Time and Again


For the past 38 years, I have been writing about current events, trying to make some sort of point about how those events might affect the school supply industry. In all that time, I have rarely said much about war.

It’s not because there haven’t been any, as the U.S. has been directly involved in at least three, and indirectly in several others. Nor is it because wars don’t have a major impact upon our industry, because they clearly do.

It’s more a matter of the effects being so obvious that I don’t think anyone really needs to point them out. On the contrary, it seems more remarkable to me that life, and business, go on in spite of the horrible violence going on somewhere in the world.

The National School Supply and Equipment Association, now called the Education Market Association, was founded smack in the middle of World War One. While millions were dying in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium, the pioneers of our industry were gathering to carve up the burgeoning American education market.

At the beginning of that war, by the way, the British author H.G. Wells published a book entitled “The War that Will End War.” It became a catch phrase among the idealistic, but by the end of the fighting there were those who used the phrase in a more sarcastic sense.

It turned out that their pessimism was well-founded. The Second World War began just 21 years after the end of the first one, close enough that a lot of the same people participated in both.

The war officially began when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. To give you some idea where America’s head was at the time, “The Wizard of Oz” opened nationwide a few days earlier. The biggest movie premiere of all time, “Gone With the Wind,” happened just three months later.

It was a good year for business in the United States. Gross Domestic Product grew by 8 percent, a feat it has not matched in the last 70 years, and the Great Depression was finally over. For the next two years, as Europe slid deeper into fascism, war and genocide, the U.S. economy continued to improve. Our GDP increased by nearly 9 percent in 1940, and 18 percent in 1941.

  During that time many Europeans, especially the British, begged the United States to intervene, but the great majority of the American people opposed getting involved. Prominent citizens such as Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford and Ohio Governor Robert Taft headed up committees and gave speeches supporting isolationism.

  In September of 1940, Franklin Roosevelt signed the “Lend-Lease Act,” which provided Navy destroyers, aircraft and anti-aircraft batteries to England in exchange for military bases in Canada and the Caribbean. The same week he established a draft, requiring American men from 18 to 36 to register. The famous newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer said that those actions demonstrated that Roosevelt was trying to become a dictator and was guilty of war crimes.

Although the government began to prepare for war, the public would remain staunchly opposed to bailing out Europe for another 15 months, even as England fought desperately to survive. That would change in a single day in December of 1941.

Amid the smoking ruins of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, isolationism virtually disappeared. Hitler then sealed the deal by declaring war on the United States, and the American economy switched into high gear to manufacture ships, planes, tanks, trucks, etc.

When the war ended in 1945, and demand for all those armaments came to an abrupt halt, our economy went into recession. Part of what ended that slump in the late ’40s was, guess what, another war, this time on the Korean peninsula. It was the first war that we fought on a limited basis, with nuclear powers dancing around on opposite sides of a local conflict.

It would not be the last. In some ways Vietnam was remarkably similar, a north-versus-south civil war, with Russia and China supporting the communist north and the U.S. providing ground and air forces to fight for the (theoretically) democratic south. The objectives were far less clear, however, and it ended up being longer, deadlier, more confusing and more divisive.

Unlike other wars, there was no single, dramatic event that set it off. We started getting involved on a very small scale in the early 1960s, and then it just gradually escalated into the horrible, “Apocalypse Now” nightmare of the late ’60s. The longer it dragged on, the more the public turned against it.

Business, however, followed its usual pattern, picking up along with the pace of our military buildup, and dropping off into a recession following the end of the war. For the school supply industry, the Vietnam era was a period of explosive growth, as teacher stores opened all over America.

On the other side of the aisle, publishers of instructional materials, classroom décor, incentives, etc., multiplied and flourished along with educational-toy makers, furniture companies, audio-visual suppliers and various others. The boom did not stop with the recession, but continued on through the ’70s and ’80s.

Had I been destined to be sent off to war, incidentally, that would have been the one. By the time I was old enough to register for the draft in the spring of 1971, the Pentagon was starting to scale down, and my number never got called up. I can’t say I was disappointed.

Nonetheless, the Vietnam War had a major effect on this company. My partner in founding the business, Tom Williams, spent several years in Southeast Asia, which caused him to be a little older than most of his college classmates. I was one of those, and we became fast friends.

A few years after graduation we got back together, working for a teaching aid publisher that some of you may remember, called Instructor Curriculum Materials. After that business was broken up by its parent company, Tom and I teamed up to buy Educational Dealer Magazine, which is still one of our publications 38 years later. Tom passed away four years ago.

At any rate, Vietnam cast a long shadow. There is an old expression that “generals are always fighting the last war,” meaning that military minds are preoccupied with the mistakes of the past rather than the likely scenarios of the future. The bitter experience of Vietnam has left us more hesitant than ever to get involved with “other people’s wars.”

Periodically, though, that sentiment is challenged by a situation that appeals powerfully to our sense of right and wrong, or arouses our fears that a regional conflict will spread. Such was the case in 1914, as it is today.

In business, too, the patterns repeat themselves. Markets get shaky when wars break out. You would not have wanted to buy stocks in the days following Pearl Harbor, nor in the days following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Then economies pick up during the fighting, and drop off afterward.

And so it goes.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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