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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Then and now

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.


Anonymous said...

You seem to suggest a sort of chaotic decline, no big wars, sort of like dissolution of USSR. A WWIII scenario seems unlikely due to nuclear weapons. ALthough sort of proxy wars as during cold war could be fought and are being "fought" . Chinese monopolizing resources in Africa without weapons.

A renewed US Civil War seems also unlikely. The times seems to suggest such a scenario as we see two sides completely in disagreement on everything without a will to compromise it seems like 1850s to me in that sense. However the geographical divide being more rural/exurb/south vs. Coasts/ north (classic blue vs. red states) and city vs. suburb/rural.

Globally a sort of dissolution of societies based on decline in trade (due to loss of buying power of consumers in a depression), massive indebtedness of governments and abandonment of social welfare and military spending is conceivable. Nothing can get done when the solutions of the past have all run their course. More govt. cannot help in such a situation as govts. are all broke.

The only truly futuristic visions available seem to come from environmentalists and exactly these visions are flatly denied by business leaders and consumers who want to continue their lives in a normal fashion. But destruction of the environment and endless population growth on a limited earth are no solution. In 1940s we could mobilize by using resources which were lying about unused. Now we have mastered that technique. Government stimulus allows companies globally to rape the land and pollute to make consumption goods and build cities out of nothing. When all the resources are gone and the environment destroyed the people will again be unemployed but likely also starving as the water wells are empty and diesel to pump up the water costs too much, or the aluminium smelter is too costly in energy terms to keep running. Everyone wants the good times and a redistribution of mother nature's wealth has already happened. Most of it is gone. Macroeconomical theories cannot get by these facts with trillions of stimiulus spending.

Likely is a dissolution of services at all levels of govt. and a wtihdrawal of people to self help as the center crumbles in all countries. Blackouts, starvation, climate catastrophes will certainly abound but nothing will be done in this generation as this goes against current economic theory and profit motive. Capitalims and communism or socialism were just two sides of a coin, how to use up nature quick for humanity. Now what?

Seth C. Burgess said...

It is amazing how that civic spirit, that leadership of small business and gov't, can so impact our capacity as a nation on the whole.

George Buddy said...

RE: 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

Never heard anyone make reference to this. Excellent observation. Some may discount it, as it seems counter-intuitive because we have all been exposed to how kids would be drafted without shoes, or education, or skills. etc in the nastiest descriptions.

Anonymous said...

I know this is rather off-topic but I was wondering if we might get your thoughts on the ramifications of current action against Muslims in France? Is there a valid comparison between this and Germany's attitude towards Jews in the years leading up to the second World War?

Bruce Post said...

David, while you are certainly more measured in tone than James Howard Kunstler, I thought this excerpt from his posting this week mirrors your sentiments:

"My timing is notoriously faulty, they say, but I can't ignore the sensation of being seasick-on-dry-land that tells me something awful is at hand. President Obama appears more and more Gorbachev-like to me, a well-intentioned functionary sailing his ship-of-state steadily into a maelstrom. The course is set and ain't nobody going to make a move to change it. Of course, Mr. Obama is no more to blame than Mr. Gorbachev was -- if anything one can't help but admire Gorby's steering of the creaky old Soviet ghost ship into drydock with nary a pint of blood spilled in the process -- but what's really striking in America today is the massive failure of leadership in the layers below Mr. Obama, and in all the other sectors of American culture where CEOs, chairpersons-of-the-boards, deans and provosts, doctors of this and that, generals and attorneys-general, even diverse clergy in all their arresting head-gear cannot collectively advocate for reality.

This failure of credentialed and elected authorities will surely unleash the crazies as we skid toward fall. Legitimacy hates a vacuum. The absence of a reality-based consensus for action will invite a consensus based on other things such as the lust for vengeance, the labeling of scapegoats, patriotic gore, and all the alternate trappings of a politics-gone-mad. Enjoy the heat and the clam rolls wherever you are in the meantime, and when you come home don't be surprised if you no longer recognize the country you're in."

Bozon said...


Great account; great contrasts then and now; and great proposals on the analogy of the New Deal programs.

I just wonder about the truth of "No advanced nation on earth has any such goals today," a little.

all the best,

B Popma said...


I can safely say that it is a very rare experience to find well written, insightful and original commentary. Thank you for your efforts and your perspective.

It is a sad observation of the comparative educational achievement, or the inability to demonstrate it, within public service. I do not believe this sector is unique. Likewise, after 30 years of participation I believe the private sector has diminished ability to focus on and resolve critical issues or to mobilize large groups for a sustained commitment towards common objectives.

And social forces conspire to further reduce our ability to adapt and change through governmental leadership. Much to our detriment. It does make one marvel at the ability to pass recent major legislative health care change. (or have we defined 'major' downward?)

Anonymous said...

For your next "Then and Now" perhaps the social/political trends of declining Rome vs post-millennium America would be in order. I know the comparison isn't new, but I have yet to see a well researched comparison.

Anonymous said...

This was interesting. To what do you blame the decline in education in the US after 1968??