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Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government James T. Sparrow Oxford University Press USA First Edition edition


31st October 2011 History Books 8 Comments

“One finishes Warfare State with an appreciation of how beautifully wrought a piece of scholarship it is–meticulously researched, graceful written, and politically resonant.” –History News Network

“James Sparrow’s wide-ranging and deeply-researched book helps us to see modern America anew. Warfare State deftly shows how wartime reconfigurations of the U.S. economy, society, and political landscape fueled the explosive growth of centralized authority and set the contours of today’s virulent debates about the role of the federal government. A brilliant debut.”-Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in St. Louis

“When did the American state become a leviathan? In this brilliant book, James Sparrow points to World War II rather than New Deal as the critical moment when the U.S. government entered the lives of its citizens in myriad and profound ways, revolutionizing American politics in the process. Warfare State tells this complex story more vividly, comprehensively, and acutely than any previous account. It also provides an indispensable guide to the battles over government legitimacy and power that so convulse America today.” -Gary Gerstle, Vanderbilt University

“In challenging the conventional wisdom of a weak American state, James Sparrow brilliantly connects bureaucratic developments in Washington to political culture at the grassroots, showing how the mobilization for World War II permeated everyday life and transformed the meanings of national citizenship. This book deserves a prominent place among the seminal works of modern American political history.”-Matthew Lassiter, University of Michigan

“The Warfare State is a potent blend of social and cultural history that sheds new light on one of the most important political moments in twentieth-century American history. Deploying a remarkable range of sources, Sparrow delves into the attitudes and practices of key clusters of citizens that range from workers to ethnic and racial groups, from front line soldiers to those producing military supplies back home. What emerges is a perspective that will no doubt form the basis for an important reinterpretation of the late New Deal years, World War II, and the Cold War society that grew out of it.”-Brian Balogh, University of Virginia

“This beautifully written, wonderfully insightful book shows how World War II facilitated a huge expansion of federal government with little dissent. A powerful melding of nationalism and liberalism, of obligation and rights, convinced a nation of government skeptics to fight, work, and pay taxes to a vastly larger, more intrusive, but newly legitimate state. A must read for all interested in the nature and scope of American governance.” -Andrea Louise Campbell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“[An] important new book . . . Rarely is so comprehensive an argument delivered in so concise a manner . . . one finishes Warfare State with an appreciation of how beautifully wrought a piece of scholarship it is — meticulously researched, gracefully written, and politically resonant.” –HNN.com

James T. Sparrow is Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago.

Although common wisdom and much scholarship 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 the Second World War that accomplished this feat. Indeed, as the federal government mobilized for war it grew tenfold, quickly dwarfing the New Deal’s welfare programs.

Warfare State shows how the federal government vastly expanded its influence over American society during World War II. Equally important, it looks at how and why Americans adapted to this expansion of authority. Through mass participation in military service, war work, rationing, price control, income taxation, and the war bond program, ordinary Americans learned to live with the warfare state. They accepted these new obligations because the government encouraged all citizens to think of themselves as personally connected to the battle front, linking their every action to the fate of the combat soldier. As they worked for the American Soldier, Americans habituated themselves to the authority of the government. Citizens made their own counter-claims on the state-particularly in the case of industrial workers, women, African Americans, and most of all, the soldiers. Their demands for fuller citizenship offer important insights into the relationship between citizen morale, the uses of patriotism, and the legitimacy of the state in wartime.

World War II forged a new bond between citizens, nation, and government. Warfare State tells the story of this dramatic transformation in American life.

“One finishes Warfare State with an appreciation of how beautifully wrought a piece of scholarship it is–meticulously researched, graceful written, and politically resonant.” –History News Network

“James Sparrow’s wide-ranging and deeply-researched book helps us to see modern America anew. Warfare State deftly shows how wartime reconfigurations of the U.S. economy, society, and political landscape fueled the explosive growth of centralized authority and set the contours of today’s virulent debates about the role of the federal government. A brilliant debut.”-Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in St. Louis

“When did the American state become a leviathan? In this brilliant book, James Sparrow points to World War II rather than New Deal as the critical moment when the U.S. government entered the lives of its citizens in myriad and profound ways, revolutionizing American politics in the process. Warfare State tells this complex story more vividly, comprehensively, and acutely than any previous account. It also provides an indispensable guide to the battles over government legitimacy and power that so convulse America today.” -Gary Gerstle, Vanderbilt University

“In challenging the conventional wisdom of a weak American state, James Sparrow brilliantly connects bureaucratic developments in Washington to political culture at the grassroots, showing how the mobilization for World War II permeated everyday life and transformed the meanings of national citizenship. This book deserves a prominent place among the seminal works of modern American political history.”-Matthew Lassiter, University of Michigan

“The Warfare State is a potent blend of social and cultural history that sheds new light on one of the most important political moments in twentieth-century American history. Deploying a remarkable range of sources, Sparrow delves into the attitudes and practices of key clusters of citizens that range from workers to ethnic and racial groups, from front line soldiers to those producing military supplies back home. What emerges is a perspective that will no doubt form the basis for an important reinterpretation of the late New Deal years, World War II, and the Cold War society that grew out of it.”-Brian Balogh, University of Virginia

“This beautifully written, wonderfully insightful book shows how World War II facilitated a huge expansion of federal government with little dissent. A powerful melding of nationalism and liberalism, of obligation and rights, convinced a nation of government skeptics to fight, work, and pay taxes to a vastly larger, more intrusive, but newly legitimate state. A must read for all interested in the nature and scope of American governance.” -Andrea Louise Campbell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“[An] important new book . . . Rarely is so comprehensive an argument delivered in so concise a manner . . . one finishes Warfare State with an appreciation of how beautifully wrought a piece of scholarship it is — meticulously researched, gracefully written, and politically resonant.” –HNN.com

Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government

Age of Fracture

Age of Fracture is an extraordinary book — an engrossing story of the new age of markets, a new kind of history of ideas, traversing the frontiers between intellectual, political and public words, and a brilliant explanation of contemporary public life.
–Emma Rothschild, author of Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (20110104)

With verve and fierce intelligence, Age of Fracture captures jagged truths about fluid thought, temporal upsets, and confrontations with fear. I could not put it down.
–Ira Katznelson, author of When Affirmative Action Was White (20110101)

Rodgers ranges deftly and expertly from Judith Butler to Jerry Falwell, exploring the fragmentation of American social thought in every conceivable arena. Age of Fracture is an indispensable guide to where we have been, and where– if anywhere– we might be going.
–Jackson Lears, Editor, Raritan (20110218)

The most wide-ranging and ambitious interpretation of late-twentieth century American intellectual history available.
–James Kloppenberg, author of Reading Obama (20110310)

Rodgers offers a series of penetrating soundings into the social thought of the end of the twentieth century. He considers the recasting of terms in economic theory, the reconceptualizations of power in social theory, the attacks on “essentialism” in race and gender theory, and the diminished notions of obligation in political theory. Finally, he stresses our own curious encounters with the disaggregated past, via glib interpretations that impart an “increasingly malleable, flexible, and porous” quality to history…Again and again in the dominant modes of thought in these years, Rodgers finds institutions, identities, social bonds, and even history itself thinning out and coming apart.
–Robert Westbrook (Bookforum 20110310)

While Rodgers’ narrative about the right is fascinating, none of it is terribly surprising: Defending the prerogatives of corporations and the wealthy, in new and novel ways, is what conservatives do. Age of Fracture provokes by showing that just as conservatives were marshaling their intellectual and philanthropic forces for what New Right gladiator Paul Weyrich called “a war of ideology…a war of ideas, it’s a war about our way of life,” liberals and progressives themselves “fractured” instead…Rodgers acknowledges both the long, shameful history of oppression as well as the thrilling cultural and political ferment that fractured the left into separate, sometimes warring mini-caucuses. But the book makes it clear that those fissures left liberalism without the ideology or rhetoric to combat the language of choice, markets and freedom that replaced social responsibility in the Reagan years.
–Joan Walsh (Salon 20110401)

Rodgers offers a challenging interdisciplinary overview of the last quarter of the 20th century…The great value of this book is that the major contentious issues of our time are discussed within a historic and intellectual framework…Rodgers’s work may not enter the vernacular like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, but it’s a similarly seminal look at the way we live (and govern) now.
–Thomas A. Karel (Library Journal 20110224)

Rodgers has a knack for characterizing and assessing ideas without reducing them to their strictly polemical dimensions. But he also conveys the urgency and consequence of intellectual debate: the sense that it has stakes…Age of Fracture provides a frequently insightful narrative of recent public intellectual life in this country–and also some understanding of its precarious situation now.
–Scott McLemee (The National 20110506)

A blend of commentary and contextualization, admirably judicious. Rodgers is an excellent anatomist. His forte is clarity. Once in a while, he delivers himself of an opinion that seems positively clairvoyant.
–Alex Danchev (Times Higher Education 20110729)

I live in a different country than the one into which I was born in 1942. I have never been quite able to pinpoint exactly what makes it so different. More than any other book I’ve read in recent years, Age of Fracture, by the Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers, has helped me to discover and to understand that difference…His ability to explain complex ideas–the Coase theorem comes to mind–is exemplary. He is unapologetic about treating intellectuals, and even academics, as producers of ideas worth taking seriously. He has the ability, unusual for historians of our day, to engage directly in current debates and to write with the clarity of a future observer of these same events. Intellectual history is never that easy to do. An intellectual history of our own time is even harder to pull off. Rodgers has done it and done it well. Perhaps, then, this book will have the happy effect of bringing to an end the trends it brings to light. Rodgers writes about our descent into thinking small because he wants us to once again think big–or so I read between his lines. If more thinkers wrote books like this, the country in which I live may once again resemble the one in which I was born. How sweet that would be.
–Alan Wolfe (New Republic online )

[An] important and well-written book…Age of Fracture helps us understand how the recent past set the terms for our current attempts to see society whole and conceive of an agenda for its future…[Rodgers] is a master of his craft; and this book, in which he takes history into the near present, shows what this mastery looks like in practice…Rodgers’s diagnostic survey of the most local and recent turn in the modern cycle of integration and disaggregation is essential reading for thinking about what is to come.
–Samuel Moyn (Dissent )

In The Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers offers an elegant, often eloquent, history of intellectual life in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
–Lisa Szefel (History News Network )

Age of Fracture dazzles as it moves from cultural history to political philosophy, Michel Foucault to John Rawls.
–John T. McGreevy (Commonweal )

It is hard to think of a work of American intellectual history, written in the last quarter of a century, that is more accomplished or more likely to remain permanently influential.
–Michael O’Brien (Times Literary Supplement )

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the ideas that most Americans lived by started to fragment. Mid-century concepts of national consensus, managed markets, gender and racial identities, citizen obligation, and historical memory became more fluid. Flexible markets pushed aside Keynesian macroeconomic structures. Racial and gender solidarity divided into multiple identities; community responsibility shrank to smaller circles. In this wide-ranging narrative, Daniel Rodgers shows how the collective purposes and meanings that had framed social debate became unhinged and uncertain.

Age of Fracture offers a powerful reinterpretation of the ways in which the decades surrounding the 1980s changed America. Through a contagion of visions and metaphors, on both the intellectual right and the intellectual left, earlier notions of history and society that stressed solidity, collective institutions, and social circumstances gave way to a more individualized human nature that emphasized choice, agency, performance, and desire. On a broad canvas that includes Michel Foucault, Ronald Reagan, Judith Butler, Charles Murray, Jeffrey Sachs, and many more, Rodgers explains how structures of power came to seem less important than market choice and fluid selves.

Cutting across the social and political arenas of late-twentieth-century life and thought, from economic theory and the culture wars to disputes over poverty, color-blindness, and sisterhood, Rodgers reveals how our categories of social reality have been fractured and destabilized. As we survey the intellectual wreckage of this war of ideas, we better understand the emergence of our present age of uncertainty.

Age of Fracture










  • 8 responses to "Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government James T. Sparrow Oxford University Press USA First Edition edition"

  • HPBlue
    19:16 on October 31st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Excellent incite by an excellent scholar and writer.Awaiting more from this astute educator and author. His first of a trilogy!

  • Rick Monson
    13:31 on November 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    The Princeton Historian Daniel T. Rodgers has written a fascinating new book about how the U.S. has gone from being one big beacon of light to a thousand little points. The title gives it away. We are in an Age of Fracture. We’ve gone from shared sacrifice and shared identities to individual expression and diffuse identities. We’ve gone from limits to dreams; we’ve shed the confines of the past for the endless possibilities of future reinvention. The only problem is, it’s starting to look like we might now want the past back after all, and limits are starting to look more prudent.

    The story begins in the Cold War, an era of asking what you could do for your country. History and tradition weighed heavily; big institutions dominated. “Dedication, courage, responsibility, self-scrutiny and sacrifice,” writes Rodgers, “these were the nouns that bore the burden of the Cold War presidential rhetoric.”

    But by the time sunny Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the confining rhetoric of the Cold War was gone and “terms like `crisis,’ `peril’ and sacrifice slipped one by one out of Reagan’s major speeches like dried winter leaves.” (What can he say? The man likes his collections of representative words.) In Reagan’s speeches, the historian detects the new optimism of self-actualizing philosophy, and the (re?)-birth of an American faith that from three simple words – “We, The People” – anything was possible.

    But Reagan may just be the transition’s most visible mouthpiece. The shift away from institutions to individuals was just as much the rage among intellectuals. First, most visibly, in economics: In the 1960s, Keynesian economics was the consensus view, with its focus on institutions and macro-level supply and demand. But then it proved unable to either explain or solve the stagflation of the 1970s, leading Daniel Bell to proclaim that, “nobody has any answers he is confident of.”

    Enter the new microeconomics: the atomized market of millions of socially-detached, utility-maximizing individuals, owing nothing to society other than to make themselves happy. “In its very simplifications,” writes Rodgers “it filled a yearning for clarity that the older, more complex pictures of society could not.”

    Like Reagan’s soaring rhetoric, the new faith in markets was a way to break free of limits. In contrast to the gray pessimism of planners and government bureaucrats who wanted people to live within their means, the new models bespoke a land of heroic entrepreneurs and innovators, of an America that could re-invent itself constantly from the bottom up.

    Other social sciences tracked the trends in economics. In political science, models of rational choice, with their focus on individual utility, replaced the importance of larger institutional structures and forces. Everything now could be explained by examining the incentives of individuals as if they were independent from larger social institutions. Phrases like the “will of the people” became meaningless when complex models showed how impossible it actually was to usefully aggregate independent preferences.

    In sociology, the guiding concept of power “grew less tangible, less material, more pervasive, more elusive, until, in some widespread readings of power, it became all but impossible to trace down.” Michel Foucault found power everywhere, and by doing so, effectively rendered it meaningless – for if it was everywhere, than who could pin it down? In anthropology, Clifford Geertz found “nothing but a play of texts.” Everything was performance and masks.

    In more popular books, Alvin Toffler’s widely-read Future Shock proclaimed “The death of permanence.” John Naisbitt’s Megatrends promised the triumph of the individual in the new information age.

    The politics of race and gender were likewise affected. On the subject of race, conservatives embraced the notion of a color-blind society, and race as a social construct. “In the `color-blind’ society project,” writes Rodgers. “Amnesia was a conscious strategy, undertaken in the conviction that the present’s dues to the past had already been fully paid.” Again, the same theme: the triumph of individualism came at the expense of the past. One could not have a world of endless new opportunities if one got bogged down with worries about history and obligations.

    On gender, the breakdown was internal to the movement. A representative 1977 woman’s gathering in Houston fell apart when it became apparent there was no single woman’s experience everyone could agree on. The feminist scholar Judith Butler concluded in her landmark book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity: “There were only scripts, nothing outside or beyond them.” Postmodernism strikes again. If everything is socially constructed, nothing has a foundation.

    “Choice, provisionality, and impermanence,” writes Rodgers. “A sense of the diffuse and penetrating, yet unstable powers of culture; an impatience with the backward pull of history – these were the emergent intellectual themes of the age.”

    And yet by the late 1980s, one could also detect a backlash. In the academy, Allan Bloom railed against the nihilistic deconstruction of everything in The Closing of the American Mind. Conservative think tanks began looking to local communities as sources of civic republicanism. Evangelicals saw the church as the center that could and must hold.

    “Conservative intellectuals by the end of the 1980s still yearned for a common culture,” wrote Rodgers. “They could half-remember and half-invent in their mind’s eye a more consensual age, when terms like `civil religion’ and the `American creed’ had been sociological commonplaces.”

    But the great irony was that the new conservative embrace of the American tradition was itself a creative reinvention -a mythic golden age that only selectively drew on actual history.

    In conservative legal scholarship, Rodgers writes: “The originalist argument tapped not a desire to go back to any actual past but a desire to escape altogether from time’s slipperiness – to locate a trap door through which one could reach beyond history and find a simpler place outside of it. Originalism’s appeal to the past was, like the economists’ modelings of time, profoundly ahistorical.”

    As a document of intellectual history, Rodgers’ book is brilliant. Learned, wide-ranging, delightful to read, full of keen little insights (and epoch-defining bundles of nouns.) But it leaves open the question: is the fracture permanent? “One might reach nostalgically for a fragment of the past,” Rodgers concludes. “But the time that dominated late-twentieth-century social thought was now.”

  • J Y Vance
    8:51 on November 2nd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Rodgers comes with plenty of credentials as a historian so this book could be assumed to (and does) have a sound foundation in historical facts, nicely incorporated with references that don’t disturb the flow of the narrative. And a complex narrative it is of how the self has come to be redefined in the last thirty years from an entity that fit within various supportive social and economic circles and found comfort there to the freewheeling individual assumed by current libertarians, often a barely viable financial unit though with the visions of and identity with millionaires, even billionaires. Rodgers takes you through this line of argument from the perspectives of modern markets and power structures, as well as from race and gender. It is a book that challenges the reader starting with challenges to his/her ability to follow the discussion, one not to be read while trying to get to sleep. In my opinion Rodgers book is complementary to Robert Pippin’s “Hollywood Westerns and American Myth” for the way it seeks to explain how, correctly or not, Americans increasingly seem to define themselves less from empirical circumstances and more from the myths and fantasies they encounter in their lives whether derived from entertainment or from political leaders. No wonder there is current, renewed interest in the novels and thinking (if it can be called that) of Ayn Rand.

  • Tomakefast
    8:47 on November 4th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This book is a bravura work of intellectual history that will be of great interest to specialists in the field but also accessible to general readers. It covers the period from the 1970s to the end of the twentieth century (with an epilogue dealing with post 9/11 America). Rodgers sees this time frame as marking a significant break with the past; the period became defined by fracture – old presumptions, modes of identity and consensus fell quickly. In their stead were vociferous debates about many issues – race, economic theory, power, and more that had, only recently been settled, at least in the minds of many intellectuals. The economic crisis of the 1950s in large part set the stage for reconsiderations of the familiar, and the rise of the Reagan revolution brought fractures into full view. With consensus a myth (although still a powerful one at least in aspects of Reagan’s oratory), the era’s thought and politics exploded with new views. Rather than quiet debate, the clamor fed into a hardening of the arteries of discourse which helped birth the present era of punditry and partisanship.
    The fracturing of American thought and culture, as presented by Rodgers, energized in many ways the conversation of intellectuals. Some concepts quickly led to dead ends, others blossomed into new ways of thinking about markets or identity or gender. Rodgers is quite interesting, for instance, when he ties the cultural wars to gender concerns. And he is quite strong, too, on economic theory, which he manages to present with both depth and accessibility. And the sweep of his knowledge and eye for the telling quote is impressive.
    Rodgers has, perhaps paradoxically, managed to produce a synthesis for an age of fracture. Yet he demonstrates how various theories cut across disciplinary lines in quick and devastating fashion. Hence, maybe more attention would have been welcome to how newly developing lines of communication allowed a fractured culture to be hemmed together, albeit in a manner bound to unravel.

  • RattyUK
    20:15 on November 4th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    I really enjoyed this book, though it is a serious study by a university professor, not one of popular history or political commentary. The author demonstrates how the period of the “long 1980s” – lasting roughly from the mid-late 1970s through the beginning of the Clinton administration – saw a ‘fracturing’ of the American discussions and conversations about issues like race, gender, class, and economics into more fluid politics. He ends up showing how it came to be possible for the people heralded today as major thinkers, such as Thomas Friedman, to have such a powerful impact on the public: these sorts of thinkers end up using a set of languages and terms that (as Prof. Rodgers shows) only very recently came into public discourse and yet very quickly “ingrained [themselves] in the very logic of things,” to quote from the book. I think this is not a political book. But indirectly, I think it explains why Obama has had such a difficult time producing the kind of transformative “change” that he wanted to: basically, he ends up having to work within an America that is – perhaps irreparably – divided for the complex reasons Rodgers lays out. In conclusion, I think this book has a lot to tell us about the character of American public life today.

    It’s also very clearly written, easy to read, and very objective about a subject – the Reagan period – that might seem divisive to some.

  • Juana Cruz
    23:35 on November 4th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This book deals with an important issue: the decline of a sense of community in the United States. The dust jacket says: “. . .Daniel Rodgers shows how the collective purposes and meanings that had framed social debate became unhinged and uncertain.” To explain the title of the book, Rodgers notes that (Page 3): “. . .the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.”

    Some of the aspects of this fracture that are addressed: the change from a managed economy to a revival of market ideology and, more important, and a withdrawal by government from shaping the economy; the decline of a sense of national identity to more fractured views of identity (including the so-called “culture wars”); the nature of society.

    The first full chapter sets the stage, with the title “Losing the Words of the Cold War.” Here, the language of the time changes as the Cold War phases out. A key vehicle for exploring this is an examination of presidential oratory, replete with examples from Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, to George W. Bush.

    The last chapter seems oddly anticlimactic, referring to the Post 9/11 world. The volume closes with Rodgers noting that (Page 271) “The age of fracture has permanently altered the play of argument and ideas. The pieces would have to be reassembled on different frames, the tensions between self and society resolved anew.”

    The book is provocative and attempts to reflect upon the differences so much in play in today’s United States of America. We do see fracture around us, by ethnicity, by religion, by ideology, by gender, and so on, across a variety of categories. However, I am not sure that Rodgers ultimately pulls things together to explain “fracture.” There is sometimes abstractness to the discussion (despite all the concrete examples) that leaves matters unclear. Still, worth a read on an important subject.

  • Jim Levitt
    5:21 on November 5th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Professor Sparrow has delivered an insightful account of how our twentieth-century national government — for good or ill — came to play such a pervasive role in the lives of its citizenry. With twenty-first-century American political discourse now dominated by talk of top-down initiatives (e.g., federal stimuli and out-of-whole-cloth job creation), “Warfare State” provides invaluable context for understanding our country’s current trajectory.

  • Lisa Llano
    15:36 on November 5th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This book is on the Rorotoko list. Professor Rodgers’s interview on “Age of Fracture” ran as the Rorotoko Cover Feature on March 30, 2011 (and can be read in the Rorotoko archive).

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