- Historic Sites
What Made The Government Grow
…and grow, and grow, from almost no employees to three million. Don’t blame the welfare state, or the military; the truth is much more interesting.
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
Americans had, of course, almost always accepted the necessity of a powerful government in times of war and international crisis, and it is impossible to underrate the influence of the embattled 1940s and 1950s on getting almost unopposed consent to an explosion in the size and distribution of the federal work force. The figures for 1954, for example—a year in which Korea was just behind us, and Vietnam still far ahead—measure the impact of the preceding fifteen years. Well over two million people worked for the national government—2,407,676, to be precise—and half of them—1.208 million—for the Department of Defense, in charge of all the armed services since 1947. The Post Office did remain the second-largest federal employer, with just over 507,000, but the third was the Veterans’ Administration, with a triple-digit staff of 178,857 tending to the veterans of three wars within the preceding thirty-nine years, though that mission also included the final phases of administering a mighty piece of social engineering, the GI Bill of Rights.
Social, economic, and defense-related purposes were inextricably tangled together. The biggest cabinet department after the Department of Defense was the Treasury, which kept 80,893 people busy writing all those checks for veterans and military contractors as well as for numerous other creditors of the United States—from bankers to dirt farmers and Social Security recipients. The IRS also accounted for much of Treasury’s magnitude, reminding me of “Mr. Dooley’s” comment on learning, in 1898, that the Spanish-American War was over. “Th’ part that ye see in th’ pitcher pa-apers is over,” he mused, “but th’ tax collector will continyoo his part iv th’ war with relentless fury.”
Old departments and agencies kept high staffing levels (by pre-war standards) in the 1950s in spite of the government’s new emphases and priorities. In rounded figures Agriculture was 76,000 strong in 1954 and Commerce employed 42,000. The recently created Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which absorbed many existing social service programs, was, with 35,000, near the bottom of the cabinet departments in size; the lowest rank was held by Labor with 5,129. Old regulatory offices, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, Federal Trade Commission, Federal Power Commission, and Federal Communications Commission, had fewer than one or two thousand employees. New independent bodies charged with carrying out the propaganda and diplomatic side of the Cold War were not much bigger. The U.S. Information Agency employed 9,539; the Foreign Operations Administration, charged with foreign aid, 5,856. Even the scientific-research organizations with military overtones—heirs to such century-old bodies as the Coast and Geodetic Survey—were minor players. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, had 7,161 operatives; the Atomic Energy Commission, 6,195. Many times that number of people were engaged merely in the sheer mechanics of keeping the government running. The General Services Administration had more than 26,000 employees, and almost 22,000 worked for Congress, more than double the number of twenty-five years earlier. If all these numbers are somewhat wearying, the lesson they teach is nonetheless plain. In 1954 the portion of government administering the welfare state was far less than the part concerned with national security.
Our fearful trip is nearly done—but increasingly difficult. Numbers get bigger, trends harder to define, and debate about the deep meaning of it all more contentious and partisan. Yet it may be possible to chance a few defensible generalizations without too many more thrashings in statistical thickets. To begin with, how and why did the total civilian work force of the federal government reach that threshold of three million around which it hovered steadily throughout the 1970s and 1980s?
There is a natural inclination to focus on the idealistic programs of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, particularly LBJ’s Great Society initiatives. In fact the Peace Corps was set up in 1961 and the Office of Economic Opportunity (headquarters of the war on poverty) in 1964, which also marked the birth of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the passage of the Clean Air Act, prefiguring the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency two years after. And Medicare came along in 1965. These help account for the increase in the grand total of federal workers from 1960’s 2,398,704 to that of 1970, 2,981,574—with that spike in 1967 to 3,002,461. But they do not stand alone. Military and economic developments were the primary purposes of two Eisenhower-era legacies—the Federal Aid Highway Act, also known as the Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, authorized in 1958 to run the space race. A companion measure, the National Defense Education Act, put the government more deeply than ever into financing higher education.