Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Washington Goes to War

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, September 7, 2009

It was still possible in 1941 to walk through the White House gate and into the grounds without showing a pass or answering any questions, since the White House was not yet considered much different from any other public building in the city. Until a few years before there had been no gates at all, and on summer days government employees had lounged on the White House lawns eating picnic lunches out of paper sacks.

The Washington Metropolitan area’s population increased by over 50% between 1930 and 1941. Another 70,000 arrived in 1942, and 5,000 new federal workers were added every month. The reason was war, and the rumor of war. The book covers the period from 1939 to 1945, with much wandering in between. Part of it is from Brinkley’s personal memories of the period, and much more from interviews.

RecommendationWorth reading
AuthorDavid Brinkley
Length288 pages
Book Rating6

David Brinkley came to Washington in 1943 after being discharged from the army for medical reasons. He joined NBC news as its White House correspondent. He never uses the first person in this book, but I have the impression that the observations attributed to “a young reporter” refers to his personal experiences. As “a young reporter” he had to dodge amorous landladies and wonder about FDR’s ill-fitting clothes, but most of the book is other people’s experiences.

This is bound to be somewhere close to the last reporting from that period based on first hand sources. One after another, with unsettling rapidity, those in positions of power and responsibility during World War II are passing from the scene. Several who agreed to recall and describe their experiences in the war years died before I could get to them.

War was obvious. Dictators were testing the world in ways very much like we’re seeing now. The United States then—as now—was tired of war and of an economic downturn. President Roosevelt felt that he needed to prepare for war while promising peace. Other world leaders made poorer choices. Churchill famously declared to Chamberlain, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”

Some of the advice we’re seeing today is reminiscent of what Roosevelt received as war grew closer: “by setting the United States on fire, we will not put out the fire in Europe.” What will happen to our world when Iran uses nuclear bombs for the first time? History has a strange way of swirling inwards. Are we as a country giving too much to the Mussolinis and the Jew-haters, as other countries did then?

Washington Goes to War is the most readable set of statistics I’ve ever read, interspersed with personal details and captivating stories. Take any five consecutive pages and you could probably write a book on it, or at least a novella. Take, for example, the story of Amy Thorpe sketched on pages 39 to 43 or Jeannette Rankin on page 90. Amy was “a beautiful young American woman” who helped the British acquire an Enigma code machine. Jeanette Rankin was the sole congressperson to vote against war after Pearl Harbor, and then “ran into an anteroom, closed herself inside a telephone booth, and sat there crying.”

If there’s any problem with the book it is that Brinkley shifts seamlessly between the sober statistics and urban hagiography. For example, Brinkley spends several pages describing how incredibly inefficient and wasteful Washington spending was; then describes war bonds as “a financial disappointment” because instead of financing 110 billion dollars of the war, it financed ten billion. “It had never been realistic to expect them [taxpayers] to hand over that much money.”

Perhaps it had been realistic to expect bonds to finance two-thirds of the war, but not two-thirds of the waste.

The single fact most clearly differentiating government employers from private employers was, always, that government agencies did not have to earn their money… Nobody in government ever benefited in any way from saving money.

Even in World War II the conflict between Congress and the President was strained; it sounds very familiar to us today; Brinkley’s book favors a strong executive, both as commander-in-chief of the military and as the man in charge of Washington resources and national resources.

Only a small, agile, centralized authority could run the war. Only the president could run the war. Congress with its slow and cumbersome procedures and with more than half a thousand individual and individualistic members could not run the war. They could stand on the sidelines and criticize, and they did. They could hand over money for others to spend, and they did. They could complain that Roosevelt was ignoring Congress and they did.

The crisis also meant a change in gender and race relations. It hadn’t been many years since women were not allowed to work anywhere in Washington; now they were coming to the capitol en masse lured by the promise of jobs and independence. (p. 245)

Blacks had it even harder. The population explosion meant a housing crisis, and a housing crisis meant that white neighborhoods expanded into black neighborhoods. FDR created a commission to deal with racism, but it was mostly toothless, and what changes it did make were rolled back as soon as no one was looking. (p. 236, 247)

On the other hand, the extra jobs meant more affluence, which meant more political will, which led to the gains of the fifties and sixties.

When the war ended, everyone expected the depression to return; economic experts forecast massive unemployment. They “did not understand the basic nature of government”, which is that it never grows smaller.

They did not see that with the wartime innovation of the withholding tax, previously unimaginable amounts of money were being extracted from the American people with relatively few complaints. Federal tax collections in 1940 had totaled $5 billion. In 1945, $49 billion. And it was all spent.

There were 139,000 government jobs in Washington in 1940. In 1945, 265,000.

With the rise in spending came a rise in meddling, and with that came lobbyists fearful of what government action would do against them, fearful of what their competitors would ask the government to do against them, and hopeful of what they could get the government to do in their favor.

With the piles of money it was now spending, government expanded rapidly into areas where it had never ventured before, and soon business and industry, from automobile makers to grinders of cattle feed, discovered that they absolutely had to have their own offices and representatives in Washington.

There are a handful of black and white photos from the time in the center of the book. Two photos that struck me were “Churchill and Roosevelt with their military chiefs of staff, May 24, 1943” and “Leaving the White House for Christmas services, December 25, 1941”. In the first, Churchill and Roosevelt sit in front of their chiefs of staff, who stand. In the second, Roosevelt and Churchill both use a cane to walk. Were these both so as to make Roosevelt’s polio problems not stand out?

World War II saw Europe rise from the ashes of dictatorship and an era of democratic growth throughout the world. But it also gave us the Pentagon, the income tax, and an army of lobbyists. War is indeed hell. Washington Goes to War describes how the state apparatus, from the President on down, dealt with all of this new money and power. It’s an easy read, and a fascinating one. I recommend it.

Washington Goes to War

David Brinkley

Recommendation: Worth reading