Monday, August 29, 2011

State of purpose

In Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government, James T. Sparrow brings to life a lost world of liberalism (and its lingering discontent)

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site (and is currently its home page for the 8/29 edition).

In the lifetime of most contemporary Americans -- in the lifetimes of most Americans, period -- the prevailing opinion has been that when it comes to federal government intervention in the lives of ordinary citizens, less is more. Those of us with an even passing familiarity with U.S. history are aware that this has not always been so, and think of the middle third of the twentieth century in particular as a time when Big Government did not simply prevail, but was the prevailing common sense. And that this common sense took root during Franklin Delano's Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s.

In this important new book, however, University of Chicago professor James T. Sparrow corrects that perception in a significant way. It was not FDR's New Deal that really transformed Americans' relationship with their government, he says. It was FDR's Second World War. In the words of the title, what we think of as the welfare state was really a warfare state. Sparrow is not the first person to make such a case; scholars like Michael S. Sherry (In the Shadow of War, 1995) and Robert Westbrook, Why We Fought, 2004), have explored similar terrain. But Sparrow traverses it with a touch that is at once deft, informed, and imaginative. Rarely is so comprehensive an argument delivered in so concise a manner (about 260 pages).

The facts of the case are relatively straightforward. When it comes to things the scale of government spending, the breadth of federal taxation, and the role of bureaucracies in reaching shaping realms that ranged from advertising to surveillance, World War II dwarfs any previous moment in American history. One of the great ironies of this development, as Sparrow makes clear, is that it occurred at the very moment the New Deal was headed for political eclipse. Even more ironic, as he also makes clear, is that this assertion of state power was made by people who simultaneously affirmed liberal values of individual aspiration and political rights and who plausibly contrasted themselves with totalitarian powers whose hold on their citizenry was absolute.

But Sparrow's case is more subtle still. In a mode of analysis that harkens back to insights of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, he's interested in the complex interaction between a national state that seeks to mold opinion and a public which resists and adapts, as well as accepts, the logic of a ruling elite. The U.S. government made demands on people -- by drafting them, regulating what they could be paid, and rationing what they ate. But to a remarkable degree, it enforced assent to such policies by relying on a combination of volunteerism, peer pressure, and propaganda.

At the same time, however, the the government and its people were involved in a complex negotiation over the price of such assent. That price could be understandable, even laudable, when it took the form of expectations that war veterans would be well cared for, literally and figuratively, when they came home. It could also be much less laudable, as when the government condoned racism against African Americans in the South or Asians in the West by avoiding fights over such issues in the name of Getting the Job Done.

Sparrow illustrates his argument with approaches that combine political, economic, and, especially, cultural history. He does a nice job with a 1943 Kate Smith broadcast, explaining why the singer was uniquely positioned, by virtue of her experience and persona, to persuade millions of Americans to defer gratification by buying war bonds. There's a particularly good chapter on how racial and ethnic humor gave those who indulged in it a way to criticize the government that might otherwise be considered unfair or even unpatriotic ("You kiss the niggers / and I'll kiss the Jews / and we'll stay in the White House / as long as we choose," went one piece of anti-FDR doggerel). He also does a lot with the House of Labor, tracing the way workers aligned themselves as extensions of soldiers at the front, even as they parried criticism at home -- and from many of those soldiers abroad -- that they were overpaid, greedy, or both.

Sparrow concludes the book by asserting that while the end of the war also meant the end of some of the most expansive dimensions of government intervention in the economy and U.S. society, its legacy would prove profound in shaping the collective persona of mid-twentieth century Americans, particularly a strong sense of institutional commitment that would be the touchstone of Baby Boomer as well as Neoconservative rebellions later in the century.

There are aspects of Warfare State with which one could quibble. Actually, Sparrow's argument is so nuanced that there are times he seems to flirt with capsizing it -- one could use much of the same evidence to show the limits of adherence to the federal government rather than emphasizing the degree to which it took root. (This, in effect, is the argument Barry Karl made in his 1983 book The Uneasy State.) It might have also been helpful if he did just a bit more with a comparative dimension -- how, for example, affirmations of war workers in the United States were similar to or different than virtually simultaneous Stakhanovite celebrations of labor in the Soviet Union, for example. But one finishes Warfare State with an appreciation of how beautifully wrought a piece of scholarship it is --   meticulously researched, gracefully written, and politically resonant. Notwithstanding the drawbacks of the era Sparrow chronicles with scrupulous attention, it is nevertheless hard not be be moved, if not nostalgic, about a moment of national purpose and hope whose absence has been replaced with one defined by a worrisome, and worsening ache.