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What’s in a War?

Channeling the spirit of America's entry into World War II, President Joe Biden has promised a mass mobilization of people and resources to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. But if defeating a virus is like waging a war, several important historical lessons and caveats should be kept in mind.

PRINCETON – US President Joe Biden started his term with a beautifully crafted speech that caught the spirit of a country exhausted by Trumpism and COVID-19. Biden has promised a “full-scale, wartime effort” against the pandemic. But hasn’t our tired world already been in the trenches for a year now?

On March 19, 2020, when Donald Trump belatedly started to act as though the coronavirus might be serious, he referred to “our big war” and promised to “continue our relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus.” Similarly, Chinese President Xi Jinping on February 6, 2020, declared a “people’s war” against the virus.

Of course, Trump’s war quickly went off the rails, as have previous US attempts to deploy the war analogy outside of a military or diplomatic context. In June 1971, President Richard Nixon, calling drug abuse “public enemy number one,” launched the “war on drugs,” which President Ronald Reagan expanded. Fifty years later, this mobilization is almost universally recognized as having failed.

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