Friday, June 08, 2012

New History: Freedom's Forge

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman.

This is a rather bracing book to read during a time of American economic sluggishness and widespread pessimism about the future. Freedom’s Forge is the story about how the immense economic and industrial power of the American economy produced the critical armaments that enabled the Allies to achieve victory in World War II. U.S. munitions spending grew from a few billion dollars in 1939 to close to 100 billion a year by 1945. In 1943 the United States manufactured twice as many armaments as Germany and Japan combined, arming not only itself but providing critical military assistance to Britain and the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program. As 1944 began, 70 percent of American manufacturing was devoted to war production. The output was simply astonishing: American factories were building a plane every five minutes, producing 150 tons of steel every minute, launching eight aircraft carriers a month and 50 merchant ships a day.

What made all this possible? For one thing, the ramp-up of American military production, although it started much later than it did for the European powers and Japan, began earlier than perhaps many of us have assumed. Roosevelt anticipated the need for building up the U.S. military in 1939, and planners were in work in Washington and had made significant headway in moving United States production to meet the need well before Pearl Harbor and America’s official entry into the war. Another factor was simply the existing and latent capacity of large American corporations like General Electric and the steel companies, but particularly that of the automotive industry. But it was the American know-how and inventiveness surrounding mass production that allowed these rapid and tremendous increases in armament production==the ability to convert existing mass production lines in the auto industry, for example, to airplane and tank production; the more extensive integration of machine tools into the manufacturing process; and in the case of shipbuilding, radical changes in the materials and methods of production. One of the most interesting examples of this is what Ford was able to achieve at its specially built plant at Willow Run in Michigan when it took over construction of the B-24 bomber from San Diego’s Consolidated Aircraft Company. Building a B-24 at Consolidated took 200,000 man hours. Ford reduced this to 18,000 man hours, and by 1944 was manufacturing 500 bombers a month.

Herman believes that the tremendous production of American manufacturing was due most of all, however, to the preservation of a free economic system in a wartime economy. Indeed, relative to the other major combatants who generally seized control of their manufacturing resources (see a book previously reviewed in this blog, Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941 by Joseph Maiolo) the American manufacturing economy remained comparatively free. It was more coordinated and facilitated than directed by Washington. Herman sees the buildup of the U.S. arsenal as a fortunate lapse of the characteristic New Deal tendency to bureaucratic controls and centralized operations, one that allowed the profit motive of American companies to respond naturally to the demand. Herman is not kind to New Dealers in general, and he is particularly critical of the actions of Labor, who he apparently feels should have had the same self-interest motives that he elsewhere celebrates in the corporate response to American military needs (a book on labor during the war years would be interesting--does anyone know of one?). One would suppose that this point of view, rather than the fine explanations and documentation of what was produced and how it was produced, will be the more controversial portions of this book.

One focus of Freedom’s Forge, that of the careers of Henry Kaiser in building steel production and ships (his story will be of particular interest to Californians) and that of William Knudsen (former head of General Motors who set in place much of the planning for the American military buildup from his Presidential advisory post in Washington) suggests that while the pursuit of profit might have had much to do with unleashing the production power of the U.S. economy, it is not the whole story. Knudsen served without pay in a difficult post for most of the war years, and he was deeply patriotic. In addition to motivations of patriotism, many of the major players who built America’s arsenal seemed to relish taking on monumental tasks, to achieve that which was heretofore thought impossible. Henry Kaiser had been one of the partners that built the Hoover Dam, and his shipyards produced the “Liberty” ships that were vital to building the U.S. merchant fleet that kept the lifeline of American aid open for Great Britain. There were rivalries between his shipyards to see who could build a ship in the shortest number of days. The engineers who designed Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress were trying to meet the Army Air Corps's need for a longer-range bomber, but they were also motivated by the challenge to build something that pushed the envelope of aeronautical design. So much of the motivation for the American design and manufacturing triumphs realized in the building of the American arsenal came from a spirit of wanting to achieve what had never been done before, of--through patience and persistence--breaking down complex challenges into manageable components in order to produce the best the world had seen and to produce it in the most efficient manner. It was done with large companies working with legions of subcontractors, military personnel, labor, government bureaucrats, and financiers united in a common cause. It was not merely business as usual to the nth power. It was a mobilization and display of the sort of national character that we long for these days.

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