Bryan Caplan  

A Nation of Cowards: The Case of World War II

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David says I "overstate" the extent of human cowardice.  If, per the title of his post, I claimed that people "always" avoid war, he'd be right.  But these are my original words:
Yes, the man in the street often says he's rather die than yield an inch to the hated enemy.  But the vast majority are happy to free ride.
With my true position firmly in mind, David's numbers actually augment my case. The Pearl Harbor bombing was ideally designed to provoke our martial sentiments.  It wasn't just an attack on American soil; it was a dastardly sneak attack.  And according to David:
When World War II began for the United States on December 8, 1941, the United States had a draft. Meanwhile, though, about 100,000 to 140,000 people a month entered the military in the first 3 months of that war.
Sounds like a lot, right?  Hardly.  According to the 1940 Census (table No. 11), the U.S. had 6.2 million males ages 15-19, 5.7 million males ages 20-24, and and 5.5 million ages 25-29.  That's 17.4 million men of combat age.  Let's use David's high figure of 140k for all three months.  This means that during the first three months of U.S. involvement - a period where our national mythology describes a whole generation rushing to volunteer - just 2.4% actually did.  This number is so low that I'd like David to double-check his source!



COMMENTS (8 to date)
B.B. writes:

People may be willing to free ride at a personal level, but they can reason out of the free rider problem at the collective level.

Democratically chosen politicians installed the military draft as WW2 approached, and expanded it vastly during the war. If it was unpopular, why didn't the voters vote in politicians who would repeal the draft?

Collective action solves free riding. In other words, "lose the me."

BTW, the very bloody Civil War was half over before Lincoln decided to implement a draft.

Rachel writes:

You can't use enlistment to proxy for volunteering. The military wasn't set up to handle 10 million men in 3 months. They probably were turning men away until they'd set up the infrastructure needed to feed, house and train the recruits.

Evan writes:
Democratically chosen politicians installed the military draft as WW2 approached, and expanded it vastly during the war. If it was unpopular, why didn't the voters vote in politicians who would repeal the draft?
That's easy: It's because the majority of voters were above the maximum age of the draft. They weren't voting to have themselves, drafted, they were voting to have other people be drafted. And, as we all know, forcing other people to make large sacrifices is one of the human race's favorite activities.

If, instead of imposing a draft, Roosevelt had imposed a huge income tax, the proceeds of which would then be used to raise the pay of soldiers, thus encouraging enlistment, it probably would have met with huge opposition, because it would have forced everyone to sacrifice equally instead of just forcing the youngest and least politically powerful segment of the population to make sacrifices.

Anonymous writes:

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Jody writes:

RE: "If, instead of imposing a draft, Roosevelt had imposed a huge income tax"

From wiki:

During the Great Depression and World War II, the top income tax rate rose from pre-war levels. In 1939, the top rate was 75% applied to incomes above $5,000,000 ($75 million 2007 dollars). During 1944 and 1945, the top rate was its all-time high at 94% applied to income above $200,000.

Lots of deductions and loopholes for sure, but the income tax was indeed quite high.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

I think Rachel has it exactly right. We had a very small military in 1941 that would have been hard pressed to find training facilities for even the 140,000 per month that were accepted.

Jack writes:

I think the whole "volunteer" dynamic is much more complicated because many guys wanted to join say, the Navy, and not the Marines. I'm also sure it changed dynamically as the war wore on. It should be the subject of some historical research to get the full story.

My dad was in High School Dec 6'th. After graduating, he a friend drove to Boston (150 miles) to volunteer. But they weren't accepting anyone. My guess is they were chock full (training) because we hadn't put many troops overseas & started losing them by the thousands yet.

9 months later they were still not accepting, but he was able to take a test because his dad heard it was being given in a nearby town -- it was for pilots. My dad competed with many college grads, but still scored well enough to continue. The entire process of becoming a pilot (& officer) took months & many dozens of tests, with guys being weeded out at every level.

Steve Sailer writes:

Lots of people volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor, such as Bob Feller, the top pitcher in baseball who just died. They weren't all immediately taken.

Still, there was a big difference in attitude between WWI and WWII volunteers. No sense of glory, just of grim duty, among the latter. They knew what was coming for them.

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