From Progressivism to Prosperity: World War I and American Society

By Neil A. Wynn | Go to book overview
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4
Organizing for War
Government, Business,
and the Economy

Among the most important of all the changes affecting the American people during the First World War was the growth in size and influence of the national government. So great was this change that the postwar commentator and historian Mark Sullivan could write that of all the effects of the war "by far the most fundamental was our submission to autocracy in government." This view has been echoed repeatedly by other writers, who have described wartime developments in terms of "war socialism," "dictatorial powers," and so on. 1 More recently, however, historians have suggested that, while the war might have brought an "unparalleled expansion of the State," the changes were not quite as dramatic nor as effective as earlier observers had thought. Instead, modifications in government are now seen as haphazard, confused, chaotic, and with little permanent alteration in basic principles or approaches. What emerges instead is a picture of compromise between traditional laissez-faire beliefs and minimal government activity, and an enlarged federal administration following interventionist policies that exceeded anything imagined by Progressives. To some extent, this compromise was "planning without bureaucracy, regulation without coercion, co-operation without dictation," 2 and while it often built upon precedents and ideas of the Progressive era, it also provided a basis for many postwar developments.

Despite the achievements of the Progressives and the increase in the

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