Who is paying for the war?

In the months leading up to the United States’ entry into the Great War, public concern grew over the high costs and debts that a major war would create. John R. Commons, a professor of political economy at the University of Wisconsin, responded to these concerns with his pamphlet Who is Paying for this War? Commons divided his pamphlet into four sections: what the United States is paying for in terms of soldier benefits, the hardships of taxation in the United States, the elimination of excess profits, and the effects of the mobilization and war on the economy and labor.

The first section of the pamphlet was very supportive of the government benefits and programs that were being offered to soldiers. Commons argued that, “the greatest hardship is on the boys who go to the front” and that it is the home fronts’ responsibility to care for the soldier, his family, and his future. American soldiers at this time were paid four times as much as British soldiers, eighteen times as much as French soldiers, and nine times as much as German soldiers. Commons proudly states this statistic as proof that the American people are taking care of their soldiers. Disability payments, life insurance, and trade-school opportunities for veterans were also mentioned in the section as ways in which the American people were looking out for their war fighters.

The second section of the pamphlet shed light on the hardships the United States faced with taxation. First, two thirds of the tax-payers in the United States paid very little to directly finance the war. The average workingman with a family almost never paid the income tax. The government had used estate taxes and taxes on goods in the past to provide funding for the Civil War, however the United States government hoped to use taxes on luxury items and excess profits received by businesses to fund its participation in the Great War.

The third section of the pamphlet focused on ways in which the government could tax the profits of businesses that were deemed excessive or limit the amount of profits businesses could acquire. Whether it was arms, equipment, or food, the government negotiated with businesses to get them to lower their prices for the good of the country. The American Federation of Labor was a decisive ally for the government in working the prices down of wartime goods and equipment. This meant that there was less excess wealth being pooled by the elite and more money for the government to spend.

The final section of the pamphlet attempted to persuade readers that the wartime economy was actually good for the American people. Many citizens pointed to the facts that war created higher costs of living, in some areas by thirty to forty percent, and that food prices were marked up by fifty percent. Commons argued that the demand for labor practically eliminated the unemployment problem and raised the wages of workers by up to sixty percent.

Commons pamphlet allows readers in today’s society to understand the issues and arguments that surrounded the American entry into the Great War. The support that Commons felt for the soldiers, government spending, and war funding programs was popular but certainly not uniform across the country.

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One Response to Who is paying for the war?

  1. Eric Yellin says:

    This is a nice summary of this really interesting pamphlet. I wonder what else you might say analytically — who was Commons? How did his ideas reflect or conflict with common ideas in the era? How might you insert Commons’s pamphlet into the history we’ve been studying in the course? For example, John R. Commons was a leading progressive economist (he shows up in Kennedy’s book). So not only does the pamphlet help us “understand the issues and arguments that surrounded the American entry into the Great War,” it can also provide an important link between the progressive politics we’ve discussed and the war. So what you have here is a good summary of Economist Commons. But we need Historian Barton here too.

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