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The Warfare State

July 2024
29min read

A scholar searches across two centuries to discover the main engine of our government’s growth—and reaches a controversial conclusion

Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835 that America had no neighbors and hence no enemies. Indeed, the New World Republic was the ultimate island power, with the Atlantic Ocean providing a protective moat nearly a hundred times as wide as the English Channel. The German philosopher Hegel, writing at about the same time as Toque, cited this isolation as one reason “a real State”—a powerful, centralized, European-style state—could never exist in America. Without constant threat, without the necessity of maintaining a standing army, the American republic was doomed to weakness and obscurity.

Hegel’s forecast of the American destiny was totally wrong, of course, but only because he could not foresee the remarkable extent to which the United States would become embroiled in wars, its isolation notwithstanding. Today, as we look back through more than two hundred years of history, it is clear that America’s wars have profoundly shaped its political course. War has been the primary impetus behind the growth and development of the national government, the lever by which Presidents and other national officials have bolstered the power of the state in the face of tenacious popular resistance. The United States has been at war for only thirty-four years, or about a sixth of its history. Yet during those wars or in their immediate after-maths, all but five cabinet departments and the vast majority of smaller agencies came into being. War made the American state.

One pattern has repeated itself plainly throughout American history: During war the national government grows strong and powerful; between wars it recedes in power and size, but never back to its pre-war level. The overall trend is upward.

War also helped forge an American nation. Our splendid isolation made the United States a natural sanctuary for generations of the most independent-minded, anti-statist Europeans and Asians, many of them fleeing war and despotism in their homelands. The diverse national and ethnic origins of the American people made the collective efforts entailed by war important in giving America a consciousness of itself as a unified nation. The historian Geoffrey Perrett argues that war for America was “a factor as important as geography, immigration, the growth of business, the separation of powers, the inventiveness of its people, or anything else” in shaping a unique American identity. War united Americans of diverse origins both on the battlefield and on the home front. It is no coincidence that every constitutional extension of the suffrage in American history—the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments—took place during or right after a great war.

Five wars in particular shaped the political destiny of the United States: the War of Independence, the Civil War, the two world wars, and the Cold War, which includes the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Other wars—the War of 1812, the war with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, and the Persian Gulf War—had lesser, but not insignificant, effects on the institutions and form of American government. And one pattern has repeated itself plainly throughout American history: During war the national government grows strong and powerful; between wars it recedes in power and size, but never back to its pre-war level. The overall trend is thus upward, with war the principal engine of growth. The remarkable effect of war on the rise of the American state is best illustrated by looking at the five conflicts mentioned above and contrasting their impact with that of the intervening years of peace.

The American War of Independence was only one event in a much larger American Revolution that took place between 1754 and 1801. Historians in recent decades—led by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood—have interpreted the Revolution largely in ideological terms. But ideas alone could not give birth to an independent state or cause an unalterable breach between the colonists and their fellow Britons. It was the coming of war with Britain that radicalized the propertied elites who led the Revolution, and war that infused the ideals of pamphleteers and philosophers into the hearts and minds of yeoman farmers, militiamen, and Continentals. Without the war there would have been no larger Revolution.

Before the war the ties of the individual colonies to their motherland was at least as strong as their ties to one another. Bloodshed rapidly dissolved the former and strengthened the latter. The unifying effect of the war became evident early in the selection of George Washington, a Southerner, to head American forces initially dominated by militias from the North. Meanwhile, reliance on the poorly trained and ill-disciplined militias of the several colonies proved politically divisive and militarily disastrous. As late as December 1776 Washington thought that Americans were wavering in their loyalties “as much owing to the want of an Army to look the Enemy in the Face, as to any other cause.” Fed up with the poor discipline of his troops, Washington pleaded for creation of a truly professional army, a body of well-drilled regulars who would remain in service for the duration of the war.

The Virginian’s vision of a professional army after the European pattern ran up against a deeply ingrained American aversion to the very concept of a standing army. The mere phrase was anathema, conjuring up images of British redcoats quartered in civilian homes. The vast majority of America’s landowning aristocrats had an almost congenital distrust of standing armies, which their ancestors for generations had identified with despotism, both royal and Cromwellian. They glorified instead the yeoman militiaman, linked to the land and closely tied to local interests. Yet the war posed a dilemma: If the Americans wanted freedom from the depredations of a standing army, they would have to create one.

The Congress had voted in June 1775 to form a Continental army to fight alongside the militia, but a corrupt recruiting system and perilously short terms of enlistment made the measure ineffective. Enlistments were initially for one year, but some recruiters offered ten-dollar bounties for just six weeks of service. If this was a standing army, it did not stand for long. Military necessity eventually persuaded Congress to build up an institution it fundamentally distrusted. In June 1776 it voted three-year enlistments and in September began offering twenty dollars and a hundred acres of land to men who signed on for the duration. By 1777 a regular system of recruiting was in place, with quotas assigned to each state.

The formation of a regular army under a single command had a crucial unifying effect on the new republic. At the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, Nathanael Greene from Rhode Island led a Virginia division while Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania commanded troops from New Jersey. Such an arrangement would have been unthinkable at the onset of the war just two years earlier. Likewise, soldiers from different regions who initially viewed one another with suspicion or even animosity got along better as they camped, marched, and fought together.

Contrary to a popular conception of the War of Independence as a civilized and rather tidy affair, it was in fact marked by extraordinary violence and upheaval. The number of soldiers killed in battle is officially set at 4,435, but the total number, including those who perished from wounds, from disease, or in prison, is estimated at 25,324, nearly one percent of the population in 1780 and more than one in ten of all soldiers who served. As a percentage of the national population, the losses were three times those of World War II and were surpassed only by the Civil War’s.

Nor should the impact of the “civil war within the war” be overlooked. Anti-Tory reprisals encouraged the emigration of between 50,000 and 100,000 British Loyalists from America during the war and tens of thousands more afterward; the ratio of exiles to population was at least five times as high as the émigré wave that fled France during the French Revolution. This exodus together with the brutality that came to characterize the war on the Indian frontiers and in the South gives us a picture of violent upheaval far exceeding the popular image of the war. The War of Independence was an event of immense proportions, a major cause in its own right of the larger American Revolution.

Even as the Army helped make the nation, the war helped forge the first administrative organs of national government. The mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line in January 1781 persuaded Congress that the task of financing and directing the war effort could not be left to the individual states. Within two months it opened a Department of Foreign Affairs, created the office of the Secretary of War, and established a Department of Finance, whose first superintendent, Robert Morris, became the virtual financial dictator of the United States. Other national institutions begun during the war included departments of military supply and organization; the Springfield Armory, in Massachusetts; and the Bank of North America, first formed in Philadelphia in June 1780 by citizens wanting to assist the Army.

The Treaty of Paris led to the rapid decline of nationalist sentiments in the former colonies. By 1784 the Army had shrunk to 700 men under Maj. Gen. Henry Knox. Distrustful of standing armies, Congress disbanded even this force, leaving only two garrisons, one of 55 men, the other of 25. The administrative departments established by Congress also atrophied, and several states began conducting their affairs almost as if the Articles of Confederation did not exist. The ingrained American mistrust of centralized power thus manifested itself in two habits that would resurface after nearly every war: rapid, nearly total demobilization of the Army and partial dismantling of the state administration.

That the American Confederation did not fall apart entirely after 1783 can be attributed to the twin imperatives of internal order and external defense. Nationalist leaders such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, and Gouverneur Morris pressed the case for a central government largely on military grounds, arguing that individual states alone could not adequately provide for either defense or the maintenance of order. The course of events vindicated their argument. Rising internal anarchy in several states exposed the inadequacy of local militia. The most serious incident, Shays’ Rebellion, boosted pronationalist feeling in several states. Meanwhile, the Northern states bordering on British or French possessions increasingly worried about the vulnerability of their trade. Britain was no longer an enemy, but neither was its navy a protector, and how could overseas commerce be conducted safely without a strong navy, which no one state could afford? In the South Georgia’s burgeoning population was alarmed by the proximity of sometimes hostile Indian tribes; the state militia could not ensure frontier security.

Revolutionary War veterans played a crucial role in the movement for a strong central government between 1783 and 1789. The victory over Britain had enhanced their political standing, while the experience of the war had made them the most nationalist-minded interest group in America. Congress had ended the war with large domestic debts, including nearly $10 million owed to veterans whose pay was in arrears or who had been promised pensions of half pay for life. Veterans lobbied hard for either Congress or the states to meet this obligation. Some fiscally healthy states did assume the debt, but others could not; veterans in those states regarded the formation of a strong national government as their best hope for redress. Nationalist leaders such as Hamilton pressed for Congress to assume the full debts, believing this would turn the debts into a potential “cement” of the Union. Thus war debts helped consolidate a fractious polity by binding creditors across the nation.

The Civil War spawned a revolution in taxation that permanently altered the relationship of the government to the economy. And the war transformed what had been an unorganized nation into an ever more organized one.

The mounting concern over national security, civil order, and war debts culminated in the gathering at Philadelphia in 1787. Edmund Randolph made the first formal speech to the convention, indicting the existing Confederation for having “produced no security against foreign invasion” and failing to “check the quarrels between states, nor a rebellion in any.” This same preoccupation with national security permeates the Constitution itself, from the “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence” line of the Preamble to the guarantee in Article IV that the United States will protect the states against invasion and domestic violence. Of the eighteen clauses defining the powers of Congress, nine directly concern military affairs.

The Constitution envisioned immense potential power for the President, but only in times of war or grave national crisis; this was one reason the government has expanded most easily during wars. Such an enormous grant of power to one individual, even with all the safeguards that accompanied it, was feasible only because everyone believed that the first holder of the office would be the former commander in chief of the Continental Army. The world’s first new republic in more than a century, the jewel of the Enlightenment would be headed by a military officer, an aristocrat who epitomized the martial virtues of his class. Not surprisingly he was known throughout his Presidency simply as General Washington.

The new republic’s first decade was marked by Britain’s retention of military posts in the Northwest, friction with Spain over the Mississippi and the Southwestern border, the Nootka Sound crisis, and rising tensions associated with the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Throughout the 1790s Federalist leaders such as Hamilton sought to build up the Regular Army, form a permanent defense establishment, and enhance federal authority. They were only partly successful, however. In 1796 a French visitor to Washington was stunned to find the War Office staffed by only two clerks.

The military activism of the Federalists peaked in 1798 with the quadrupling of the Regular Army after the XYZ Affair raised tensions with France. During the Quasi-War that followed, several events—passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the struggle between President Adams and Alexander Hamilton over command of the new Army, and rising opposition to defense spending—culminated in a split in the Federalist party, the election of Jefferson, and the demise of Hamilton’s vision of a state strengthened by open war with France. The triumph of the Jeffersonian vision of a limited state based on republican ideals, rather than on military and bureaucratic power, meant the rapid demise of the Federalist party. Jefferson’s one concession to Federalism was the founding of the military academy at West Point in 1802. Otherwise the U.S. military establishment remained much as Adams had left it: an officer corps of fewer than 500 men, a civilian bureaucracy of less than 100, a few widely scattered forts and armories, and a small navy—in a country that in 1803 would nearly double its territorial expanse.

During the War of 1812 the federal bureaucracy burgeoned and the size of the Army quintupled, but the growth was short-lived. Invaded by a foreign army for the last time in its history in 1814, the United States a year later faced no serious threats to its security from abroad. The Army turned to fighting Indian tribes; by 1821 it had been slashed to only 5,775 men. Andrew Jackson’s Presidency was the apex of the long peace that prevailed from 1815 to 1846. Though a war hero elected by men who won the franchise in part through military service, he disdained professional soldiers, and the Army suffered from neglect and even open hostility throughout the era. Jacksonian Democrats in Congress even tried to close West Point in 1837, while the militia degenerated into social clubs of marginal military utility.

By any measure, the federal government remained small and weak until the Civil War. While civilian employment in the Executive Branch increased eightfold (from 4,479 to 36,106), more than 85 percent of the growth was in the postal service. The federal bureaucracy, it seems, was overwhelmingly dedicated to the single objective of delivering the mail. Thousands of post offices provided patronage for the spoils system while constituting neither a centralized state apparatus nor a source of effective federal power. A state so weak in internal sovereignty was a free state but also an inherently fragile one. Given that by 1850 American territory had tripled in fifty years, the real historical question is not why the Civil War took place ten years later but how such a vast state, decentralized and demilitarized, held itself together at all until the war.

Heading off from Springfield for Washington, Lincoln told an Army officer, “I must run the machine as I find it.” In truth, there was not much of a machine to run. There were some 16,000 men in the U.S. Army in 1860, a federal budget of $63 million, and a mere 2,199 federal employees in Washington, D.C. The notion that such a diminutive state could hang on to a territory larger than France, Britain, and Germany combined, whose entire population was in mass rebellion, appeared ludicrous to outside observers. Yet four years after the attack on Fort Sumter, a sweeping transformation had occurred: the national budget had soared to over $1.2 billion, and the Union fielded an army of more than a million men, the largest, best-equipped, best-fed, and most powerful war machine thus far in the history of the world. The federal bureaucracy had mushroomed into a centralized apparatus of more than 53,000 people, despite losing thousands of employees in the South. Behind both army and bureaucracy stood a revitalized Presidency wielding authoritarian power over almost every aspect of Union life.

Prior to 1861 the national government had been a minor purchaser in the American economy. During the war it became the largest single purchaser, a catalyst of rapid growth in such key industries as iron, textiles, shoe manufacturing, and meat-packing. In Philadelphia industrialists built 180 new factories between 1862 and 1864. Iron mills proliferated in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, with 6 mills erected in Pittsburgh in just one year. Also, the urgent pressure to procure war-related items led the federal government to establish and operate its own manufacturing plants, something it had never attempted outside the armaments industry. There were federal clothing factories in Cincinnati and Philadelphia; pharmaceutical laboratories in New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis; meat-packing facilities in Knoxville and Louisville.

The Civil War also spawned a revolution in taxation that permanently altered the relationship of the government to the economy. On August 5, 1861, the first income tax in U.S. history came into effect, followed by the Internal Revenue Act of 1862, which levied a cluster of new taxes: stamp taxes, excise taxes, luxury taxes, gross receipts taxes, an inheritance tax, and value-added taxes on manufactured goods. It also created the Bureau of Internal Revenue, undoubtedly the single most effective vehicle of federal power ever created—and one that, now as the Internal Revenue Service, has starkly affected the lives of ordinary citizens ever since. Before 1861 internal revenues rarely accounted for more than one percent of federal income; after 1865 they never once dropped below 32 percent, despite the abolition of the income tax in the 1870s.

The formation of an internal revenue system was but one part of a larger Civil War revolution in the nation’s finances. In February 1862 Congress enacted the Legal Tender Act, authorizing the Treasury to issue $150 million in notes—“greenback dollars” not covered by hard coin. The creation of a national paper currency forever altered the monetary system of the United States. As the historian James McPherson writes, “It asserted national sovereignty to help win a war fought to preserve that sovereignty.” Desperate for capital to support Union armies, the Lincoln administration sought to create a captive source of credit by issuing the new greenbacks only to banks that would purchase large quantities of federal bonds. To qualify, the banks had to agree to accept federal regulation and charters; thus almost overnight a national banking system came into being. It has been with us ever since.

As in all American wars, the Civil War ushered in important new governing institutions, not only the Internal Revenue Bureau but also the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Immigration, and the National Academy of Sciences, founded in 1863 in the hope of harnessing science for the war effort. Such institutions encouraged the development of science and industry and the mechanization of agriculture. As Allan Nevins has cogently argued, one of the most important effects of the war was to transform an unorganized nation into an ever more organized one.

During the Civil War federal authority intruded into the lives and violated the rights of American citizens as never before. Two weeks after Fort Sumter Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in Maryland; he eventually suspended it in other states as well, resulting in thousands of arrests without judicial process. His administration introduced national conscription for the first time under the Enrollment Act of March 3, 1863, and the draft ignited the largest civil insurrections in American history outside the Civil War itself. Scores perished in the rioting, including thirty-eight federal draft officials. Union troops fresh from the victory at Gettysburg were required to restore order to New York City, where the worst violence occurred. The ability of the federal government to enforce the draft and prosecute the war effort despite sometimes bitter opposition at home permanently altered the relationship between Americans and their national government.

World War I irreversibly stimulated collectivist thinking and public support for federal solutions to public problems and so helped pave the way for the New Deal, with its statist approach to economic recovery.

What it did not do, however, was turn the United States into a centralized, highly bureaucratic state, like those of Europe. The end of the war brought a precipitous demobilization, a quintessential act of American exceptionalism and the precise opposite of what happened in Germany five years later, after it achieved national unity in war. Within less than a year after Appomattox, the Army had shrunk to only 57,000 men. The federal bureaucracy also contracted, though not so drastically; in 1871 there were still 6,222 civilian employees in Washington, far fewer than during the war but still double the pre-war figure. The Presidency retained little of the prestige or authority it had had under Lincoln. Andrew Johnson, his immediate successor, was impeached and lost virtually all power to a radical Congress; the next President, General Grant of wartime fame, ran an ineffectual administration mired in corruption. No European state had ever demobilized so quickly or totally after a major war; in Europe it is assumed that the adversary will live to fight another day. In America the traditional pattern of geographical isolation and weak central government reasserted itself.

The continuing weakness of the American state after the war can be seen in the rapid decline of federal power in the South and the failure of Reconstruction. The federal government’s main agents for effecting change in Southern society were the federal Army and the Freedmen’s bureau. At peak strength the bureau had only 900 agents in the South. It was impotent without military backing, yet by 1867 the Army had barely 15,000 soldiers in the South. This represented one soldier per 725 inhabitants, hardly a ratio conducive to wielding effective federal power. By 1870 the number had declined to 6,600; by 1876, to 3,000. The U.S. military presence barely sufficed to police large cities, appoint and remove governors, censor the press, and supervise elections, but it was woefully inadequate to protect the rights of former slaves, much less remake the fabric of Southern society, which resented and resisted it at every step.

A further indication of the weakness of central authority in the long decades of peace from the Civil War to 1914 was the exceptionally stormy course of American industrialization. American leaders, both national and local, proved unable to cope with the stresses of industrialization through effective reform measures. As a result, the period from 1870 to 1900 witnessed the most violent clashes between labor and capital in any industrializing country ever. The National Guard was mobilized some 150 times to cope with industrial disputes, and federal troops intervened in eight states during the Great Strike of 1877, in eleven states in 1894, and in the Coeur d’Alene mining region of Idaho three times in the 1890s. Hampered by its own impotence as the industrial age unfolded, the American state resorted to suppression as a substitute for reform. This pattern was hardly altered by the fleeting drama of the Spanish-American War; though it exposed critical problems in the Army and state, that conflict was too brief to generate significant reform pressures.

America’s participation in the First World War, on the other hand, lasted no longer than in the War of 1812 yet was far more intense. In only nineteen months—from the declaration of war to the armistice of November 1918—the United States drafted nearly three million men, transported two million of them to Europe, and lost more than a hundred thousand soldiers in combat. Federal spending multiplied almost tenfold, and the federal bureaucracy more than doubled. With war now fully industrialized—with armor-plated fleets, submarines, airplanes, machine guns, mechanized artillery, and tanks—the cost per soldier was immense, rising by 1918 to nearly seven times that of the Civil War in constant dollars. The cost and complexity of mechanized warfare compelled the Wilson administration to take radical steps to enhance the federal government’s capacity to extract revenue, regulate the economy, and harness the nation’s industrial output.

Adjusted for inflation, annual per capita spending during World War I was nearly double that of either the Civil War or World War II. Federal outlays soared by 2,500 percent in less than three years and never again dropped below four times the 1916 level. The income-tax amendment ratified in 1913 was a minor source of federal revenue until Congress passed the Wartime Revenue Act of October 1917. The act lowered exemptions for all taxpayers and drastically elevated taxes in the highest brackets—from a top of 13 percent in 1916 to 77 percent during the war. Perhaps most important, the lowest, or “normal,” tax bracket doubled, from 2 percent to 4 percent. The number of tax returns filed jumped from 437,036 in 1916 to 3,472,890 in 1917 and then doubled again by 1920. Never before had federal taxation affected so many Americans so directly.

The revenue legislation of World War I permanently changed the nature of American taxation, much as had that in the Civil War. Not only did it greatly elevate the importance of the income tax, but it made the principle of progression a permanent fixture of the nation’s tax system. On the eve of entry into the war, personal and corporate income taxes accounted for only 24 percent of internal revenue; the figure averaged 75 percent throughout the 1920s. World War I thus made the income tax—the most direct and intrusive of all forms of revenue extraction—the mainstay of federal financing.

Revenue from war bonds and the income tax not only fed and supplied the American Expeditionary Force but also funded a burgeoning army of civilians at home. In 1916 civilian employment in the Executive Branch numbered just under 400,000. During the war the federal government hired an additional 450,000 civil servants; by 1923 postwar layoffs had eliminated some two-thirds of these jobs, but that still left a permanent net gain of 141,000. This growth did not take place only in warrelated government agencies; by mid-1920 the only federal agencies that had not experienced net growth as a result of the war were the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Panama Canal Company, which had finished building the canal in 1914. Treasury had gained nearly 40,000 employees, Commerce 7,000; and State, Justice, Agriculture, Labor, and the Post Office all had marked up permanent increases too.

Legislation passed in 1916 and 1917 gave the Wilson administration unprecedented authority to intervene in the national economy, effectively putting the entire industrial, agricultural, and transportation base of the United States under federal control. The Overman Act, of May 1918, was a further milestone, granting Wilson vast authority to restructure the Executive Branch. He used his new power to create numerous federal agencies, the most important of which was the War Industries Board (WIB), under Bernard Baruch. As the main instrument for mobilizing U.S. industrial capacity, the WIB imposed on American industry a system of production and price schedules tied to Army requirements.

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.

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.

World War II far surpassed the New Deal with respect to the formation of new federal agencies. The War Powers Act of December 1941 gave Roosevelt the same authority Wilson had acquired in the Overman Act to redistribute functions and personnel among existing agencies, but Roosevelt received this authority earlier and held it much longer than Wilson had. Before the war ended, more than 150 new agencies, bureaus, commissions, and boards had been established. This was made possible in part by the abolition of New Deal agencies, many of whose functions and personnel were transferred to wartime agencies. Malcolm Cowley proclaimed in The New Republic in 1943 that “the New Deal is being abandoned,” but he couldn’t realize that the new administrative juggernaut being reared during the war would prove a far more potent instrument of social welfare and economic regulation than anything created before 1939. World War II did not dismantle the welfare state in America; it bequeathed it a permanent bureaucratic base.

By 1943 the federal government had become the consumer of nearly half the nation’s output of goods and services and of a much higher percentage of total industrial output. The federal budget grew from $6.8 billion in 1938 to an unthinkable $98.3 billion in 1945—that is, the national government was spending fourteen times as much at the height of World War II as at the peak of the Great Depression. As in earlier American wars, military expenditures were a spur to fiscal reform. The most important innovation was the introduction in 1943 of income-tax withholding on a temporary basis. Needless to say, it became permanent. By making income taxation largely invisible and hence less painful, withholding not only helped finance the war effort but greatly facilitated the permanent maintenance of a large federal bureaucracy. The number of tax returns filed shot from 7.5 million in 1939 to 50 million in 1945. With the lowest tax bracket raised from 5.5 percent to 23 percent, income tax receipts increased 1,800 percent during the war. Before 1941 less than half of internal revenues had come from individual and corporate income taxes; by 1945, 80 percent did, and never again would it be less than 70 percent.

During World War I most prosecutions of war dissenters took place locally; from 1941 to 1945 the repression of dissent was essentially federalized with the centralization of power in the American system. There were relatively few prosecutions for verbal opposition to the war, but active dissent was another matter. Federal authorities suppressed numerous groups and closed at least a hundred publications. More than 6,000 draft resisters went to jail, a rate four times higher than in World War I. Nor had the First World War seen anything comparable to the forced internment from 1942 to 1945 of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent. And the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s force of special agents grew from 785 in 1939 to 4,370 by 1945.

Despite the freedom of our mainland from enemy attacks, World War II was an enormous upheaval for the American population. The massive collective effort it entailed served to partly break down long-standing racial, ethnic, and gender barriers. Although black Americans fought in segregated military units, at home their share of federal civilian employment rose from 8 to 18 percent, with a marked increase in white-collar jobs. The war likewise shattered barriers to female employment; by mid-1945, 16.5 million women were at work, 36 percent of the civilian labor force. The archetype of the female worker in World War II was “Rosie the Riveter,” but even the New York Stock Exchange hired its first female clerk in 1943. To be sure, many gains proved temporary, and 920,000 black soldiers soon found that the rights they had fought for did not apply to them. Still, the war helped place the issue of racial discrimination firmly on the national agenda, where it has remained ever since. During the conflict the Urban League tripled in size, while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People grew from 50,000 to nearly 500,000 members. The war thus commenced a long postwar struggle for racial equality. It marked, in fact, the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.

Periods of war have favored the Hamiltonian vision of a strong, centralized state; periods of peace, the Jeffersonian vision of a limited one. It is tempting to conclude that the Hamiltonian vision has triumphed unconditionally. Yet it hasn’t.

The United States never fully demobilized after the Second World War. By 1946 the armed forces had shrunk from 12.5 million to 3 million troops; by 1948, to less than 1.5 million, but that was still by American standards a massive force, nearly five times its 1939 size. The downward trend abruptly ceased that year with the corning of the Berlin airlift and the onset of the Cold War, which lasted forty-two years, until the reunification of Germany in 1990. During those decades the United States spent more than $6 trillion on defense, maintained standing military forces that averaged 2.4 million persons, supported a civilian defense bureaucracy of over a million employees, and funded a vast military-industrial complex against whose influence even the thirty-fourth President, the most famous general of World War II, felt compelled to warn. The coming of the Cold War thus gave a permanent cast to the transmutations of World War II.

World War II had already given the nation a massive bureaucratic state; the Cold War kept it intact. The National Security Act of 1947 ensured that the large defense establishment formed in World War II would also endure more or less permanently. It established the triumvirate that shaped U.S. security policy throughout the Cold War: the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and what became in 1949 the Department of Defense. So large a peacetime security establishment would have been unthinkable before 1939. Everywhere Hamilton’s vision of government was triumphant, Jefferson’s in full retreat.

Harold Lasswell, a prominent scholar, warned in 1950 that the Cold War might turn the United States into “a garrison-police state” dominated by specialists on violence. The litany of Cold War repression by the federal government during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—the Taft-Hartley Act, the McCarran Internal Security and Immigration acts, the McCarthy allegations, the purging of China experts in the State Department, the blacklisting of American writers and film producers—at least partly vindicated his viewpoint. The worst abuses ceased after the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954, but federal repressive activities continued throughout the Cold War. One by-product of increased state power was the proliferation of background investigations for federal employees, uniformed service personnel, and industrial and transport concerns linked with national security. During World War II an estimated 100 federal employees were dismissed and 30 resigned as a result of background investigations; from 1947 to 1956 there were 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 security-related resignations. By 1958 some 9.8 million Americans were subject to background investigations, loyalty oaths, or security-clearance procedures. There was nothing even remotely comparable in American history prior to 1945.

If any conflict of the Cold War era marked an exception to the pattern of federal power growing stronger as a result of war, it was the war in Vietnam. The long-term effects of the war, especially after the fall of Saigon in 1975, were politically debilitating: Executive power was eroded, the American polity divided, and national self-confidence badly shaken. The later years of the war witnessed the worst domestic disorder in the United States since the Civil War. Acutely aware of the potential of Vietnam to undermine its reform agenda, the Johnson administration tried valiantly to escalate slowly, keep the war limited, and hide its true costs from the public. The war and the Great Society were not entirely unrelated events, however; the architects of both—Johnson, his cabinet, and his top advisers—embodied a supreme statism, the spirit of American invincibility that had reigned since 1945, a can-do confidence in the capacity of government to accomplish anything, whether ending poverty at home, creating safe hamlets in Vietnam, or waging counterinsurgency with search-and-destroy missions, bombing raids, and infiltration-detection devices.

In the early years of the war, particularly 1965 and 1966, public and congressional support for the war remained fairly high; the imperial Presidency instigating the most far-reaching welfare reforms in the nation’s history was not yet weakened by the war and may even have been strengthening by the tendency of power to flow to the Presidency during wartime. The vote by which the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed (416-0 in the House; 98-2 in the Senate) and Johnson’s phenomenal legislative record in the Eightyninth Congress that followed (181 measures passed out of 200 requested) reflect a Presidency at the apex of its power in both foreign and domestic affairs. It was only after the Tet Offensive, in 1968, when popular support for the Vietnam War plummeted, that Executive power and social reform were seriously undercut. More than twenty years later the nation’s phenomenal success in the Persian Gulf War could still only partly erase the loss of national self-confidence left behind by the war in Vietnam. It is a singular reminder of how war can weaken a state as well as strengthen it.


Throughout American history two visions of government have competed: the Hamiltonian vision of a strong, centralized, militarily powerful state and the Jeffersonian vision of a limited one, where human liberty is the highest ideal. Periods of war have favored the former vision; periods of peace, the latter. Yet as far as the growth and development of the national government are concerned, the long-term impact of America’s wars has clearly proved dominant. Indeed, in considering the expansion of the federal government and the enormous accretion of state power since the Civil War, it is tempting to conclude that the Hamiltonian vision has triumphed unconditionally.

Yet it hasn’t. America is much more than its government. As the political scientists Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson have observed, the ideals of American life remain Jeffersonian, despite the powerful and sometimes potentially corrupting institutions reared by past wars. At the end of the Cold War, after nearly fifty years of full or partial national mobilization, civil society in America remains stronger, more independent-minded, and more anti-statist than in virtually any country of Europe or Asia. The rapid decline of the U.S. defense budget following the collapse of the Soviet empire, the absence of influential voices calling for the maintenance of a large U.S. presence overseas, and the growing intensity of anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment all point to the survival of that whiff of rebellion that Jefferson deemed vital to democracy.

The genius of the Constitution was that it created a structure that would allow civil society to continue in freedom even as the nationstate that was its political manifestation became a global military power. In this sense, at least, America still remains the great exception. The very weakness of the American state as an apparatus of power is the source of its greatest fundamental strength: a vibrant, free, and flourishing society, whose achievements in peace have both surpassed and made possible its successes in war.

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