** World War II -- national agricultural sectors

World War II Economics: Agriculture--Country Trends

American agriculture
Figure 1.--Here we see an American farmer with his kids and their John Deare tractor (fall 1940). European farmers were not nearly as mechanized. Most did not have tractors and even if they did, it was very difficult getting gas/petrol. Many Soviets collectives had tractors, but collctivization even with mechnization resulted in a substantial decline of harvests. Notice their home in background. This was not a farmer with a huge farm. Even farmers with a modest acerage had tractors and the gas to run them in America. American farmers had been highly efficient during World War I, providing vast quantities of food to war devestated Europe. As a result of the agricultural programs of the Depression era New Deal, American farmers were even more efficient during World War II.

The military understandably takes the headlines in the histories of war. There are many wars, however, that agiculture and food play major roles. This is especially true of major drawn out wars not decided by quick military victories at the onset. These include the American Civil War and World War I. There are many other examples in history and World War II is one of them. The major factor in the agriculture a food aspect of the War was the tremendous agricultural potential of the United States. The United States since the late-19th century was the greatest food producing country in the world because of both its natural bountry, but also because of the mechinization of agriculture made possible by industrial growth. And during the Depression, the agricultural programs of the New Deal helped make American agriculture even more efficent. The Axis in contrast had not only limited agricultural capabilities, but also innefficent farm sectors. Early military victories allowed the Axis to guarantee food supplies to the home country, but over time food shortahes devloped which adversely affected the war effort. In particularly it impaired their ability to fully utilize the economic potential economic potential of the occupied countries. The Soviet Union fought on both sides. It had an agricultural potenial on the same order as the United States, but faced a double whammy. Communism, especially Stalin's brutal collectivization program had significantly reduced harvests. Then with Barbarossa, the Germans occupied large areas of the Soviet blak soil districts, the most productive agricultural lands.

Historical Emphasis

World War II histories usually focus on industry. because it was industry that produced all the dramatic weapons that go bang. Thus they attract the most attention. And there were only a few industrial countries that had the capacity to to produce modern weapons in substantial numbers. Agriculture is much less exciting.

Major 1930s Developments

Two major agricultural developments in the 1930s had a major impact on world War II, one political the other environmental. This is because they occured in two of the world's major breadbasket areas, the Soviet eastern Steppe and the North American Great Plains. First Stalin launched a collectivization effort which he thought would destroy political opposition and increase agricultural production. He did manage to murder millions of potential opponents, including many of the best farmers in the country. But collectivization did not increase harvests, it reduced agricultural output. Stalin also introduced movement restrictions. Collective farm workerrs could not move wiyhout permission which was difficult to get. Essentially they modern day serfs. The other major event was the devastating Dust Bowl in the American Southern Plains. The Dust Bowl occurred during the Great Depression. The American respnse was very different. American respnse was very different. American farmers from the Southrn Plains, called the Oakies began abandoning their farms, many heading to California. They were frre to do this, oftem in their cars. President Roosevelt's answer to the Depression was the New Deal. And one aspect was the New Deal was to deal with farm problems. This included new farming and land management problems which allowed farming to return to the Southern Plains. The Northern Plains in the northern United States and Canada was less affected. Asa result the Soviet Union could not feed itself during the War. And the United States expanded agricultural productivity to unprecedented levels.

Country Developments

Axis countries (Germany and Japan) made no real effort to improve farming methods and operations before launching the War. The NAZIs made an appeal to farmers in the elections before Hitler seized power. The NAZIs had considerable success in attractung support from Germany's small-scale farmrers. Once in power thery did virtually nothing to assist farmers. Small-scale Japanese farmers and rural workers did not vote in Japanese elections. And while many changes occurred in Japan, the Japanese Government refused to take the one step that could have increased Japanese farm productivity--land reform. Rather their focus was on war and creating a colonial empire they could exploit for food and other resources. Hutler called it Lebensraum. The Japanese called it their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Germans made no secret about what they were doing. There was little feined attempt to appeal to comquered people. The Japanese created the fiction of 'Asians for the Asians'. Although Asians were the primary victims of the Japanese conquests. It would be up to America and Canada to male up for declines resulting from German and Japanese military operations which result in sharp reductions in agricultural harvests in Europe and Asia. This included breadbasket areas in both continents. Latin America farming also played a role, but much of the farming in the region was subsistence farming. One exception was Argentina. That country, despite ideological affinities toward the Axis, provided much of the meat needed by Britain throughout the War. Unlike American Lend Lease, however, the British had to pay for the Argentine beef. Other counytioes palay smakker roles in various ways.

The Axis

It is no accident that the Axis was dominated by countries (Germany, Italy, and Japan) dependent on importing large quantities of food. Germany hnd ythe Low Countries were the greatet food fdefecit area in the world. Japan only in a slightly better position. What is rather surprising is that while possessing inefficient agricultural sectors, none of the three Axis powers made any substatial effort to modernize their agricultural sectors. The sollution they decided on to their limited agricultural production was a military one -- territorial expansion. All three countries were intent on acquiring colonial possessions that could provide them the food resources they coveted. They not only wanted to acquire agricultural land, they wnted to settle their people on that land. It was why Hitler discussed the East at great length in Mein Kampf. [Hitler] Seizing the East (meaning the Soviet Union) wa to give needed Lebensraum. The only way to to do that was to wage war, akthough Hitler avoided saying that in his book. It became a primary German war goal. The bountiful wheat fields of the Ukraine ererted a magnet-like attraction for Hitler--an obsession that would result in the most massive military campaign in history, the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union. Japan seized Manchuria with its agricultural potential, a decade before launching the Pacific war. And the resourcs of the Southern Resourze Zone, including agriculture, would lead Japan to attack the United States. The Axis interest in agriculture was primary a concern over food production. Early military victories allowed the Axis to guarantee food supplies to the home country, but over time food shortahes devloped which adversely affected the war effort. In particularly it impaired their ability to fully utilize the economic potential economic potential of the occupied countries.

The Allies

The Allies in sharp contrast to the Axis had very strong agricultural sectors. France is a very fertile country. It's agriculture had made France a European power for centuries before the industrial revolution. France was the least dependent on imports of the European countries, except the Soviet Union. France agriculture was not mechanized like the Soviet Union, but its farmers were more productive. Britain like Germany was dependant on food imports, but had access to the sizeable agricultural sectors of the Dominions (especially Canada) and exporting countries like Argentina as long as the Royal Navy ould keep the sea lnes open. China had a vast agricultural sector, but almost all of its production was consumed domestically. The country with the world's mos productive sector was the United States and it played a major role in the Allied war effort. America had no only fed both itself and its Allies during World War I, but prevented starvation in Europe (including both Germay and the Soviet Union) after the War. And as the world moved toward war, not only was America's food production huge, the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal had adopted policies aimed at both modernizing American agriculture and limiting production to increase prices. This meant that the potential existed to mssively sizeably increase food production. American and Canadian agriculture would prove especially important as they were relatively close to Britain and play a critical role in feeding Britian during the War--as long as the Atlantic life lones could be kept open.

The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union fought on both sides. It had an agricultural potenial on the same order as the United States, but faced a double whammy. The Soviet Union had vast agricultural potential, but its agricultural sector was damaged by Stalin and his brutal collectivization campaign. Stalin believed that mechanization which accompanied collectivization would increase productivity (1928). It was part of the First Five Year Plan. Stalin wanted to obtain contol over the country's agriculyural sectorr and increase agricultural productivity to feed the expanding industrial work force in Soviet cities. Stalin did not only have economic goals, he also desired to destroy the independent peasantry--epecially the Ukranian peasantry. The murder of most of the best farmers in the country, derisively called kulaks, by the NKVD and the eradication of market forces caused agricultural harvests to decline. Ir was a problem that would persist through the rest of Soviet history. This all occurred before World War II and the German invasion. Communism, especially Stalin's brutal collectivization prigram had significantly reduced harvests. Then if all of this was not bad enough, with Barbarossa, the Germans occupied large areas of the Soviet black soil districts, the most productive agricultural lands. This brought the Soviet people close to starvation. A substantial part of American Lend Lease would be to get food to the Red Army and Soviet people.

Other Countries


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Created: 11:49 AM 3/26/2018
Last updated: 2:57 PM 9/23/2021