Photograph of U.S. ration book

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Total war produces immense economic dislocation as national resources are diverted to military production. This diversion of resources must be arranged carefully to avoid disastrous loss of civilian morale and lasting postwar economic depression.

Food was by far the most important of rationed commodities. While most other commodities could be rationed through the usual market mechanism of pricing, rising food prices could be catastrophic to a nation's war effort, since ensuring a sufficient ration of food was essential for the survival and productivity of the labor force and for civilian morale. Indeed, Collingham (2011) has argued that desire for food security was a major motivation for the aggressive policies of the Axis that led to war in the first place. 

The Second World War was enormously disruptive of worldwide food production and distribution. Military service is physically strenuous, increasing calorie demands. So is industrial production in support of the military. At the same time that total food demand was increasing, farm labor was becoming more scarce. There was also increased food wastage during war, and the high demands the military put on transportation systems (particularly shipping) made distribution more difficult.

Allied food production and distribution was coordinated through the Combined Food Board, which was set up following the ARCADIA conference. However, the actual distribution of food was often at the mercy of the Combined Shipping Adjustment Board, which was responsible for allocating scarce shipping space. Food shipments often took second place to military operations, and the dreadful Bengal famine of 1943 was partially the result of the diversion of shipping to support Operation TORCH in North Africa.

Basic economics behind rationing. One way of financing a war is to raise taxes enough to pay for it. This is rarely feasible, since taxes pose a huge economic deadweight. Citizens have less incentive to work when they know that much of their earnings is going to be seized by the government. Another alternative is to simply print the money required to pay for the expenditures of war. This has historically been tried a number of times, but as the supply of money increases, disastrous inflation sets in. Workers soon realize that their wages must be spent almost at once or become worthless, which reduces savings and works against the diversion of resources to war production. The more successful alternative is to artificially hold down consumption while encouraging investment of the money not being spent in war bonds. This acts like a tax, reducing the need to expand the money supply and risking inflation, while posing an incentive structure that is less likely to discourage citizens from being productive. It also passes along some of the costs of the war to future taxpayers, who presumably will benefit from the removal of an existential threat by the successful prosecution of the war.

However, many citizens who find that their salaries are not being heavily taxed will continue consuming resources rather than buying war bonds. This is discouraged by putting artificial constraints on consumption in the form of rationing. Citizens are limited to a certain amount of rationed goods per week or month, while prices of these goods are sometimes left uncontrolled. Because the ration reduces consumption, the price of the goods does not increase much, even though a large fraction of the rationed goods are being diverted to the war effort.

In an effort to avoid doing away with all market signals, both Britain and the United States adopted a system of ration points. Civilians were allotted a certain number of ration points per week, and various rationed commodities were assigned a point value based on their availability. Thus, civilians paid for goods both in cash and with ration points. This allowed greater flexibility to civilians in their consumption habits while maintaining the overall rationing scheme.

Because rationing is an effort to artificially hold down prices, there is always economic pressure to sell commodities for a higher price off the legal market. Black markets sprang up throughout the world during the war, but their natures reflected economic conditions in each country. The British black market was pervasive but never a large fraction of the economy; rationing enjoyed widespread public support and, while many Britons bought black market goods at some point, most felt guilty doing so. In the United States, rationing was mild enough that black markets were limited mostly to gasoline and choice cuts of meat. Rationing enjoyed less public support than in Britain, being viewed by some citizens as merely "a patriotic ploy to keep our enthusiasm at fever pitch" (quoted in Collingham 2011), and participants in the black market felt little remorse for cheating the system. Government officials estimated that fully 20% of all slaughtered livestock found its way to the black market. In Japan, access the black market was sometimes the key to survival.

Rationing in the United States. The United States was unique among the warring powers in seeing its food production actually increase during the war, by somewhere between 11% and 30%. This was accomplished primarily through increased mechanization of agriculture combined with rural electrification. The number of tractors, combine harvesters and milking machines on American farms doubled from 1941 to 1945, and almost half of American farms had electricity by 1945. Farmers resisted efforts to recruit city girls to work on farms, preferring to make greater use of their own wives and daughters, but German prisoners of war were valued for their work ethic. Small farms began to disappear, particularly in the South, where the displacement of poor black sharecroppers (begun during the Depression) led to a mass migration of blacks to the northern cities.

Thus the United States remained a land of plenty throughout the war years, and rationing was less strict here than in almost anywhere else among the belligerent powers. However, gasoline was strictly rationed, as much to reduce use of rubber and other strategic commodities used in automobile manufacture and maintenance as to reduce consumption of petroleum. Tin was also strictly rationed, though its widespread use for basic consumer goods meant that recycling was emphasized, rather than limits on consumption: You had to turn in your old tin toothpaste tube when purchasing a new tube. As the war progressed, and as the impact of poor farming weather in early 1943 began to be recognized, certain valuable foodstuffs, such as sugar (May 1942), meat (March 1943) and butter (May 1943), were also rationed, though on a relatively generous basis. Coffee, cheese, canned goods, frozen and dried vegetables, and fruits also were eventually put on the ration list. However, no one went hungry in the United States because of shortages of food. In fact, as victory neared, some previously rationed items were removed from the list of rationed commodities.

As in any controlled economy, there were periodic booms and busts of commodities, and the United States badly overproduced eggs during the war. An ingenious process was devised for spray-drying eggs to produce a powder taking up only 20% of the space required for fresh eggs. This was shipped around the world, and a repugnance for dried egg became one of the great common bonds of the Allied coalition. Dried milk was also produced in quantity, through a spray-drying method that reduced it to a fine powder. Some 650 million pounds (295 million kg) of spray-dried milk was produced in 1943, each pound (450 g) of which could be reconstituted into five quarts (4.7 liters) of milk. With other protein sources in great demand, fish became a significant part of the American diet, and the sardine industry enjoyed something of a boom.

The United States started the war with substantial surpluses of corn (maize). This soon evaporated, as large quantities of corn were shipped overseas or diverted to use as feed grain or for production of industrial alcohol. Canada continued to have surpluses, but the difficulty was transporting these to the United States when shipping on the Great Lakes was being largely diverted to iron ore delivery.

The greatest austerity was in durable goods, such as automobiles and large appliances, since the corresponding industries were converted almost entirely to war production for the duration of the war. Other goods and services remained abundant enough that the overall standard of living in the United States actually increased every year of the war. This partially reflected the the low baseline of the Great Depression, from which the United States was recovering early in the war, but it also reflected the fact that almost all military production during the war came from increases in productivity rather than constraints on civilian consumption. 

Food policy fell under the War Food Administration, established on 26 March 1943. Its first administrator, Chester Davis, resigned in frustration after just three months, to be replaced by Marvin Jones, who did better and remained the head until June 1945.

Japan. By contrast, citizens of Japan had endured rationing since March 1938, when the economic pressures of the China Incident led to gasoline rationing so strict that many cars were converted to run on charcoal. Matches and sugar were rationed from June 1940 and rice in several major cities in April 1941. Japan had imported 20% of its food before the war, but this included almost all its salt, 92% of its sugar, most of its soybeans and about a third of its rice. The adult food ration was already down to 2000 calories per day by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, with the rice ration standing at 330 grams per day (about 1160 calories).

The food situation only became worse after 1941. Labor shortages and military requisitions of equipment reduced the fish catch by over 50%. Conscription into the Army reduced the rural labor force, which was replaced with students recruited from the cities. Japanese agriculture was inefficient, consisting mostly of tiny family farms, with just 99 tractors in the entire country. Farmers were encouraged to cultivate sweet potato in place of the usual crops. By 1943 the ration for male industrial workers was 2000 calories per day and for women was 1474 calories per day. The American submarine campaign increased shortages of both food and fertilizer to the point where malnutrition was a serious concern by 1944 and there was real danger of widespread starvation by the time of the surrender, with a food ration per adult of just 1680 calories per day.

Rationed goods were typically picked up by representatives of neighborhood associations at short notice whenever such goods became available. The representatives then distributed the goods to the families in the association, a task that often engendered considerable ill will. Almost every neighborhood association had at least one informer for the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu (Tokko or "Special Thought Police") and the fear of being denounced strained the social fabric to the breaking point.

Britain. Britain, like Japan, had long ceased to be self-sufficient in foodstuffs by the time war broke out in Europe, and the German U-boat blockade came alarmingly close to starving out the British Islands. However, the British took a number of measures to maintain farm production, such as greatly increased mechanization (including a quadrupling of the initially small number of tractors on farms), employing Land Girls (young women recruited from the cities) as farm labor, and converting pasture to arable farmland. Such fodder as could be imported was reserved for dairy farmers, and other keepers of livestock were required to grow their own feed (which automatically created pressure to reduce pasturage.) Much of the newly plowed pasture was poor in phosphate, and Canada built up a large ammonium phosphate production capacity to help fertilize the green fields of England.

The fastest ships in the British merchant fleet were refrigerator ships, and most of these were converted to troop transports in 1940 to shore up the British position in the Middle East. This cut imports of refrigerated food to Britain by 30%, leading to the bitter winter of 1940-1941 when Britain came closest to being starved out. However, meat imports were economized through the introduction of "telescoped" meat, which was deboned and packed into 50 lb (23 kg) boxes that took up 60% less shipping space than full carcasses. Dried egg, though highly unpopular, was another space-saving measure . The ability to reduce imports by weight while continuing to import 56% of its calories was an important element in overcoming the food crisis and keeping Britain fed during the war.

British nutritionists persuaded the government to adopt the National Loaf, made with wholemeal fortified with calcium that was richer in vitamins and other nutrients than ordinary white bread. Margarine was fortified with Vitamins A and D to compensate for less butter and fewer eggs in the diet. Britons particularly missed onions in their diet, previously supplied by France, and many of the British took to gardening their own onions.

Food was an important part of Lend-Lease to Britain, and there were some bitter disputes over the British estimates of food requirements. The Americans believed, with some cause, that the requirements were inflated, while the British believed, with some cause, that the American public was was making few sacrifices in order to provide more food to Britain.

The wartime economic disruption was so great that rationing did not end in Britainuntil 1948.

India. The high priority put on maintaining imports to Britain resulted in a worldwide shipping shortage that sometimes had disastrous consequences elsewhere in the Commonwealth. India was always short of food reserves, but the loss of Burma to the Japanese in 1942 eliminated a major supplier of rice to Bengal.

Australia. Australia was primarily an agricultural country in 1941, and it supplied considerable food to U.S. forces in the Southwest Pacific as reverse Lend-Lease. This freed up shipping from the U.S. West Coast, but produced shortages of eggs, chicken, and milk in areas basing large numbers of U.S. troops.

Much of the Australian consumption of meat was in the form of mutton, though this was intensely disliked by U.S. troops. The Australians set up five mutton dehydration factories at the start of the war in Europe, which could reduce seven pounds of mutton to a pound of the dehydrated product, to be used as an emergency ration for Britain requiring little shipping space. However, the reconstituted mutton was "an extremely unpleasant lumpy gray mince" that "was a perfect example of how to take poor-quality food and make it almost inedible" (Collingham 2011). The plants were closed by 1944, at considerable loss to their investors.

New Zealand. Also an agricultural country, New Zealand scrambled to keep up with ever-shifting priorities for Britain: first for cheese, then for butter, and finally for telescoped beef, lamb, and mutton. Although meat production in New Zealand increased by 14% during the war, it was still necessary to introduce meat rationing to meet New Zealand's commitments to Britain.


Collingham (2011)

Drea (2009)

Hotta (2013)

Klein (2013)

Lacey (2011)

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