Society and War

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Society and War. Research on the intersection of social history and the history of warfare has concentrated on four specific areas: social stratification, family forms, veterans' benefits, and taxation.

War and Social Stratification.

The effect of war on social inequality is a matter of considerable debate. From the Revolutionary War onward, the issue of profiteering—of making a fortune out of war provisioning—has come to the fore time and again. The effects on economic organization are evident: war benefits industries able to tie into the munitions trade. These industries emerge stronger after the conclusion of hostilities, and can use the experience and capital generated in wartime to perform more efficiently in peacetime. Thus, war creates wealth and benefits one fraction of the wealthy.

Other property owners may not do so well. The reason is inflation. Those living on fixed incomes, investments, or rent can be devastated by war, since their return on capital loses its real value during periods of spiraling prices. Land as property may produce good profits in wartime, but if rented out over the long term, its capacity to generate annual incomes is compromised by price inflation.

The same mixed fortunes affect wage earners. Those able to transfer their skills to munitions production can do much better in wartime than in peacetime. Hostilities usually eliminate unemployment. They also promote corporate solutions to industrial relations, leading to the temporary recognition of workers as partners in management. This is in everybody's interest because it achieves maximum productivity with a minimum of strikes.

Other workers are not so lucky. Those who work at producing nonessential goods or those unable to move to areas of munitions production are either thrown out of work or earn an inadequate wage at a time of price inflation. Those not central to the tasks of waging war can go to the wall during it. This is a form of economic triage, separating workers whose activities are essential from those the economy (and the nation) can spare. Many of the latter are elderly.

On balance, though, there is a tendency for war to reduce the distance between classes and between strata within classes. This leveling effect may not be long‐lasting, and it does create expectations hard to realize in the aftermath of war. Social gains during a war can create a deep sense of anger about their disappearance when the shooting stops.

War and Family Forms.

The effects of war are profoundly evident in terms of family forms and behavior. Mobilization separates families; casualties destroy them. In the aftermath of war, millions of families are reconstituted. These processes have had significant long‐term effects. For example, the cult of domesticity underlying the post‐1945 “Baby Boom” is related to the vast upheaval of war and its effects on family life. An inner migration to domesticity happened in most major combatants after World War II; the United States was no exception.

War also changes ideas about divorce. At the outbreak of hostilities, many unfortunate people marry hastily. Over time they see the error of their choice, or grow apart, or find other partners during a spouse's absence. Sexual loyalty is the exception, not only in wartime but perhaps especially during such anxious and emotionally charged periods.

During wartime, civilian migration increases—not only to get out of the way of the fighting, as in the Civil War, but also to take up new jobs in new places. At the same time, international immigration is suspended. After World War I, that change was made permanent. Reactions to the war, and the supposed radical ideas of European immigrants, helped close the doors to immigration in the 1920s. Before the war, such action was contemplated; after the war, it was realized.

The growing importance of families in the shadow of war had profound effects, too, on the discussion of women's rights. In America as in other countries, women's contribution to postwar recovery was always configured in terms of their domestic work: childbearing; organizing and maintaining the home; and caring for the husband, defined as the key breadwinner and figure of authority. In this network of social tasks, women's outside lives or aspirations had little place. Thus, the irony of war is that it encourages women to leave home to help produce the goods and services needed for victory, and then encourages them to go home again because their primary obligation is not to produce but to reproduce. When wars destroy families, it is their reconstruction that takes precedence over women's rights. This has been as true in the United States as it was for other combatant countries of the major wars of this century. If there is increased recognition of women's talents and services in wartime, that recognition is withdrawn as soon as the shooting stops. One step forward, two steps back is one way to characterize the impact of war on this aspect of family life.

War and Veterans' Benefits.

A third area of fundamental interest for social historians is veterans' history. The first question is pensions: How much and for how long? No country in the world matches the generosity of the Veterans Administration in the United States, but free access to its medical facilities is not always the pathway to the best medical care. There is less doubt about the positive effects of the G.I. Bill of Rights, for example, in expanding opportunities for higher education among many men and women who would not have had it in the absence of war.

Veterans form associations, and the history of these groups—by no means restricted to the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars—has drawn much attention in recent years. Their activities in promoting such projects as the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial or the Korean War Memorial in Washington reflect the self‐consciousness of veterans that their experience has given them a voice—and a conscience.

The reintegration of veterans into peacetime society is also important. What to do about the handicapped—crippled in mind or in body—has been a preoccupation of many Americans throughout their history. The worry has existed that men trained to kill will turn to crime in peacetime. The “taint” of military or naval service was therefore something soldiers and sailors had to contend with in many different periods. One solution was to move from soldiering to policing or similar service activities.

War and Taxation.

The question of pensions for veterans is central to another critical part of the literature on war and social organization. As Theda Skocpol has shown, after the Civil War, pensions' provision constituted the single largest item of the federal budget. The inflection of federal expenditure and taxation in the twentieth century therefore is an extension of nineteenth‐century precedent. The expansion of state activity in wartime creates both a concentration effect—bringing to the center activities done at the periphery—and a threshold effect—making the government's share of gross national product rise. Just as in Europe, state expenditure as a proportion of national income doubled after World War I. The same upward inflection happened after 1945 and after the Vietnam War. The need for states to expand in wartime is self‐evident; not so clear is their tendency to stay expanded in peacetime.

When they do, they tend to be in the business of servicing deficits produced in wartime. As current expenditure has to go into paying back past wartime expenditure, the sums available for peacetime projects dwindle. The shadow of war therefore restricts or truncates the capacity of the peacetime federal government to meet wartime expectations for improvements following hostilities.
[See also Memorials, War]


Anthony Lake, ed., The Vietnam Legacy: The War, American Society, and the Future of American Foreign Policy, 1976.
David Kennedy , Over Here: The First World War and American Society, 1980.
Theda Skocpol , Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, 1992.
Norman S. Sherry , In the Shadow of War. The United States Since the 1930s, 1995.
Jay M. Winter and and Blaine Baggett , The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century, 1996.

Jay M. Winter

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Society and War