How To Build a War Machine

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Arthur Herman is one of those scholars who grips the past and just won’t let go, which is lucky for those of us stuck in the present. In these days where attention spans are collapsing into overflowing rivers of data, every once in awhile you need a historian to point out what’s important.

Herman’s new book, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, details the nuts-and-bolts role U.S. industry played in the war effort 70 years ago. There are some lessons here for today’s military-industrial complex. Battleland conducted this email chat with Herman, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, last week:

What’s the most important lesson from World War II for today’s military-industrial complex?

More military and industry, and less complexity!

Today we have a military-acquisition system that’s way too expensive, way too slow, too bureaucratic, and highly unproductive. There’s a lot today’s Pentagon could learn from their 1940-1945 predecessors.

What are the two things you would do to fix it?

We need to have the Pentagon instinctively going to the most productive and innovative sectors of the economy for their new weapons systems, not just the “usual suspects” like Boeing and Raytheon and the rest. Why not turn to companies like Oracle and Google for the next breakthrough in unmanned systems or ISR? Why isn’t Apple designing the next generation iFighter?

Someone might object: they don’t know anything about making modern military hardware. Of course, neither did GM and GE and Westinghouse when they were asked to convert to military production — and they did just fine.

The problem is that no one wants to work with an acquisition system that’s so complex and so bureaucratic that only those like “the usual suspects” who’ve been enmeshed in it for years, ever really understand it. It can take a decade or more to get a large weapons program through the procurement cycle. Meanwhile, the technology is changing every two or three years: in the case of software, every six months. By buying software the same way it buys nuclear submarines, the Pentagon is simply sabotaging itself, especially in high-tech arenas like unmanned systems, robotics, and cyber-capabilities where the real future of military technology lies.

If you can’t actually reform the process — and God knows everyone except God has tried — it seems to me at least we need an alternate acquisition pathway that applies to those specific steep innovation-curve technologies. That’s something some of us are working on.

What’s the other thing you would fix?

Congress! What’s interesting about the World War II build-up is how little Congress was involved, especially at the start. In 1940-41 it was still so bound up with isolationist sentiment, that the war conversion process had to get underway with little or input from Capitol Hill. That meant that — in general — that new defense plants were built where they were needed. It also meant — in general — that weapons were built that the military wanted, not because it meant jobs in some congressman’s district.

That hands-off approach continued pretty much through the war, although you did have Senator Harry Truman’s investigating committee looking into defense-contractor abuse and fraud. It wasn’t until after the war, as Congress realized what a chunk of change the Pentagon budget really represented, that you had Capitol Hill trying to decide not just how defense dollars were going to be spent but where, and what weapons systems would be built — and even how much they should cost. It has resulted in miles and miles of red tape, and many billions of wasted dollars in redundant programs — and even totally useless ones.

Beth Herman

Frankly, I don’t know how you fix this problem. A tighter budgetary authorization process that keeps programs the armed forces doesn’t want from leaking out into “plus-ups,” which are the defense equivalent of earmarks, might be a start.

What’s one lesson about military hardware that the World War II defense industry understood, which it needs to keep in mind today?

That the weapons they made — even the biggest and most complex — were being built for warfighters, not cost accountants. They never lost sight of the fact that their real customer wasn’t the War Department, or even Air Force or the Navy or Army, but the people who actually had to use or fly or take these things to sea. In World War II this feeling ran all the way down the line to the factory floor, where everyone bucking rivets in the wing assembly of a B-24 knew that the slightest tear in the aluminum might mean the death of a son or brother of someone else in the plant.

That’s an advantage the Israeli defense industry has, by the way. Thanks to their draft, people who design or build a weapons platforms know that one day they might be donning a uniform and depending on that same platform to save their lives. That tends to concentrate people’s minds!

What’s the lesson about building weapons systems the World War II military understood, that it needs to focus on today?

Buy the weapons you need to deal with threats now, not the ones you think you’ll face tomorrow. That will seem a shocking idea to today’s Pentagon, which tends to be obsessed with next-generation technologies and multiple capabilities and so on, as with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But the U.S. military in World War II had to defeat real enemies, not imaginary ones, and ones that posed specific deadly threats it had to overcome ASAP, like the Japanese Zero and the German U-boat.

That tended to speed up the technology development curve, and the results were advanced fighters like the Vought Corsair and Grumman Hellcat in the first instance, and advances in radar, sonar, and long-range air cover in the second. And, after all, it was the immediate threat of a German atomic bomb that led to the Manhattan Project. Ironically, what was supposed to be a way to defeat Germany, wound up being the key to victory over Japan, instead.

This should have taught the American military a valuable lesson that commercial companies like GM and Ford understood only too well: that you innovate for the present, not the future. And in the process the future will take care of itself.

Why did you write Freedom’s Forge?

I usually up end writing books that I myself want to read. When I became interested in the figure of Henry Kaiser and his building of the Liberty ships, I discovered that a good book hadn’t been published on the making of the so-called Arsenal of Democracy in World War II in years — and certainly none that focused on the challenges of converting an American economy that had been battered by almost a decade of depression, into the most efficient war production machine in history.

Most historians (and economists) were content to conclude it was because Washington, D.C., was willing to pour billions of dollars into the effort — almost $300 billion from 1940 to 1945, if you include the money we spent on Lend-Lease: that’s close to $3 trillion in today’s dollars — and let it go at that. I discovered in researching Freedom’s Forge that the process was a lot more complicated than that–and simpler.

What do you mean?

I mean the real key to that massive surge of wartime production — 70% of everything the Allies made during World War II — was unleashing the productive power of American private business and industry, which had just been waiting for a spark to get itself going. That spark was the initial funding for plant expansion and conversion in certain key industries like the aviation and automotive sector, that started in the summer of 1940 — most in the form of loans — and then orders from the British and French military, who went on a shopping trip around the United States in the early months of the war in Europe — a shopping trip that eventually grew into Lend Lease.

They wanted to buy American because they knew, even though we had a tiny military by comparison with their own (Holland had a bigger army in 1939 than we did), that American companies like Lockheed and North American and Chrysler and US Steel could make what they needed more quickly and efficiently, and in tremendous quantities. So they came to buy planes, tanks, machine guns, aircraft engines, and artillery, as well as the first Liberty ships, made in shipyards that had to be built in record time by men like Henry Kaiser–one of the main characters of the book.

So when Washington decided it needed to start rearm the United States that summer of 1940, it simply tapped into the same fountain of productivity and innovation–multiplied over time by thousands of companies large and small around the country. Even before Pearl Harbor there were no less than 25,000 prime and 120,000 subcontractors at work in wartime production.

What was the most surprising thing you learned during the research for the book?

Like most people, I had always been led to believe that it was Pearl Harbor that caused the big surge in American war production. What I discovered was that the biggest rate of increase in munitions production came in the 18 months before Pearl Harbor. By December 1941 we were already approaching the rate of war production of Nazi Germany!

After war was declared, of course, the quantities of planes, tanks, guns, and ammunition continued to grow almost exponentially: by the end of the 1942 we were producing more than the entire Axis, and by the end of 1943 more than the Soviet Union, Britain, and Germany combined. But the rate of increase was able to steadily fall: because the groundwork had been already been laid a year and a half before. The rest was history–and victory in World War II.

So who was responsible?

Two men. One was Big Bill Knudsen, the Danish immigrant and automotive production wizard whom FDR called in late May 1940, to see if he knew how to get the American economy on a war footing. Knudsen told FDR that if he gave him and his corporate executive and engineer friends — the so-called dollar-a-year men — 18 months, he could persuade enough of American industry to convert over to making planes, tanks, ships, and munitions without having to throw the rest of the economy into a tail spin. The result would be the most massive outpouring of weaponry the world had ever seen.

He was right. If anyone deserves credit for creating the arsenal of democracy, it was Bill Knudsen–as far as I can tell, he was first to actually coin the term. Yet he’s almost a forgotten figure today. That’s something I’m trying to correct with this book.

Who was the other?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president. He was under a lot of pressure not to agree to Knudsen’s approach. Many on Capitol Hill, in the media — like columnist Walter Lippmann — and even in his own administration, including his wife Eleanor, believed you couldn’t convert over to a wartime footing without a comprehensive, centrally-directed plan for total mobilization of the entire economy and a single commanding figure in charge–a war production czar, if you will.

But FDR held out for the decentralized Knudsen approach–even though he never really trusted businessmen, and in most things was keen for a strong federal hand. But in this case he decided to let Knudsen and the dollar-a-year men have their way: maybe because in the end he had no choice. Or simply because he couldn’t let anyone beside himself have that much authority. Either way, in the end it worked.

 Is it easier to create a strong and efficient defense industry when the entire country is behind the effort?

Yes of course! But not entirely because everyone is putting their shoulder to the wheel. As I remarked, the biggest rate of increase in munitions production, in 1940-41, came when isolationist sentiment in this country was at its strongest–before Pearl Harbor blew it into oblivion. And not everyone did put their shoulders to the wheel. Even at the height of the war effort, 1943-4, only about 45% of the nation’s economy ever really converted to military as opposed to civilian, production of goods and services.

What the unity of the country after Pearl Harbor actually did, was put the focus on results. Tanks really did have to get overseas and then be fueled and armed to go into battle; fighters really did have to beat the Zero in combat; bombers really did have to reach Germany and Japan; and aircraft carriers really have to get planes up in the air and land them back safely again–and as many as possible.

That left no excuses for failure or non-performance. Companies realized they had to meet deadlines, no matter what. Engineers realized that they had to design a better airplane or anti-aircraft fire director, regardless of who got the credit. And workers realized that they needed to put in the extra care and time on the assembly line: all because they believed the nation’s future depended on them. That’s not a feeling many Americans get these days — except perhaps inside the military — but there was plenty of it during World War II.

Finally, what was the most stunning statistic you encountered writing Freedom’s Forge?

Probably that 189 senior executives at General Motors died on the job, in those five years of the war effort. And that the number of American workers who died or were injured in war-related industries outnumbered the number of Americans in uniform killed or wounded in action in 1942 — the year of Bataan, Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Battle of the Atlantic — by a factor of 20-to-1.

The Arsenal of Democracy was built with blood as well as sweat, and those who worked and ran those factories, mines, and shipyards deserve to be remembered as being part of the Greatest Generation as much as those who fought at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Bulge. If someone can only carry away one lesson from my book, I hope that will be it.