Freedom to Want
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AND POLITICIZED
CONSUMPTION IN WORLD WAR II
James T. Sparrow
A riddle characterized state-building and national citizenship during the 1940s. These were years of retrenchment, when the social citizenship of the New Deal welfare state withered under conservative fire, while the multilateral promises of Rooseveltian diplomacy fatefully gave way to the realpolitik of unilateral containment. Yet this was also a time when a profusion of rights movements pressed for guarantees of expanded citizenship at home and throughout the world. Workers’ rights, consumers’ rights, civil rights, human rights—these were banners held aloft by vibrant social movements whose memberships grew and often overlapped throughout the period. Most of these movements generally failed to accomplish their loftiest objectives. Instead, they straggled into the 1950s with a left vanguard decimated by anti-communism and supplanted by cold war liberalism. For this reason, the early rights movements of the 1940s were long overlooked or discounted. More recently they have been recovered, with the greatest rediscoveries occurring for civil rights outside the South.1 Yet the underlying reasons for the efflorescence of these movements—and, by the end of the decade, their abeyance—remain largely unexplored.
After decades of agitation by rights groups, an effusion of rights talk finally gained traction in World War II due to the growing needs and capacities of a federal government preoccupied by the economic, military, and ideological mobilization of the citizenry for total war. Americans encountered the national government in everyday life during the war, and consequently began to think of their contributions—the obligations that balanced and thus justified their mounting sense of entitlement—as having national and even international ramifications. They did so in various roles: as everyday GIs elevated to the hero status of the “combat soldier”; as “soldiers of production” whose factory work provided the materiel so vital to winning a war of machines; as patriotic consumers who “backed the attack” by conserving and rationing scarce goods, while diverting inflationary dollars into taxes and bonds to fund the war; and