At a White House dinner with a group of historians at the beginning of the summer, Robert Dallek, a shrewd student of both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, offered a chilling comment to President Obama.
"In my judgment," he recalls saying, "war kills off great reform movements." The American record is pretty clear: World War I brought the Progressive Era to a close. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was waging World War II, he was candid in saying that "Dr. New Deal" had given way to "Dr. Win the War." Korea ended Harry Truman's Fair Deal, and Vietnam brought Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to an abrupt halt. [italics mine]
I may not have tenure, and I may not have taught at Columbia or UCLA, but I do have my own rebuttals to Prof. Dallek's assertions.
- World War I: Prohibition (a long-time middle-class reform wish of the Progressives) becomes law when Americans equate alcohol consumption with anti-Americanism (and Hoover pushes the diversion of grain into export via the Lever Act). Women's suffrage becomes law after President Wilson gives his public support because women supported the war effort in large numbers. And we haven't even broached the precedents set by Wilsonian government expansion (National War Labor Board, Food Administration, nationalization of the railroads).
- World War II: civil rights makes progress during the war for African Americans, as increasing numbers are allowed to serve in combat details. Moreover, the war convinces many white soldiers from the North that support for segregation in the South is incongruous with the critique of Hitler's "master race" thesis, thus laying a critical plank of support for the modern civil rights movement. The war of "Rose the Riveter" had the long-term effect of enabling the next wave of feminism a la Betty Friedan.
- Korea: integration of the armed forces completed by Truman.
- Vietnam: let's leave aside the critiques of the Great Society for now. The war, in giving life-blood to the New Left, advanced the cause of suffrage for 18-year-olds via the 26th Amendment.
[I reserve the right to make additions and linkages later; I have to lecture now...]