How We Got Here (16)

June 3, 2014

After World War I

America emerged from World War I a very different country economically — not to mention socially and politically! The war production effort caused massive dislocations and readjustments in the way things were done. Before the war, for instance, there were dozens of sizes of auto tires. During the war those dozen sizes were standardized to maybe a dozen. (Making up numbers here, but the general idea is right.) And as with tires, so with hundreds or maybe thousands of other industrial items. The emphasis was on streamlining the process for maximum production, and part of the streamlining process involved standardization.

No one would have given the government such power in peacetime. War, as usual, served as the universal solvent, feeding power to government in all sorts of ways, in areas that had always been private property. (It would be the same in World War II, only more so. The net result of a century’s scarcely interrupted warfare was hypertrophy of the state and atrophy of the rights and autonomy of the private citizen. The result was the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against on his next-to-last day in office, and the imperial superstructure that appeared so overwhelming at century’s end.)

In World War I as in World War II, the United States undertook two major assignments besides providing soldiers and sailors.

One was shipping enormous quantities of food to allies whose food supplies were running short because of lack of manpower to farm the fields (France) and/or insufficient land to grow crops in the first place (Great Britain). To provide this enormous surplus, the government mandated civilian food rationing, and encouraged civilians to grow as much of their own food as possible. At the same time, it encouraged farmers to grow as much as they could. Huge amounts of meats were canned ( “tinned,” the British would say) and civilians were encouraged to have “meatless Tuesdays” (or whatever the day was) as well.

The other major assignment was providing mountains of war materials. Again, just as in World War II, America functioned as the arsenal of democracy, whipping up and shipping out weapons, ammunition, and materials. Even an enormous amount of lumber was shipped to France in order build new railroads for the troops that were coming, and to build barracks, and to help replace so much previously destroyed infrastructure.

Both of these assignments were fulfilled. Both led to serious economic consequences after the war.

The farmers who had produced to the limit during the war found that the new, higher levels of production led merely to a collapse of farm prices after the war, when they were no longer feeding their own armies and those of other nations. This led to a prolonged depression in rural America that lasted for decades. As one old farmer said to his representative in the 1930s, “this depression wouldn’t be near so bad if it hadn’t come along right in the middle of hard times.”

The industries that had also produced to the limit now had to retool and find customers, either the ones they had had or new ones to replace the old ones. When you have been producing like mad on government contracts that are canceled essentially without notice, you are likely to get into a fix. The short postwar depression of 1920-21 was caused as much by retooling, probably, as by anything else. But then, when they got back to producing for civilians, the sky was the limit!

As would happen again 25 years later, people had money in their pockets and they were itching to spend some of it on new products. And someone had invented selling things “on time” – meaning, on the installment plan. Meaning (in plain words, long before the credit card was invented) debt. You could buy something on time for a fraction of the final cost, and pay it off as you went, which worked fine as long as you kept your job and as long as you didn’t go buying more than you could afford.

Do we need to spell out how well that worked out? But it was some ride for a while.

There were new kinds of gramophones, and now there was something entirely new: radio. There were automobiles. Not only the dependable, affordable Model T, but sports cars, and all manner of family cars. There were silent movies, and after a while there were talkies, and night clubs. And after 1920, when the Volstead Act became law, there was prohibition, which did more to promote drink than anything before it. Humorist Will Rogers said he thought that “Americans don’t want a drink so much as they want the right to have a drink if they happened to want one,” and in this is was probably right, as he was so often.

 

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