ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: World War II veterans built economy into juggernaut

November 12, 2007

Veterans Day is upon us again, and the slow passing of the World War II generation sparks thought on their contributions. I will let others dwell on their considerable wartime achievements. I am an economist, not a historian, after all.

Our 16 million World War II veterans emerged from conflict in the late summer of 1945 to a muchfractured world. The production of goods-where facilities had survived bombs and artillery-was almost wholly focused on the demands of war. A worldwide recession was imminent. All told, 85 million souls worldwide had died, almost half a million Americans among them. Another million were wounded.

The United States escaped much of the damage of war, but 10 million American servicemen (and a half million servicewomen) had close proximity to battle. Literally every American family was affected.

Emerging from this war, so close on the back of the Great Depression, would seem to have entitled returning veterans to rest and relaxation. Instead, they turned to a greater task and largely rebuilt the world.

That generation paid for the Marshall Plan, which unleashed untold private investment dollars into Europe and East Asia-bringing these utterly devastated foes back to prosperity. Some recent scholarship has questioned the magnitude of the Marshall Plan's economic effect, but there's no doubt that by unleashing the gentler angel of our nature we saved democracy in Europe.

I saw the lasting influence of our World War II GIs firsthand as a young infantry captain in Germany the week the Berlin Wall collapsed. I saw elderly German women pass through the ranks of my brigade with flowers. They tucked them carefully into the buttonholes of American soldiers-the grandsons of their former enemies.

At home, the GI Bill transformed American higher education. Our veterans even ushered in such innovations from military service as the small group lectures of the MBA program (appropriated from the Infantry School curriculum).

In the factory, returning veterans contributed to the most remarkable period of economic growth in more than 100 years. The quantity and quality of American manufactured goods set the world standard for production organization and technology. In the body politic, veterans of World War II contributed seven of the succeeding eight postwar presidents (and were parents of two of the remaining three).

To be sure, the war generation produced its share of miscreants, but as a group, it just won't be thought of in that way. There's too much achievement for even the most cynical observer to argue otherwise.

In the end, what amazes me most about that generation is its robustness. The transformation of the American economy depended on the quiet work of veterans who returned from the most challenging of human experiences, picked up their tools and went to work.

When Veterans Day is observed Nov. 12, let us remember to thank those veterans for the world we have inherited.

Hicks is director of the Bureau of Business Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbr@bsu.edu.
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