Wednesday’s Book Review: “Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government”

warfare-stateWarfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government. By James T. Sparrow. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

This book has a simple, but elegant, thesis: The author challenges the longstanding belief that FDR’s New Deal, an effort to mitigate the suffering of the Great Depression, ushered in the age of “big government” in the United States. Instead, James T. Sparrow asserts that the New Deal was a modest effort with confined results that lasted only a short time. What truly refocused the America nation was the effort to win the Second World War, setting in place a massive government apparatus ten times the size of the New Deal’s welfare programs.

This seemingly permanent transformation of the United States discussed in Warfare State not only demonstrates the how and why of FDR’s vast expansion of the federal government during World War II; its most important contribution is an exploration of how Americans came to accept this expansion of authority as a permanent—or at least semi-permanent—aspect of national life. Sparrow writes that virtually universal American participation in military service or some other type of war work, as well the hardships of rationing, price control, sacrifice, income taxes, war bond drives, and associated actions associated with civic virtue created an environment where everyone came to accept the “warfare state.”

Through this process the American public was encouraged to see itself as part of a larger body politick; Americans were personally connected to both soldiers on the front as well as tied to the larger war effort. Patriotism served as glue that held these ideas together. Civilian actions at home translated explicitly to support for soldiers on the battlefield. This patriotism led to a linkage between citizens, soldiers, the nation, and the government.

In essence, Sparrow argues that the crisis of World War II brought to the fore a sense of duty and unity toward the state as never before. He also emphasizes the rise of income taxes as a way of life, internationalism as a national priority, and business, mass production, and consumerism as a normal aspect of American life. The modern activist state, therefore, emerged first in the confines of the New Deal, but it was fleeting at best. It took on permanence in World War II. A large activist government was no longer an anomaly, but a continuing reality.

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3 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government”

  1. rangerdon says:

    Forwarded to a few friends. There is no question that we have entered a war/police/corporate state era. Ironically, those who mumble patriotic platitudes and wrap themselves in the flag are the greatest supporters of this. The new condition is the antithesis of the foundation of United States values.


    • rangerdon says:

      PS. Since George R. Stewart saw this coming and wrote about it in his novel The Years of the City, I will likely post this as part of a post about the novel. Please let me know if this is not ok with you. Thanks, DMS


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