- Historic Sites
The Warfare State
A scholar searches across two centuries to discover the main engine of our government’s growth—and reaches a controversial conclusion
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
With a quarter of gross national product going to the Army, the WIB’s task was immense. It had only 750 employees, and it worked largely through joint government-industry committees, an arrangement that strengthened ties between the state and the private sector, altering the relationship between business and government. One effect of the new relationship was the founding of many industrial trade associations to enable business to deal with federal regulation in a coordinated fashion. In 1914 there were 800 trade associations in the United States; by 1919, 4,000.
In 1917 Wilson had warned that if Americans entered the war, “they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life.” In fact, Wilson’s own crusading zeal was partly to blame for the severe repression of the war years: persecution of minorities and aliens, attacks on socialist and labor organizations, coercive marketing of war bonds, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, and censorship of the media and of personal speech. All told, some 8,000 to 10,000 Americans suffered imprisonment, suppression, deportation, or mob violence during the war. Wartime repression reached its apex in the formation of numerous private or quasi-official organizations to supplement official authority, among them the American Defense Society, National Security League, Knights of Liberty, and All-Allied Anti-German League. Nativist and anti-intellectual, they espoused a chauvinistic brand of nationalism and sought to enforce public support of the war. The largest of them, the American Protective League, was endorsed by the Justice Department and had more than 250,000 members, who conducted private but federally sanctioned inquests into the loyalty of their fellow citizens—proceedings of dubious legality that often veered into vigilantism. This was the dark side of expanding federal power, and many Progressives never forgave Wilson for his role in encouraging it.
Considering that the end of American war has usually been followed by a decline in the power of the Presidency, it is no surprise that the 1920s were a decade of relatively ineffectual Presidents. But World War I had irreversibly stimulated collectivist thinking and public support for federal solutions to public problems and so had helped pave the way for the New Deal, with its statist approach to economic recovery.
The lessons of World War I for social reform were evoked repeatedly in 1930 and 1931, as the magnitude of the economic crisis facing America became apparent. The business leaders Bernard Baruch and William Gibbs McAdoo called for formation of the Peace Industries Board, patterned after the War Industries Board. A group of industrialists and former war administrators called for “economic government,” with a revamped Council of National Defense. Even Herbert Hoover, while rejecting central planning, proposed a new federal lending corporation based on the War Finance Corporation. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, Americans looked to their most recent war, a high point of national collective endeavor, in search of a solution.
If the modern state can be regarded as a set of positions, personnel, files, and procedures, then World War II was state building run amok. Workers pouring into Washington made it the metropolis and power center it has remained ever since.
Franklin Roosevelt’s own views of government had been profoundly shaped by his service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson, and he invoked the example of World War I extensively. As the Democratic candidate for President, he observed: “Fifteen years ago my public duty called me to an active part in a great national emergency—the World War. The generalship of that moment conceived of the whole Nation mobilized for war, economic, industrial, social, and military resources gathered into a vast unit. In my calm judgment, the nation faces today a more grave emergency than in 1917.… It is high time to admit with courage that we are in the midst of an emergency at least equal to that of war.” In its formative years the New Deal drew considerable inspiration from Wilson’s wartime administration. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, one of the legislative milestones of the Hundred Days, established a National Recovery Administration consciously modeled after the old War Industries Board. Fittingly, the agency was headed by a military officer, Gen. Hugh Johnson, who had served on the WIB. Roosevelt also decided to put the Civilian Conservation Corps under the Army, and more than 2.5 million young men passed through C.C.C. camps administered by future military luminaries such as Col. George C. Marshall. In addition to Baruch and Johnson, numerous prominent New Dealers were products of Wilson’s wartime administration, and most had been associated primarily with the War Industries Board. There was a direct lineage of learning and experience between the Wilsonian activism of World War I and the Rooseveltian activism of the New Deal.