I have spent the last two weeks at the National Archives in Washington researching US preparation for, and entry into, the Second World War, and I have one more week to go. As with every project I have undertaken since my dissertation thirty years ago, I have been surprised at the amount of undiscovered material in the archives, even on the subjects that have been researched most thoroughly. (I don't have any serious plans to write about the American Civil War--even I couldn't hope to find much new there.) That war, of course, was the climax of the last crisis of our national life, and thus should have interesting implications for the present day. It does--but largely because of the differences between that time and this.
The Second World War came to the US because of developments in other parts of the world, but the United States eventually found itself in the winning coalition because it shared many characteristics with other contemporary societies. Returning to the international environment of the 1930s after about thirty years away from it has been a sobering experience. The kind of anarchy that we now see in the streets of Baghdad or the Afghan valleys ruled the world. In 1940, when my intensive research begins, Japan had been engaged in a huge and bloody war with China for three years. Germany had annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia, brutally occupied Poland, and then, in moves that stunned the world, seized Norway (despite British command of the sea) and beat France. Germany by 1940 had several million men under arms. The Soviet Union had even more. It was an age of discipline and organization both on the European continent and in Asia. It was also an age of industrial competition. The pre-1914 globalization had never fully been restored even during the 1920s and the Depression had destroyed it completely. Japan and Germany had essentially given up on world markets as solutions to their economic problems and undertaken the conquest of autarkic empires. No advanced nation on earth has any such goals today, and that is a big reason why I do not expect to see a remotely comparable war. That, of course, is good news--but it is related to other differences between their age and ours.
Not only is there little to fight about among advanced nations today, but all of them seem to lack both the organizational capacity and the civic spirit necessary to mount a war on that scale. As a percentage of our population the US Army is only slightly larger than it was in 1940, when we were, comparatively speaking, almost completely disarmed--but this time we have no thought of increasing it. Other armies are even smaller as a percentage of population, including the Chinese and the Indians. The only heavily militarized states in the world by historical standards are relatively small countries in dangerous areas: the two Koreas, Israel and Syria, and Saudi Arabia and Iran (the last two with smaller armies than the first four, but larger than ours relative to their populations.) I do not think there is any nation left speaking an Indo-European language that has conscription--truly an astonishing statistic.
The superior organizational capacity of society then shows up in the story of the American mobilization for war. During 1940-1 relatively small committees of businessmen and civil servants planned, supervised, and brought to fruition an incredible expansion of American productive capacity. They had to identify and fulfill enormous new needs of strategic materials, machine tools, aluminum and steel, and much more, simply to make the necessary weapons production possible--and they had to do it while allowing the civilian economy to keep functioning. The Congress unhesitatingly passed a series of huge appropriations to make this possible, while the services struggled with the issue of how big the war would be. The decline of the American educational system is also evident in the hundreds of documents I have read--most of them are written with a direct clarity one would rarely find today. The American higher education system was about 2/3 of the way through its golden age when these events took place (I would estimate that that age lasted from about 1900 to 1968.) It showed.
The organization and discipline that made all this possible was not confined to the elite, either. The American labor movement was in the midst of its greatest-ever growth, and Roosevelt made sure that it would not lose its gains as a result of the war. Our organizational ability had made the achievements of New Deal agencies possible, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (which built much of our state park systems), the TVA, and the PWA and WPA, which did so much for our infrastructure. Those are the kinds of agencies we need--and do not have--today. New Dealers would have chartered publicly owned corporations to put up wind turbines around the country and perhaps even to build electric cars. The impulse to do so seems to have vanished now.
Some weeks ago I attended my local town budget meeting, a contentious, unorganized melee, dominated by a small Tea Party faction that wanted to undo much of the legally obligated budget. It lasted several hours and threatened at one point to last all night, although fortunately the faction yielded the field before presenting all their amendments. The contrast with the minutes of the Office of Production Management that I read last week was striking: its members made three or four important decisions a day, usually unanimously. Today's Congressional debates and committee hearings are also embarrassing when compared to those of those days, even though a significant Republican faction treated everything FDR proposed the same way the entire Republican delegation treats President Obama today. Intellectual ability was higher, as was the sense of civic obligation. That was lucky.
The discipline that had built up throughout western society over the previous few centuries had evil consequences as well as good ones. It enabled Fascist regimes to mobilize their fortunately smaller nations nearly as effectively, with horrifying effects, and also contributed to Communism in the Soviet Union. But it made it easier to translate intent into action. This is a problem for future historians of our civilization to ponder. Our mistakes today, like the war in Afghanistan, are very real--but they are inevitably smaller. So too are our victories. There are pluses and minuses to living, as we do not, in a truly heroic age.