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March 1999 - Volume 31 Issue 3

The Epic Years
A magisterial history of the
century's defining decades

by John Kenneth Galbraith

TThe American People in Depression and War
The Oxford History of the United States, Vol.9

By David Kennedy

Oxford University Press, $39.95

This is an enormous book, heavy to carry and light and very agreeable to read. David Kennedy, a professor of history at Stanford, is merciless as to fact and detail but very kind to the reader. It gave me, I do not exaggerate, a very pleasant free-time occupation for a full two weeks.

He begins with Herbert Hoover, for a Stanford professor a local icon, about whom he is at first admiring and then, as the Depression really folded in around, deeply devastating. Next, as expected, comes Roosevelt, by more or less accidental designation the New Deal and the detailed, sometimes brilliant, sometimes chaotic history, economic and political, of the following eight years. After that, the grave and looming threat from abroad. The struggle to help Britain, then Pearl Harbor and the insane declaration by Hitler, while his armies were at terrible winter risk in Russia, of war on the United States.

First comes the account of the war in the Pacific and then in the Mediterranean and in Northern Europe. As an economic political historian and then on the military and war itself, Kennedy holds firmly the attention of the reader, conveying a sense of both serious care and competence, all in good, unassuming English.

The worst thing that can happen to any historian is to have a reviewer who was there. That is, or could be, Kennedy's one misfortune here. I joined the New Deal in the summer of 1934. It was then a year old and I had frequent assignments in Washington thereafter. The first was with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, then Triple-A, to which Kennedy in an earlier work has given informed attention. As I've often told, being recently from Canada, I was not in those early days an American citizen. As to this I was not asked; I did have to affirm that I was a Democrat, which, of course, I did.

Kennedy's account of the AAA accords closely with my own memory. Those with whom I was most associated were concerned with limiting production, cutting back or holding on to the crop and livestock surplus and thus raising prices. He has much more to say of the cruel problems of the small, land-poor families and the sharecroppers than I knew from my own experience. Had my association been with the small assemblage of Communists and fellow-travellers then in Triple-A (including Alger Hiss), my memory would be more complete, although it might have extended less pleasantly to later encounters with Richard Nixon and, needless to say, Sen. Joseph Raymond McCarthy.

These were years of political incoherence, all leading to something better. Perhaps Kennedy dwells a bit too much on the incoherence and not enough on the durable rewards, but the latter, from Social Security, unemployment compensation, protected collective bargaining and the other still-imperfect components of the fair and compassionate state, are all here. Then came the war; as nothing else, it showed by its fiscal effect how depression could be cured.

Kennedy's account of military operations in the Pacific, on which I claim no competence, is literate and interesting. On the home front and in Europe I was present, and I have a reservation about what he says on each.

My first reservation is predictable. In World War I, prices doubled in a matter of two years. This left the country with a deep and enduring fear that war meant inflation. Of World War II, with a vastly greater drain on the economy, there is no such memory. Prices, especially for farm products, increased modestly; this was extensively seen as a correction of the previous Depression-caused deflation. But general stability was brought about by a stern tax policy emanating from the Treasury, comprehensive rent and price control, and consumer rationing. These are not fully recorded here. As I was the individual primarily in charge of price control (and also of rationing in its earliest stages) with a paid and volunteer staff of thousands, my awareness of this neglect, my thought that Kennedy does not accord our activities full attention, will hardly be surprising. Had there been serious and painful wartime price inflation, those of us who guided or misguided the policy would be much more celebrated, so to speak, in the history of the period. Maybe we should not regret our relative neglect here.

Kennedy also bypasses a problem very evident for all involved in Washington at the time. That was, as many saw it, the dual responsibility of the business tycoon brought to the nation's capital for the war. His task (there were few women), was to mobilize the economy for war; it was also, as many saw it, to protect the system against the continuing threat from Franklin D. Roosevelt. For some the second danger was the greater; for many it meant resisting the government's wartime intrusion on the economyócontrolling materials use, shutting down industries that commanded needed materials or labor, other industrial mobilization. These were seen as characteristic Roosevelt interventions in the free enterprise system. Much of the battle that ensued occurred behind closed doors; its intensity has never been fully appreciated. Production increased wonderfully but because of the work of the military procurement authority and the guidance of the economists, not the business talent.

Kennedy's more serious omission, and this was an area in which I was also present and very much involved, concerns the effect of air power on the course of the war. The role of the strategic air force, long-range bombing, was powerfully emphasized in those years. Enormous technological and productive resources were brought to bear; so also money. The best of the young talent went to the bombers. Though casualties could be high, air warfare was thought better than that down on the dirty ground. It was also ineffective.

I directed the study of what were called the "overall effects" of strategic bombing in Germany. I had one of the best groups of professional statisticians and economists ever assembled, full access to all the basic German documents and statistics and to the relevant officials and generals, from Albert Speer on down. Our conclusion: The strategic air attacks did not appreciably reduce German arms production until the last days of the war. Sometimes they provided the remedial motivation, as in the case of aircraft, that actually increased production. The huge air onslaught killed nonparticipants by the thousands and did not appreciably shorten the war. The last deep attacks on Berlin and Dresden were useless and unforgivable. The war was won by ground troops with, of course, tactical air support. The magic of air power nonetheless survived. The way was then open for the most disastrous military misjudgments of our age. Much was expected of air power in Korea; the war was fought out on the ground. Air power could not even protect MacArthur's misguided rush to the Yalu. It was an extravagant and enduring failure in Vietnam; it has not worked against Saddam Hussein; as I write, it is irrelevant once again in Kosovo. Because we have airplanes and all the supporting technology and because, as compared to fighting on the ground, air warfare is, to repeat, clean and hygienic, we hold that it must work. Alas, it doesn't. This lesson began in World War II; Kennedy mentions the limits of air warfare but only in passing. It should have been a major conclusion.

Once again the adverse effect for an author of the reviewer having been there. But the book, nearly all of it, has my strong approval. As it will have, I cannot doubt, that of the many readers it deserves.

John Kenneth Galbraith
is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics emeritus at Harvard University.

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