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Sovereign Soldiers: How the U.S. Military Transformed the Global Economy after World War II

Author(s):Madsen, Grant
Reviewer(s):Taylor, Jason E.

Published by EH.Net (September 2018)

Grant Madsen, Sovereign Soldiers: How the U.S. Military Transformed the Global Economy after World War II. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. xi +328 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8122-5036-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jason E. Taylor, Department of Economics, Central Michigan University.

 
Histories of war generally focus on the details of key battles, turning points, and heroes. Less examined is the economic aftermath of war. During the twentieth century, the United States employed its military to govern many defeated or troubled areas beyond its borders and these actions continued during the early twenty-first century as the U.S. military become involved in governing Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the motivation behind Brigham Young University historian Grant Madsen’s Sovereign Soldiers, as he documents the American military as an external state in the years just after World War II. These soldiers were not charged with defeating the enemy, but rather, getting civilian populations back on their feet. The book traces the steps of heavyweights such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lucius Clay, and Douglas MacArthur — important American generals who subsequently became military governors of postwar Germany and Japan. It also examines the roles of lesser known occupation officials such as General William Marquat, Joseph Dodge, and General William Draper, among others.

The failure to achieve a lasting peace after the First World War generally motivated American military governors to try to create a postwar environment in defeated nations that would not again lead to the rise of dictators. In fact, U.S. State Department planners who began to envision the postwar order in 1943 were determined to bring a healthy and prosperous Germany into the fold of the international community. Still, many back home objected to the notion of American help for defeated nations. When President Franklin Roosevelt was shown a draft of these plans he threw it on his desk saying, “Feed the Germans! I’ll give them three bowls of soup a day, with nothing in them…. Control industry … There’s not going to be any industry in Germany to control” (p. 69). Such attitudes were not unique to FDR.

Madsen shows that the military governors generally understood that they were effectively in no-win situations. If they tried too hard to help the populations of the defeated nations, they would likely be blamed for providing too much sympathy to the enemy. But if they left these populations to starve, history may blame them for creating the vacuum that lead to the next war. In the end, the idea of a “soft” peace in which the U.S. would wholeheartedly attempt to help the defeated economies recover won the day. Madsen does an excellent job of thoroughly documenting the many challenges that these “sovereign soldiers” faced in achieving their recovery objectives in postwar era Germany, as well as in postwar Japan where General MacArthur played a major role. Madsen has an impressive grasp of the key economic issues and the pros and cons of the economic models that were debated and tried at the time.

The final section of Madsen’s book focuses heavily on the creation of the postwar economic environment — and the “military-industrial complex” — in the United States, and specifically Eisenhower’s role in creating it during his own presidency. The background events that shaped Eisenhower’s views prior to taking the highest office, which are gleaned in the earlier chapters, give the reader important insights into Ike’s policies.

The archival research behind Madsen’s research is very impressive. This book will be of high interest to Eisenhower historians, in particular, and to those keenly interested in the postwar transitions in Germany and Japan. For the more casual reader, the book’s 325 pages may be a bit much. There were times when I wished for less detail and name dropping — keeping all the players straight became confusing at times — and for the author to offer more insight as to what important lessons or ideas we should take away from studying these events. I was searching for a major theme, finding, or conclusion from the book and was largely left wanting in that respect. The book ends very abruptly — honestly I did not see the end coming. I simply turned the page from the end of Chapter 13 and the book was over (there is a three-page epilogue). A concluding chapter that summarized the key events, lessons, and themes of the book would have been a welcome addition for this reader. In fairness, however, these critiques may be because of the differences in the ways that economists, of which I am one, and historians approach research. Overall, this is an impressive work of scholarship.

 
Jason E. Taylor is Professor of Economics at Central Michigan University. His book, Deconstructing the Monolith: The Microeconomics of the National Industrial Recovery Act, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in December 2018.

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII