The Good War's Bad Legacy


Washington Goes to War, by David Brinkley, New York: Knopf, 286 pages, $18.95

The war of 1939–45, which old soldiers call the Big One, was the greatest armed conflict of all time. Mobilization for the war caused far-reaching changes in every aspect of American life. At the outset, the United States was a neutral, relatively weak nation; it possessed the world's 16th-largest army and an economy mired in depression. By the end of the war, the United States was by far the more potent of the world's two superpowers; it possessed the mightiest armed forces ever assembled and an unprecedented share of the world's economic capacity.

The men who presided over this awesome transformation operated from a subtropical city notable for its northern charm and southern efficiency. There the local whites, backed by numerous racists in Congress, maintained a full-fledged system of segregation and discrimination against the blacks who constituted more than a third of the population. There the gleaming government buildings and monuments stood adjacent to some of the worst slums in the country. The city still had 15,000 privies. As the population nearly doubled between 1940 and 1945 and the housing supply failed to keep pace, conditions worsened. But crowding and the incessant rivalry for living and working space represented only one of the many battles on the home front.

David Brinkley's book on wartime Washington is a felicitous combination of history, personal remembrance, and social and political commentary. Listen as you read, and you will hear the familiar gruff voice, the measured cadence, the tone—a little weary, sardonic (or is it merely condescending?), and yet withal as forgiving of one fool as of the next.

Ever the journalist, Brinkley does not try to go very deep. But he gives us a fairly reliable account, enlivened by telling anecdotes, of how the government and the residents of the capital conducted their affairs. If his facts and interpretations are occasionally wrong or misleading, as they are in at least a dozen places, these flaws are a small price to pay for a story that is usually correct and often entertaining to boot. The reader will learn about the Big Events; also about how the capital's rich and silly spent their time during the war (they gave "parties for a purpose") and how certain jubilant Washingtonians celebrated on V-J Day (they "copulated standing up inside the half-dark doorways of office buildings").

Received wisdom maintains that World War II was, for Americans at home, the "good war." In some respects it was. After a decade of depression, workers easily found jobs; producers of war goods raked in big, nearly riskless profits. Even if rationing and other restrictions made certain goods difficult or impossible to buy, almost everybody had an increased money income.

The flush condition of the populace reflected one aspect of the government's strategy for winning the war—namely, to throw money at it. Blessed with enormous economic and military potential, the country "eventually was prepared for war, but at far greater cost than if presidential leadership had been more exacting and if administrative power had been delegated quickly and firmly" during the defense period prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Even after the United States officially entered the war, its mobilization displayed remarkable ineptitude along with miraculous achievements. Among the achievements was the Pentagon itself, the world's largest building, big enough to accommodate 40,000 people. It was "conceived, funded, designed, and constructed in little more than a year." Among the many instances of ineptitude was the termination of typewriter production, just when the government was about to create more records in four years than in all the years preceding.

At the time, citizens had little idea how much the war was costing. The government heavily censored war reports. The public was not told, for example, how many casualties American forces were sustaining. President Roosevelt bitterly resented editorial criticism and complained constantly that his media critics were damaging the war effort. The armed forces shamelessly controlled the news "to try to conceal their failures and blunders and to give out fulsome detail on their successes." So politics went on as usual, except that, without the usual checks and balances, the government could get away with far more.

Congress was reduced to patronage, carping, and coughing up enormous appropriations for the executive branch. Among the "hacks and misfits ordered hired by members of Congress" were a corps of Democratic ex-congressmen who had been defeated in the elections of 1942. They went onto the payroll of the Office of Price Administration, the most pervasively intrusive of all the civilian war agencies.

OPA administered the controls of wages, prices, and rents and operated the rationing system. Because its job was to make people do what they did not want to do, it incurred widespread hostility and even hatred. Much cheating took place, and black markets flourished. But OPA remained, along with a multitude of other command-and-control agencies. Brinkley seems to think that most people accepted the claim that the emergency agencies were essential to victory.

The market economy went into cold storage. Where it appeared to continue operating, the appearance belied the reality, which was that the government, as Brinkley recognizes, had more or less rigged everything—by official priorities, direct allocations, price controls, tax rules, and other sanctions—to bring about the outcomes desired by the authorities. Whatever the bureaucrats wanted was somehow "vital to the war effort"; they were "forever seeking some advantage for themselves by appealing to the public's patriotism." The armed forces just took what they wanted: buildings, grounds, materials, equipment. They "knew that war gave them a pretext to seize what they would want later in peacetime but would be unable to get." So much for private property rights.

In fact, the political economy became a de facto dictatorship. Even the president's critics believed that "only a small, agile, centralized authority could run the war. Only the president could run the war." Congress and the Supreme Court effectively abdicated for the duration. They expected that later, when the war was over, they would reassert themselves.

But when the war did end, the political economy did not revert to the status quo ante bellum. The widely anticipated postwar depression did not happen. The high "emergency" tax collections receded only slightly before attaining even greater heights. "With the piles of money it was now spending, government expanded rapidly into areas where it had never ventured before." Though the Germans and the Japanese had been vanquished, a new and more menacing enemy immediately replaced them. "Even with the war over and won, the armed services still filled the Pentagon and spilled over into dozens of other buildings all over town"—indeed, all over the world. In so many ways, the war never really ended at all.

Robert Higgs is the William E. Simon Professor of Political Economy at Lafayette College. His most recent book is Crisis and Leviathan.