V-E Day at 75 and COVID-19: Reflections on Global Outbreak Problems and Solutions
"For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence, which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity. Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid…"
Perhaps similarly toned words will be written after the scourge of COVID-19 subsides, the greater part of the world is vaccinated, and life thereafter takes on elements of normalcy. This is not the case today as it was 75 years ago when on May 8, 1945, when President Harry Truman uttered these words on Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), which also happened to be his 61st birthday. The rest of his quote also intoned, "…to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band."
Reflecting back on the terrible outbreak of global war in Europe and its conclusion, compared to today’s pandemic outbreak, allows not only the opportunity to review the lessons and outcomes of history, it offers us the occasion to reflect on the similarities, differences and potential solutions for dealing with the ongoing global war against COVID-19.
Victory in Europe Day celebrates the World War II Allies’ formal acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional military surrender on May 8, 1945. The German High Command, represented by General Alfred Jodl, accepted the terms and signed the surrender document relinquishing those forces at Reims, France. Initially, Jodl wished only to surrender a portion of the military forces—the ones still engaged in fighting with the Allies. However, General Dwight Eisenhower demanded nothing less than the complete and unconditional surrender of all forces fighting in both East and West theaters.
More than a week prior to the surrender, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in an underground bunker on April 30th as the Battle of Berlin raged above. His successor, Reich President Karl Dönitz, authorized the surrender, first signed at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe on the 7th at Reims, and then signed a slightly modified version in Berlin on the 8th after nearly six long years of global war.
Although V-E Day signaled the end of fighting in Europe, pockets of German resistance continued fighting and resisting for another day—a day in which the Soviets lost 600 additional soldiers in Silesia before the Germans would surrender to them. This is why Moscow celebrates V-E Day on May 9th. A similar pattern is playing out in pockets with COVID, in which U.S. states and countries declare a certain victory over COVID because there are no new cases and deaths decline, and then subsequently relax lockdowns only to experience a resurgence of the outbreak sometimes worse than the initial one.
Of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, less than 389,000 were alive in 2019, with a daily rate death of around 350. By comparison with COVID, as of May 13th, there have been over 84,000 US deaths (over 291,000 worldwide) with a U.S. daily case rate of over 20,000 (over 88,000 worldwide).
Much like World War II, COVID has upset the worldwide economy, infrastructure, supply chain and much more. It has shattered lives, caused grief, torn apart families, and will forever change our world. And although World War II may have culminated with a V-E Day in Europe representing the promise of a better future, what did we learn through its aftermath that may equip us to continue battling COVID and look beyond the pandemic's current curse?
First, a complete and far-reaching strategy is vital. The final months of war in Europe were primarily punctuated by pincer campaigns from the west and east of Germany. The beginning of the end from the west was the Battle of the Bulge. Begun in December 1944 and concluding with a hard-fought victory in late January 1945, the Allies momentum propelled their push east. Meanwhile, the Soviets raced west to Berlin. The Battles of Nuremberg (April 16-20, 1945), Hamburg (April 18-May 3 1945) and the previously-noted Battle of Berlin (April 16-May 2, 1945), along with the push of Axis powers south in synchronized fashion, combined to create victory for the Allies culminating in unconditional surrender for Germany. Similarly, the fight against COVID’s strategy has consisted of safety measures to include massive hand washing, sanitizing, wearing of face masks, lockdowns, etc. These measures may be mitigating the spread of the virus, yet have not been embraced by everyone, and thus the strategy falls short of total victory. Moving forward, if we are to learn and apply the lessons of past pandemics like the Spanish Flu, not only must the strategy be universally embraced—perhaps via a new model for an emergency response--the conditions for easing lockdowns must not be time-based, but conditions-based. Otherwise, resurgent outbreaks may occur, and victory will elude us.
Second, a team approach is absolutely necessary to prevail. As World War II developed and France succumbed to the German invasion in 1940, Great Britain faced Germany alone. It wasn’t until the middle of 1941 when Germany invaded Russia that the Red Army would beat back and punish the Wehrmacht, coupled with the addition of Royal Air Force airpower, and jointly fight against Hitler's forces. As well, America's entry into the war shortly after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor ultimately would signal the beginning of the end to come a few years later. Allied strength and competence grew steadily into 1942 until V-E Day, and correspondingly, so would the comprehensive, consistent, and coordinated actions the Allied team set in motion towards victory. By comparison, defeating COVID and getting to V-O-C Day (Victory Over COVID…I just made that up!) will require a global teaming approach. We are already paying witness to some of these team elements through a worldwide effort to develop a vaccine, to identify critical personal protective equipment shortfalls and supply them from excess global stocks, and to provide food and employment opportunities to those lacking—just to name a few. The global team cannot cease fighting short of victory until the defeat, and unconditional surrender of this pandemic occurs.
Third, institutions and structure matter. The post-World War II order birthed many multilateral institutions and mechanisms still in place today, and one harkens to think how bad off we all might be if it hadn’t. Institutions such as the Marshall Plan, Bretton Woods, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, World Trade Organization, and the European Union--just to name a handful-- contributed enormously to worldwide recovery from the wrought devastation. No single institution could accomplish what many achieved post-war in helping restore and establish economic health, relative peace, global commerce and more. Their absence, if you really stop to think about it, may not have led to the sound foundation we are equipped with today to respond to COVID. The fight against COVID also requires an institutional approach. The World Health Organization—the United Nation's health arm—was another post-World War II institution on the front lines of the pandemic, and must continue running the marathon ahead. Closer to home the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and myriad others are working overtime to create solutions, strategies, and instruments to combat, defeat and win the fight against COVID. Additional institutional approaches are required to simultaneously combat unemployment and the loss of income through legislation, such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the economic stimulus, not to mention those working to preserve the severe challenges to the industrial base and supply chain. More closely-knitted connections and relationships between government, business, and the public are necessary bonds for victory over COVID.
While the fight against the COVID outbreak continues, we gloriously celebrated the 1945 Victory in Europe. Last Friday, on May 8, 1945, in cities all across America and Great Britain, as well as much of formerly occupied Europe, citizens rejoiced in celebration by displaying flags, banners, and toasting the defeat and subsequent victory over the German belligerents. Perhaps weeks or months from now, we may do the same.
Chad Manske is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general who last served as the Commandant of National War College. He currently serves as the Senior Vice President for Policy and Projects at Business Executives for National Security.