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Economists at War: How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars

Author(s):Bollard, Alan
Reviewer(s):Bossie, Andrew

Published by EH.Net (March 2021)

Alan Bollard, Economists at War: How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. xxi + 321 pp. $25 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-884600-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrew Bossie, Department of Economics, New Jersey City University.


The economists profiled in Alan Bollard’s Economists at War were all cursed to live in interesting times. All of them were active participants in history as agents of states emerging and collapsing during the violent rending of the 1930s and 40s that birthed modern industrial governance. For those of us who find important echoes in today’s world in which global fascism is again on the rise and the only political force with any energy or will to oppose it has proudly resurrected the “Socialist” label, Bollard provides us with compelling models — both positive and negative — for how economists operated within and with governments to manage the rolling crises that built the twentieth century state.

Economics in our own era have inherited an ideological regime brought about by economists of the baby boomer generation. This intellectual regime has centered around the failures of collective action: the cynicism of public choice theory and the rational callousness of game theory. Within macroeconomics, the great intellectual project of the baby boomers — and Gen X, who came of age when nothing but the neoliberalism of the Great Moderation seemed possible — was to marry Friedman’s centrality of money with micro-founded models of technology and capital that are always in equilibrium. In the New Keynesian consensus that emerged from this project the modern state, even flattened-out as “fiscal policy,” played no role. Multipliers were assumed to be less than one, public debts were assumed to always come due, markets were assumed best deregulated and conservative central bankers were the equilibrium condition.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, caused by a refusal of states to regulate businesses, the ship of this intellectual regime had been increasingly battered against the rocks of reality. Then the COVID recession came, like a great tsunami, and sank the ideology of neoliberalism. Not only do we now have ample evidence that debilitatingly higher interest rates and inflation are not an inevitable consequence of profligate government spending and money printing, but the profession’s proletariat (Temin, 2013) has also risen up in a Credibility Revolution. Empirical economists have chipped away at many ideas that were obviously true twenty years ago. Multipliers are often more than one. The minimum wage does not obviously cause unemployment. The money printer not only can but must go brrr. We find ourselves, much like during the crises of the 30s and 40s intellectually adrift in uncharted waters. For those of us with a historical bent, a major navigation point has been the caldron that formed the modern welfare state in the first half of the twentieth century. Bollard offers and excellent and compelling map of this sea.

Bollard profiles economists operating under all of the emerging, consolidating, and collapsing political-economic systems of the era: capitalist, fascist and communist. Within these systems Bollard provides us with a number of models for how economists interacted and supported their states through depression and war, with an equally compelling epilogue devoted to the roles these men played during the Cold War. Herein lies the first strength of Bollard’s book: its inclusivity. This inclusivity takes three forms. First, as stated, Bollard takes the plurality of political and economic systems engaged in the war seriously. Secondly, Eastern economists are profiled along with Western. While the book is intended to be chronological, it feels like a deliberate decision to open the book with the murder of Takahashi Korekiyo — former Prime Minister and Finance Minster of Japan — by the Japanese military. In doing so Bollard establishes the stakes of the global political drama while also reminding the reader that it was not simply a Western drama. Bollard then segues from Takahashi’s story to that of the unscrupulous Kung Hsiang-hsi, who aided in his family’s rise to riches holding various positions as an economic manager for the Kuomintang’s military kleptocracy in China.

The third way in which Bollard’s inclusivity is evident in his definition of “economist.” I had my initial skepticism of his choices of who to label as an “economist” but as with many of my prior’s going into this book Bollard offers a convincing case for his decisions. Takahashi and Kung are economic policy makers who are joined by Hjalmar Schacht in Germany as profiles in navigating economic policy making during depression and war. These men open the book and provide profiles of the economist as a civil servant. The relationship between these economists and the states they worked for is explicit and obvious. As the book moves on Bollard moves into profiles of economists as academics, and the relationship between these men and their respective governments is more fluid but no less clear.

In this respect, the profile of J.M. Keynes is a useful bridge between the types of economists Bollard profiles, though Keynes was more successful as an academic given that his policy advice was generally ignored or overruled. As someone quite familiar with this period and suffering a bit from “Keynes fatigue,” I went into this book wishing Bollard had picked some other British economist to profile. However, Keynes — as a world historical figure — serves as a central node in the network of relationships between the economists profiled in the book, overlapping with many of them personally and professionally. Even the fact that Keynes had in-laws in Leningrad is used as a transition device. The result is a usefully targeted biography of Keynes that will surely be on the syllabus should I ever decide to teach a class on Keynes again.

Within his exploration of academic economists during the war, Wassily Leontief is a great example of the typical origin stories of the various academics profiled. Forced, like all the other European Jews profiled in the book, to make decisions about how to ride through the instability of the first half of the twentieth century that as often as not targeted them directly, Leontief found his way to the United States and settled into a quiet and productive life following a research program parallel to that of Leonid Kantorovich in the Soviet Union. Though, unlike the comfortable Leontief, Kantorovich’s quiet life was one of suffocation under Stalinism.

Bollard offers a compelling parallel between Kantorovich and American polymath John Von Neumann. Kantorovich was stymied and isolated by the worst impulses of Stalinism while Von Neuman thrived under the worst impulses of American political culture. In a book that features Nazi collaborators, Bollard remains relatively detached with no real villains, except for Stalin. The injustice and irrationality of the claustrophobic intellectual environment that Kantorovich had to survive is palpable in the book. As is the post-Stalin emergence of Kantorovich into the light.

Kantorovich’s first time leaving the USSR on a world tour that started with his accepting the Nobel Prize underscores a theme throughout the book that I felt deeply in this world where the best we can manage are awkward Zoom seminars. Throughout the book Bollard highlights various encounters, seminars and conversations among academics and policy makers. This reminds us that science is collective and participatory, and while the men profiled in this book are all standalone geniuses, the magnifying externalities of that genius are most evident in conversations over a couple glasses of wine or a lunch with a colleague in a seminar room. Kantorovich is a case study in how genius is diminished in both political and physical isolation.

The parallels between Kantorovich and Von Neumann, whose genius floats through his profile as pollen in spring, are striking. Both men made important contributions to economics, nuclear physics, and computer science. Where they diverge, though, leaves me disliking Von Neumann as much as I am sympathetic towards Kantorovich. While Kantorovich’s relationship with his country’s military industrial complex was largely one of survival, Von Neumann’s involvement with the military industrial complex in the U.S. seems to be one in which he thrived. I find it very difficult, even in historical context, to understand how a scientist could see with his own eyes the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons and then champion their use. Imbibing all the worst impulses of game theoretic thinking, Von Neumann created and then championed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the strategy of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” Von Neumann’s final days are depicted particularly powerfully: screaming in terror of death and in resentment at his own lost potential. Bollard is right to follow up this scene by reminding the reader that Von Neumann was likely slowly murdered by the same nuclear weapons he advocated using to murder so many other people.

Bollard’s nuanced depiction of Von Neumann is illustrative of another strength of his book: an excellent writer, he presents the economists under consideration as complex and complete figures. This is most clear in his sympathetic depiction of Schacht who was both President of the Reichsbank and Minster of Economics under the Nazi government in the 1930s. Bollard, who has had a rich career as a civil servant in New Zealand — he served at both his country’s Treasury and Reserve Bank and is currently the chair of the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission — portrays Schacht as a civil servant trying to do what he can under conditions he has very little control over. The depiction is probably too sympathetic, but it is nonetheless compelling. The depiction also serves an important purpose in that it forces readers to confront their own complicities and hubris that they would never slide down the slippery slope Schacht did. Further, the ultimately prosperous Schacht is a useful foil to Takahashi’s martyrdom at the hands of his own myopic and militaristic fascist government.

The one exception to Bollard’s general balance between admiration and criticism is H.H. Kung. While all the other economists are portrayed sympathetically and complexly, Bollard seems to outright dislike Kung. Kung is an exception among the economists in the book, the rest of whom were motivated by some kind of higher ideal. The other men were dedicated to their own conception of good governance or motivated by discovery and science. Kung, on the other hand, was simply an opportunist and solely motivated by accruing wealth for himself and his family. A creature of pure corruption, he stands out in a book profiling men devoted to higher ideals than economic accumulation. These higher ideals of governance and science are necessarily collective and cooperative ideals.

Economists at War offers us a diverse series of case studies in men who were thrust into an epic collective struggle by history and employed their energy and genius in that struggle imperfectly. This makes it an important work for economists trying to reimagine a world where there are collective solutions to collective problems. Hopefully, though, we can imagine collectively managing our own global structural shifts adequately enough so that when future historians of economic thought write about our own period we can be portrayed as economists at peace.


Temin, Peter (2013). The Rise and Fall of Economic History at MIT. MIT Department of Economics Working Paper Series.



Andrew Bossie is Chair of the Economics Department at New Jersey City University. His research focuses on the short- and long-run economic effects of World War II on the U.S.

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Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII