Making and Managing War Risk: The War-Risk Insurance Bureau and Insuring Soldiers’ Lives During the First World War

This paper examines the voluntary life insurance program established for American military personnel during the First World War as a means to understand both why and how government policy adopted the risk-making tools and logic of the American life insurance industry during the early twentieth century. I argue that life insurance’s association with scientific authority, as well as the belief that actuarial calculation ensured “socialistic” risk-making and risk-pooling without the threat of actual socialism, were essential to persuading an ever-increasing number of Americans of the merits of life insurance. Indeed, turning to a mode of “welfare” that was simultaneously voluntary and imbricated with American finance capitalism insulated—at least for the time being—the United States government from negative political consequences. In order to tell this story, I focus on the War-Risk Insurance Bureau’s novel short-term life insurance program, which was signed into law in 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson and modeled after the life insurance company. This paper will briefly sketch the outlines of this insurance program and explore in detail the political impetus behind developing a military welfare system that so closely resembled life insurance.