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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
None of this is to argue that the New Deal was a war-driven phenomenon, for it obviously was not. Its World War I lineage was secondary to other of its economic and social origins. But spurred by a severe domestic crisis, its dynamics resembled those of a war, and it was the only time in U.S. history when the power of the central state grew substantially in the absence of war. If the New Deal was an exception to the rule that the Presidency tends to be weak in peacetime, it was partly because Roosevelt succeeded in imparting a warlike urgency to the economic crisis. However, the heady political transformations of 1933 to 1938, while of great import for the nation’s future, did not affect the size and structure of the American state in nearly the same magnitude as the world wars. World War II, in particular, transformed the federal government into an immense bureaucracy capable of assuming the kind of predominant role in American society that New Dealers could only dream of in the 1930s.
Every war in the twentieth century, as well as the New Deal, resulted in net growth in the federal bureaucracy. But World War II played the dominant role in turning the federal government into the behemoth it is today. In 1939, when massive rearmament began, the Executive Branch employed roughly 936,000 civil servants. By 1945 a nearly four-fold increase in government employment had taken place, with civil service ranks surpassing 3.8 million, the highest number before or since. Four years after the war this number had declined to a postwar low of 1.93 million, still double the 1939 payroll. There had been a revolution in the size of the federal government.
This growth of the federal bureaucracy did not occur mainly in the War and Navy departments. In fact, even the nonmilitary sectors of the federal government grew at a faster annual rate (7.7 percent) in World War II than they had during the New Deal (7.5 percent). Most independent agencies and all but two cabinet departments—Agriculture and Interior—achieved net growth during the war. This is particularly remarkable in view of the acute national labor shortage caused by the conscription of nearly 12 million men.
The growth of the nonmilitary sectors of the bureaucracy was integrally linked to the war effort. With federal revenues rising by 842 percent from 1939 to 1945, it is obvious why Treasury had to add 40,000 employees to its ranks (a mere 67 percent increase). But even where the linkage was tenuous, the war afforded opportunities for federal agencies to enlarge their staffs. A case in point was the testimony before a House subcommittee of one S. A. Rohwer of the Bureau of Entomology regarding an appropriation for “Control of Emergency Outbreaks of Insect Pests and Plant Diseases”:
“The Chairwoman: This is another front in the War?
“Mr. Rohwer: That is right.
“The Chairman: We have the Japanese on one side and the Germans on the other side, and these pests in between?
“Mr. Rohwer: That is correct; and these pests have a very definite bearing on food production.”
Similarly, armed with Executive Order No. 9165, “providing for the protection of essential facilities from sabotage,” the Bureau of Reclamation sought an appropriation for 150 supplementary forest-fire fighters. “The normal fire hazard is ordinarily severe enough,” the bureau argued, “but a planned campaign of incendiarism by enemy forces … could conceivably cause untold destruction and havoc.” In 1944 the Interior Department sought $90,000 for the Reindeer Service in Alaska, arguing that reindeer “are a valued asset in military planning.” That Congress would seriously consider such requests reveals much about why bureaucracy grows in wartime.
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. In 1941 and 1942 an estimated 5,000 new federal workers moved to Washington every month, transforming the nation’s capital into the metropolis and power center it has remained ever since. More than a million additional workers joined the vast regulatory and defense bureaucracy being erected throughout the rest of the country. To accommodate the explosive growth of the War and Navy departments, the government built what still remains the largest office building in the world: the Pentagon, raised in less than a year by 13,000 laborers working in nonstop shifts. By 1945 the federal government had built, leased, bought, or seized an additional 358 buildings in the Washington area.