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  • "Buying Our Boys Back":The Mass Foundations of Fiscal Citizenship in World War II
  • James T. Sparrow (bio)

Just after 8:00 in the morning on Tuesday, September 21, 1943, the singer and radio star Kate Smith addressed her national audience with a personal story that set the tone for the marathon bond drive she would conduct over the next eighteen hours. In her usual self-effacing manner, she began by recounting the words of a man whose speech at a recent bond rally in Utica, New York, held special meaning for her audience:

You know, friends, when we buy War Bonds, we're not buying tanks and guns and shells and planes. What we're really doing is buying our boys back . . . bringing them home to us, safe and sound once again. Now I know there isn't a person listening to me who wouldn't give everything he has to buy his boy back. . . . I'd give anything . . . all my money, or my health, or my own life . . . to buy my boy back from the War. But I'm afraid I can't do that now. You see, I got a telegram from Washington this morning. My boy isn't coming back.

"That is what War Bonds are to every one of us," she concluded, "a chance to buy our boys back. We've all of us got boys we want back . . . and here today, is [End Page 263] our chance to do something about it. Just pick up the phone, and call the local War Bond Number." With personalized anecdotes and appeals such as these, sprinkled liberally in short spots throughout that entire day and long into the night, Smith raised a record-breaking $39 million.1

Later in the broadcast Smith announced an important call that had just come into the CBS studio from a veteran who had been saving his money to purchase artificial replacements for the two legs he had lost in the Great War. The man "made himself a hero all over again," in Smith's eyes, because he pledged the money to the Third War Loan Drive instead of spending it to "escape being shut in twenty-four hours a day." When he heard Smith on the radio, he made up his mind, reasoning: "I've decided that there's nothing more important I can do with my money right now than buy one of those bonds. My artificial limbs can wait . . . but this war can't."2 Immediately after this spot aired, a flood of pledges phoned in—the largest surge of the marathon. Later, listeners would point to this specific spot as the most affecting part of the broadcast. "Help make sure that their sacrifices shall not have been in vain," Smith had implored. "When you think of these wounded and suffering boys who are paying so great a price, can you honestly think that any sacrifice you have made is enough?"3

Weighing their own sacrifices against those of the idealized combat soldier, Americans would consent to "buy" their "boys back" in record numbers during World War II. Unlike any war before it, World War II drew nearly all Americans into the very sinews of the state—its financing. For the first time in history, most families paid income taxes and owned their own portion of the national debt in the form of savings bonds. While banks, corporations, and the wealthy would continue to provide most of the government's funding through taxes and other mechanisms of public finance, the great majority of ordinary Americans for the first time joined them in financing a significant portion of war expenditures during World War II, setting a pattern that would bolster the postwar fiscal regime and democratize the meaning of fiscal citizenship.

The revolutions in public finance brought on by World War II have received extensive coverage by scholars who have detailed the landmark policies shaped by administrators, experts, and politicians. Facing a time of unprecedented crisis, when the cost of global war vastly exceeded the demands of any prior emergency, they embraced policy departures that would raise federal revenues to unrivaled heights ($98.3 billion by 1945, nearly half the...