“The wars of peoples will be more X terrible than the wars of kings!” So predicted the young Winston Churchill as the new century dawned in 1901. The world wars (two hot, one cold) that have marked the decades since have validated Churchill while contradicting the glib predictions that “global democracy” would bring a new century of world peace.

This is not just a recent development. An enormous amount of social energy was unleashed during the rise of the nation- state, an energy that had carried Western civilization to its apex during Churchill’s early days as an imperialist-adventurer. Regardless of whether a government was a monarchy or a republic or how extensive (or restricted) the constitutional franchise, popular support had long been necessary to mobilize the vast resources available in the modern era. That the Anglo-American democracies have been on the winning side in all of this century’s world wars, thanks to strong leadership and energetic populations, demonstrates the enormous potential of popular government.

Rutgers history professor William L. O’Neill, in his 1986 book American High: The Years of Confidence 1945-1960, praised the World War II generation for infusing the country with “buoyant expectations and a rare sense of unity” during the presidency of a five-star general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, when the suburbs sprawled, living standards rose, babies boomed, the divorce rate fell, manners and morals were proper, the streets were safe, and the mail was delivered twice a day. Now, in A Democracy at War, O’Neill looks at the social impact of the war years that produced such a generation of vigorous, practical achievers.

The pre-existing social environment was conducive to the formation of proper values. Early on, O’Neill offers a central part of his thesis when he writes, “America had great vitality. . . . Materially the United States was far and away the world’s leading industrial nation.” He continues:

There were social and moral strengths as well, without which the physical assets alone would have been inadequate. Family life was solid and the basis of national might. The average years of schooling had been greatly extended, and literacy was widespread. To what now seems an amazing degree, Americans of many different ethnic backgrounds lived and worked together. People of all races and religions shared a common faith in hard work, individual obligation, and respected legitimate authority. The young Americans who were called upon to fight and die for their country had been raised to believe in it, to prize loyalty to neighborhood and nation, and to do what was asked of them. Consequently, the United States met the world crisis with a relatively homogenous, well-disciplined, and well-educated workforce, a huge industrial capacity, and a generation of young men who would prove to be excellent warriors.

It is standard practice to contrast democratic societies with totalitarian states, stressing what appears to be the superior ability of the latter to “command” major efforts. But a comparison of actual performance indicates that democracies are better equipped for the work. It is possible to stampede a herd of cattle, but their performance is not likely to match that of high-spirited thoroughbreds who enjoy the run.

Though congressmen were constantly afraid of provoking a revolt, American voters were actually willing to make greater sacrifices than their government demanded. Thus the politicians were often left behind as the public acted on its own initiative, setting up grass-roots organizations; volunteering as air raid wardens, home guards, and first aid workers; planting “victory gardens”; and pouring into the factories and recruiting offices. In Chicago, 23,000 block captains were sworn in during one mass ceremony. Shipyard workers in San Francisco offered to work Sundays for free. Farmers plowed their fields at night to put their crops in early. Wounded soldiers went to elaborate lengths to avoid the bureaucratic obstacles that got in the way of a speedy return to their units.

O’Neill faults the politicians for not making better use of popular enthusiasm, as in fact they had failed to do as early as the 1930’s, when, in spite of polls indicating overwhelming support for increased conscription not only for military service but also to fill labor shortages in key industries. Congress failed to take this step. In 1943, the military stopped accepting volunteers, for the reason that the draft could better manage the flow of manpower. But draft levels were set too low to provide enough combat divisions to win the war earlier. The 1941 Victory Plan had called for 215 Army divisions, but the number was cut to 90 divisions in 1943. While this drop overstates the actual reduction in planned strength (American divisions with their attached support units were larger than enemy divisions and were kept closer to full strength), even before D-Day in 1944 the Army was running short of infantry. The United States put a smaller share of its population under arms and kept a larger share of its economy devoted to domestic consumption than did any of the other major combatants. O’Neill also deplores the discrimination against women and minorities, which limited their role to far less than they were willing to contribute.

The left did try to turn patriotic passions to partisan ends. They wanted a “people’s war” in which citizens would exert themselves not merely for their country (a reactionary notion that leftists tried to link with the fascism being fought overseas) but for the personal gains promised by “progressive” reformers: direction of the economy by the government could be continued after i:he war to install socialism. Yet this effort, led by the New Republic and the Nation and by journalists such as I.F. Stone and Vice President Henry Wallace, failed because, as O’Neill notes, “it was the people who lacked interest in social revolution.”

Though conservatives often trace today’s bloated welfare state to the eras of the New Deal and World War II, in truth the great changes came in the late 1960’s, not the mid-1940’s. Government actions during both the Depression and the war were taken mainly within the traditional and legitimate framework of responses to emergency situations. It was not until the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson that massive government intervention was institutionalized on a permanent basis with domestic social programs outspending military and infrastructural programs. To go back to the 1940’s would represent a shrinking of government far beyond what conservatives of the present day can even dream of effecting.

Today’s problems are not the result of the generation that fought World War II but of those that came after it, growing up in a secure and affluent society they did not have to sacrifice to build. It is not mere coincidence that the “breakpoint” in American economic growth-came in 1972, just after the babyboomers had emerged from college with attitudes far different than those who had gone to college on the CI Bill. The “generation gap” was between the tempered steel of the World War II veterans and the soft plastic of the “Me” generation, best known for its constant agitation for rights and its constant shirking of duties.

As the baby-boom generation reaches middle age, it has taken a sufficient measure of reality to understand the need to recreate the familial and national values it scorned in its youth. But the social order cannot be restored by an abstract discussion of “values,” whose essential contribution to human existence needs to be demonstrated. The value of Professor O’Neill’s book is that it provides just such a demonstration.


[Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II, by William L. O’Neill (New York: Free Press) 480 pp., $24.95]