Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy) | Tampa Bay Times
Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: Comment comparing debt to post-World War II mostly true

The statement

"The only time in our history when the debt has been higher than this was the end of World War II."

David Cote, president of Honeywell International and a member of the president's debt commission

The ruling

In hard dollars, there's little question that the debt is higher than ever before. On Feb. 11, the day of the event where Cote made the claim, the debt stood at $16.49 trillion — nearly $10 trillion more than in 2002 and almost four times as much as 10 years before that, according to Treasury records.

However, economists rarely use hard dollars to measure the size of the debt. Rather, they compare the debt total to the country's gross domestic product — the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. in a year — to get a better picture of the true scale of the debt.

In his remarks, Cote referenced the debt-to-GDP ratio several times and it was clear he wasn't talking about raw dollars.

Currently, the $16 trillion debt makes up about 73 percent of GDP, Cote said, citing the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to support his claim.

So, does that number rate as the second-highest in history?

As part of its annual Long-Term Budget Outlook, CBO officials list the debt-to-GDP ratio going back to 1790, the year after the Constitution took effect.

That year, the nation held a debt of $71 million, which reflected about 30 percent of GDP, according to records.

The debt ratio rose and fell over the coming years, in line with the wars.

During the Civil War, the ratio rose from 2 percent in 1860, the year before the war began, to 35 percent, a record at the time, in 1865, when the war ended.

Nearly 60 years later, the debt ratio jumped once again during World War I, rising from 3 percent in 1916, the year before the United States entered the war, to 33 percent in 1919, when the war ended.

The debt ratio began to fall in the aftermath of World War I. But in 1929, the stock market crash launched the Great Depression, which then led to increases in government spending under the New Deal, and the debt ratio rose sharply to 44 percent, a record at the time, in 1940.

But World War II led to unprecedented growth, both in national spending and debt accumulation. By the end of the war, the ratio rose to 106 percent in 1945 and 109 percent in 1946.

"American manufacturing made a killing (during the war), but the government debt to pay for everything was huge," said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

The debt ratio remained high following the war — higher than the current 73 percent ratio. By 1951, it dipped to 67 percent, and despite some peaks and valleys, it did not reach the 70 percent threshold again until 2012.

In hard dollars, it's not even close. The current $16.49 trillion debt is larger than at any point in U.S. history. But, the debt-to-GDP ratio tells a different story.

We rate the claim Mostly True.

Edited for print. Read the full version at

PolitiFact: Comment comparing debt to post-World War II mostly true 03/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 3:40pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays acquire slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from Marlins

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Chaim Bloom said the Rays weren't necessarily in the market for a shortstop. The team has a number of those. But when the Marlins recently began shopping Adeiny Hechavarria, well, that was too much to pass up.

    Adeiny Hechavarria has emerged as one of baseball’s top defensive shortstops in the past three seasons with the Marlins.
  2. Lightning journal: Forward Yanni Gourde agrees to two-year deal

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — Just three years ago, Yanni Gourde was fighting to stay in pro hockey.

    Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde celebrates after scoring against the Florida Panthers during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) TPA108
  3. Fennelly: About time Dave Andreychuk makes Hockey Hall of Fame

    Lightning Strikes

    It's Andy's time.

    And it's about time.

    Former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk has been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He had been eligible since 2009, a ridiculously long wait for someone who scored 640 goals, including a record 274 on the power play.

    LEFT: Dave Andreychuk talks at the podium as he is honored with a statue in front of the now-Amalie Arena.
  4. British government says 75 out of 75 buildings failed fire safety tests


    LONDON — Britain on Monday confronted a rapidly growing fire safety crisis after tests of the exterior cladding on dozens of public housing towers revealed a 100 percent failure rate, raising fears that this month's deadly inferno in London could be repeated elsewhere.

    Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, presents his first Chrono-Hologram in Paris, France, in 1973. A Spanish judge on Monday June 26, 2017, has ordered the remains of artist Salvador Dali to be exhumed following a paternity suit by a woman named by Europa Press agency as Pilar Abel, 61 from the nearby city of Girona. Dali, considered one of the fathers of surrealism in art, died in 1989 and is buried in his museum in the northeastern town of Figueres. [Associated Press]
  5. Man convicted of second-degree murder in killing of Baby Doe, his girlfriend's daughter


    BOSTON — A man was convicted Monday of murder in the death of a 2-year-old girl who became known as Baby Doe after her remains washed up on the shore of a Boston Harbor island.

    Michael McCarthy’s friend Michael Sprinsky, far left, gets a hug from sister Laura Sprinsky after McCarthy is found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Bella Bond, who became known as Baby Doe.