The Origins of 'Big Government': FDR's Welfare or Warfare?

By Saldin, Robert P. | World Affairs, March-April 2013 | Go to article overview

The Origins of 'Big Government': FDR's Welfare or Warfare?

Saldin, Robert P., World Affairs

James T. Sparrow, Warfare State: World War H Americans and the Age of Big Government

New York: Oxford UP, 2011

In the mid-1980s, William Leuchtenburg, a professor at the University of North Carolina and the president of the Organization of American Historians, wrote that the political historian's status in the profession had been reduced to something "between that of a faith healer and a chiropractor." While flirting with a political historian may be countenanced as a youthful indiscretion, Leuchtenburg cautioned that "you might not want to bring one home to meet the family."

A quarter century later, academic political historians may still be held at arm's length in some of their discipline's more fashionable enclaves, but they are at least once again presentable in public. Part of their resurgence owes to an alliance formed with historically oriented political scientists who felt similarly marginalized within their own field. In the last few decades, this band of scholars has reasserted political history's importance in their respective disciplines. University of Chicago associate professor James T. Sparrow's new book is one of the fine fruits of this restoration. Warfare State is primarily tailored to an academic audience, but in concert with a growing trend in the history profession--and in contrast with mainstream political science scholarship--it is also likely to find a lay audience. And whether within or outside the ivory tower, readers will be forced to reconsider a standard interpretation of American state development and the consequences of the profound changes ushered in during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.

Traditional accounts of American political development hold that Roosevelt's Depression-induced New Deal welfare state transformed the national government from a diminutive backwater overshadowed by the states into the "big government" behemoth at the center of today's partisan and ideological rancor. But Sparrow persuasively shows that it was, in fact, Roosevelt's warfare--rather than welfare--state that fundamentally altered American government. The scope and reach of the federal agencies that mobilized the country for World War II rapidly exceeded what only several years earlier had been precedent-shattering New Deal programs, quadrupling--virtually overnight--the New Deal's level of federal outlays as a percentage of the gross national product. And whereas the New Deal's emergency welfare programs reached 28.6 million recipients, war mobilization restructured daily life for the more than 85 million Americans serving in the armed forces, holding bonds, paying income taxes, rationing key provisions, or working in industrial or white collar positions. In short, while the war effort may have been built on the New Deal's foundation, it quickly and decisively erected giant structures all its own.

As important as this insight is for our understanding of state development, a second and equally intriguing puzzle Sparrow sets out to solve is how a country founded on suspicion of centralized power--and one in which the New Deal's initial expansionary efforts frequently met stiff resistance--happily acquiesced to the unprecedented and invasive expansion of state authority during World War II. Indeed, Sparrow argues that the war's most important legacy may be the way it provided legitimacy for and inculcated the populace's acceptance of an expansive nationalized role for the state.

The war's financing regime aptly illustrates both the scope of change and how Americans came to embrace it. Prior to World War II, few Americans had ever paid income tax. But to cover the government's wartime spending, a withholding tax on wages was introduced that, for the first time, touched most Americans. v-J Day might have been expected to mark the beginning of the end for what was seen as an emergency measure, but the mass income tax surprisingly remained in place and, even more shockingly, was broadly accepted in a country founded partly on a rejection of taxation. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

The Origins of 'Big Government': FDR's Welfare or Warfare?


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.