, most people dress in period-correct uniforms or vintage civilian attire.
Preparing for next weekend’s dance got me thinking about the number of people who have a sense of nostalgia about the 1940’s, myself included. Nostalgia is typically a longing for a simpler time, a better time. WWII was a terrible, devastating period, and life was extremely difficult. How could that era cause anyone to feel nostalgic?
There are several factors to consider. Nostalgia often looks back at popular culture, and this certainly makes sense for the 1940’s. It was the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, with films such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane, and stars like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, and Lauren Bacall. Hollywood stars were seen as sophisticated and glamorous, and naturally, people wanted to be like them.
People generally dressed more formally than they do now. To go to a movie or dance club, men wore suits, ties, and polished shoes; they wanted to be well-dressed and look sharp. Women wore dresses and stockings, and their hairstyles and makeup were glamorous and stunning. Everyone wore hats. I love hats – why did we stop wearing them?
Musically, it was the Big Band Era, the time of Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. It was fun, exciting and interesting music, vastly superior to anything produced today.
Popular culture of the 1940’s certainly has its appeal. But there must be something deeper. Historians use the term “zeitgeist”, or the spirit of the times. What draws me to the WWII era, and I think may attract others as well, was the mentality of the time. There was a tremendous sense of unity. Everyone worked together towards a common goal. Everyone contributed to the war effort to defeat the enemy.
Not only was that sense of unity in place here in the US; all the great Western democracies were allied in the struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We knew we were up against powerful enemies, and we needed to be united in our efforts. We knew that we were facing tremendous evil, and that we were on the side of what was right and good.
Conscription was established; all able-bodied young men were required to join the military. However, many volunteered before they could be called up, and there were some who lied about their age so they could join. Women also volunteered; they weren’t allowed to fight, but they provided valuable support.
The war touched every aspect of people’s lives. With all the young men in the military, there was a tremendous labor shortage. Women went into the factories in record numbers, and built the tanks, planes and other items required for war. New demands were placed on women and minorities, but this also gave them new opportunities; it was the era of Rosie the Riveter and the Tuskegee Airmen. I’m convinced that WWII led directly to the Civil Rights movement of the following decades.
There were so many men in uniform, it was a major struggle to keep them supplied with everything they needed. People grew their own food. Women spent their free time knitting sweaters and scarves to be sent to soldiers who had not been issued with sufficient winter clothing. Families donated old pots and pans so the metal could re-used for weapons and military vehicles. Everyone did something to help. Everyone felt it was their duty to contribute.
These ideas of duty and unity are sadly lacking today. There are times when I want to delete my Facebook account and throw away my smart phone. I see tremendous divisions in our society. Not only are people divided on issues, many of them have lost the ability to debate, to have meaningful discussions, and people simply resort to insults. This only increases the anger and divisiveness. The ideas of common effort for the common good, of sacrifice and contribution, are also lacking today and have been replaced with feelings of entitlement and selfishness.
In this age of terrorism and random violence, it makes sense to long for an age when we knew who our enemy was. In this age when technology often dominates our lives, it makes sense to long for a time before such devices existed.
I would love to see a return to the values of the 1940’s. I have little use for today’s music and culture, but it goes beyond entertainment. I worry about the future of the United States and Western Europe. In our divided and angry society, we need to find a way to come back together, to find a common purpose, to join in a common effort.
WWII was a very difficult time, but I desperately long for that sense of unity we once had, and I think there are others who feel the same way. I hope we can find that common purpose again.