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Comptes rendus

Alan Bollard, Economists at War. How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars

Edwin van de Haar
p. 247-251
Bibliographical reference

Alan Bollard (2020), Economists at War. How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, 352 pages, 978-019884600-0

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1Are economists and their insights of any use in a war? Is their knowledge worthless when the tanks and soldiers start crossing borders, or are they crucial actors in achieving military success? This book recounts the role that seven economists played in six countries, during the period 1935-1955. Alan Bollard is currently a professor of economics at Victoria University in Wellington, and has been executive director of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), Governor of New Zealand’s Reserve Bank, and Secretary of New Zealand’s Treasury.

2According to the author, 1935-1955 was the period when economists were requested to finance the military, to identify economic vulnerabilities, and to help reconstruction. Economics began to be used as a policy tool and economists gained importance as advisors” (v). He adds “it was also the time of innovation, of Keynesian macro theory, input-output analysis, national income accounting, linear programming, game theory and general equilibrium theory” (v). To investigate what the influence of economics was on (military) policy this book offers “a description of the complex and sometimes terrible positions these economists found themselves in and how they used their economics and their personalities to address this”. Bollard also emphasizes what the book is not: “it is not an economic history of war, not an academic study of economic policies, not a biographical study and most decidedly is not a guide on how to be economically effective in wartime” (viii). He does not provide much reason for the selection of these particular men, while referencing is scarce and mainly done through a literature list at the end of the book.

3Despite all the things the book is not, and to steer expectations of the reader, it is best to see the book as a series of short, partial biographies of extraordinary men, not all trained economist but also bankers, who worked and lived under wholly different and very difficult circumstances. The period Bollard covers is actually between 1854 and 1970s, because he starts his descriptions with the childhood of the oldest economist and ends with the descriptions of another receiving the Nobel Prize in 1975. The author also tries to make (too) much of the connections between the seven economists, and even offers a diagram of meetings, family ties, and universities attended. In all fairness, this is rather superficial. This not to deny official meetings between them, and even some academic engagements here and there, but most of them lived different lives, in different countries and never cooperated in any way.

4This does not matter much, because Bollard wrote an engaging book, with an interesting selection of economists. The book provides chapters on Takahashi Korekiyo (Japan), Kung Hsiang-hsi (China; known as H. H. Kung), Hjalmar Schacht (Germany), John Maynard Keynes (United Kingdom), Leonid Kantorovich (USSR), Wassily Leontief (USA) and John von Neumann (USA), and closes with chapters on the activities of some of the economists in the immediate years after the Second World War, and/or during the Cold War.

5This review is not meant to summarize the contents of the book. However, it is appropriate to give some flavor of the lives of the men (only men!), also to whet the potential appetite for reading the book. The chapters on Korekiyo and Kung will undoubtedly be most surprising, at least to a Western readership, as they are relatively unknown figures. Bollard does a good job in setting this negligence straight. Korekiyo (1854-1936) was one of the most important statesmen in pre-Second World War Japan, as one-time Prime Minister and seven-time Minister of Finance. As a young man he was a sociable outgoing person, with a love for gambling, drinking and prostitutes. Eventually he settled down and started a stellar career, which went from civil servant to Governor of the Bank of Japan. He travelled extensively and was sent to London, to secure loans so that Japan could pay for the war against Russia (1904-1905). From 1913 onward his political life began, although he would always remain more of a technocrat than a natural politician. In an increasingly war-prone Japan, especially after the invasion in Manchuria, he attempted to stick to sound economic, fiscal and monetary policies. Yet the military demanded increased spending and eventually, in 1936, Korekiyo was murdered by right wingers during the attempted (failed) coup d’état, mainly for holding on to his principles.

6H.H. Kung (1881-1967) is portrayed as a politician who always first looked after himself and his family, before looking into the interest of the Nationalist Kuomintang government of China. Kung, a Yale economics graduate under Irving Fisher, became close to Sun Yat Sen and later also to Chiang Kai-shek, who would become his brother-in-law. Kung held a number of ministerial posts and was a Governor of the Central Bank. His main task was to ensure resources and income for the Nationalists, so they were able to fight the communists. Yet, as he was socially very skilled, Kung was also often a go-between between warring parties or factions, mostly on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek. He was not much of a policy maker. As Bollard dryly remarks: “he was better at making a corrupt system work, than reforming it”. Kung’s attention was for the banking system, but he did not shy away from the opium trade, and allegedly withheld large parts of the US loans to the Nationalists, in the late thirties. After Chiang Kai-shek moved his government to Formosa (Taiwan) Kung settled in New York, allegedly as one of the richest men on earth. He used his influence and fortune to lobby for Taiwanese interests until the end of his eventful life.

7Turning to Europe, Hjalmar Schacht (1877-1970) is perhaps a slightly better-known figure in economic history. He was a prominent figure in German economic and fiscal policymaking in the 1920s and 1930s. A banker, he was sent to Belgium in the First World War, organizing the German purchases. However, he was sacked, basically for not giving in to military demands. After the war, he joined the liberal democratic German Democratic Party, which also attracted Jewish prominent thinkers such as Max Weber and Albert Einstein. He was appointed President of the Reichsbank in 1923, where he had to fight hyperinflation, and manifested himself as a tough negotiator in international meetings over the German war reparations. In 1930 he left the Reichsbank, yet returned at Hitler’s request in 1933, and was appointed Minister of Economic Affairs at the same time. He never joined the Nazi Party, but did support them, also at public rallies. Schacht was generally pro-market but had to impose a range of controls over the German economy, while facing increasing pressure for public spending. All along he seemed to believe he had a moderating influence on Hitler, at least in economic and fiscal matters, but that proved unrealistic. In the late thirties, he lost most official positions after publicly criticizing Hitler, also for the antisemitic policies. During the Second World War he became (loosely) associated with the German resistance against Hitler, but ended up in concentration camps after the SS found out about this association. He was put on trial in Nuremberg, where he was one of the few former members of the German leadership who was found not guilty. After the war he resumed his career as banker and became a development economist.

8John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) is one of the most well-known economists of the 20th century. Therefore, it is a bit surprising Bollard included him in this book, although he was important to the British war efforts, of course. It must be said Bollard does not add much to the existing portrayal of Keynes as the arrogant Cambridge don, who was all over the place, in the sense that he was not only a world class academic, but also participated in the intellectual Bloomsbury Circle and London cultural life, was a lifelong Liberal, advisor of the British government either in official or unofficial capacity, and was a prolific and highly influential writer, who frequently changed his mind. His influence on the creation of the post-world war economic system was profound, although Bollard points at the fact that Keynes—to his own dismay—certainly did not get his way at Bretton Woods.

9More interesting is the chapter on Leonid Kantorovich (1912-1986), one of the 1975 Nobel Prize winners. He was not influential during the Second World war, as a matter of fact his work was on the whole neglected by the Soviet leadership. His main war effort was the accounting of the required thickness of the ice that was needed for the truck convoys on the Road of Life, the route over the ice that was used to get supplies to the citizens of Leningrad during the German siege. In those days, his work on the optimal allocation of resources, known as linear programming, was deemed “not Marxist”. Therefore, it was largely forbidden by the government. Due to the lack of international contacts his ideas remained largely unknown until after the Second World War, when Dutch-American economist Tjalling Koopmans (his co-recipient of the Nobel Prize) would discover them. Koopmans, by the way, also contributed to the war efforts. He had fled to the USA in June 1940 and worked as a statistician for the British Merchant Shipping Mission in Washington (Koopmans, 1975). In the years after the war, Kantorovich also got Russian recognition for his work, working in his own institute, and with increasing international contacts and academic exchange. Kantorovich also assisted in the development of the Soviet nuclear weapon program.

10The Russian who received the Nobel Prize two years prior to Kantorovich, Wassily Leontief (1906-1999), would turn into a different direction. He left Russia, after having been politically active as a student in Leningrad and was subsequently imprisoned by the Cheka (the predecessor of the KGB) for three months, and also because his academic work was censored. He emigrated to Germany, where he got his PhD in Economics at the University of Berlin and continued to work on business cycles at the Institute for the Study of the World Economy in Kiel. At the end of the 1920s Leontief no longer felt at ease in Germany, not only as a son of a Jewish mother, but also as a scholar with a liberal cosmopolitan outlook. Supported by Joseph Schumpeter and Simon Kuznets, he got a fellowship at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and later moved to Harvard University. There he focused on developing input-output analysis, which would make him famous. Yet another specialty was his knowledge of the Russian economy. In the 1940s that knowledge was sought after, so Leontief worked for several branches of the military and intelligence communities during the Second World War, advising on the most destructive bombing strategies to cripple the German economy. In 1944 he received quite a different assignment: he became an advisor in the American delegation at Bretton Woods. After the war he returned to academia, would consult with many large corporations, but also became a public critic of the arms race in the Cold War.

11The last economist Bollard introduces is John von Neumann (1903-1957), who was born in Hungary, educated as theoretical mathematician and among other things worked at the University of Göttingen, in the 1920s. In 1929 he was invited to a lectureship in mathematical physics at Princeton, later moving as a professor to the new Institute for Advanced Studies. Von Neumann’s knowledge was also in high demand in the war, as he used his mathematics and an early interest in computing to advise on bombing patterns and other ballistic calculations. This would lead to Von Neumann being assigned to Los Alamos, to join the Manhattan Project aimed at developing the atomic bomb. After the war, Von Neumann would turn to game theory, and retained his cooperation with the military. As opposed to Leontieff he would remain hawkish, allegedly coined the term MAD theory (mutually assured-destruction) and kept working with the military.

12The subtitle of the book promises stories of direct engagement and large influence of these economists on the outcomes of the wars, most importantly the Second World war and the Cold War. Yet that is not what the reader is offered. The stories mostly offer failure, little influence, or long-delayed influence. Even Keynes did not often get his way.

13Despite the erroneous subtitle, this is a nice book, containing a number of biographies with a specific focus. The author offers engaging portrayals of special men in unusual circumstances, while adding descriptions of the main economic ideas they developed or put in practice. In short, Bollard wrote a thoroughly enjoyable read, for economists, (economic) historians, and scholars of international relations alike.

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Bibliography

Koopmans, Tjalling C. 1975. Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2021. Access: 15 Jan 2021. www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economic-sciences/1975/koopmans/biographical/

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References

Bibliographical reference

Edwin van de Haar, Alan Bollard, Economists at War. How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World WarsŒconomia, 11-1 | 2021, 247-251.

Electronic reference

Edwin van de Haar, Alan Bollard, Economists at War. How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World WarsŒconomia [Online], 11-1 | 2021, Online since 01 March 2021, connection on 17 September 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/oeconomia/10653; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/oeconomia.10653

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About the author

Edwin van de Haar

Independent Scholar. edwinvdhaar@gmail.com

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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