Historians and economists generally give two different accounts of the decade preceding World War II. Diplomatic and military historians see the weak and indecisive responses of democratic powers giving free rein to the imperial designs of ambitious, undemocratic leaders; they see a failure to prevent the aggression that would become worldwide war. Economists see a world financial crisis in the late 1920s and early 1930s leading to restrictions on international trade, and they argue that the protectionist stances of the industrialized powers during the early thirties prolonged the economic depression that persisted until the war began. This economic misery aggravated the sense of grievance that ambitious politicians used to justify their war policy.
Both accounts tell part of the story, but “nowhere in the literature is there a broad, synthetic work that ties everything together,” Moser says. Bad economic policy conspired with bad diplomatic and military policy to produce an environment ripe for war.
It is not a new idea, Moser says, that instead of doing what would lead to long-term economic recovery, the leadership of the industrialized countries acted first to satisfy their domestic constituencies. They “protected” domestic industries by keeping out foreign imports; even FDR, who had campaigned against the Smoot-Harley tariff in the election of 1932, made little effort to change it during his first term. But it is not generally noticed that he did this against the advice of not his economic advisors but against that of his Secretary of State, Cornell Hull, “who firmly believed that free trade was the key to maintaining peace,” Moser noted.
Military historians do not generally note that France’s lopsided defensive posture prior to World War II was informed by economic considerations. “The depression hit France a little later than it hit other countries, in 1931, and at that point the French government began cutting military programs. But the one military project that continued to be fully funded was the Maginot line, because it provided employment for so many people.”
Even “Japanese imperialism was tied to concerns that Japan was losing out in the global economic competition,” Moser argues. The fear that Chinese nationalism would deny Tokyo access to valuable raw materials and markets on the Asian continent led to both the occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and to the outbreak of full-scale war between Japan and China in 1937.
Moser began work on this project after writing a chapter for the collection, A Companion to World War II, edited by Thomas Zeiler and Daniel DuBois (Blackwell Publishing Company, 2012.) Here he outlined his argument about the economic causes of the war. The book-length study he now is writing will be published by Paradigm Press as part of a series that will ultimately be released in paperback. “I like that,” Moser said. “It’s nice to see that the book will be affordable to readers.”