Worst year ever? You might get a convincing counterargument from American historians without them even having to go further back than the 20th century.
For some pandemic perspective, we asked 10 of them to finish this sentence: If you think 2020 in the U.S. has been rough, let me tell you about ...
Says MARC FAVREAU, author of ‘Crash: The Great Depression and Fall and Rise of America’: “First came the job losses: hundreds of thousands, and then millions of breadwinners out of work, and millions more working fewer hours. As money dried up, movie theaters and restaurants emptied out. Teachers started noticing that students came to school hungry.
“Reports trickled in of people scavenging for wild berries and dandelions, just to stay alive. ‘Bread lines’ formed in cities in towns across the United States, as middle-class people from all walks of life resorted to handouts to feed their families.
“But the dam broke in 1931, when the evictions started. Mass poverty could be hidden when people still huddled in their homes. When they were turned out on the roads in huge numbers, and shantytowns appeared in cities all over America, the reality of the Great Depression finally set in.
“The author and oral historian Studs Terkel interviewed Mary Owsley for his book ‘Hard Times.’ Here’s what she reported seeing in Oklahoma City that year: ‘a man and a woman and seven children lived in a hole in the ground. You’d be surprised how nice it was, how nice they kept it. They had chairs and tables and beds back up in that hole. And they had the dirt all braced up there, just like a cave.’”
Says LARRY TYE, author of ‘Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy’: “McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin, promised America a holy war against a Communist conspiracy ‘so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.’
“While the conspiracy claim was a stretch, the body count was measurable: a TV broadcaster, a government engineer, current and former U.S. senators and incalculable others who committed suicide to escape McCarthy and his warriors; hundreds more whose careers and reputations he crushed; and the hundreds of thousands he browbeat into a tongue-tied silence.
“His targets all learned the futility of taking on a tyrant who recognized no restraints and would do anything — anything — to win.”
Says University of California-Davis Professor ERIC RAUCHWAY, author of ‘Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal’: “Unemployment was creeping up toward 25 percent; the United States army used cavalry and tanks to run off protesters from Washington, D.C.; farmers could get so little for their crops that it often wasn’t worthwhile to harvest them — even though people were starving to death; the incumbent president lost the election and would neither smooth the transition to his successor nor meet the emergency of the Depression with an adequate policy of his own; Hitler won enough votes in the Reichstag elections that he would in a position to attain the chancellorship of Germany shortly after the New Year; the League of Nations reported that Japan ought to leave Manchuria to China, and in defiance Japan would leave the League, shattering the international community's already damaged credibility — both these latter points showing that what were then known as 'the aggressor powers’ were already on the march.
"For a bright spot you can have that Franklin Roosevelt did indeed win a landslide in November and the U.S. economy would begin to recover upon the implementation of his New Deal policies, starting with his first inauguration in March 1933."
Says JONATHAN ALTER, author of ‘The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope’: “In the weeks before Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration, on March 4, 1933, the United States curled up into the fetal position.
“Unemployment surged to 25 percent, but because that didn't include women, it was more like 33 percent — one third of the nation ‘ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-clothed,’ as FDR said later. The country had lost all confidence in itself and saw no end in sight.
“The British economist John Maynard Keynes was asked if the world had ever seen anything like it before. He said, ‘Yes, it was called the Dark Ages and it lasted for 500 years.’
“In the weeks before the inauguration, ruinous bank runs began in Michigan and began spreading through the country. The lucky ones got their money out and hid it under the mattress. Millions of others lost everything.
“In February in Miami, an assassin got off five shots and missed President-elect Roosevelt by inches. The mayor of Chicago, standing next to FDR, was killed. Many prominent people and the country's largest newspaper, the New York Daily News, urged Roosevelt to become a dictator. The word ‘dictator’ had a positive connotation then. Studebaker had a car called ‘the Dictator’ that sold reasonably well.
“On the night before the inauguration, the governors of several states closed their banks. The next day, FDR told the nation in his inaugural address, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Then came the thrilling first 100 days, when Roosevelt and his New Deal saved the banks, put people to work and lifted the nation's spirits, though it would be years before the Great Depression ended.”
Says University of Michigan Lecturer SCOTT ELLSWORTH, author of ‘Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921’: “Tulsa, June 1, 1921. First, they stole whatever they could. Then they set your house on fire, lighting the curtains in the bedroom.
“You weren't the only one, of course. By the end of the day, more than one thousand of your neighbors' homes and businesses will have been looted and put to the torch. They also burned the churches and the hospital, the library and the post office, the movie theatres and the roller rink.
“Come winter, you'll still be shivering inside a Red Cross tent. But right now, on this smoke-filled afternoon, you are being marched through the streets at gunpoint, with your hands in the air, while they line the sidewalks, smiling and laughing at your misfortune.”
1972 ... and every four years since
Says CLAYBORNE CARSON, Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor of History Emeritus at Stanford: “If you think 2020 in the U.S. has been tough, let me tell you about the last 19 presidential elections, in which (the majority of) White Americans have voted for the Republican and more conservative candidate.”
Says Rutgers Professor DAVID GREENBERG, author of 'Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency': "By this pivotal year, America had already undergone several years of social strife over civil rights, civil liberties, the Vietnam War, domestic rioting, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and more.
"From early in the year, Americans reeled from one crisis to the next.
"First came the Tet Offensive — the surprise attack by North Vietnamese forces on South Vietnamese positions, convincing many Americans the war was unwinnable. Soon after, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy nearly upset President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, prompting Johnson to forswear a second full term. Then came the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
"Student strikes shut down campuses. Urban riots destroyed Black neighborhoods. In August, Chicago police attacked antiwar protesters outside the Democratic convention. In September, feminists protested the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.
"Meanwhile, violent demonstrations proliferated abroad — including in Mexico City, Paris, Rome and Prague, where Soviet troops brutally crushed an anti-Communist uprising. And whereas 2020 seems to be ending on a ray of hope, with the election of a healer and man of decency, 1968 ended with the election of the deeply indecent and polarizing Richard Nixon — auguring dark times yet to come."
Says Vanderbilt Professor THOMAS SCHWARTZ, author of ‘Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography’: “1968 was a year when America had a nervous breakdown.
“More than a thousand young Americans were on average dying or being severely wounded every week in a war that our government couldn’t explain. Two of our most charismatic leader political leaders were assassinated, and one of those deaths set off a racial insurrection throughout the country, leading to images of soldiers and tanks patrolling Washington, D.C.
“Our political parties nominated their presidential candidates in cities where riots and huge demonstrations broke out, while a third-party candidate made a blatant appeal to racism and attracted significant popular support.
“Internationally, we were stalemated in an unwinnable war, standing by helplessly as North Korea seized one of our ships and tortured its crewmen, while the Soviet Union crushed a movement toward democratization in Czechoslovakia.
"A bright note finds American astronauts circling the Moon on Christmas Eve, and reading from the book of Genesis. But what a year."
Says University of Illinois grad BOB DALLEK, author of ‘An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy’: “The country was in turmoil over the Vietnam War, which cost the U.S. more than 55,000 lives, the Democratic convention in Chicago erupted in violence between police and protestors, and a French travel agent advertised, ‘See America while it lasts.’”
Says KENNETH DAVIS, author of 'More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War': "The nation, getting ready to send millions of men off to die in the trenches of Europe, was struck by the influenza pandemic. The U.S. lost more than 100,000 soldiers in the war — some of them from diseases — but that number was dwarfed by the estimated 675,000 Americans who died in a little more than a year from influenza and its complications.
"In a time when viruses had not yet been seen with the technology of the day, medicine had few answers besides aspirin, fresh air and whiskey. The iconic flu mask was common, worn by baseball players during games, police officers and street-sweepers. Some cities required them and 'mask slackers' could be fined, along with people who spit on New York’s subways.
"Cities were shut down and Thanksgiving celebrations scaled back. But a midterm election was held even as hospitals and army infirmaries were filled with 'bodies stacked like cordwood.' Morgues and undertakers could not keep pace as people turned blue, gasping for air and died, some dropping dead in the street.
"All this happened as the front pages were filled with casualty reports from the largest offensive in the Great War. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the influenza kept going — still the most deadly pandemic in American history.
"When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the influenza kept going — still the most deadly pandemic in American history."
Says Cal Tech Professor Emeritus MORGAN KOUSSER, author of ‘Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction’: “If you're a patriotic, highly Americanized, upwardly mobile Japanese American, they call you names, strip you of your property, and force you into an internment camp in some obscure, blazing hot or icy cold place for who knows how long?
“If you're any American, you've seen Hitler sweep across France, blitz Britain and plow deep into the Soviet Union, bringing mechanized terror to every corner of Europe.
“In the East, Japan continues the slaughter in China and skips from island to island, mainland country to country, throughout the South Pacific, seemingly as unstoppable as the Germans. America barely has an army, has only recently begun to rebuild its economy, lags nearly a decade behind Germany in building war production.
“Will England and the USSR survive, or will we have to face Hitler and Tojo alone, no longer safely isolated from modern warfare? Will a deeply divided America pull together? Will we find the civilian and military and economic leadership to develop our potential, potential that Hitler jibes at in his terrifying speeches to the massed thousands in their perfect lines and robot-like adulation?"
Says University of Virginia Center for Politics Director LARRY SABATO, author of ‘The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy’: “November 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy’s presidency was going about as well as tenure in the White House permits. The economy was humming, the Communist world was somewhat at bay after JFK stared down the USSR and Cuba in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy was a substantial favorite for reelection in 1964.
"However, Texas was a bit shaky because of internecine Democratic Party warfare, so the President decided to begin his campaign with a trip to major Lone Star State cities. Mrs. Kennedy, a wildly popular first lady who was still recovering from the death of the Kennedys’ infant son Patrick, decided to accompany her husband. The trip had been highly successful as they landed in Dallas, and they began a long motorcade through downtown.
"In Dealey Plaza, three shots rang out. One missed, the second struck JFK in the back and then Texas Gov. John Connally as well. The third bullet tore through President Kennedy’s head, effectively killing him instantly, though his heart continued beating for a half hour.
"The entire nation, and much of the world, was plunged into mourning. Kennedy had been the youngest elected president, at 43 — and now the youngest president to die, at 46.
"The day marked a turning point for the United States, and not in a good way. The optimism that had dominated since victory in World War II gave way to a darker view of the present and future — including conspiracy theories about the assassination that continue percolating to this day."