All 8 entries tagged War
April 03, 2013
Follow-up to From 1914 to 2014: The Shadow of Rational Pessimism from Mark Harrison's blog
Is the North Korean regime crazy or calculating? Here is a timeline of North Korea's actions since March 10, when I wrote last.
- March 11: North Korea revokes the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953.
- March 12: Kim Jong Un places the North Korean armed forces on maximum alert.
- March 20: Attacks on South Korean news and banking websites, possibly from North Korea.
- March 27: North Korea cuts a military hotline to the Kaesŏng special region (a joint economic project with South Korea).
- March 29: Kim Jong Un places the North Korean armed forces on standby to strike U.S. territories.
- March 30: North Korea warns of a state of war with South Korea.
- April 2: North Korea will restart weapons-related nuclear facilities.
- April 3: North Korea closes entry to the Kaesŏng special region.
In various ways, these are all costly actions. Some are financially costly to Pyongyang, such as restarting nuclear facilities and disrupting Kaesŏng-based production and trade. Other are reputationally costly, because they stake out positions that are hard to retreat from without loss of face. All of them have a common element of danger -- the risk of triggering a ruinous catastrophe.
Why is North Korea doing these things if they are so costly? In a common interpretation, the North Korean regime is crazy. They don't understand the world or know what is good for themselves. I think this is unlikely.
On the basis that the North Korean leaders are not insane, there are several possible ways to think about their actions and understand them, but in the end they all point to the same outcome.
Opportunity cost. While the measures listed above are costly, North Korea believes that it would not find a better alternative use of the resources consumed or put at risk as a result of their actions. There are few profitable opportunities for production in the world's worst economic system. Investing in confrontation may well be, for North Korea, the better alternative.
Diminishing returns.In the past, North Korea has extracted billions of dollars of aid from South Korea and the West by holding its own people hostage and showing a willingness to play with fire. The problem with this strategy is that Western countries and their Asian partners have learned how it works. As a result, the North Korean strategy has run into diminishing returns. Pyongyang can continue to extract an advantage only by going to greater and greater lengths. This means taking greater and greater risks with peace.
Rational pessimism (That's what I wrote about here). North Korea's leaders see two scenarios. In one, there is a peaceful future in which their regime will inevitably disintegrate and howling mobs will drag them into the street and tear them to pieces. In another, there is a high probability of war in which millions might perish but there is some faint chance of regime survival. You wouldn't jump at either, and you might not rush to make a choice. Still, ask yourself: If you were Kim Jong Un, and push came to shove, which would you prefer?
March 10, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e29e200a-6ebb-11e2-9ded-00144feab49a.html
China’s territorial claims and bellicose actions in the Western Pacific have aroused concerns about where this process could lead. In The Shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific (in the Financial Times on 4 February), Gideon Rachman asked whether we are watching a re-run of events that led to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
Then, a rising power (Germany) was challenging the established power (Britain) for a say in world affairs and a share in the world's colonial territories. It was not Germany's plan to make war on Britain; German leaders wanted only a say and a share. The economic, military, and naval power that they built was not made to go to war, only to prevent Britain from blocking Germany’s demands. They wanted to ensure peace and to command respect. The war that then came about was not meant to happen. The war would not have happened at all if allies, agents, proxies, and third parties beyond their control had not helped to bring it about.
Replace Britain by the United States, Germany by China, and Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Serbia by Japan, Vietnam, and North and South Korea, and you have Rachman's story in a nutshell. Rachman's conclusion is hopeful, however: China's leaders have tried to learn from history. That, and the inhibitions added by nuclear weapons, will help to avert war.
What was the role of calculation in the outbreak of World War I? Rachman writes as though the war was not calculated at all:
Leaders on all sides felt helpless as they were swept towards a war that most of them did not want.
But something is missing here. While the war was in some sense unwanted, the leaders were not helpless: they chose war. It was a calculated decision, and it was not a miscalculation: those who favoured war correctly estimated that victory was far from certain. They had a war plan for a quick victory over France that relied on a high speed military manoeuvre on a colossal scale, a decision by Britain to abstain, and a Russian mobilization that would obligingly wait until the German Army was ready to switch its focus from West to East. They knew it was an outrageous gamble.
Critical to this story was something that I will call rational pessimism. By 1912, Germany no longer felt itself the confident, rising power once led by Bismarck. Germany’s leaders had come to fear the future. Their own attempts to secure Germany’s rightful place in the sun, they feared, were leaving Germany ever weaker.
These fears were well founded. Externally, the balance of power was tilting away from Germany. More countries were adhering to the anti-German alliance of Britain and France. Britain and Russia were rearming at a pace that nullified Germanys’ own efforts. Given time, Germany would only become weaker. Within Germany the balance was tilting away from monarchism and conservatism towards parliamentary socialism. The fiscal demands of rearmament were opening up new social divisions. Germany’s Prussian bureaucracy and aristocracy felt itself more and more besieged.
Increasingly the calculation became: If we fight, we may lose but at least there is a chance that we win. If we remain at peace, we certainly lose. From this point of view the war was a gamble, but it was not a miscalculation. It was simply the choice with the highest expected value. For this reason the leaders of the Central Powers went to war full of foreboding, but they went to war anyway.
In July 1914 the German chancellor Bethmann Holweg confided in his friend Kurt Riezler, who wrote in his diary:
Russia’s military power growing fast … Austria grows ever weaker … This time things are worse than 1912, because now Austria is on the defensive against the Serb-Russian agitation. … The future belongs to Russia, which grows and grows into an ever great weight pressing down on our chest.
The chancellor is very pessimistic about Germany’s intellectual condition. Frightful decline of our political niveau. Individuals are becoming ever smaller and more insignificant; nobody says anything great and honest. Failure of the intelligentsia and of the professors.
This pessimism was general. When Germany’s Wilhelm II was informed of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, he wrote:
Now or never.
In Vienna, Kaiser Franz-Josef wrote:
If we go under, we better go under decently.
(The latter quotes are from Holger Herwig’s The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918, published in 1997 by Arnold).)
From this perspective it becomes crystal clear why North Korea’s predicament is so dangerous. Day by day, North Korea is provoking enemies and losing friends. The tensions within the country are largely unknown but surely increasing. What insider would predict a peaceful future for the Pyongyang regime that is better than today? What does Kim Jong-Un have left to lose from gambling on conflict, no matter how poor the odds? Rational pessimism is surely tilting North Korea’s choices towards war. Still, we are not there yet.
As for China itself, the threat of war should be thought of as one for the future. It seems unlikely that China’s leaders would ever choose to gamble everything on a major war as long as they expect to gain more from a continuation of peace. Their optimism is a bulwark against war.
The risk is that optimism is fragile. China faces many problems that could sap the confidence of its leadership. Edward Luttwak (in The Rise of China vs the Logic of Strategy, published in 2012 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University) has written that China is pursuing an impossible trinity of prosperity, diplomatic influence, and military power. China’s economic growth may falter. Even if economic growth is sustained in China, the chances are that at some stage the West will recover its prosperity and technological leadership. Meanwhile China’s rearmament and territorial claims are losing it friends in Japan, Vietnam, and India. At home, there are protests over a range of issues that widens continually: the rule of law, corruption, censorship, inequality, wages and working conditions, land grabs, and pollution. China’s rulers rely on xenophobia and stories of foreign encirclement and penetration to manage these threats to their legitimacy.
Putting all this together, it is not hard to envisage a future in which China’s leaders would become rational pessimists. Would they then be held back by knowledge of history and by the possibility of nuclear war? Maybe. Is Kim Jong-Un restrained by these things today? So far, yes. If Germany’s rulers in 1914 could have seen the future, would they have chosen differently? Perhaps. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure.
May 28, 2012
Writing about web page http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/wwii-pac/midway/midway.htm
Seventy years ago this week, the world looked unspeakably grim.
By the end of May 1942, Germany had occupied France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxemburg; all of Eastern Europe not already under control of its allies Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, including the Baltic, the Ukraine, and a large chunk of Russia; Greece and Yugoslavia; and the former Italian colonies of North Africa. Italy wasn't helping much, but in the Far East Japan had occupied much of China, all of Indochina, Indonesia, Malaya (including Singapore), the Philippines, and part of Burma. German bombers were battering Britain's cities; German submarines were sinking Allied shipping at half a million tons a month. In Russia and Ukraine the German Army was launchng new offensives; at Khar'kov, in a battle that ended seventy years ago today, the Red Army lost a quarter of a million men. Across Europe and East Asia, millions of non-combatants were being machine-gunned, gassed, starved, and worked to death.
At this very moment, beneath the surface of these terrible events, the tide of the war was beginning to turn. Up to that time, Axis forces were advancing on all fronts. Within a few months they were in retreat everywhere.
In 1942 the war was fought in three main theatres: the Pacific, the Mediterrean, and the Eastern front. In each theatre the turning point of the war was marked by a decisive battle. These were the Battles of Midway (June 4 to 7), the seventieth anniversary of which we are about to mark; El Alamein (July 1 to 30 and October 23 to November 4); and Stalingrad (September 13 to February 2, 1943).
In obvious ways these battles could not have been more different: Midway in the remote northern Pacific, Alamein in the desert sands of Egypt, and Stalingrad in the smoking ruins of a great city on the Volga river. These battles differed also in the orders of magnitude of the forces involved. Japanese losses in four days at Midway were five ships, 250 aircraft, and 3,000 men. German losses in two weeks at the second battle of Alamein were 800 tanks and guns and 30,000 men, and in five months at Stalingrad 7,500 tanks and guns and three quarters of a million men killed or missing. Red Army losses at Stalingrad alone were half a million; do not forget these figures if you want to understand how powerfully the war continues to stir national feeling in Russia.
In other respects, these battles had important common features. Each began with an enemy offensive. The Japanese planned to use Midway Island as a launching pad from which to invade Hawaii. The Germans planned to drive the British out of North Africa; if the Mediterranean could not be an Italian lake, then let it be a German one. From Stalingrad the Germans planned to seal off the Caucasian oilfields and turn north to take Moscow from the rear.
After the offensive came the counter-offensive, which in each case took the enemy by surprise. After the successful surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese believed they had finished American naval power. Just six months later, in the summer of 1942, the U.S. Navy was already three times the size of the previous year. Such was the speed of mobilization of America's industrial power, and the resilience of American national feeling, both of which had been entirely discounted in Tokyo and Berlin. The same underestimation of Allied reserves was present in the calculations of the Axis commanders at Alamein and Stalingrad.
The Allied victories of 1942/43 were no accident. Underlying them was the translation of Allied economic power into fighting power. In 1941 the Axis Powers were poised for victory. But victory would be theirs only if they exploited the advantage of the aggressor to the full. With a potential coalition of economically more powerful enemies ranged against them, they had to win every campaign quickly and avoid a stalemate at all costs. Had they done so, the war would have been over and they would have won.
Economic mobilization, the translation of economic power into fighting power, takes time. The Allies bought this time with "blood and treasure." First came the British refusal to surrender in the summer of 1940, followed by the Battle of Britain. Next came the U.S. Lend Lease Act of March 1941 which offered American aid to the British (and a few months later to the Soviet Union). The third thing was the unexpected -- in German eyes, often senseless -- resistance of the Red Army in the summer and autumn 1941, which led through appalling losses to the failure of the German invaders to take Leningrad and Moscow before the end of the year.
Source: Harrison (1998, pp. 15-16).
Having bought time, the Allies used it to mobilize their economies. The chart shows the production of combat aircraft by the main powers year by year through the war. It illustrates how, during 1942, Allied -- and especially American -- mobilization rapidly tilted the military-economic balance against the Axis. The Allies began to outproduce Germany and Japan in aircraft, and also in munitions generally, by a substantial multiple. This advantage persisted through the end of the war, despite belated mobilization of the German and Japanese war economies. In 1942, however, the grit and bloody determination of Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen was still required to turn material predominance into victory on the battlefield. Midway, Alamein, and Stalingrad were the signals that this had been achieved.
Why was the struggle so much, much more intense on the Eastern front? From mid-1941 through mid-1944 this was where 90 percent of German fighting power was focused. To occupy the territory of Ukraine and European Russia, kill the Jews, decimate the Slavic population, and resettle this vast landmass as a German colony, was Hitler's prime objective. The Soviet economy, although large, remained poor and industrially less developed, so that it was on the Eastern front that German resources were most evenly matched. The Allies' material advantages were much greater elsewhere. If the Axis could not win in Russia, it would not win anywhere else. On the Eastern front a war of mutual annihilation developed, in which both sides threw everything they had and more into the scales. As I discussed in a paper entitled "Why Didn't the Soviet Economy Collapse in 1942?" (Harrison 2005), Hitler had every right to expect final victory. The Soviet Union only just managed to retain a critical advantage over Germany, based on mass production, colossal sacrifice, and utter ruthlessness.
Up to the summer of 1942, the forces of the Axis were advancing everywhere; from the beginning of 1943 they retreated on all fronts. After this it was no longer possible for the Axis powers to win the war against the economically more developed, more mobilized, and more powerful Allies. One of the most horrifying faces of the war is seen in the fact that, despite this, years of intense fighting still lay ahead. Through 1943, 1944, and into 1945 the German and Japanese Armies and Navies retreated continuously, killing and being killed every day and every inch of the way, maintaining discipline and cohesion, not giving up until the last possible moment. Every day of those years their governments persisted in genocidal policies that destroyed millions of lives through famine, overwork, and systematic mass killing.
Without Midway, Alamein, and Stalingrad our world today would be far different from the one we know. The Axis powers might have ended the war victoriously, with consequences that we can only guess at. Alternatively, the war would have been dragged out in some other way, but there would have been no Allied victory in 1945. Or perhaps there could still have been victory in 1945, but the evolution of events would have been entirely different. Regardless of events on the battlefield, by the summer of 1945 the Americans would have had the atomic bomb. If the war still raged in Europe, the first victims of atomic warfare would more likely have been German than Japanese.
- Harrison, Mark. 1998. Economic Mobilization for World War II: an Overview. In The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison, pp. 1-42. Edited by Mark Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Harrison, Mark. 2005. Why Didn't the Soviet Economy Collapse in 1942? In A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1939-1945, pp. 137-156. Edited by Roger Chickering, Stig Förster, and Bernd Greiner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. RePEc handle: http://ideas.repec.org/p/wrk/warwec/603.html
May 23, 2012
How much can one country squeeze out of another? I was prompted to think about this on Monday, when I spoke in Rotterdam at the launch of a major new book: Occupied Economies: An Economic History of Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1939-1945, by Hein Klemann (a Dutch historian) and Sergei Kudryashov (a Russian historian).
The main story of the book is how Germany extracted resources from occupied Europe that paid for one third of its war costs – and the consequences for the countries that paid. When you read history, it’s natural also to think about the present: what has changed, and what is the same. So, I thought about Greece.
Seventy years ago, Greece was under German occupation. Between 1942 and 1944, according to Klemann and Kudryashov, Germany took from Greece goods and services worth 3.5 billion Reichsmarks. Per head of the Greek population, this was between RM500 and RM600 per head, which was about the average for Germany’s occupied territories.
That sounds like a lot, but what did it mean to Greece? The back of my envelope shows the following calculation. In 1942, Germany imported external resources worth about 15 per cent of its national income. Klemann and Kudryashov show that Greeks were average contributors. Before the war, Greece’s national income per head of its population was about half Germany’s. So, a sum that in wartime was worth 15 per cent to Germans was worth at least 30 per cent to Greeks. Given Germany's wartime economic expansion, and the likely economic decline of Greece, I guess the upper limit could easily have been half of Greece’s national income in 1942 and 1943.
The point is that Germany’s wartime exploitation of occupied Europe was a very big deal, and Greece was no exception.
Now roll the clock forward seven decades. Look how the scenery has changed. The world is relatively peaceful and world markets are open for business. In Greece, average real incomes are six times the level of 1938. But Greeks are smarting under the national humiliation of being expected to pay for their public debt. Eighty per cent of that debt is held abroad, a large share of it by Germany. But the debt is an obligation that Greece assumed completely voluntarily. The Greeks are not under duress of any kind; the creditors have placed no landing craft on Greek beaches; in Kefalonia, no villagers are held hostage, and no Athenian commuters must show their papers at military checkpoints.
Still, the Greek sense of victimhood is so strong that they are not actually repaying anything at all. Instead, their government is continuing to borrow on the basis of being granted partial forgiveness. The fact that eighty per cent of Greek debt is held abroad implies that Greece should be exporting more than it imports if it wants just to cover the interest on the debt that remains. This year Greece's current account deficit is expected to be 5 per cent of its GDP, so that Greek foreign liabilities are rising, not falling. Meanwhile there is a political stalemate, and the anti-bailout parties (which together form a majority) argue they can slow or reverse the fiscal consolidation required to reduce the rate of new borrowing while keeping the creditors and the European Commission on board and disagreeing with each other about everything else.
Economic history suggests that it is exceptionally difficult to persuade a country to hand over a significant fraction of its national income to foreigners over any sustained period of time. Naked force will do the trick, but nothing less will do.
Today Germany is Europe's creditor. Writing in the Financial Times, my Warwick colleagues Marcus Miller and Robert Skidelsky recently (2012) drew a parallel with Germany's own experience after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Victorious in the Great War, the Allies imposed a large war indemnity upon Germany. This was mainly counterproductive, arousing German national feeling and resistance to the peace with regrettable consequences.
How much did the Allies actually extract from the German economy under the reparations imposed at Versailles? The accounting comes from a classic paper by Sally Marks (1978). The treaty’s headline figure was 132 billion gold marks, around two and a half times Germany's prewar national income. Of the 132 billion total the Allies themselves never expected to get more than 50 billion (the so-called A and B bonds). Germany paid a first instalment right away by handing over state properties valued at 8 billion; today's analogue might be the transfer of a few Greek islands. Germany paid the next billion in 1921 to get the Allies out of customs posts and an area around Dusseldorf that they continued to occupy. Then, the repayments stopped. In response the French occupied the Ruhr valley in 1923, netting another billion in compulsory deliveries of coal and other stocks. When the French moved out, payments fell away again and were repeatedly rescheduled. At their termination by the Lausanne Convention in 1932, Germany had paid barely 20 billion marks in total. In practice, most of that sum was borrowed from the United States, creating new debts on which Hitler later defaulted. Marks concluded:
The tangled history of reparations remains to confound the historian and also to demonstrate the futility of imposing large payments on nations which are either destitute or resentful and sufficiently powerful to translate that resentment into effective resistance.
Note the terminology, which we'll come back to. "Destitute" = "Can't pay." "Resentful and ... powerful" = "Won't pay."
By modern standards, the Allied occupation of Germany's revenue offices and valuable territories after the Great War looks like an intolerable infringement of national sovereignty. In fact there were many precedents for this, which the Allies merely followed. A recent paper by Kris Mitchener and Marc Weidenmier (2010) analyses 43 such cases from the nineteenth century. Today Greek opinion is inflamed by the idea of a European Commission representative in its budget office; Athens last came under foreign financial supervision in 1898, having defaulted on an indemnity arising from war with Turkey the previous year.
Based on this and other cases, Mitchener and Weidenmeier show that "supersanctions," when the creditor countries applied direct military pressure or directly supervised the debtor's fiscal offices, generally sufficed to restore the debtor's credit by enough to reduce bond yields and allow access to fresh borrowing.
What creates the power of sovereigns to resist their creditors, if direct force is not applied? Writing during the last major international debt crisis, Simon Bulow and Ken Rogoff (1989) argued that sovereign debtors are able to play on their creditors' impatience and desire to rescue something from the situation; faced with the threat of complete default and the need to apply draconian penalties, the creditors will be satisfied with partial compliance. The debtors will pay just enough to keep open their access to fresh borrowing.
The result is the phenomenon of continual rescheduling clearly visible in recent renegotiation of the Greek debt. Indeed it would seem that no one has read Bulow and Rogoff more carefully than Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's largest anti-bailout faction, the left-wing Syriza Party.
Despite partial default and bailout, Greece remains insolvent. Strictly interpreted, insolvency means that the debtor cannot pay. But the history of sovereign debt and default tells us that “Won’t pay” and “Can’t pay” are hard to tell apart, and it is in the debtor’s interest to make them look the same.
Allied failure to predict and manage this after World War I helped to poison Germany’s international relations and domestic politics in the 1920s. Miller and Skidelsky argue that Germany, which suffered so much after 1919, should not do the same to Greece today. I agree. But a far sighted reconciliation does not look likely, and might not even by welcomed by those Greek politicians who are now happily reinventing the tradition of Greece as a victim of foreign exploiters.
- Bulow, Jeremy and Kenneth Rogoff. 1989. A Constant Recontracting Model of Sovereign Debt. Journal of Political Economy 97:1, pp 155-178. RePEc handle: http://ideas.repec.org/a/ucp/jpolec/v97y1989i1p155-78.html
- Klemann, Hein, and Sergei Kudryashov. 2012. Occupied Economies: An Economic History of Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1939-1945. London: Berg. Weblink: http://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=15036
- Marks, Sally. 1978. The Myths of Reparations. Central European History 11:3, pp. 231-255.
- Miller, Marcus, and Robert Skidelsky. 2012. How Keynes Would Solve the Eurozone Crisis. The Financial Times, May 15. Weblink: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/55d094cc-9e74-11e1-a24e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1vF2uhjh4
- Mitchener, Kris, and Marc Weidenmier. 2010. Supersanctions and Sovereign Debt Repayment. Journal of International Money and Finance 29:1, pp. 19-36. RePEc handle: http://ideas.repec.org/a/eee/jimfin/v29y2010i1p19-36.html
May 14, 2012
Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/culture/dambusters
Written for Warwick's Knowledge Centre in preparation for Wednesday night's sixty ninth anniversary of the dam raids.
The dams of Germany’s industrialized Ruhr valley were an obvious target for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command in World War II. The dams supplied hydroelectric power and water for cities, steel making, and canal transport. In turn, these provided the means to supply Germany with the tanks, aircraft, guns, shells, and ships required for Hitler’s war.
Operation Chastise, the Dam Busters’ raid, took place on the night of May 16/17, 1943. Tactically, it was a partial success. The Möhne and Eder dams collapsed, but the Eder reservoir was of secondary importance and the dam on the Sorpe was not seriously damaged. Some small towns and industrial facilities were flooded, and some roads were washed away. There was a temporary loss of water production and electric power. At least 1,300 civilians died; more than half were Ukrainian forced labourers. Eight of the 19 aircraft were lost and 53 of the 133 aircrew killed.
What were the effects of the dam raids on Germany’s war economy? From the beginning of 1942 through May 1943, German war production expanded at about 5 per cent a month. At the time of the dam raids it was already more than twice the level of two years previously when Germany had been about to launch the greatest land invasion of all time, its attack on the Soviet Union. In the month of the dam raids, however, the increase of German war production was halted and the German economic mobilization marked time for nearly a year.
How much of this was due to the Dam Busters? In 1943 British and American bombers dropped 130,000 tons of bombs on German cities and factories, and ten times that quantity in 1944 (Zilbert 1981). Up to a million German civilians lost their lives (Falk 1995). In this context the dam raids were a pinprick. Thus, while the raid was mounted at an important moment, it would be hard to identify any particular effect of the Dam Busters’ skill and heroism on the German war effort.
The dams were quickly rebuilt and water supplies were restored. Were these indirect costs important? Albert Speer, the minister of armament, had to divert 7,000 forced labourers from building German fortifications in occupied France and Netherlands to rebuild the dams (Speer 1970, p. 281). It has been suggested that this contributed to Allied success in the 1944 D-Day landings (McKinstry 2009), but the claim seems far-fetched. In May 1943 the Germans still had a year to complete their coastal fortifications. Much more important to Allied success on D-Day were numbers, surprise, and the German lack of air cover.
When Operation Chastise was planned, RAF Bomber Command did not take into account either D-Day or the indirect cost to Germany of diverting scarce labour from the fortification of occupied Europe. In fact, the RAF hoped to bomb Germany into defeat before D-Day became necessary. In this way, the operation expressed the persistent belief in a powerful knock-out blow that would somehow disable the German war economy and deprive its armed forces of the means to fight. Somewhere, they thought, if only it could be found and attacked, was a critical weak point of the German war economy that could cause it to collapse. Perhaps the dams were such a weak point.
Speer later suggested that the direct effects of the raid would have been greater if the RAF had organized follow-up raids to disrupt the rebuilding. But the lack of follow-up also expressed the mistaken belief of the time in the efficacy of a single knock-out blow. Two centuries of experience of economic warfare and sanctions (summed up by Olson 1963) have taught us that this belief is generally unfounded.
Bombing Germany did not win the war, but it did bring forward the moment of German defeat. Bombing was highly disruptive and made mobilization ever more costly (see Overy 1994 and Tooze 2006). For a long period the German leaders were able to restrict the consequences to the civilian economy, so that conditions of life, consumption, and work deteriorated but war production could still expand. Civilian life was maintained by the human capacity for adaptation to difficulties and habituation to fear. Disaffection was kept in check by an effective police state, growing hatred of the Allied bombers, increasing awareness of Germany’s own war crimes, and rising fear of the possible consequences of defeat. Requisitioning food and slave labourers from the occupied territories also helped. That was the basis on which Germany was able to fight on against economically more powerful enemies for years.
Only when German territory was directly attacked did the war economy finally unwind. The indirect effects of Allied bombing also helped to bring that moment nearer. Allied bombing weakened the German ground forces because it distracted German air power away from the Eastern Front (against the Red Army) and France (against the 1944 Allied landings). Defending against air attack was very costly for Germany. At the peak of war mobilization, one third of German war production took the form of night fighters, anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and radar.
Bombing Germany was costly to both sides. On one side the German economy was disrupted and a million civilians died. On the other side 18,000 Allied bombers were lost, along with 100,000 highly trained and educated aircrew.
The Dam Busters were one small element of a total war. They did not provide a breakthrough, but they added to the slowly growing burdens on the German economy, which arose through channels that were largely unintended and unforeseen. The Dam Busters also boosted Allied morale and Churchill’s status with the Americans and the Russians. Without them, the book (Brickhill 1951) and the film of the book could not have been made. These gave a sense of heroism and past glory to many a British schoolboy. I don’t know what the girls thought; we never asked them.
- Brickhill, Paul. 1951. The Dam Busters. London: Evans.
- Falk, Stanley L. 1995. Strategic Air Offensives. In The Oxford Companion to the Second World War, pp. 1067-1079. Edited by I. C. B. Dear. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Milward, Alan S. 1965. The German Economy at War. London: Athlone.
- McKinstry, Leo. 2009. “Bomber Harris thought the Dambusters’ attacks on Germany ‘achieved nothing’.” The Telegraph, August 15.
- Overy, Richard J. 1994. War and Economy in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Speer, Albert. 1970. Inside the Third Reich. London: Macmillan.
- Olson, Mancur. 1963. The Economics of the Wartime Shortage. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Tooze, Adam. 2006. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and the Breaking of the Nazi Economy. London: Allen Lane.
- Zilbert, Edward R. 1981. Albert Speer and the Nazi Ministry of Arms: Economic Institutions and Industrial Production in the German War Economy. London: Associated University Presses.
April 02, 2012
Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/news/?newsItem=094d43a2365e99f001366436ff461cde
Tomorrow I'm flying to Moscow to collect a prize, which I will share with my coauthor Andrei Markevich. This is the Russian national prize for applied economics, which was announced last week. The prize, sponsored by a consortium of Russian universities, research institutes, and business media, is awarded every second year. The award is for our paper "Great War, Civil War, and Recovery: Russia’s National Income, 1913 to 1928," published in the Journal of Economic History 71:3 (2011), pp. 672-703. A postprint is available here.
The spirit of the paper is as follows. In 1914 Russia joined in World War I. In 1917 there was a revolution, and Russia’s part in that war came to an end. A civil war began, that petered out in 1920. It was followed immediately by a famine in 1921. We calculate that by the end of all this Russia had suffered 13 million premature deaths, nearly one in ten of the population living within future Soviet borders in 1913. After that, the Russian economy recovered, but was soon swept up in Stalin's five-year plans to "catch up and overtake" the West.
We calculate Russia’s real national income year by year from 1913 to 1928; this has never been done before on a consistent GDP basis. National income can be measured three ways, which ought to give the same answer (but rarely do): income (wages, profits, ...), expenditure (consumption, investment, ...), and output (of industry, agriculture, ...). We measure output. Data are plentiful, but of uneven quality and coverage. The whole thing is complicated by boundary changes. Between 1913 and 1922 Russia gave up three per cent of its territory, mainly in the densely settled western borderlands; this meant the departure of one fifth of its prewar population. The demographic accounting is complicated not only by border changes but also by prewar and wartime migrations, war deaths, and statistical double counting.
Our paper looks first at the impact of World War I, in which Russia went to war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Initially the war went went well for Russia, because Germany found itself unexpectedly tied down on the western front. Even so, Germany quickly turned back the Russian offensive and would have defeated Russia altogether but for its inability to concentrate forces there.
During the war nearly all the major European economies declined (Britain was an exception). The main reason was that the strains of mobilization began to pull them apart, with the industrialized cities going in one direction and the countryside going in another. In that context, we find that Russia’s economic performance up to 1917 was better than has been thought. Our study shows that until the year of the 1917 revolution Russia’s economy was declining, but by no more than any other continental power. While wartime economic trends shed some light on the causes of the Russian revolution, they certainly do not support an economically deterministic story; if anything, our account leaves more room for political agency than previous studies.
In the two years following the Russian revolution, there was an economic catastrophe. By 1919 average incomes in Soviet Russia had fallen to less than half the level of 1913. This level is seen today only in the very poorest countries of the world, and had not been seen in eastern Europe since the seventeenth century. Worse was to come. After a run of disastrous harvests, famine conditions began to appear in the summer of 1920 (in some regions perhaps as early as 1919). In Petrograd in the spring of 1919 an average worker’s daily intake was below 1,600 calories, about half the level before the war. Spreading hunger coincided with a wave of deaths from typhus, typhoid, dysentery and cholera. In 1921 the grain harvest collapsed further, particularly in the southern and eastern grain-farming regions. More than five million people may have died in Russia at this time from the combination of hunger and disease.
Because we have shown that the level of the Russian economy in 1917 was higher than previously thought, we find that the subsequent collapse was correspondingly deeper. What explains this collapse? The obvious cause was the Russian civil war, which is conventionally dated from 1918 to 1920. However, we doubt that this is a sufficient explanation. First, the timing is awkward, because the economic decline was most rapid in 1918 and this was before the most widespread fighting. Second, there are signs that Bolshevik policies of economic mobilization and class warfare were an independent factor spreading chaos and decline. These policies were continued and even intensified for a year after the civil war ended and clearly contributed to the disastrous famine of 1921.
Because of the famine, economic recovery did not begin until 1922. At first recovery was very rapid, promoted by pro-market reforms, but it slowed markedly as the Soviet government began to revert to mobilization policies of the civil-war type. We show that as of 1928 the Russian recovery was delayed by international standards. The result was that, when Stalin launched the first five year plan for rapid forced ndustrialization, the Soviet economy's recovery from the Civil War was not complete. By implication, some of the economic growth achieved under the five-year plans should be attributed to delayed restoration of pre-revolutionary economic capacity.
In concluding the paper, we reflect on the state in the history of modern Russia. It seems important for economic development that the state has the right amount of "capacity," not too little and not too much. When the state has the right amount of capacity there is honest administration within the law; the state regulates and also protects private property and the freedom of contract. When the state has too little capacity it cannot prevent outbreaks of deadly violence, and security ends up being privatized by gangs and warlords. When the state has too much capacity it can starve and kill without restraint. In Russian history the state has usually had too little capacity or too much. In World War I the state had too little capacity to regulate the war economy and it was eventually pulled apart by competing factions. Millions died. In the Civil War, the state acquired too much capacity; more millions died.
Andrei Markevich and I have many debts. Our first thanks go, of course, to the sponsors of the prize. After that, we are conscious of owing a huge amount to our predecessors, many of whom should be better known than they are, but I'm going to leave the history of the subject to those interested enough to consult the paper. A number of people helped us generously, especially Paul Gregory, Andrei Poletaev, Stephen Wheatcroft, and the journal editors and referees. Of course, I'm personally grateful to Andrei. It’s hard to say which of us did what (between May 2009 and January 2011 our paper went through exactly 50 revisions), but you’ll see that Andrei is named as first author.
Beyond any personal feelings, I'm thrilled by the recognition of economic history. When he announced the award, the jury chairman Professor Andrei Yakovlev was asked if this wasn't an "unexpected" outcome for an award in applied economics. Yakovlev described it as an "important precedent," recognizing that "explanations of many of the processes that we have seen in Russia in the last twenty years lie in history." He pointed out that most western countries have historical national accounts going back through the nineteenth century (and England's now go back through the thirteenth). Such data help us to understand the here and now, by showing how we got here.
September 03, 2009
Writing about web page http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSL1655337
For Britain, World War II began 70 years ago today. On a personal note, today would also be the 71st wedding anniversary of my mother and father. They married on September 3, 1938; one year later, they heard Neville Chamberlain declare war on Germany. The war didn't stop them from believing in the future; by 1945 they had two baby girls, my older sisters. I'm thinking of them all as I write.
Who was to blame for World War II? This question is not the same as "What was to blame?" World War II had many deep causes. Ultimately, however, the decision for war is a political act, taken by human beings whom we can hold to account for their actions.
So, who was to blame:
In Europe, the guilty men were the leaders of Nazi Germany. Hitler's plan was to build a German Empire in the East, making Germany self-sufficient in food. Hitler intended to conquer, depopulate, and then resettle Russia and Ukraine. This plan, not yet worked in detail, was soon elaborated in parallel with, but somewhat in advance of the much better known plan to exterminate Europe's Jews. Like the "final solution," the Hungerplan was genocidal: it envisaged starving up to 30 million people of the European part of the Soviet Union to death.
Between Germany and the Soviet Union lay Poland and Czechoslovakia; these states had to be destroyed to clear the path into Russia. The attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, in response to which Britain declared war on September 3, was a necessary step towards Hitler's wider goal. Others contributed to the timing of Hitler's decision and played into his hands in various ways. This is the context in which the behaviour of the British, French, Polish, and Soviet governments should be judged.
- Britain and France?
The worst thing for which the British and French were to blame was the Munich agreement of September 1938. By this agreement Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, the French prime minister, betrayed Czechoslovakia, their ally, by giving part of it away to Germany. They made themselves accessories before the fact of Hitler's crime. Correctly interpreting this as weakness, in March 1939 Hitler broke the agreement and took the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Although not signatories to the Munich agreement, the Poles also played a small role. First, they refused Soviet offers to send troops to defend Czechoslovakia. They suspected Soviet motives; it was less than twenty years since the Red Army's last invasion. (And history after 1945 strongly suggests that their suspicions would have been correct.) Second, when it became clear that Czechoslovakia was up for grabs they grabbed their own slice, a Polish speaking region on their border. In this small way they became accessories after (not before) the fact of the crime. On the scale of guilt, however, it was very minor. Like the British and French, they acted out of weakness. The best way to understand the Polish leaders at this time is that they were both overplaying and trying vainly to improve their hand in a game they hadn't chosen to enter and couldn't win; it is also true that they were willing to do so at the expense of others.
- The Soviet Union?
The responsibility of the Soviet Union is more complex and wide-ranging. The Soviet government -- in other words Stalin who, by this time, was an unquestioned dictator --did several things, the sum of which was far worse than the Anglo-French collusion with Hitler at Munich. It is important that they all came after the Munich agreement. Until Munich, Stalin hoped to deter Hitler through "collective security" -- an agreement with Britain, France, and their allies Poland and Czechoslovakia, to contain Germany. The Munich agreement told Stalin that this was no longer an option. As his least bad remaining option, Stalin decided to collude with Hitler himself.
To the public, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (named after the Soviet and German foreign ministers) of August 1939 was simply an agreement between two countries not to attack each other. This in itself was no crime; Moscow had a similar pact with Tokyo that both sides upheld until August 1945. The crime of the pact was its secret clauses. Infamously, it dismembered Poland, which the Soviet Union had previously offered to defend, carving up that country with Germany, and creating the common Soviet-German border across which Hitler would attack less than two years later.
The pact was Hitler's green light to attack Poland, and determined the timing of today's anniversary. By agreeing to it, Stalin became a co-conspirator in Hitler's decision for war. At the same time it is clear that, even without any secret clauses, Hitler was ready to attack Poland anyway. Thus, Stalin made the Soviet Union an accessory to the crime before and after the fact, but he was not the prime mover in the major crime.
Stalin is directly to blame for many other crimes that followed directly from the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland. The very worst of these was his decision to approve the mass shooting of some twenty thousand Polish officers whom the Red Army had taken prisoner. The officers killed in the Katyn woods were not just professional soldiers; they were the elite of Polish society, politics, and business. The only possible reason for the massacre was that Stalin had determined to prevent the reemergence of an independent Poland.
Just as Stalin gave Hitler permission to attack Poland, other clauses, with some later amendment, gave Stalin Hitler's permission to do what he liked around the Baltic. Thus the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact led directly to the destruction of the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and to the "winter war" in which Stalin tried, at huge cost, to adjust the Soviet border with Finland. Like Poland, the three small Baltic republics suffered political and social decapitation through the imprisonment and deportation of their former elites.
The official Soviet justification of these measures -- at least, of those that were admitted -- was that Stalin was manoeuvring defensively from a position of weakness and was therefore, like the British, French, and Poles, not primarily to blame; through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, he bought the Soviet Union time to prepare for an eventual war with Germany. On first hearing, this justification sounds a little like what I said about Poland: Stalin was trying to improve his hand in a game he had not chosen to play. I take it half seriously. Stalin feared Hitler, realized that war was almost inevitable, and played for time, although he went on to develop many illusions about the likely timing of war and the margin for avoiding it. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact did buy time, and he did use the time to prepare.
There are big differences from Poland, however. One is that the Soviet Union was militarily much stronger than Poland and had much more freedom of action. This must undermine Stalin's excuses for behaving badly. Yet Stalin behaved far, far worse than Poland ever did. The annexations, deportations, and mass killings that he authorized did not buy time or friends, and had little or no justification as preparations for war. On the contrary they caused or intensified anti-Russian feeling in the borderlands that persists to this day. The Katyn massacre had nothing to do with defendng against Germany and everything to do with completing the destruction of Polish independence. One thing to remember about Stalin is that it suited him to have tension on his borders, because this played well with the narrative of encirclement that he used to justify his own rule and the repressions that secured it.
Stalin's decisions had profound effects on the timing of World War II and the course that it followed. But they did not cause the war. The war's trajectory was determined first and foremost by the character and aims of the nationalist socialist dictatorship in Berlin. If Germany had been governed by liberals, socialists, or traditional conservatives in the 1930s, there would not have been a war in the heart of Europe. Without Germany at war, there would still have been an Italian war in North Africa and a Japanese war in China, but neither the Japanese nor the Italians would have been brave enough on their own to start wars against Britain or America in the Mediterranean and the Pacific.
It is true that in 1941 Nazi propagandists tried to justify the German attack on the Soviet Union as a defensive reaction to Soviet preparations for an attack on Germany. This explanation. built on speculation at a time when all the Soviet documents were secret, continues to find traction today in some quarters, but the opening of the Soviet archives has found no more hard evidence for it than there was before.
- Italy? Japan?
Italy was also involved, not only as a signatory at Munich but as an empire-builder around the Mediterrranean. And Japan; don't forget that World War II began in Asia in July 1937 when Japan opened full-scale hostilities against China. Mussolini and the Japanese leaders share the guilt for the war.
- Deeper causes?
When we see several countries bent on the same course, we have to suppose that there might be common factors at work, and these factors might go deeper than any one person's calculations. These deeper factors must include the tensions and imbalances left over from World War I, and the devastating impact of the Great Depression. I've written elsewherethat in the long run the main cost of the Great Depresson was not economic but political, in the way it opened up European politics to dictatorships and aggressive warfare.
Does this reduce the guilt of the individual leaders? I don't think so. A criminal gang that exploits the devastation of a natural disaster to loot and kill is still a gang of criminals.
The idea that World War II had underlying causes is sometimes used to shift the focus away from Germany to Russia. Above, I suggested, "No Nazis -- no World War II." A counter-argument is "No Bolsheviks -- no Nazis." The Soviet Union was a frightening neighbour for both Poland and Germany. Before Hitler came to power, the Bolshevik record of government already included class warfare, mass killings, and concentration camps. Between 1918 and 1924 the Bolsheviks had incited several armed insurrections in Germany. The Red Army had invaded Poland as recently as 1920. This record certainly helped Hitler's racial politics and plans for expansion to play well with the German public. It also undermined any Polish inclination to a common front with the Soviet Union against Germany.
At the same time, Germany did not attack the Soviet Union to restore democratic government or property rights to the Russians or anyone else. Hitler did not target only communist countries, nor did he spare Poland and Czechoslovakia on the grounds that they did not have Bolshevik regimes. His war in the East was a grab for land and food, regardless of who would be displaced. Saying that Bolshevism was responsible for this has more than a whiff of blaming the victim for the crime. The Bolsheviks should have been held to account for many crimes of their own, but not this one.
- How does Russia see Stalin today?
The major crime was the world war itself. The primary guilt for it belonged to leaders in Berlin, Tokyo, and Rome. The war unfolded through many stages; at various times Hitler won cooperation from London, Paris, Warsaw, and Moscow. Those who colluded with him did so sometimes under duress, sometimes to play for time. In retrospect this might look weak or foolish, but those who did it did so to avoid war, not to cause it.
Sometimes it was worse than that. On occasion, Hitler's allies of convenience worked with him opportunistically, because it suited their other goals. This applied more than anyone to Stalin, who exploited his temporary truce with Hitler between 1939 and 1941 not only to build up defenses but also to weaken or destroy the previously independent states on his borders. In the course of this the Soviet Union committed crimes on its own account, that did not flow from Germany's crimes.
In spirit, my apportioning of responsibilities for World War II may not be that different from the account offered by Vladimir Putin to the Polesat ceremonies marking the anniversary of the German invasion on September 1. For example, Putin condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact -- although only as a "mistake." He also offered a joint Russian-Polish commission to establish the facts of what happened at Katyn, although the facts are already well documented. Apart from that, what Putin said in Poland is not the problem.
The problem with Russia's present-day administration is not what it says abroad, but what it says at home. To the Russian public President Medevev has declared, in remarks that were notably anti-Polish and anti-European, there can be no debate over
who started the war, which country killed people, and which country saved people, millions of people, and which country, ultimately, saved Europe.
And for professional historians in Russia the message of the Presidential decree of May 15 this year, directed against "attempts to falsify history to the detriment of the interests of Russia," is again that on certain matters debate is to be ruled out -- by law if necessary.
The Soviet Union, led by Stalin, did not cause the war, but everything else in Medvedev's formulation is highly debatable. The Soviet Union certainly killed people in very large numbers for purposes that ought to be condemned. For Poland, Katyn was a national tragedy. It is true that the Soviet Union "saved Europe" from German domination, and "saved people, millions of people" from destruction. But Stalin did this primarily to save himself; it is not clear that he deserves their thanks for that.
As for the people that the Soviet Union saved most directly, its own people and the citizens of the countries that the Red Army "liberated," it saved them in order to subjugate them, and it subsequently killed more than a few of them in repressing their freedom and independence.
Stalin's legacy is complex. It is in Russia itself that well-informed debate, free of government pressure and "patriotic" restraints, is most needed. When polled, for example, most Russians approve of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact but do not know that the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland under its provisions.
Meanwhile, I'll stop to think for a moment about Roger and Betty Harrison, married under the gathering stormclouds of September 3, 1938, and their war babies.
April 02, 2009
A while back, an American journalist wrote to me:
We ... are trying to determine how big of a war we would need to have in order to drive the US out of this recession. It is common belief that WWII was a major factor in invigorating US economy which had been decimated during the Great Depression. I was wondering if it would be possible to make a projected estimate for our current situation using that era as a model.
This question got me thinking and I put quite a lot of effort into some answers, which they did not use. So, I thought I would update them and share them here.
Basically, the question sees the problem back to front and upside down. The problem we should be thinking about today is not how to start a war that can help pull us out of recession. The real problem is that, if we don't pull ourselves and others out of recession fairly rapidly by peaceful means, we will face growing risks of war -- and that could end in a catastrophe for everyone.
So, it is a trick question. Sometimes, however, it is interesting to take trick questions at face value and work out what is wrong with them by seeing where they lead. This is what I did.
Is the situation of the U.S. economy today comparable with the Great Depression?
At the moment, the situation of the U.S. economy over the next year or two looks bad compared with the recent past, but it is still way better than it was in the 1930s. Economists often work in terms of what is called the "output gap," the proportion of potential output that is unrealized because there is not enough demand in the economy. The Congressional Budget Office currently expects the output gap over the next two years to average almost 7 percent.
There are various ways of calculating the output gap of the U.S. economy before World War II, and it varied a lot from year to year, but any reasonable estimate would be far above 7 percent. At the bottom of the depression, in 1932, the gap was probably around one third. At the end of the first recovery, in 1937, around one fifth of potential output was still not being realized, and in 1938 and 1939 the output gap widened again. It had got back to relatively normal levels by 1941.
So the good news is that, on present forecasts, the fiscal stimulus that is required to fix the U.S. economy is much less than was called for in the 1930s. What everyone should worry about, though, is that if things play out badly in the world as a whole there is plenty of scope for present forecasts to prove optimistic.
What size of war would be required to provide an equivalent fiscal stimulus?
U.S. GDP is currently around $15 trillion a year, and so an output gap of 7 percent means about $1 trillion a year of lost production. Since, in the U.S. economy, an extra dollar of public spending should give rise to about an extra $1.50 of total (public plus private) spending, a stimulus of around $700 billion a year would be needed to stimulate $1 trillion a year of extra output.
As far as I am aware from press reports and so on, the total U.S. budgetary appropriation for the global war on terror (Afghanistan, Iraq, and the protection of U.S. embassies abroad) has reached around $1 trillion in total, spread over the entire period from 9/11 to the present. I am not certain what the annual cost is currently, and I believe that not all of it is explicitly funded (i.e., the GWOT has been partly funded by the Defense Department taking resources from elsewhere.) For the sake of argument, suppose the net budgetary cost of the GWOT has recently been of the order of $200 to 250 billion a year. To provide a stimulus of $700 billion a year, therefore, the required war would have to be the equivalent of three additional global wars on terror, waged on the scale of the recent past.
How does that compare with the fiscal stimulus package that went through Congress recently? The package is $700 billion spread over two years, and much of it is tax cuts rather than public spending, which will have a lesser impact because tax cuts can be saved rather than spent privately. It is one half or one third of the stimulus that would halt the slide, so it runs the risk of being too little, too late.
One reason for the modest size of the package is that President Obama is restrained by conservative opponents of big government in Congress. I suppose someone could argue that a war might help to overcome such constraints. I think that would be a bad argument. It amounts to saying that we should whip up nationalism in order to stigmatize the people we disagree with as unpatriotic and crush them. That is not unheard of, but it does not appeal to me.
How good for the U.S. economy would it be to have another war?
History should make us very skeptical. Here are five reasons. First, it is true only in small part that World War II pulled the U.S. out of the depression. In fact, 1940 was the first year after 1919 when U.S. military spending rose above 2 percent of the national income. The fiscal stimulus from New Deal spending was also modest. The main driver of the U.S. recovery up to 1940 was private investment. If World War II had not broken out, this natural recovery process would have continued.
Second, it is true that the wartime period saw a huge further increase in the total output of the U.S. economy. In the three years from 1941 to 1944 the GDP rose by about two thirds. The main element in this was Federal outlays on national defense that brought about a vast increase in the mass production of standardized machinery and equipment for combat and transportation. Because of mobilization and wartime controls, patriotic national feeling, and mass production and the associated efficiency gains, the U.S. economy could temporarily produce far above peacetime norms -- effectively, there was a negative output gap. But the extra output did not make anyone better off; it was mainly in the form of ships, planes, and guns that achieved victory, not higher living standards.
After the war, most of the extra output disappeared and the economy fell back, not towards depression, just towards normal peacetime operation. So the wartime "production miracle" did not bring about lasting gains. The U.S. economy was much more prosperous after 1945 than before 1941, but this was not because of the war. It was because of the return to normal working combined with underlying productivity advances that had continued through the Great Depression, but were temporarily overwhelmed by the lack of demand.
Third, it is true that millions of U.S. citizens had a good war, economically speaking. Many people would previously have expected to live out their lives in poverty in the South and Mid-West. They moved to the industrialized, urbanized North and found new lives there. Many young men gained new skills and experiences by joining the military and fighting or supporting the war effort overseas. You might ask whether there were cheaper ways of achieving the same goals without having to fight a war. I don't mean that American involvement in that particular war was wrong; it was clearly in America's own national interest. But if you want to achieve a more mobile, equal society, and war is not forced upon you, there are cheaper ways.
Fourth, it needs to be said out loud that war is costly to society in terms of death and disability. I looked up what Michael Edelstein has to say in his chapter on “War and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century,” in The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, vol. 3 (published in 2000), on pages 342 and 349. He measures the budgetary cost of war as the cost of defense above normal peacetime operations, and the social cost is the capitalized value of lost earnings of the killed and injured. Everything is in constant 1982 prices. Edelstein’s estimates are: WW1, budgetary cost $378 billion and social cost $25 billion, WW2 $2,460 billion and $202 billion, Korea $206 billion and $27 billion, and Vietnam $313 billion and $46 billion.
You can see a couple of things. One is that, on this measure, the social costs were relatively small. Why? Mainly because the United States could fight all these wars at a distance against much less well equipped enemies. In World War II, U.S. battle deaths in Europe and the Pacific were around 350,000. In contrast, Red Army battle deaths on the Eastern Front were around 8.7 million.
Another thing is that, on the same figures, the ratio of social to budgetary costs rose continually from war to war. As a share of the combined total, the human costs were around 6% in WW1 rising to 12% for Vietnam. Why? I think, mainly because there was rising productivity, so human life got relatively more expensive. In their book on the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes come up with various figures but their “realistic moderate” scenario (The Three Trillion Dollar War, published in 2007, page 112) suggests about 12% for social costs as a share of the total of budgetary plus social costs combined. (Stiglitz and Bilmes include items of veterans’ welfare costs that Edelstein I think does not, but these appear on both the budgetary and social sides of the balance.)
What does this mean? Well, if you want $700 billion a year of fiscal stimulus through going to war, you’d better factor in that, for every year at war, the U.S. economy will also lose a future income stream with a capitalized value of $100 billion, because of troops killed and injured. That does not seem like a good idea.
Fifth, a war today would bring huge costs in further disruption of the international economy. In 1941 international trade was a small fraction of its pre-1913 volume, so there was little to lose. The world today is much more interdependent than it was in the 1930s. Stiglitz has pointed up the billions of dollars lost to the U.S. economy because the war in Iraq triggered higher oil prices. You need to factor that in too.
Maybe I should finish this bit by quoting Edelstein again (on page 349):
It is absurd to think that the methods and perspectives of economic history come anywhere near to comprehending the meaning of human losses from war. We are far better served by the speeches and letters of Lincoln or the poetry of Sassoon, Brooke, Owen, Graves, and Seager.
OK, but where does this leave us?
I have two conclusions. One is that the only good reason to have a war would be to defeat an enemy. If our leaders want to make our economy work better in everyone's interests, and if they have legitimate instruments to achieve this, and if such improvements would also be an accidental by-product of a war, then that is not an argument for a war. It is an argument for adopting peaceful ways to achieve these things that carry democratic consent and do not also involve the irreversible losses and persistent collateral damage that a war would bring.
My other conclusion is that the original question ("how big of a war we would need to have in order to drive the US out of this recession?") confuses the problem for the solution. It's true that the Great Depression ended in the most terrible war the world has seen. But it did not end because of the war; the depression would have come to an end anyway. In fact, the war curtailed the natural recovery process.
But why did the war come about? World War II happened for a number of reasons, but one of them was the great powers' failure to avert the Great Depression in the first place, and rapidly to mitigate it once it came along. Many of the ingredients for violent conflict were there, but until the Great Depression they lacked a spark. Before 1929, was Germany evolving gradually towards a normal parliamentary democracy? Yes. Would Hitler have come to power without 30% unemployment in Germany in 1932? Probably not.
Eurasia today, from the Baltic to the China Sea, has many of the ingredients for violent nationalism. Scattered around that vast landmass, there is more than enough petrol and a good supply of oil-soaked rags. Meeting in London today, the G20 has the power to coordinate an effective international response to the global economic calamity that threatens us. If they fail, it is not just an economic calamity that we should fear; the world's leaders are playing with matches.