The Origins of ‘Big Government’: FDR’s Welfare or Warfare?

Warfare State: World  War II Americans and the Age of Big Government
James T. Sparrow (New York: Oxford UP, 2011)

In the mid-1980s, William Leuchtenburg, a professor at the University of North Carolina and the president of the Organization of American Historians, wrote that the political historian’s status in the profession had been reduced to something “between that of a faith healer and a chiropractor.” While flirting with a political historian may be countenanced as a youthful indiscretion, Leuchtenburg cautioned that “you might not want to bring one home to meet the family.”

A quarter century later, academic political historians may still be held at arm’s length in some of their discipline’s more fashionable enclaves, but they are at least once again presentable in public. Part of their resurgence owes to an alliance formed with historically oriented political scientists who felt similarly marginalized within their own field. In the last few decades, this band of scholars has reasserted political history’s importance in their respective disciplines. University of Chicago associate professor James T. Sparrow’s new book is one of the fine fruits of this restoration. Warfare State is primarily tailored to an academic audience, but in concert with a growing trend in the history profession—and in contrast with mainstream political science scholarship—it is also likely to find a lay audience. And whether within or outside the ivory tower, readers will be forced to reconsider a standard interpretation of American state development and the consequences of the profound changes ushered in during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.

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Traditional accounts of American political development hold that Roosevelt’s Depression-induced New Deal welfare state transformed the national government from a diminutive backwater overshadowed by the states into the “big government” behemoth at the center of today’s partisan and ideological rancor. But Sparrow persuasively shows that it was, in fact, Roosevelt’s warfare—rather than welfare—state that fundamentally altered American government. The scope and reach of the federal agencies that mobilized the country for World War II rapidly exceeded what only several years earlier had been precedent-shattering New Deal programs, quadrupling—virtually overnight—the New Deal’s level of federal outlays as a percentage of the gross national product. And whereas the New Deal’s emergency welfare programs reached 28.6 million recipients, war mobilization restructured daily life for the more than 85 million Americans serving in the armed forces, holding bonds, paying income taxes, rationing key provisions, or working in industrial or white collar positions. In short, while the war effort may have been built on the New Deal’s foundation, it quickly and decisively erected giant structures all its own.

As important as this insight is for our understanding of state development, a second and equally intriguing puzzle Sparrow sets out to solve is how a country founded on suspicion of centralized power—and one in which the New Deal’s initial expansionary efforts frequently met stiff resistance—happily acquiesced to the unprecedented and invasive expansion of state authority during World War II. Indeed, Sparrow argues that the war’s most important legacy may be the way it provided legitimacy for and inculcated the populace’s acceptance of an expansive nationalized role for the state.

The war’s financing regime aptly illustrates both the scope of change and how Americans came to embrace it. Prior to World War II, few Americans had ever paid income tax. But to cover the government’s wartime spending, a withholding tax on wages was introduced that, for the first time, touched most Americans. V-J Day might have been expected to mark the beginning of the end for what was seen as an emergency measure, but the mass income tax surprisingly remained in place and, even more shockingly, was broadly accepted in a country founded partly on a rejection of taxation. The government managed to square the circle, Sparrow maintains, by blending the previously opposed forces of liberalism and nationalism to “create a unitary national interest [that was] the administration’s most enduring ideological accomplishment.” In this way, World War II was more successful than the New Deal in forging a sense of national citizenship. It shifted Americans’ primary allegiance to a national government that had once competed for such attachments with states, localities, regions, religions, and civic associations.

However, the new relationship between state and citizen entailed more than a new willingness to passively and altruistically part with the fruits of one’s labor in support of Washington bureaucracy. Americans accepted “big government,” but simultaneously adopted big expectations and staked a claim to government entitlements. It was with World War II, Sparrow argues, that “the stage had been set for what sociologist Daniel Bell called the ‘revolution of rising entitlements.’” Americans acceded to a more vigorous government, but the “resulting sensibility—‘that’s my tax dollar’—has resonated throughout the national political culture ever since.”

In explaining the expansion of the American state and its implications, Sparrow blends the political historian’s focus on elite actors with the social historian’s attention to culture and common people. Warfare State is at its best in captivating passages that recount how everyday Americans in factories, on farms, in cities, and manning the front lines perceived the often monumental changes that temporarily upended and permanently altered their daily lives. This frequently unsettling, but often demystifying and humanizing, portrayal of 1940s America offers a corrective to the popular mythology surrounding the “greatest generation.” The apple-pie heroism that dominates depictions of World War II from Hollywood and other establishment media outlets is certainly not altogether absent in Sparrow’s account. But it is only one piece of a complicated picture that also features elite-level manipulators, stifling social pressures, war profiteering, race riots, labor strife, disillusioned GIs, and deeply ingrained resentment and suspicion provoked by privileges and ill-gotten earnings, both real and imagined.


Yet despite its noteworthy accomplishments, some of the conclusions Sparrow reaches are questionable. For instance, he identifies World War II as America’s coming-out party on the world stage: “Internationally, American power leapt far beyond territorial bounds, inaugurating an era of globalism” that “represented a historic break with more than a century of international aloofness predating the Monroe Doctrine.” To be sure, the United States established key and enduring alliances during World War II (though that with “big three” ally Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union was a decidedly short-lived marriage of convenience) and the American military footprint expanded while more dollars headed overseas. But the US was certainly not an ingénue on the international scene when Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The Mexican War, the Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, and the fifty-year occupation of the Philippines had provided ample opportunity for the United States to extend its power well beyond its territorial bounds and lay claim to an impressive array of what had previously been foreign lands around the globe. And George Washington’s warnings about foreign entanglements had long been forgotten. America’s World War I engagement to make the world “safe for democracy” involved a broad coalition with other nations and a set of semi-permanent interests and alliances. In short, the United States had been prominently and steadily increasing its international role for a full century before World War II.

In addition, Sparrow emphasizes the stark inequality between blacks and whites during the 1940s but underplays the way in which the war aided racial progress. He quotes an Army private’s letter to Roosevelt in which the soldier notes his “extreme pride” in the president’s war aims, which included seeking “freedom, equality, and justice [and] a world in which all persons, regardless of race, color, and creed, may live in peace, honor, and dignity,” but points out that these heroic ideals were undermined by an obvious lack of democracy and racial equality in both the US military and American society. The private, of course, was not alone in noting the irony. But the environment of war—underscored by African American soldiers serving admirably in combat units—led to positive change. Sparrow does briefly mention that “it was not a coincidence that black veterans played such a central role in leading the early civil rights movement.” But this new source of “pride in uniform” for black soldiers that spurred mobilization and an assertion of “their right to serve their country and claim full citizenship” was only one positive effect. More tangibly, the recognition of wartime sacrifice facilitated the elimination of the poll tax and the Democratic Party’s use of the white primary in the South. Needless to say, much remained to be done concerning race in America. However, these incremental shifts brought about by World War II inspired real changes that chipped away at systematized racial discrimination and laid the foundation for further reform, both inside and outside the military.

Sparrow’s identification of the permanent peacetime draft as an outgrowth of World War II is also overdrawn. He is certainly correct in emphasizing its intrusive effect on the lives of young men and the manner in which it ordered society for a generation, but he overstates the case by claiming that it was the result of World War II teaching Americans “to obey government authority in its most extreme forms.” The peacetime draft might more properly be seen as an outgrowth of the Cold War and especially the Korean War. Following World War II, the draft ended. And though a weak form of it returned about six months later, just thirty thousand men were actually drafted during its first two years back on the books. It was only after the outbreak of conflict in Korea that the draft became a permanent feature of peacetime America, leading to the conscription of an average of two hundred and twenty thousand draftees annually over the next fifteen years.

These shortcomings, however, do not overshadow Warfare State’s achievement of upending the standard interpretation of American state development. The book also represents another important step in the revival of political history in the attention it pays to the way the American state and elite actors influence society. Political scientists—including those without historical inclinations—should applaud this kind of scholarship. History allows the social scientist to identify links between the present and the past while providing contextual knowledge and a body of material for testing theories. Unencumbered by political science’s rigid subfield demarcations that separate the domestic from the international, and unburdened by the need to make history conform to broad social science constructs, Sparrow’s work should play a role in forcing political scientists to reexamine the interplay between domestic and foreign affairs and to reconsider the international origins of today’s partisan and ideological disputes.

Robert P. Saldin is an associate professor of political science at the University of Montana and the author of War, the American State, and Politics since 1898.

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