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How World War II saved the New Deal.

World war II was a godsend to American liberals. The New Deal had been dead in the water since 1937, torpedoed by its fundamental failure to effect an end to the Depression and its increasingly annoying meddling with traditional patterns of American life. A conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats blocked almost all of Pres. Franklin a Roosevelt's initiatives until the foreign policy crisis of 1939-41.

That crisis renewed the President's vigor and allowed him gradually to maneuver the U.S. into a position that made entering the war in Europe and the Pacific inevitable. He was aided immeasurably by the recklessness of the Japanese and Germans. Nothing unites people like a common enemy. Since foreign policy always reflects domestic policy (and that goes for military policy, too), it should surprise nobody that the New Dealers geared up for war in New Deal ways. What happened between 1941 and 1945 was an expansion of the national state so vast as to be virtually irreversible.

Conservative Americans were pretty sure this would happen. Sen. Robert A. Taft (R.-Ohio), son of Pres. William Howard Taft, a patrician educated for leadership, and a traditional American from the heartland, is a case in point. "The basic foreign policy of the United States," he said in 1939, should be strength, independence, and to "preserve peace with other nations, and enter into no treaties which may obligate us to go to war." He argued that Americans have little business trying to affect the outcomes of conflicts that are not their own and that war would "almost certainly destroy democracy in the United States."

Taft was especially suspicious of the notion that the U.S. should "undertake to defend the ideals of democracy in foreign countries." He added that no "single nation should range over the world, like a knight-errant, protect democracy and ideals of good faith, and tilt, like Don Quixote, against the windmills of fascism." The national interest of the U.S., he believed, was to protect liberty at home, not extend it abroad. "We have moved far toward totalitarian government already," he warned in 1939. "The additional powers [already] sought by the President in case of war, the nationalization of all industry and all capital and all labor ... would create a socialist dictatorship which it would be impossible to dissolve once the war is over."

He opposed every Roosevelt war initiative, the draft and Lend-Lease particularly (although he supported a strong defense, especially an air force). He even refused a deal that might have given him the 1940 presidential nomination. Once the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, however, Taft knew which side he was on and rallied others to the Allied cause. Nevertheless, as he confessed in private to his wife, he still feared that the war would harm the nation, dragging it towards "war and bankruptcy and socialism all at once. Let's hope I'm wrong."

Ironically, the New Dealers shared Taft's pessimism, but for different reasons. They did not realize that the war finally had helped them to achieve what they could not in peacetime. In December, 1943, FDR told the press that "Dr. New Deal" had given way to "Dr. Win the War." The New Deal poet laureate Archibald MacLeish lamented soon afterwards that "Liberals meet in Washington these days, if they meet at all, to discuss the tragic outlook for all liberal programs, the collapse of all liberal leadership, and the defeat of all liberal aims."

True, Congress kept cutting back on New Deal programs. During 1942-43, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, National Youth Administration, and National Resources Planning Board were axed. The Farm Security and Rural Electrification Boards were cut back. The expansion of Social Security was put on hold. To this day, most historians who write about wartime liberalism call this chapter in history "The Waning of the New Deal," "The New Deal at Bay," or "The Conservative Coalition." The truth was that only the tail of the New Deal was cut off; it bled a little, but no major arteries were touched.

MacLeish and his liberal friends undoubtedly were in near despair because they knew the stakes the war allowed them to play for: "We who win this war will win the right and the power to impose upon the opening age the free man's image of the Earth we live in. We who win this war will win the future." Taft and his fellow conservatives understood this, too, at least in part. They also knew, as Taft said, "there is only one way to beat the New Deal[ers] and that is head on. You can't outdeal them." Taft led all the fights to repeal the New Deal and seemed to win some of them. However, three examples serve to show how temporary and incomplete these victories were.

First, the conservatives were patriotic Americans and wanted to win the war. Yet, Congress is only secondarily responsible for waging war. It falls to the President as Commander-in-Chief to take war-winning initiatives, and FDR ran a New Deal war. He instituted crisis regulation the scope of which no American could have dreamed of as late as 1939. They included four main elements: price control (Office of Price Administration), rationing, command over production (War Production Board), and control over labor (National War Labor Board). Together, they represented a bewildering interlocking complex of agencies and resulted in a command economy that differed only in tone and detail from totalitarianism.

By 1943, government boards and agencies could (and did) tell Americans how much they could drive, what they could manufacture and how much, whether they could change jobs, raise rents, eat beef, or stay on the streets at night. Government built housing and tore it down, reorganized the entire automobile industry, created aluminum companies, and withheld new tires from trucks carrying objectionable items like liquor, cigarettes, and Orange Crush.

This was done in the name of national emergency, and there was no Gestapo needed to enforce wartime controls. Most older Americans remember them with a certain amount of pride and nostalgia, though the enormous size of the black market testifies that they didn't support them unreservedly. The truth was, most Americans didn't take wartime controls seriously - except those individuals writing, enforcing, and lobbying for controls. They would want to stay in Washington after the war, thus illustrating the oldest law of government: once you've got it, it's hard to get rid of it. Later, an observant Englishman would remark, "Millions of Americans in 1939 had little or nothing to do with the government of the United States. Millions of Americans in 1944 looked forward to a near and victorious future in which they would have nothing to do with that government. They [would be] disillusioned."

Second, the war rid New Deal liberalism of its most obvious enemy, for a large chunk of big business was married to big government by 1945. Take Henry J. Kaiser. This paunchy, jowly, duck-waddling, table-pounding, oath-swearing package of pure energy took a sand and gravel business and made it into an organization that combined the merits of a Chinese tong, a Highland clan, and a Renaissance commercial syndicate with all the flexibility and legal safeguards of the modern corporation.

During the 1930s, Kaiser built dams (Boulder, Grand Coulee, and others), and during the war he built ships - Liberty ships, small aircraft carriers, tankers, troop ships, destroyer escorts, landing craft - and all on a cost-plus basis. In 1943, he garnered 30% of the national production total, more than $3,000,000,000 in contracts, and used his New Deal crony, "Tommy the Cork" Corcoran, to get into the War Production Board, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and even the White House Map Room. He leased suites at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington and the Waldorf in New York and settled in with a long-distance telephone bill of $250,000 a year.

Kaiser modestly saw himself, as he said to Fortune, as "at least a joint savior of the free enterprise system." However, he was very nearly the definition of what historian Burton Folsom calls "the political entrepreneur." Government supplied his capital, furnished his market, and guaranteed his solvency on the cost-plus formula.

Third, the war occasioned a tax structure that threatened to abolish profits and provided the indispensable base for future liberal social experimentation. There was an "excess profits" tax, payroll deductions became mandatory, and the rate for personal incomes over $150,000 was 90%.

This situation makes the wartime career of J.R. Simplot even more amazing. Jack Simplot was an Idaho potato farmer whose entrepreneurial genius had made him a small fortune during the hard years of the 1930s with no government contracts. By 1941, he had worked out a process for drying onions and potatoes and was in a position literally to feed the nearly 16,000,000 men and women of the armed forces. In order to meet the incredible demand, he had to create on average one new business a month - a hog lot to get rid of the millions of tons of potato skins, phosphate plants to provide soil enrichment for his depleted fields, box factories for shipping his goods, lumber mills to make materials for the boxes, etc. Each step involved enormous effort, capital, and risk, and each bottleneck threatened the whole enterprise.

Enter the Internal Revenue Service. A governing philosophy of the New Deal liberalism was that profits were a form of theft, and Simplot was to Washington the biggest thief of all. Yet, this man was feeding the U.S. Army! He needed profits to reinvest in order to meet the challenges of his dizzyingly expanding enterprises. He couldn't predict what the next challenge would be; real entrepreneurs rarely can. He had neither the time nor the temperament to explain to bureaucrats the necessities of box manufacturing, fertilizer production, potato farming, or hog feeding.

So, faced with confiscation, he turned to lawyers. They created a maze of interlocking corporations, using every member of Simplot's family and practically everybody he ever had given a "Howdy" as directors and partners. Jack Simplot, who fed the troops, worked hours that most people didn't know existed, and lived in less luxury than a U.S. Congressman, acquired a reputation as a tax-evader and war profiteer.

One could argue that these things turned out all right. The Allies won the war, the ships got built, the armed forces got fed, everybody made a lot of money, and the Depression was ended by 1945. Yet, Robert Taft was, reluctantly, right. Despite the fact that the war had frightened liberals into believing that their day was over, it really had expanded the regulatory state beyond their wildest dreams. It also rid them of big independent corporations and provided them with the tax foundation on which they could build their postwar social agenda. The war had saved the New Deal.

Politicizing America

World War II also was the war that politicized the nation. It did not create politicization - basic Progressive liberal ideas did. The New Deal nurtured it, and World War II brought it to maturity. The Selective Service Act of 1940 was the first-ever peacetime draft. Of the nearly 16,000,000 Americans who would serve in the war, 10,000,000 were drafted. The doctrine of compulsory military service made the lives of all American men over age 35 the property of the state. As the influential economist Wesley Mitchell pointed out in 1943, once the country forces men to "risk their lives in the horrible job of killing others," there is nothing beyond the scope of the state. After common consent is given to that, he pointed out, "civilians are morally bound to accept the lesser sacrifices the war imposes on them." This is, in fact, one of the definitions of total war.

After 1945, a series of veterans' buyouts were created to appease critics. Collectively, they were known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. Along with thousands of new government research grants, the G.I. Bill extended Federal control into higher education and laid the groundwork for the politicization of the campus and the curriculum. The war generation remained in control of the university and provided funds for endless academic and administrative expansion. It also saw the realization of its Progressive/liberal dream of near-universal education at public expense and helped entrench intellectuals with a professed enthusiasm for socialism in influential positions within the academic world.

It is crucial to understand, moreover, that these changes put the universities in the service of the Progressive/liberal agenda. Social experimentation, central planning, the growth of the state, destruction of absolutes, and hostility to religion and traditional values - all flourished at taxpayer expense.

Total war also politicized the Constitution, or, rather, it completed what FDR had begun when he tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. Freedom of contract was under strong assault. So, too, was the right of citizenship. The enforced segregation of Japanese-Americans by presidential executive order in 1942 was, according to constitutional historian Edwin S. Corwin, "the most drastic invasion of the rights of citizens of the United States by their own government that has thus far occurred in our nation." It established the principle of "constitutional relativity," which simply means that, since there are no constitutional absolutes, the fundamental law of the land is what the national government says it is.

There would be no peacetime Constitution to return to after World War II. However, there would be five new major developments in the new Progressive/ liberal version: Congressional legislative powers of "indefinite scope," presidential authority to stimulate the exercise of this indefinite power for "enlarged social objectives," the right of Congress to delegate its powers, virtually unlimited presidential emergency powers, and a progressively expanding replacement of the judicial process by the administrative process in the enforcement of the law. Potentially, every sphere of American life was politicized.

There were other institutions that were deeply wounded by the war, including the traditional family, church, and local community. (There is not sufficient space to do more than mention them in closing, though they deserve a full accounting.) They were direct results of total war, politicization, and global crusading, for the "little platoons" suffer when great events set society on the move, kill off its young men, and send money, power, and intellect to Washington.

Do these wounds mean that we can not remember World War II with patriotic pride? Of course not. As the son of a veteran who served in every theater of the war, I revere the sacrifices so many millions made in order to protect the cause of freedom. However, we must never forget that the cost of war is also, in some measure, our freedom, and that once the war - any war - is over, things never will be the same again.
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Author:Willson, John
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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