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Why the Good War was mainly unopposed


Why did America’s sustained involvement in World War Ii not generate a more active domestic opposition?

This is an admittedly curious question, I suppose, since (apart from the ongoing debates over the morality of the city-scorching anti-civilian campaigns waged by the Germans against London and the Americans against Tokyo, or over Truman’s decision to drop the first and then the second atomic bomb) we continue to readily accept that World War Ii was the Good War.  In the context of a conflict where the United States was the victim of an originally horrific attack (Pearl Harbor) and where where the nation’s opponents engaged in such noteworthy acts of villainy (the Holocaust carried out on the European continent, and the criminal atrocities carried out in the name of the Japanese Empire), why wouldn’t we expect an ongoing support until victory?

But the situation is complicated and the question makes more sense when a broader historical perspective is considered.  World War II was not the only war to have been founded in righteous origins (todays Global War on Terror is an obvious contemporary example), and yet if memory serves it was the only sustained military campaign in American history to so fully escape second guessing and midcourse unpopularity.  This is remarkable given the high prices paid in town after town as the grinding war in the Asian theater generated phenomenally high casualty figures.  And it was true of course that the pre-War appeal of the isolationists (Charles Lindbergh and the rest) was essentially silenced by Pearl Harbor, but pacifist opposition has been similarly discredited in other cases only to reemerge as military success proved elusive.

The remarkably sustained levels of national support for the American World War II effort is also noteworthy for another reason, described by James Sparrow (from the University of Chicago) in a new essay on the topic:  “’Buying Our Boys Back’:  The Mass Foundations of Fiscal Citizenship in World War II,” Journal of Policy History 20.2 (2008): 263-286.  As he points out:

Unlike any war before it, World War II drew nearly all Americans into the very sinews of the state – its financing.  For the first time in history, most families paid income taxes and owned their own portion of the national debt in the form of savings bonds.  While banks, corporations, and the wealthy would continue to provide most of the government’s funding through taxes and other mechanisms of public finance, the great majority of ordinary Americans for the first time joined them in financing a significant portion of war expenditures during World War II, setting a pattern that would bolster the postwar fiscal regime and democratize the meaning of fiscal citizenship….  Because scholars have focused so heavily on the limitations imposed by American political culture on reform and political obligation during the war and early postwar years, we have little sense of how the extraordinary state-building of the period was accomplished with so little opposition.  No tax revolts, no draft riots, no postwar isolationism – the quiescence attending the dramatic policy of these years requires explanation.

According to Sparrow, these outcomes were not coincidental, nor the result of fortuitously timed battlefield success, nor even the result of skillful economic management (as he notes, when inflation surged during the war’s first half, resentment did momentarily bubble up and bond sales slipped).  Rather, “bondholders and taxpayers had to be persuaded to do their duty….  [T]hey were most persuaded when they could envision themselves as directly assisting the combat soldier.”  Astonishingly, as the war proceeded, the percentage of Americans agreeing with the Gallup statement that (paraphrasing) the amount I have to pay in income taxes is fair actually increased; by February 1944 a full ninety percent said they agreed with that view (271).

This process of persuasion is perhaps best exemplified by a story Sparrow uses to begin his essay and which accounts for his main title.  [I might add, perhaps tangentially, that the anecdote to come is also prominently featured in one of the great works of mass communication theory, Robert K. Merton’s landmark Mass Persuasion:  The Social Psychology of a War Bond Drive, published in 1946].  Sparrow describes the nationally broadcast bond drive emceed by Kate Smith on September 21, 1943, which ran for a full eighteen hours and raised a record amount of money.  Right after 8:00 that morning, Smith recreated a speech given at a drive event in New York.  Narrating the man’s story she had heard there, she said,

You know, friends, when we buy War bonds, we’re not buying tanks and guns and shells and planes.  What we’re really doing is buying our boys back… bringing them home safe to us, safe and sound once again.  Now I know there isn’t a person listening to me who wouldn’t give everything he has to buy his boy back… I’d give anything… all my money, or my health, or my own life… to buy my boy back from the War.  But I’m afraid I can’t do that now.  You see, I got a telegram from Washington this morning.  My boy isn’t coming back.

As one might expect, the effect was electrifying.  A man called in to say that he would be taking all the money he had saved to buy himself artificial limbs, replacements for his two legs both blown off in World War I, and instead would invest the money in bonds:  “My artificial limbs can wait…  but this war can’t.”  As Sparrow notes, in the aftermath of that story (which Smith recounted on the air as well), “a flood of pledges phoned in – the largest surge of the marathon.  Later, listeners would point to this specific spot as the most affecting part of the broadcast” (264).

One way to make sense of the powerfully persuasive effect of speeches like these is to refer to the manner by which eloquent talk induces a sense of profound identification, and Sparrow well evidences how events like the Kate Smith bond drive managed to align the listener as a kind of proxy for the suffering soldier.  He adds that this identification effect is also evident in the well documented fact that personal solicitations (where one naturally slips into story telling and personal anecdote) “consistently produced purchase rates 200 percent to 400 percent higher than other approaches, such as advertising, and its persuasiveness persisted even after repeated appeals” (273).  The “buy our boys back” appeal works to achieve identification in multiple ways, some of which mask the fact that, at its root, the appeal is to guilt (after all, the audience can be understood as having been asked to pay a ransom, where only a ransom as large as the man’s dead boy or the other man’s lost limbs were enough, a tactic Merton labeled the “triangulation of sacrifice”).

The impersonal engines of battle are thus personified, the state’s vast war-making capacity symbolically reduced (using the rhetorical trope of replacing-part-for-whole) to the single suffering soldier who might also be your brother or neighbor.  Walter Winchell made explicit use of this strategy in a 1943 radio speech:  “To those who complain that the tax is a heavy burden, remind them that a soldier’s pack on his back weighs sixty pounds” (276).

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