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Armed and Prosperous

The CEOs who mobilized American war production.

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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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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