It’s great that Yogi Berra interrupted his baseball career to serve in World War II, including participating in the D-Day invasion. It was pretty common then; Ted Williams, who served as a pilot in both World War II and Korea, is another example. It’s unlikely to happen today. The only example that comes to mind is Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals football player who died in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan.
In World War II almost everybody served — rich, poor, athletes, bookworms — maybe not so much black or white, Japanese or Anglo. But most everybody served. I think that because so many served together it unified the country after World War II. The country was booming because it was almost untouched while much of Europe and Asia was decimated. Business executives had the same chance then that they have now to pay themselves huge salaries in comparison with their employees, but they didn’t. Part of the reason was that unions were stronger, so that CEOs were in a relatively weaker position viz-a-viz their employees. And the top tax bracket was around 90%; so, it hardly made sense to pay yourself millions if you only got to keep ten cents on the dollar.
But I think that the universal service in World War II built a sense of national camaraderie. Many times, the workers had served under someone like their bosses in the Army. And the bosses, if they had been officers in the military, would have come to know and respect the men who served under them in much more intimate and trying conditions than they would ever confront in industry.
While there are still rags to riches stories today of CEOs who come from humble beginnings, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Often those who make it to the top from the bottom do it by stepping on their poorer colleagues. The more usual route is for CEOs to come from relatively well off families, go to good schools (often Ivy League), and then parlay those connections into a good job. As a result, the CEOs have little connection with or feeling for their employees. The CEO sees himself as working for the “stockholders,” which really means himself, because he pays himself richly in stock options.
Thus, it makes no difference to the CEO whether his employees are in China, India, Vietnam, or America. He just wants to put his product out for the lowest possible cost, and if his employees have no health insurance, that’s tough. It was the World War II generation that made health insurance possible for average workers, maybe because executives thought it was the right thing to do. Maybe they went a little overboard because of union pressure. But I think that in general, they cared much more for their works as human beings than CEOs and other executives do today.
Today there is no more military draft. In general, children from nice families do not go into the military. And we have the growing rift in America between the rich and poor, making it extremely unlikely that the conditions of World War II will be repeated. It may be a good deal for the rich, but it is the country’s loss. We read it everyday in casualty reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, in the unemployment statistics, and in the degrading quality of life in America — politically, intellectually, culturally, and financially.