Food Commodities in Wartime: Soy, Wheat, Sugar, and U.S. Global Power in the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 167
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
Deborah Fitzgerald, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Deborah Fitzgerald, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

This panel considers U.S. governmental control over agricultural commodities during and immediately after the First and Second World Wars. During both conflicts the United States took a leading role in coordinating food supplies for civilians and combatants around the globe. Demand for basic foodstuffs multiplied, and policymakers faced a major task in coordinating their distribution in the context of scarce labor and shipping. While some regions and crops suffered from overproduction, other areas faced shortages. Prices were wildly inconsistent, and dangerously high, according to some policymakers. Wartime exigencies authorized policies that would not have been acceptable outside of such an emergency. Ensuring a sufficient flow of nourishing food during wartime involved policymakers in negotiations over consumption, agriculture, trade, and diplomacy. Farmers in the United States and overseas found new market opportunities, but they also faced restrictions and limitations. The United States sought to balance the needs of farmers and consumers across a broad geography while asserting its own hegemony over global trade.

During and after the First World War, the U.S. government regulated wheat and sugar production in order to assure a steady supply and good returns to farmers and producers; similar incentives were instituted during the Second World War for soybeans. In the case of all three commodities, U.S. wartime policies contributed to an oversupply of the commodity after the crisis passed. The techniques policymakers used to control the markets for these commodities during wartime set precedents for later efforts to cope with glutted markets in the post-war period. As they contemplated how to manage market surpluses and deficits, policymakers reimagined the place of consumers in a global political economy, and marshalled strategies such as humanitarian aid and relief as an attempt to balance global markets. Their actions assured that food costs would remain low, during and after the war, and that farmers would rely on political interventions to maintain their own profits. At the broadest level, each of the papers discusses how the relationship between the government and business changed in wartime, and how policies aimed at rationalizing consumption and production of strategic foods heightened state power. Furthermore, all papers focus on the impact of war-related policies on global food supplies in the after-war years and how wartime mobilization transferred into global post-war aid and trade relations. Finally, these papers suggest that state interventions have had lasting consequences for what people eat, both in the United States and around the world.

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