The Economics of War and Peace

This research cluster has the relationship between economics, warfare and the definition of economic security at its heart. It intends to build on recent scholarship by considering and moving beyond national studies of the major belligerents, to explore, for example, the impact of the War on the economic experiences of countries and colonies outside Europe. We are also keen to trace how economics and the application of economic science shaped the War; and, in turn, how the War influenced the ideas, practices and performance of economists and economies, and the definition of security.

Naval warfare features prominently in this research cluster. Blockade, sanctions and the control of raw materials, as resource and weapon, are also germane: we are interested in both the underlying economics here, and in what people thought at the time. (Financing the War, though of interest, has been the focus of greater study by historians.) So, too, are the ideas, practices and people engaged in regional and international co-ordination and co-operation, notably with regard to post-war reconstruction, which is also part of our concern.

Prof. Patricia Clavin, Prof. Avner Offer, Prof. Kevin O’Rourke and Dr. Nicholas Rodger are among those available to offer supervision in this research cluster. They are particularly interested in doctoral and post-doctoral research projects which touch upon the following:

  • Neutrals at War: In this, as in earlier wars, the neutral powers made an important and even decisive contribution. Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, in particular, supplied the belligerents with food, raw materials and shipping, made large profits and suffered intense pressure from both sides. The greatest of all the ’neutrals’, the United States, exercised a decisive influence on the War, both as a very un-neutral neutral until 1917, and thereafter as a belligerent. There is a considerable literature dealing with these topics; but these individual studies in different languages on wartime trade, blockade and naval strategy badly need to be brought together.
  • The War at Sea: Much of the literature is old and in need of replacement. Virtually everything in print in English about the German submarine war is badly wrong. The battle fleets, the dogs which did not bark in the night, look different in the light of recent research. Technology needs a fresh look, weighing the new against the old: see notably the understudied questions relating to mine warfare; the continued importance of cable communication; convoy warfare (questions relating to its economic impact); operational control; management and direction of the market, e.g. the insurance market/compensation schemes.
  • Market Doctrines in Wartime: Wartime provides a ‘natural experiment’ for one of the central doctrines of economics, namely the effectiveness of market allocation mechanisms. All countries before the First World War had small public sectors, and the most important ones were committed to laissez faire. In wartime the stakes could not be higher; and yet combatant nations resorted to a combination of price incentives and command, exhortation, regulation and black markets. The war economies of both combatants and neutrals provide an opportunity to investigate these core doctrines in the laboratory of history.
  • The Impact of Technology: Military technology was evolving fast before, during, and after the First World War. Some of it was quite new: aircraft, submarines, barbed wire, motor transport, and wireless communication. Some was invented during the War: poison gas, the Haber nitrogen process (for explosives and fertilizers), the Weizmann acetone process (explosives), degaussing (anti-submarine technology), and motorized land armour (tanks). But conventional technology such as armour and gunfire was also moving quickly. The ‘Dreadnought’ battleship was obsolete in the role for which it was originally intended (as a superiority weapon) by the outbreak of War. Within three decades the internal combustion engine had matured, the jet engine developed, the electronic computer invented, and the atomic bomb exploded. To what extent was the outcome of the War affected by the capabilities of the technologies available and developed within its four-year window?
  • The Global, Comparative Economic History of the War: the War is typically mentioned as a watershed in the history of the international economy, but the experience of the war years themselves is usually glossed over. The War is said to have led to the disintegration of the international economy; but, while some trades declined sharply or vanished as a result of blockades and submarine warfare, others increased. Economic historians have tried to estimate the aggregate trade decline using “gravity” methods, but these can conceal as much as they reveal. Finer-grained analysis using information on trade values and volumes, and well as prices, would be useful in helping us to understand precisely what the trade impact of the War was. This would also help us to think about who the economic winners and losers were during the war years. It is often asserted that European belligerents permanently lost market share to Asian competitors and to US competitors in Latin America, and that the War thus helped stimulate industrialization in the developing world. Not enough is known about these Asian and Latin American experiences, nor about what the impact of the War was in other parts of the developing world.
  • The Ideas and Practices of Global Governance: The War promoted the creation of global and regional alliances that shaped the institutions of global economic and financial governance that were established after 1918. The analysis of the ideas, practices and personnel employed by bodies such as the Allied Maritime Transport Council, the Inter-Allied Food Council, the Supreme Council of Supply and Relief and the Superior Blockade Council would illuminate our understanding of how far the organization of war shaped ideas about the character of peace, plans for economic reconstruction, and the new League of Nations. An analysis of alternative internationalist economic schemes which were intended to shape reconstruction and/ or imagined a new world order, such as those proposed by communist or humanitarian organizations, could also be very fruitful.
  • The War as Rehearsal: The lessons of the First World War in the fields of science and technology, economics and finance, naval warfare and neutrality informed the expectations and conduct of war around the world during the 1920s and 1930s— and, of course, during the Second World War. The (mostly young) men who masterminded the supply and control of strategic resources in the First World War were instrumental in shaping the conduct of the Second, as well as the plans for post-war reconstruction. Actors in this generation who merit further investigation here could include Bernard Baruch and Arthur Salter.