It is universally recognized that the Allied victory over Japan and Germany in World War II could not have happened without America’s becoming, in Franklin Roosevelt’s words, “the arsenal of democracy.” The basic figures of American war production are simply gargantuan. The United States manufactured almost two-thirds of all Allied military equipment used in the war: a total of 86,000 tanks, 2 million trucks, and 297,000 planes. And that doesn’t include the atomic bomb or the huge B-29 bombers that carried it to Japan.

The figures are impressive enough in their totality. What is not so obvious is how a nation with a military that ranked 17th in size in the world (behind Romania) when the war broke out in Europe in 1939, and a people and political class who wanted to be as far away from Europe’s messes as possible, transformed their industrial base so totally that even Stalin was impressed. He raised a glass at the Tehran Conference in 1943 with the toast, “To American production, without which this war would have been lost.”

The unstated assumption among many Americans who have thought about the matter is that the government somehow took over industry, or at least jawboned it into compliance before issuing instructions for the numbers of tanks and bombers it needed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Arthur Herman’s well-researched and engrossing account, the top corporate officers and engineers of major corporations did exceptionally well in wartime what they would have done in civilian industry in peacetime: They mobilized engineers, designers, and factory managers into an intricately linked network of manufacturing processes in which corporate officers could excel in their particular skills.

It is true that, with Albert Speer overseeing Germany’s wartime armaments industry and the Nazi corporatist state mobilizing them, the Germans were able to expand aircraft production—particularly in fighters—to a degree that caught the Allies by surprise. But the Americans produced their successes employing the traditional skills and strengths of free enterprise.

Two remarkable men were prominent in, and even essential to, this mobilization of American war production: William Knudsen, president of General Motors, and Henry Kaiser, the construction magnate who had overseen the building of the Boulder (later renamed Hoover) Dam before the war. The two worked to boost war production with an effectiveness that not even the Germans, at their most productive period of the war, were able to match.

Knudsen, a tall and retiring Danish immigrant who had gotten his start in the auto industry as an early aide to Henry Ford before irritating Ford by defecting to General Motors, was both a talented auto engineer and a man with exceptional leadership skills. When FDR invited him to the White House in May 1940 to join the Council of National Defense, the United States, of course, was not yet at war. But Great Britain had only just rescued its troops from Dunkirk and was desperately in need of any military equipment that it could obtain in America. Later, as head of the Office of War Production, Knudsen pulled in his own auto contacts in Detroit and soon had Packard transforming factories for the production of Britain’s Merlin engine. The Merlin was the engine that powered the Spitfire and, eventually, the most effective Allied fighter of the war, the P-51 Mustang.

The Office of Production Management (OPM), to which Knudsen was sent as chief, struggled during the uncertain times of the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, before the Lend-Lease Treaty made possible the transfer of essential military equipment to Britain. Even before the United States actually entered the war at the end of 1941, the defense buildup was constantly being criticized in Washington—not only by journalists and members of Congress, but sometimes even by Eleanor Roosevelt. There were wildcat strikes in important war industries.

In the general New Deal atmosphere of antipathy to business, Knudsen scorned the pleas of friends and associates to defend his job performance in public. The result of this contempt for bureaucratic infighting was his dismissal by Roosevelt and the dissolution of the OPM 10 months after it had begun its work. But admirers within the administration, dismayed by Roosevelt’s treatment of Knudsen, contrived to keep him on, working for the OPM’s successor, the National Defense Advisory Commission, as a three-star general. Here, Knudsen’s leadership skills were stretched to the limit by, among other things, helping coordinate the manufacture of the hugely complicated, and at first seriously flawed, B-29. He was also instrumental in signing up the auto industry to make weapons of war.

Henry Kaiser, the great war industrialist, earned his reputation by turning around the steel industry and carving out new shipyards on the West Coast to build the Liberty cargo vessels that braved the U-boat-infested North Atlantic to resupply Great Britain (and America’s own armed forces in Europe). Kaiser succeeded in prefabricating production and helping coordinate different stages of construction so smoothly that the ships were sometimes constructed in 10 days or fewer. But Kaiser had his weaknesses: He was, for example, a vociferous advocate for Howard Hughes’s gigantic flying boat, the Spruce Goose, long after Congress had declined to fund it.

The mobilization of industry to equip the Allies resulted in major changes in American life. By 1945 some 15 million civilians were living in a different part of America from where they had been at the time of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps more important, a defense construction industry that had been almost entirely male at the beginning of the war by 1944 had a workforce that was 36 percent women. At the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California, women were 70 percent of the workforce—including “Rosie the Riveter,” who actually worked at the Lockheed aircraft factory and became an image of female emancipation and power that would survive long after the end of the war.

Herman makes a useful point in all this about American capitalism. “No other wartime economy,” he writes, “depended more on the free enterprise system than America’s, and that one produced more of everything in quality and quantity both in military and civilian goods.”

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.

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