A sense of sacrifice—and entitlement. (Northwestern University Library)

The spoils of war
Historian James Sparrow traces the roots of “big government.”

Warming up the microphone this spring for his colleague James Sparrow, anthropology professor John Kelly, AM’82, PhD’88, offered a few words on the longstanding common wisdom that Sparrow, an American history scholar, would spend the next hour dismantling: that “big government” began with the New Deal. “Is it, as historians before Jim have argued,” Kelly said, “the New Deal that really created the national citizen?” He left the answer to Sparrow.

That answer turned out to be: no, not really. In a talk sponsored by UChicago’s Franke Institute for the Humanities, Sparrow laid out the central thesis of his book Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government (Oxford University Press, 2011), which traces the federal government’s vast expansion—its increased size and scope, its heightened influence on American society—not to the Great Depression but to World War II. The book is the first of a forthcoming trilogy exploring, in part, how legitimacy for America’s powerful, centralized state was built, maintained, and finally lost during the last half of the 20th century. 

Speaking to a room full of listeners on the Gleacher Center’s sixth floor,  Sparrow said, “More than in any period since the Civil War, changes in government politicized everyday life, touching nearly every American.” The war prompted mass participation in military service, war work, rationing, and price controls. For the first time, a majority of citizens paid federal income taxes—previously only the very wealthy had—and virtually all Americans, including schoolchildren, bought war bonds. “Total war changed the stakes of national government,” Sparrow said. The agencies responsible for war mobilization quickly dwarfed New Deal programs that “had seemed gargantuan only a few years earlier.”

Despite a long tradition of individualism and decentralized government, Americans acquiesced to these massive and intrusive changes. “In the 1940s there was no tax revolt, there were no draft riots, there was no postwar isolationism comparable to what we had seen in the interwar period,” Sparrow said. Why? Largely, he explained, because of government propaganda’s potent emphasis on personal sacrifice and a tangible, moral connection between the homefront and the battlefront.

Americans learned to evaluate every aspect of their lives according to its contribution to the war effort—even the most mundane and private acts, like growing vegetable “victory” gardens or saving cooking fats that could be used to make bombs. “You can just imagine coming out of the factory and seeing this poster: ‘What did you do today ... for Freedom?’” Sparrow read, as a large poster appeared on the screen behind him, showing a dead American soldier, face down on a beach, one arm hooked around his machine gun while his other hand clawed into the sand. In italicized capital letters, the final line read, “Every civilian a fighter.” Sparrow added: “It was this idealized symbol of nationalistic self-sacrifice, the combat soldier, that provided the master key to wartime political culture.”

But there was another, almost contradictory consequence to the government’s call for personal sacrifice and national unity, Sparrow said, and its legacy persists in today’s political strife: a sense of individual entitlement. The war effort brought millions of Americans into new contact with an increasingly powerful federal government, “whose ideological guarantees”—including  Franklin Roosevelt’s promised freedoms from want and from fear—“suddenly had concrete ramifications in their everyday lives. People began to expect a new degree of fairness, and they came to expect the federal government to guarantee that fairness.”

Industrial workers, GIs, women, minorities, and to some extent all Americans felt authorized to make demands on the government that had asked so much of them. “For soldiers and civilians alike,” Sparrow said, “the war instilled a sense of entitlement to full citizenship that the federal government would increasingly have to placate, if not always fulfill, in subsequent years.”