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
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
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.
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.
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