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World War II is often remembered as the “good war,” a time when the United States fought its evil enemies abroad and united at home. Both of the ideas are grounded in reality, although by no means did politicians cease battling as the war waged. In Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II, Nancy Beck Young details the internecine squabbling that rent asunder much of the Congress during the war years.
Young, professor and chair of the History Department at the University of Houston, has produced a book that contributes a great deal to the scholarship on the Second World War. She takes the focus [End Page 536] away from Franklin Roosevelt and the executive branch and examines the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The book is less about what Congress fought for than what they fought about. Moderates, liberals, and conservatives in the House and Senate argued over economic and tax policy, immigration, civil rights, and civil liberties. Since the liberals and conservatives lacked majorities in either chamber, moderate Democrats and Republicans exercised tremendous power during the war years. Young’s thesis is that the “moderates succeeded in preserving the core of the New Deal economic reforms but never sufficiently coalesced to influence the social justice reform initiatives” (p. 9). Because there was no real appetite in Congress for social liberalism, little headway was made in such areas as civil rights. But the moderates, Young argues, were able to sustain the New Deal’s emphasis on economic reform.
Young takes a topical approach, examining each of the battles in a chapter. She begins with the fight over taxes and economic policy, the only areas where congressional liberals succeeded. Although the liberals did not get everything they wanted, rates for the top earners rose, a liberal goal finally realized. Other chapters explore labor policy, resource management, civil rights, and anti-communism. Young also writes about how Congress turned its back on Jewish refugees, refusing in any way to alter the country’s strict immigration policies. The House and Senate were not much better in helping black Americans achieve justice, even those who wore the nation’s uniform. There was much blame to go around, and Young details how it was not just the conservatives in Congress who blocked immigration reform or civil rights legislation. Moderates were not much help, many liberals were divided, and Franklin Roosevelt, Young concludes, showed no real leadership in addressing these issues.
One of the most incisive aspects of Young’s work is how she challenges prevailing myths. In particular, Young offers a necessary corrective to the antiquated but still prevalent view that a coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans banded together to halt liberal legislation during and after the war years. By [End Page 537] examining voting patterns, Young ably shows that the issue was far more multifaceted. Many southern Democrats supported economic aspects of the New Deal, as did a number of more moderate and liberal Republicans. She writes, “A careful exploration of roll call voting from the war years suggests a more complicated story regarding the identity of conservatives than the standard assumption that Republicans and southern Democrats dominated the right wing of the political spectrum” (p. 13).
Most of Young’s conclusions are solid, although at times she is a bit harsh on the conservatives. In the preface, Young admits that she is a liberal Democrat, and her ideology does bleed through in some of the pages. Overall, Why We Fight is a well-written account of congressional politics during World War II. The research is both exhaustive and impressive. Young “consulted over 100 manuscript collections located in twenty-eight repositories” (p. 307). Readers will find her “Essay on Sources” very helpful. Although more suited for scholars, the book will appeal to a general audience. It should remain the starting point for understanding Congress and World War II for many years to come.
JUSTIN P. COFFEY is an associate professor...