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. …

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