Agriculture and War

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Agriculture and War. War and agriculture have often been intertwined during the nation's history. Although this usually involved arable land and farm production, there were times when agricultural trade was at issue.

The American Revolution, for example, stemmed in part from British mercantilist regulations, including the requirements that the colonies ship certain commodities, such as tobacco, only to England, and that the English have a monopoly of the American market on certain foodstuffs such as tea. During the Revolutionary War, agriculture helped to feed the American forces, and in the Continental Congress it saw U.S. commodity exports as a major lever in building alliances with other nations, creating the model Commercial Treaty of 1777 ( Jefferson later sought to use the curtailment of American agriculture exports, the embargo, to force Britain and France to change their maritime policies toward the United States). Land was the major resource of the new government, which often offered it as enlistment bounty to soldiers during the revolution. The peace treaty of 1783 provided the new United States with land as far west as the Mississippi River.

Westward expansion of agriculture intensified the pressures on American Indian nations and fueled intermittent wars with them. The westward expansion of American agriculture was founded on military conquest and the displacement of Native Americans. The Mexican War of 1846–48 also involved westward expansion, this time at the expense of Mexicans as well as Indians.

The Civil War was partly caused by the expansion into those new lands and the debate over whether the agricultural workforce there would be slave or free. Secessionists dedicated to slavery believed that demand for southern cotton would force Great Britain and other countries to support the Confederacy. Southern agriculture continued during much of the war, maintained by slave labor; the main change was diversification from large cotton crops to corn and other foodstuffs as the South was cut off from Northern wheat supplies. In the North, many rural young men went into the Union army, creating a great shortage on the farms when foodstuffs were bringing high prices because of inflation and increased demands at home and abroad. Immigration and use of farm machines was expanded—to horse‐powered cultivators, mowers, and reapers—to resolve the dilemma.

In 1862, the Republican Congress enacted a number of the party's programs for agriculture. Among these were the Homestead Act, promoting western agricultural expansion by granting family‐sized farms free to settlers; the Morrill Act, offering states public lands to sell for endowing land‐grant agricultural colleges; and the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Congress also adopted high protective tariffs for industry, which meant rural consumers would pay higher prices for manufactured goods.

American agriculture boomed in World War I when the United States in essence fed the Allied nations as well as its own wartime armed forces. In 1914–18, American wheat production rose to an average of about 870 million bushels and cotton exports also increased, although corn production remained relatively stable. Farmers and much farm labor received draft deferments; encouraged by soaring commodity prices, they increased their production through purchase of gasoline‐powered machinery and the cultivation of additional land. In 1918, grain production reached into the most arid section of the Great Plains. The wholesale price index of farm products more than doubled, from 100 to 208 between 1914 and 1918. When the wartime foreign and military demands declined after the war, export markets collapsed, and American agriculture, already heavily in debt from the wartime expansion, plunged into a severe economic depression in 1921, which lasted for more than a decade.

During the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration responded to the depression in agriculture with commodity support programs that provided benefits to the more affluent commercial farmers, especially midwestern corn growers and southern cotton producers. At the same time, the New Deal in agriculture included a land‐use planning effort in which USDA officials worked with less affluent farmers at the local level in pursuit of a reformist program. New Deal reform initiatives for agriculture, as in many other areas, were overwhelmed by the World War II economic mobilization. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wartime administration relied on the commodity support programs—not the land‐use planning infrastructure—to guide wartime production. By guaranteeing high prices, the wartime program generated high output of crops that were not needed, overproduction of important crops, and a sharp rise in food prices. In pushing land‐use planning to the margins of the mobilization, these wartime decisions determined the outlines of the agricultural policies that would dominate the postwar period. The postwar U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed commodity support payments according to the total output and landholdings of farmers; marginal producers received less and were thereby encouraged (in many cases forced) to leave farming. Whereas the mobilization for the Civil War gave birth to the Department of Agriculture, the mobilization for World War II ensured the demise of reformist planning efforts that had characterized the Department of Agriculture during the New Deal of the 1930s.

During the war, farmers received draft deferments as well as loans for increasing production through mechanization, land acquisition, and increased use of fertilizers. The index of gross farm production (with 1939 at 100) rose from 108 in 1940 to 126 in 1946. Cash receipts from farm products doubled, from $9 billion in 1940 to $22 billion in 1945.

The federal government sought to limit domestic civilian demand by rationing certain products, including sugar, coffee, meat, fats and cooking oils, butter, cheese, and processed foods. Wheat and cotton both tripled in price; wheat from 90 cents a bushel in 1940 to $2.88 in 1948; cotton from 9 cents per pound in 1940 to 32 cents in 1947. Beef cattle prices also increased dramatically. During World War II, the American Farm Bureau Federation, created in 1920 among affluent, commercial farmers, worked actively to protect those farmers' interests under price controls and in directing programs necessary in the war effort.

In the post–World War II period, the changing technologies and logistics of war sharply reduced the strategic importance of agriculture. During the 1940s and 1950s, the national security doctrine asserted the need for the United States to maintain a preponderance of power—power that was not based solely upon strategic nuclear weapons. National security required the United States to maintain a lead in industrial production and access to raw materials. Even with this expansive definition of national security, agricultural goods were at the margins of U.S. military planning.

Yet while diminishing in its direct relevance to the military, agriculture played an important role in the Cold War. The damage to European agriculture in World War II and extensive aid given through the Marshall Plan to deter the expansion of communism led Washington to fund the marketing of American agricultural surpluses in Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With American agriculture continuing to produce more than was consumed by the domestic market, the Agricultural Trade Development Act of 1954 authorized the secretary of agriculture to accept up to $700 million in foreign currency as repayment for commodities shipped overseas to nations deemed friendly to the United States.

In the 1960s, the Food for Peace program administered by George McGovern was one of the Kennedy administration's efforts to counter communism in Third World countries while assisting American farmers in finding foreign markets. The 1960s and 1970s saw a shift away from price supports and instead an expanded role for American farmers and agribusiness in producing foodstuffs under government subsidies for export to Third World nations.

In the hegemonic role the United States played during the Cold War, a major strategy was to liberalize world trade in manufactured goods, especially through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) system. But under pressure from the farm interests, Washington in the 1950s obtained an exclusion of agricultural products from GATT, allowing the U.S. government to use import quotas to protect commercial farmers. Not until the late 1980s, when the more heavily subsidized farmers of Japan and the European Community would bear more of the cost of trade liberalization, did Washington include agriculture within the GATT.

Agricultural goods were necessary to sustain the mass industrial armies of the twentieth century, but these supplies represented a shrinking portion of all munitions. In the Franco‐Prussian War of 1870, for example, foodstuffs constituted the largest portion of military supplies (for soldiers and for horses), while ammunition constituted only 1 percent of the total. During World War II, food and clothing comprised approximately 10 percent of military supplies, while petroleum and ammunition constituted the largest share of military supplies.

Even during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, procuring agricultural goods to feed and clothe the armed forces did not require specialized agencies and governmental controls. In the 1990s, as the nation entered the post–Cold War era, the separation of the military and agriculture seemed likely to widen further. Military planners project a significantly smaller force structure and procuring the necessary agricultural goods is increasingly taken for granted. If this projected diminution of agriculture's strategic importance does occur, it should not obscure the intimate ties between the U.S. military and agriculture in the foundation and early development of the nation.
[See also, Economy and War; Expansionism; War: Effects of War on the Economy.]


Murray R. Benedict , Farm Policies of the United States 1790–1950: A Study of Their Origins and Development, 1953.
Richard Kirkendall , Social Scientists and Farm Politics in the Age of Roosevelt, 1966.
Martin van Creveld , Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 1977.
Gregory Hooks , From an Autonomous to a Captured State Agency: The Decline of the New Deal in Agriculture, American Sociological Review, vol. 55, no. 1 (1990), pp. 29–43.
Gregory Hooks , Forging the Military‐Industrial Complex: World War II's Battle of the Potomac, 1991.
Renee Marlin‐Bennett , Food Fights: International Regimens and the Politics of Agricultural Trade Disputes, 1993.

Gregory Hooks

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Agriculture and War

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