- Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government by James T. Sparrow
There are a number of questions that one should ask when evaluating a new book in our field: Is it well written and free of jargon? Is the research adequate to the subject? Does this work provide new information about a topic or approach the topic in a unique way? This last consideration is especially important when an author engages a subject such as World War II because so much has been done to parse the minutiae of this conflict that it would take an extraordinary book indeed to tell us something that we don’t already know. Warfare State satisfies the first two considerations. It is well written and meticulously researched. But what we do not have is a book that provides an original thesis or brings a fresh perspective to a well-known subject.
The thesis presented in the introduction is somewhat amorphous, as if the author sensed early on that there might not be much here that could count as revelatory. Sparrow observes that the federal government expanded to an unprecedented degree during World War II and dramatically extended the scope and nature of its authority (6). Business was rehabilitated and made part of the war effort, and both capital and private lives were fused to create a warfare state that would last for decades, thanks to the continued emergency of the Cold War (5–6). This state building, according to Sparrow, was met with little opposition. No tax revolts, no draft riots, no postwar isolationism (10). The second part of the thesis is that the warfare state created citizenships, including “fiscal citizenship” (apparently based on paying taxes and buying bonds), “social citizenship” (predicated on military service, civilian sacrifice and war work), and “national citizenship” (no definition provided).
The problems are obvious. Is there anyone who does not know that government got big during World War II? Or that business interests became part of the war effort? This information would be underwhelming to even the novice historian. It is also impossible to evaluate the “citizenships” that Sparrow claims were created during the war without a discussion of what citizenship meant before the war. Surely there is no lack of material on this subject, as Americans have been discussing the elements of citizenship since the founding of the Republic.
Sparrow’s claim that the state building he described was accomplished with “little opposition” is undercut by material that the author himself presents. Indeed, Sparrow is too good an historian not to include the race riots, hate strikes, grumbling about pay and hours, anti-Semitism, and soldiers’ resentments of civilians that were an indelible part of life in America during World War II. [End Page 249] (Less developed by the author but also relevant is the development of a robust black market, a spike in child neglect and juvenile delinquency, and widespread draft dodging/draft avoidance.)
Still, there is much to admire about Warfare, and Sparrow’s chapter on “Morale and the National Movement” is one of his best. Here he discusses the idealization of the ordinary soldier, and “the appropriation of the combat soldier’s sacrifice by unions, politicians, and business advocates . . .” (74). Factory workers became “soldiers of production,” a massive win-the-war propaganda campaign was launched (much of which was ceded to corporations and the advertising industry), and every effort was measured by its contribution to the war. Among the most interesting characters described in this chapter is folklorist Alan Lomax, who moved from recording folk music to deploying a team to capture the views of the “man-on-the-street”—an invaluable survey of public opinion. Lomax’s efforts to introduce servicemen to “authentic” American folk music were less appreciated.
Equally fascinating is “Scapegoating the State,” a chapter that includes a section on “rumors.” Sparrow narrows the rumors of World War II down to three basic types: the anti-Semitic rumor, the black conspiracy rumor, and the rumor that government was...