Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

MOBILIZING FOR MODERN WAR: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865-1919

by Paul A. C. Koistinen
University Press of Kansas, 1997
Ron Drees, Reviewer

Unlike other WWI books reviewed here, The Political Economy of American Warfare takes place entirely within the continental borders of the United States, describes no combat other than impassioned debate, communications, convoluted statements and lies, describes efforts that almost fail to accomplish their mission, and is 24 years old. Nations at war have two fronts, one where the battles are fought and one at home where weapons of war are made. The primary emphasis of this scholarly book is on mobilizing the American economy to support the military during WWI; however, the first third deals with the post-Civil War and Spanish-American War. 

Significant differences existed between the two military services in that 52-year period. The Navy modernized by converting to coal-powered steel ships with turret-mounted weapons, resulting in Dewey destroying the Spanish navy in the Philippines. The Army had degenerated into a frontier operation that was ineffective and counterproductive in moving troops from the U.S. to Cuba for the Spanish-American War. Poor sanitation and an ineffective Medical Corps resulted in epidemics that killed far more troops than combat did. This led to the start of modernization in the Army but was only partially successful by 1917.

Readers are undoubtedly familiar with the saying, paraphrased here, that amateurs think of strategy while professionals think of logistics. This book describes how the Army was structured to think of logistics by being organized into eight bureaus jealous of their turf and the resultant conflict with civilian control and manufacturing. Even in 1917 the American economy was a complicated mechanism between large and small manufacturing concerns, railroads, coal mining, labor, trade associations, and government agencies. Retooling this economic machine to have a very different and much narrower focus without statutory authority is the principal topic of almost the last two-thirds of Koistinen’s book.

The author delves into incredible detail of boards, commissions, and committees that attempted to mobilize the economy, usually with quite limited success. The reader can become glassy eyed in the process. Smaller sections within the chapters and chapter summaries would have been of significant assistance to the reader’s comprehension. While the formation of committees is mentioned, the functions of these committees are not discussed. Yet the author leaves no doubt as to which of the players were effective, which were incompetent, and those who tried but just did not make the grade.

Reading the text left me with the impression that Woodrow Wilson was not a strong leader of the mobilization effort, that he hung back from making decisions or involvement, and only reacted when absolutely necessary. Yet in a summary chapter, the author indicated that Wilson was very much in charge and participated in the effort. 

This book will be of interest if you want a unique look at the American home front, but it is a somewhat ponderous read due to its extraordinary detail that obscures the author’s message.

Ron Drees


  1. Paul AC Koistinen wrote a total of five books on American military political economy, the only corpus of such scholarship available. They show a general pattern of hesitancy right up to 1940, and the assessment of Wilson here is spot on. Regrettably all five of them are dull as dust even if they are packed with information.

  2. Many thanks for working through this book, Ron, and giving us a clear and useable assessment of it. And thank you, John, for your insights.