Warfare State

From The Mason Historiographiki

Jump to: navigation, search

James T. Sparrow. Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 336. ISBN 978-0-19-979101-9. (hdbk.).



James T. Sparrow argues that the modern American welfare state and what is often called "big government" was actually a product of World War II, rather than the New Deal. Stating that "Americans who lived through the Second World War partook of a sweeping transformation in the foundations of national government", (4) Sparrow claims that historians have paid too much attention to the limited nature of political reform in that era and therefore "we have little sense of how the extraordinary state-building of the period was accomplished with so little opposition." (10). The New Deal state was hardly as centralized as most of the other industrialized nations at the dawn of war, and the security and propaganda apparatus erected during the war by the administration of FDR was less arbitrary and overtly coercive than the ultimately more ephemeral agencies used by the Wilson administration during World War I; yet the legacy of the World War II "warfare state" was ultimately more permanent and influential.

This book is a study of political culture rather than of institutions, agencies, or legislation. Sparrow believes that the the lack of resistance to the creation of a new, powerful, and intrusive government in a democracy can only be understood if the reasons for general public acquiescence are understood. The book is divided into two parts. Part One, "Ideology, Political Culture, and State Formation", examines the status of the New Deal state at the dawn of World War II. Roosevelt's administration was largely on the defensive, as years of Depression had dampened enthusiasm for New Deal experiments and reforms, and political defeats such as the so-called "Roosevelt Recession" of 1938 as well as fall-out from the failed effort to "pack" the Supreme Court had burned up much of FDR's remaining political capital. In order to justify any preparation for possible involvement in the looming war, or even for sustained support of the Allied cause once the war in Europe began, Roosevelt needed to shift the ideological rationale for continued state involvement in economic planning. At the same time, modern techniques of polling and studying mass opinion--particularly in light of the success of Nazi propaganda in boosting fascist morale and demoralizing opposition to early Nazi military successes--both lent a new urgency to administration attempts to shape public opinion and reframe current events and the outbreak of hostilities within the larger goals of New Deal liberalism. Finally, the growth of the state led to the growth of anti-government conspiracy theories as opposition to the New Deal and the state-building project had to be reformulated with the context of unquestioned patriotic support for the war effort. This paranoia paradoxically strengthened the state even as it attack it.

Part Two is entitled "Encountering the State in Everyday Life." The actual interaction between the state and citizens is examined through, respectively; the increased fiscal demands the state placed on citizens through the sale of war bonds and the broadening of the income tax base from a wealthy minority to nearly all working Americans; the ideological pressure on the civilian workforce to identify with the war effort and for individual workers to modify their behavior in line with the "war effort" and the national interest; and the ways in which deployed soldiers considered their own place within the war effort and how this altered their relationship to the state as citizen-soldiers. The book concludes with a consideration of how the end of the war did not result in an immediate dismantling of this new, expanded federal apparatus, nor did it resolves the increased expectations that citizens had towards the national government in wake of the rhetoric of shared sacrifice and endeavor during the war. Rather, the outbreak of the Korean War would essentially address the problem of unemployment and reduced productivity in the wake of demilitarization by, in effect, permanently militarizing the economy and therefore validating the new conception of the relationship between citizen and state at least through the Vietnam War and the rise of American conservatism in the 1970s.

Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

One of the fundamental themes to Sparrow's book is how it was necessary for the "warfare state" to create the appearance of consensus and volunteerism "because national power rested more firmly than ever on a state that obscured the sources of its power". (259) This act of deception was not a product of mere subterfuge, but rather a reflection of the democratic nature of American society and the newness of the claims the American state was making to an unprecedented level of centralized authority and coercive power. The New Deal state entered World War II with much of its energy already sapped in bruising wars with its conservative and reactionary opposition, even as it struggled to articulate a coherent and persuasive counter to the ideological claims and military prowess of the totalitarian regimes it sought to go to war against.

Two figures tower over this book--FDR, who despite some missteps had an uncanny sense for how far he could push the public and where it was willing to be led; and "G.I. Joe," the idealized figure of masculine American self-sacrifice and patriotism. The latter would provide both a tool for the state and its capitalist allies to shape, inspire, and shame public sentiment and private behavior, as well as a template marking out the possibilities and limits for civilians, minorities, and women to also lay partial claim to the new entitled citizenship which soldiers had already laid full claim to.

The book covers mass entertainment, union agitation, race riots, and right-wing anti-government conspiracies, as the carefully masked rise of the national welfare state disrupted existing hierarchies of race, class, and gender and reordered the relationship between the citizen and the state in the decades following the war.

Dan Curry, Spring 2014

In his book, Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government, James T. Sparrow attempts to answer the question, “How was it that this massive new warfare state, with its global mission, attracted so little dissent that had marked the Great War and the debate over the League of Nations, even while it eluded the more recent quarrels that had hobbled the late New Deal and the debate over intervention” (p. 8)? Sparrow eloquently answers this question by framing his study around the United States creating an imagined national community that quickly overshadowed pre-existing local, state and regional allegiances. Although not specifically mentioned, his work parallels many of the ideas found in Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

The new community construct was centered on the soldier (and veteran) as a cultural icon. The symbol of the soldier was used to legitimize expectations of citizen responsibilities to the government by connecting individuals to the WWII soldier in actions such as buying war bonds, paying income taxes, adhering to rationing restrictions and meeting production levels in war industries. The symbol of the soldier also legitimized the expectations of government responsibilities to individual citizens through the explanation of why the soldier was fighting. Differences between the United States and the Axis Powers were articulated through Roosevelt’s articulation of the “Four Freedoms.” But, full access to national citizenship could only be earned through the support of the soldier and the greater war effort.

Sparrow articulately reveals how the national government used print media and films to proliferate these ideas which were modified from the bottom up through the government’s use of extensive polling of soldiers and civilians during the war. Although similar strategies were used during WWI, Sparrow explains that the long term acceptance of national power was institutionalized due to the length of WWII, understanding that the warfare state needed to continue after WWII due to the need to help rebuild the post-war world and involvement in the Korean War and the Cold War. The new role and power of government was also supported after the war by the returning veterans who were now used to strong central authority through their experience in the military as well as their support of generous veteran’s benefits.

Warfare State provides a significant example and contribution to the historiography of imagined communities. It can also be integrated into the growing historiography of revisionist historians, such as William Novak, who disagree with the “myth of a timeless ‘weak state’” through the study of American infrastructural power.

Andrew Salamone Spring 2016

James T. Sparrow built upon concepts found in Christopher Capozzola’s Uncle Sam Wants You in his 2011 book Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government. While Sparrow agreed with Capozzola concerning the important role that crisis played in the development of state power, he differed in that he specifically identified the growth of the state as a constraint on the individual freedoms of citizens. He contended that “Nationalism-spurred by a near-constant state of emergency generated by depression and world war-overrode the rights of the individual in countless ways” He noted that the state’s ability to harness the volunteerism of its citizens was a critical component that enabled the expansion of state power, an assertion that echoed Capozzola’s analysis of the situation during World War I. In particular, he cited the role Americans played in financing the war through the sale of war bonds, and perhaps more important, in the enforcement of the newly implemented income tax. He claimed that “much as the war agencies regulating work were forced to hope for the compliance of employers and unions to carry out the great bulk of their rulings, so too did the Treasury lack the state capacity to coerce or even audit most of the millions of citizens who owed income tax for the first time in their lives.” As with Capozzola, Sparrow also described the impact that the state’s encouragement of citizens to help enforce the voluntary censorship of both the media and of individuals, which the state couched in terms of a necessity to defend freedom, had on the population’s attitudes towards surveillance and on the development of governing institutions. He contended that “in enlisting citizens to monitor their own speech as well as that of their neighbors, the government instilled not only acceptance but also faith in its surveillance.” He claimed that this “bolstered the legitimacy of one part of the federal government-the agencies associated with national security-at the expense of the others.” This latter point seemed to argue for a competitive relationship between various federal bureaucracies, though he did not explore this aspect in detail. His emphasis on voluntarism also seems to support earlier contentions that societal changes prompted state responses, which generally meant assuming greater responsibilities.

Sparrow’s work diverged significantly from Capozola concerning the visibility of the state and its expanded role in the lives of its citizens. Capozzola indicated that the state’s expansion, regardless of whether it took the form of greater presidential power, the creation of new bureaucracies, or the important role Congress and interest groups played, was apparent and accepted by a significant portion of the population. In contrast, Sparrow argued that during this period “national power rested more firmly than ever on a state that obscured the sources of its power.” This ability to obscure the presence of the state, Sparrow contended, derived from the state’s success in masking its involvement in everything from managing the economy to surveilling the population, was made easier by the government’s coopting of volunteerism during World War II. The state also took steps to make its increasing involvement not only palatable to its citizens, but also desirable, the result of providing a wide range of entitlements to military veterans and war workers. He noted that “workers looked to the federal government to protect the vague but resonant rights they felt they had earned as partners in the battle for production.” Similarly, he argued that the large number of military veterans that resulted from mass conscription “inculcated obedience as well as entitlement, making the veterans of World War II among the most ardent defenders of government authority.” Sparrow seems to indicate the growth of the state was fostered by the cooperation of governing institutions and interest groups, either knowingly or coincidentally, and that the goal of this accumulation of power ran in stark contrast to the democratic ideals espoused in American political culture.

Stephanie Seal Walters, Spring 2016

Sparrow's work, Warfare State examines the way American culture changed during World War II, especially how Americans began to embrace the war as well as the war effort. Not only did American culture change, but the emphasis on patriotism and identity became more militarized. Where troops were glorified in wars previous to World War II, deciding to join the Army, the Navy, or the Marine Corps gained even more popularity. World War II masculinity became defined by those who decided to join the war and American womanhood became defined by those who raised money for the war effort, bought war bonds, participated in rationing, and/or went to work in the factories to produce supplies for the men who left home. The men and women who supported the war via support or fighting were turned into national icons who were immortalized in wartime propaganda.

Additionally, the war forced Americans to reevaluate democracy, capitalism, and ideas surrounding freedom. Propaganda during the war described the foreigners they fought against as un-free. The Axis, which limited the rights of their citizens was deemed evil and America as being a patriotic utopia as citizens supposedly enjoyed "natural human rights". Sparrow posits that World War II and the World War II generation perpetuated 20th century ideas of freedom and patriotism by describing dedication and duty to the United States. Much of this was accomplished by veterans who came back from the war and lobbied more access to benefits for those who join the armed forces and served.

Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

In Sparrow’s work Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government, he examines the unprecedented expansion of the federal government during WWII, in both its scope and authority. He attempts to uncover how is it possible that such a massive warfare state attracted so little opposition. He argues that the federal government, under the direction of the Roosevelt administration, manipulated Americans into supporting the war effort and by extension the growing nation state. Despite almost universal support for the war following Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war the government recognized that they needed more than just ideological support, they needed to convince Americans to contribute (mainly physically/fiscally) to the war effort as much as they could. Over the radio using carefully chosen language FDR manipulated Americans into supporting the war. The government used films, posters, music, radio broadcasts and many other types of propaganda to convince Americans to buy war bonds, ration food and other materials, enlist, report draft dodgers and most importantly willingly pay income taxes. The government coerced American contributions by claiming that it was the citizen’s duty to the soldier- Americans were led to believe that everything they contributed to the war efforts benefited soldiers fighting overseas. It was a successful tactic as it gave the war effort a human face- a specific person for the average American to connect to when aiding the effort.

Sparrow argues that the warfare state created citizenships, including fiscal citizenships (paying taxes and buying bonds), social citizenships (military service, civilian sacrifice and war work) and national citizenship. As all types of American contributed to the effort they began to expect that the government provide all that they wanted or an “American standard of living.” Americans were willing to make sacrifices for their country as long as the government upheld what citizens believed was their obligation to the people.

Sparrow discusses the influence of the war and the growing nation state on workers, African Americans and even women as they assumed new roles as citizens that they believed entitled them to certain things as Americans.

John Rand, Fall 2020

As the summary to this historiographiki initially notes, James Sparrow argues in Warfare State that it was World War II rather than the New Deal that shaped consensus in support of a stronger and more active federal government. Although this key point of Sparrow’s belies the popular image of the New Deal with its massive governmental interventions, Sparrow produces much evidence to support his thesis. He raises many reasons to differentiate the two eras and show why the war required more governmental activism, such as the draft, the necessary foreign alliances, the increased regulation of a wartime economy, and the mobilization and control of the populace for war production. Sparrow also examines the effect of the “warfare state” on everyday life, including efforts to personally connect every citizen with the repercussions of the war as a method used by the government to increase its ability to exercise political power in defense of the nation.

An interesting question to ask in light of all of Sparrow’s evidence is why there is a popular image of the New Deal as a greater source of “big government” than World War II. Jordan Schwarz’s The New Dealers points to the unprecedented massive recapitalization of the 1930s engineered by the federal government for the purpose of economic development during the New Deal. The goal of the New Deal was to prevent an economic collapse, and the only solution that prevented collapse was for the federal government to throw itself at the economy like a blanket smothering a fire. Thus the New Deal preceded World War II in attempting, not always successfully, to supplant American traditions of individualism, regionalism, and the supremacy of private property. A key connection of Schwarz’s book to Sparrow’s thesis is the story of how Henry Kaiser and other businessmen were allowed to use New Deal state capitalism to revive big business in the scramble to increase war production. As Schwarz notes, federal outlays during the war made the enormous spending of 1938-39 appear minuscule. (310) The answer to the question then of why there is a popular image of the New Deal as the originator of big government may be that the New Deal gets the credit for having created the pathway for the larger opportunities during the war, with the war having the advantages of more spending, actual combat, and fewer social challenges to promote the even greater growth and legitimacy of the federal state.

Anne Dobberteen, Fall 2020

Sparrow successfully argues that Americans came to accept and expect greater state involvement in their lives not during the "welfare state" that emerged during the Depression, but rather with the expanded and powerful "warfare state" that burst forth during World War II: "as the larger trajectory of federal spending, revenue, debt, employment, and military deployment in the twentieth century makes clear, the Second World War, building on but also superseding the New Deal, was a critical turning point or the growth of the federal government within American society." (6) Sparrow's economic, political, and social history examines how the state attempted to shape public opinion to support the warfare state through surveillance, peer pressure, propaganda, and by appealing to Americans' identity as consumers. Ultimately, "by the war's end…Americans had authorized a government far larger and more intrusive than the New Deal had ever been. Although this warfare state would not be finalized until the looming confrontations with the Soviet Union hardened into the Cold War, Americans had already learned to live with the leviathan and accept its demands as legitimate during the 'good war,' whose Manichean imagery and overtones of Armageddon lived on to define postwar political culture." (243)

Sparrow's work does a nice job in many respects. I most appreciated his incorporation of everyday people's voices and reactions to the war and especially to President Roosevelt's Fireside Chats. He often quotes oral history interviews conducted by Library of Congress folklorists who roved the country trying to both influence and capture the public opinion of "the man on the street." He also looks at posters, radio shows, films, advertisements, and other cultural productions. His discussion of Kate Smith's radio broadcast to sell war bonds by projecting a maternal counterpart to FDR's reassuring, paternal radio presence helps readers today better understand something of the political culture of the 1940s. However, while Sparrow does visit how racial minority groups like Blacks, Jews, and Japanese Americans were discriminated against, disparaged, and/or given new opportunities during the war, he could have woven in more analysis about women's role in the armed forces and on the homefront. More examples of women's experiences as WACs, WAVES, WASPs, and SPARs could have served as counterpoints to the experiences of the much-glorified GI combat solder.

David Marsich, Spring 2022

In Warfare State, Sparrow maps the many ways in which the Federal Government grew in size and authority during the Second World War. At its core however, this is a book about the relationship between ordinary Americans and the state – the ways that they thought about the state, their sense of obligation towards it during a time of war, and their belief about what the state owed them. Sparrow does this by exploring the places where state formation and grassroots political culture met to better understand how Americans’ beliefs about the state, and their place within it, shaped their actions (9). In largely thematic chapters that trace a broad arc from the end of the 1930s to the years following V-J Day, Sparrow convincingly argues that the war years reshaped American’s understanding of what their owed the state (both financially and otherwise) and what they in turn could expect.

One theme throughout the book is the imagined link that Americans developed, and which public-private propagandists helped cultivate, between their actions at home and the GI who fought overseas. In accepting new levels of taxation, buying warbonds, and surveilling speech, draft dodgers, and other ways, American civilians subordinated some of their own interests and wealth for cause that Roosevelt had presented as the Four Freedoms: the right to speech and worship, and the freedom from want and from fear. Simultaneously, Americans developed expectations in regards to the government maintaining full employment, challenging (or upholding) racial hierarchies, and ensuring a sense of fairness as far as shares sacrifice. Sparrow, while illustrating areas of consensus where Americans largely “bought in” to things like war bond programs, is also careful to illustrate areas of conflict, where war workers’ high wages engendered a sense of resentment in other areas of society, or where conscientious objectors came under scrutiny for failing to serve with other 1A draftees. The government was successful in mobilizing Americans to see themselves as part of a total war, but also succeeded in encouraging Americans’ insistence on entitlements.

Sparrow’s attention to the role of public opinion throughout the book is notable. Roosevelt, personally, and his administration, paid careful attention to how what Americans thought about the war, the government, and their own changing lives. State formation here is not only top-down, but a reciprocal process where the willingness of the public to facilitate the growth of the government is important to the narrative. In this way there also seems to be continuity with some studies of the New Deal that emphasize the state’s cultivation of public opinion, such as Schivelbsuch’s Three New Deals (2006). While early commentators here are right that Sparrow argues that the war proved more significant that the New Deal, there is continuity with the New Deal as well. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, his attention to how the public responded via mail, polls, and public-private efforts to sell the administration’s policies directly to the people are all lines of continuity with the New Deal. While Sparrow's conclusion that the war dwarved the New Deal in contributing to the growth of government, one might also wonder whether this would have been possible whether this expansion would have looked the same without the New Deal.

Caroline Greer, Spring 2022

In Warfare State, Sparrow seeks to answer why the expansion of the federal government became accepted, unlike the controversial programs of the New Deal stemming from the Great Depression. To answer this, Sparrow sorts through the cozy fireside chats of Franklin Roosevelt, who became like a father figure to white Americans; the growing acceptance of total war and the need for intervention, especially after Pearl Harbor; intense propaganda that focused on every person’s contribution to the war effort that created a “national ‘imagined community” around the soldier and openly spoke of death (14), taxation and war bonds, and coercive tactics that were seen as patriotism and voluntarism. The war, as an emergency, and with the cult of patriotism created, allowed the federal government to get bigger than the New Deal ever envisioned; once the war was over, the legacy was permanent.

This book has similarities to Cappozola’s Uncle Sam Wants You, despite this book being about World War I. Both Cappozola and Sparrow focus on the role of government during the war, expanded interaction between the government and its citizens, and the role of propaganda and coercion in getting people involved in voluntarism. Tying the two together gives a longer lineage to the expansion of the federal government throughout the early 20th century and the role of war mobilization, perhaps more important than the Great Depression.

Personal tools