James Sparrow, Professor of History, University of Chicago
Recorded: Thursday, October 28, 2010
Although common wisdom and historical scholarship both assume that “big government” gained its foothold in the United States under the auspices of the New Deal during the Great Depression, in fact it was World War II that accomplished this feat. Warfare, not welfare, provided the broad and durable foundation for the legitimacy of the powerful, centralized government that ruled both America and the “free world” from 1941 onward. Through mass participation in military service, war work, rationing, price control, income taxation and ownership of the national debt (in the form of war bonds), ordinary Americans learned to live with and accept a national government that by 1945 dwarfed the New Deal even at the height of its spending in the late 1930s. This talk discusses the ways in which the mobilization for total war habituated Americans to big government, producing a paradoxical mixture of Americanism and entitlement that would define—and constrain—national political culture for decades.