Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II by Nancy Beck Young (review)
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Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II. By Nancy Beck Young (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2013) 376pp. $39.95

In this thoughtful monograph, Young casts our attention toward the legislative politics that rendered judgment—or, more accurately, judgments—on President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Between 1941 and 1945, Young argues, White House cabinet meetings and international [End Page 410] summits were not the only stomping grounds for high-stakes politics. Rather, political fervor could grip members of Congress, and with consequences that persisted long after armistice.

Young’s project has more than a passing resemblance to Robert David Johnson’s excellent Congress and the Cold War (New York, 2005). Like Johnson, Young underscores the partisan and ideological battles that not only persisted but thrived during a period of American history often characterized by broad-based consensus. Moreover, like Johnson, Young pays tribute to the enduring importance of Congress in an era of rising presidential power. But whereas Johnson focused on foreign policymaking during a period of peace, Young writes about domestic policymaking during a period of war.

Young sees a very different wartime Congress from the one depicted in most presidential and military histories of the era—a Congress chastened by a prior isolationist stance that, after Pear Harbor, was permanently discredited; a Congress bowed before a popular, liberal president who, just a month into his historic third term in office, plunged the nation headlong into war. Young’s World War II Congress is neither demur nor apologetic, and its members betray little sense of obligation to extend and consolidate the New Deal experiments that, during the 1930s, had revolutionized the relationship between the individual and the state.

Young’s World War II Congress is ground zero for extraordinary political fights that feature entrenched partisan and, at times, geographical divisions. It also is the source of inter-branch struggles about the fate of highly contested domestic policy initiatives. While the nation waged military campaigns in the Pacific Region, North Africa, and Europe, members of Congress fought furiously about the fate of Roosevelt’s New Deal at home. The outcome of these political battles, Young argues, would be decided not by the staunchest liberals or conservatives then barnstorming the country but by moderates with center-right dispositions concerning economic and social policy.

On economic policy, New Deal initiatives were, if not enlarged, then at least preserved. Over three chapters, Young traces the legislative histories of prominent resource management, tax, and labor laws then circulating through Congress, the results of which “sustained the core of the New Deal Economic Order.” The story of wartime social policies, however, looks much different. With the president shunning the causes of civil liberties and civil rights, liberal advocates of social justice experienced profound setbacks to their agenda. Like Katznelson, Young sees the most liberal dimensions of New Deal social policy in decline and moderates and conservatives in ascendance just as soon as the nation set off to war.1

The telling of this history is not especially elegant. Young’s writing can be clunky. Her prose slashes between grand thesis statements and [End Page 411] minutiae of congressional debates about congressional matters large and small. To this political scientist, Young’s statistical analyses of roll-call voting appeared crude and inflexible.

But these flaws, for the most part, are matters of presentation. On matters of substance, Young offers some valuable lessons that we all—historians and political scientists alike—would do well to ponder: Major wars implicate domestic policy just as much as they do foreign policy; during war, multiple political cleavages can define domestic policy disputes; and the pivotal players in these pitched politics often are a forgotten group of individuals toiling in a much-maligned institution—namely, moderate legislators in Congress.

William G. Howell
University of Chicago

Footnotes

1. Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York, 2013).

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