Sixty-three years ago today, Harry Truman went on TV — the first White House broadcast in history — and asked Americans to forgo meat on Tuesdays and poultry and eggs on Thursdays. Such sacrifice, the president argued, would help cut down on grain usage by the meat industry, grain that could then be sent to alleviate the European hunger crisis. It was the post-World War II era in which America established strong precedent of providing foreign food aid.
Not everyone, of course, was pleased with Truman’s plan. The National Meat Industry Council actually went on record as opposed to the plan — not because it would cut meat consumption from seven days to five, but because it could institutionalize eating meat five days per week, a high rate in the ’40s. Instead, it recommended that each American family “reduce voluntarily its consumption of meat, whether it now has meat on the table three, four, five, or six days a week, [and then] the nation will achieve a maximum saving of meat and reduce the demand for grain to feed cattle and hogs.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was outright skeptical of the scheme. “Nobody, of course, is to eat meat on Tuesday or poultry on Thursday (the White House last Thursday had baked ham). In other words, you eat poultry on Tuesday and meat on Thursday, and presto—Europe’s hunger is sated and domestic prices come tumbling down. Or something.”
The Truman administration didn’t stop there, however, announcing “the starting of a national meal-planning service, in which experts from the Government and industry would supply information about the most economical and plentiful foods on the market and suggest meals conserving grain and grain products.”
Can you imagine the response were a Barack Obama to make such a request today? There would almost certainly be cries that asking Americans to cut back on meat is an affront to individual freedoms, the government is inappropriately inserting itself into family concerns and the current economy demands fewer restrictions on industry. This is despite a recent prediction by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization that beef will be the “caviar of the future” when beef can no longer be produced efficiently as the global population soars past 9 billion by 2050.
But the (admittedly hypothetical) backlash wouldn’t be entirely about protecting free-market capitalism. Instead, Bob Cesca writes in the Huffington Post, contemporary Americans aren’t used to or receptive of requests for sacrifice.
Americans simply don’t do “national sacrifice” anymore. During World War II, Americans were asked to ration everything from sugar to oil to cheese — even shoes. Those days are long gone. Today, we’re asked to go to Disneyland or the beach. Or we’re asked to pray.
Turning off light bulbs and lowering the thermostat are fine but have almost no real impact on America’s massive energy consumption. Politicians are afraid to call for true sacrifice because of the feared economic impact and the political suicide.
President Obama wouldn’t dare suggest we eat less beef or buy fewer cars. And definitely not when we’re beginning to recover from an enormous recession. If we were to actually pay attention to a presidential call to personally scale back our energy habits, the abrupt change in consumer spending could create a backslide in economic recovery and, thus, the president’s shot at reelection would be jeopardized, not to mention the reelection chances of any member of Congress who rides along.
Americans’ unwillingness to sacrifice has long been noted as a problem for some time. Jimmy Carter drew fire for saying so in his infamous 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”
His speech today sounds even more ominous as the failures he warns of are the same failures politicians today fear.
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
Carter’s warning ties in with the conservative period of American politics, from Regan’s 1980 election through George W. Bush, which promised prosperity through not having to sacrifice, Kevin Mattson wrote in the American Prospect last year. “Carter had touched something in the American psyche — the desire to think of oneself as a member of a national community. Still, the conservative road to victory marginalized such rhetoric with attacks on taxes and other civic debts. It is no surprise that decline in talk about civic sacrifice correlated with the decline of liberalism.”
Perhaps in time sacrifice will be forced upon Americans by the invisible hand of the market as beef prices skyrocket and fossil fuels become an increasingly rare commodity. Until then, however, enjoy your steak.