Very rarely, you read a book that inspires you to see a familiar story in an entirely different way. So it was with Adam Tooze’s astonishing economic history of World War II, The Wages of Destruction. And so it is again with his economic history of the First World War and its aftermath, The Deluge. They amount together to a new history of the 20th century: the American century, which according to Tooze began not in 1945 but in 1916, the year U.S. output overtook that of the entire British empire.
Yet Tooze’s perspective is anything but narrowly American. His planetary history encompasses democratization in Japan and price inflation in Denmark; the birth of the Argentine far right as well as the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. The two books narrate the arc of American economic supremacy from its beginning to its apogee. It is both ominous and fitting that the second volume of the story was published in 2014, the year in which—at least by one economic measure—that supremacy came to an end.
“Britain has the earth, and Germany wants it.” Such was Woodrow Wilson’s analysis of the First World War in the summer of 1916, as recorded by one of his advisors. And what about the United States? Before the 1914 war, the great economic potential of the U.S. was suppressed by its ineffective political system, dysfunctional financial system, and uniquely violent racial and labor conflicts. “America was a byword for urban graft, mismanagement and greed-fuelled politics, as much as for growth, production, and profit,” Tooze writes.