Friday, August 10, 2012

Freedom's Forge

Published May 2012
Just before D-Day in 1944, General George S. Patton made a famous speech (also used in the movie Patton with George C. Scott) to the US 3rd Army in which he said, "We have the best food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world.  Why, by God, I actually pity those poor sons-of-bitches we are going up against."  Source: Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D'Este, 1995 http:/

In Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman, just published in May 2012  (http:/, we learn why and how "the finest equipment" in the world was built in massive quantities for the allied cause.

B - 17 F, Museum of Flight, Seattle Wa

At the start of World War II, the USA was a third rate military power.  In 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland Hitler's Luftwaffe had a strength of nearly 8,500 fighters and bombers.  The US Army air corps had barely 1/5th that number.  Patton's Second Armored brigade had only 325 tanks while the Germans had more than 2,000.  There were only 334,000 men in the total US armed forces.  The US army ranked 18th largest in the world with about 190,000 men just ahead of Holland and behind Hungary and Romania.  Time Magazine said "the US Army looked like a few nice boys with BB guns."  There was no Military Industrial Complex, the USA was not a superpower and about 3/4's of the population supported isolationism and the preservation of peace at all cost.
From July 1940 to VJ day in August 1945 the United States produced a staggering $183 billion in arms.  America's shipyards launched 141 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 807 cruisers, destroyers and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines and almost 52 million tons of merchant shipping.  US factories turned out 88,410 tanks, 257,000 artillery pieces and 640,000 Jeeps.  The United States produced 324,750 aircraft averaging 170 per day since 1942.   Nearly 10 million American men and women would serve their country in uniform.

Commander K. aboard the USS Intrepid (launched in 1943), NYC
The United States, by the end of the war, had the best equipped fighting force on the planet.  Moreover, through the lend lease program the United States had supplied many of the arms needs of Britain, the Soviet Union and other allied forces.

How did this remarkable transformation take place?  FDR was wise enough to recognize that the power of American business, more often than not led by those who opposed him politically, needed to be harnessed in order to win the war.  Freedom's Forge shows how FDR reached out to Bill Knudsen, a Danish American and the President of General Motors, to spearhead the wartime production effort.  Knudsen served as the head of the Office of Production Management and brought an experienced manufacturers' vision to the problem of producing war material.

Herman documents many of the American production achievements that led to victory in World War II (see earlier post, The Corporations that Won WW II, 7/20/12).  In Freedom's Forge we learn about the unsung and nearly forgotten production heroes such as Bill Knudsen, Henry Kaiser and others that put the USA on a path to a rapid build-up of industrial production.

"Big Bill" Knudsen, 1879 - 1948
It was the free market that enabled America to gear up for war so effectively.  Herman writes, "Production, however, remained an entirely voluntary process.  The War Production Board could and did order companies not to produce things: new cars, for instance, and refrigerators and other heavy durable goods,  It never told anyone what to make.  That was left to the imagination of American business.  This was how Bill Knudsen had designed things from the start, and it remained the pivot point of the entire wartime system.  Everything made for the war effort was made by those who saw some advantage for themselves in doing so, and therefore they brought all their skills and tools and knowledge to bear on the task--both to help the country and to make some money...Nor was it entirely a coincidence that no other wartime economy depended more on free enterprise incentives than America's, and that none produced more of everything in quality and quantity, both in military and civilian goods."

American business showed remarkable flexibility during the war.  The famous carmaker Henry Ford, who was an ardent isolationist before Pearl Harbor and despised FDR's New Deal, built the massive Willow Run production facility to crank out B-24 aircraft.  Henry Kaiser, who had specialized in road construction projects before the war, became a massive ship and aircraft builder.  Kaiser led the "Six Companies" that produced thousands of Liberty Ships that ferried men and equipment to the war zones.  Kaiser had one Liberty ship built in an astonishing 4 days, fifteen hours and twenty-six minutes.  Winston Churchill declared, "The foundation of all our hopes and schemes was the immense shipbuilding program of the United States."

Commander K. with the Jeremiah O'Brien Liberty Ship in SF, CA

Not all US casualties in World War II served in the military; many were from the world of work and business.  Morrison Knudsen (another "Six Companies" member) had employees serving alongside US Marines in the defense of Wake Island in December 1941. A Japanese amphibious force was dispatched to capture the island in late 1941.  Many of these MK engineers fought, were killed or wounded, and were captured and spent years in Japanese POW camps.  Thousands of civilian merchant mariners aboard Liberty ships lost their lives particulalry as a result of Nazi U-boats in the North Atlantic.  On December 30th, 1942 Boeing's best civilian test pilot, Eddie Allen, was killed with the rest of his crew while test-flying a B-29 which crashed near Boeing field in Seattle.  Boeing later sorted out the issues with the B-29 and the "Superfortress" bomber; these planes ignited Japanese cities with incendiary bombs (developed by Kaiser) and delivered the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Arthur Herman's fine book is not without a few flaws.  Herman writes that Hap Arnold "was the only senior military or civilian leader to oppose dropping the atomic bomb."  Yet in Eisenhower's own book Mandate for Change, he recalls a Potsdam conference encounter with Henry Stimson, the head of the War Department, where he "voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives." (Source: D.D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 312-13).

P-51 Mustang, Flying Heritage Collection, Everett, WA
Herman's perspective neglects to mention the enormous contribution of other allied countries and particularly Britain to the war production effort.  The Avro Lancasters built in Britain, for example, were the night bombers with RAF crews that complemented the Boeing bombers of the US Army Air Force that flew daylight raids over occupied Europe.  The best fighter of the war, the P-51 Mustang, was an American designed and built plane (North American Aviation) that used Rolls Royce engines (see earlier post, Tommy Hithcock and the P-51, 6/27/12).  The British also shared vital blueprints with their American allies.

Herman's work focuses entirely on the production of wartime armaments, yet, as Patton correctly noted above, the allies, in addition to the best equipment, had also the best fighting "spirit" in the world.  This spirit was sustained, in large part, by the media and entertainment outlets of the day.  The CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow, for example, risked his life in the allied cause flying on 24 allied bombing missions over Germany in the course of the war (Citizens of London, Lynne Olson, 2010 http:/  His broadcasts during the London Blitz helped mobilize political support in Congress for aiding Britain with programs such as Lend Lease which preceded the Pearl Harbor attack.  The Disney corporation, in a rare departure from their usual corporate practice, donated free artwork to allied warplanes (  The noted pacifist Ted Geissel, better know as Doctor Seuss, cut his teeth as a propaganda artist with his wartime cartoons before accepting a commission in the US army in 1943 (http:/ and http:/

Dr. Seuss goes to War!
In the course of getting American and allied forces equipped to fight war, the USA became, in FDR's phase the "Arsenal of Democracy".  The country was transformed from a sleepy inward-looking isolationist nation into a superpower--for a time, the only country with atomic weapons.

Commander Kelly concludes that "The American Military-Industrial-Complex (MIC) was the bastard offspring of a wartime marriage between FDR's New Dealers and American business. You can learn more about its birth in Freedom's Forge."

You can now find Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades,  here or on Amazon

No comments: