Sixty-seven years ago today, on September 2, 1945, on the battleship U.S.S. Missouri, Japan surrendered to the United States and its allies, ending nearly four years of war in the Pacific that began with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Charlottesville-based historian Arthur Herman’s most recent book, Freedom’s Forge, explores how U.S. industry contributed to the war effort that ended in the victory over both Japan and Nazi Germany.
Earlier this summer, Herman sat down with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner at the Boar’s Head Inn. Previous excerpts from this interview focused on how some of the true-life characters in the book seemed to have stepped off the pages of an Ayn Rand novel and how Charlottesville businesses provided materiel used during the D-Day invasions.
Herman’s previous books were “on topics as various as how the Scots invented the modern world and the contribution of the Scottish enlightenment to modern civilization.”
He also wrote a book on the British navy, called To Rule the Waves. Herman explained that “Freedom’s Forge is in some ways an outgrowth” of the research on that earlier book, as he “became more and more interested in the relationship between economics and modern warfare and the links between those two things.”
‘Innate productive power’
What Freedom’s Forge does, he said, is “turn the whole story of how the United States got ready for World War II on its head.” The book argues that, “far from being a kind of Washington, D.C., [led], bureaucrat-driven production effort, what this really was about was releasing the innate productive power of American business.”
Herman’s thesis seems counterintuitive to people whose idea of economics during the Second World War is limited to rationing of sugar, butter, gasoline, and automobile tires.
The war production effort, Herman asserts, succeeded “in spite of” that kind of centralized control, noting that “the rationing that everybody who lived through that period remembers” was about “government controls over the consumption of civilian goods.”
The war production effort began even before Pearl Harbor, “starting in the summer of 1940,” Herman said, and “what the military learned was it was best to let business and manufacturers handle it themselves.”
The War Department, he explained, and President Roosevelt himself “learned that minimal control from Washington or even from the military services usually ended up getting products on time — getting the tanks and planes and ships built — at a continually lower cost as well”
The “key ingredient” of wartime production, Herman said, “is that the manufacturers and producers found ways to constantly roll the costs down, so it was a huge boon not just for the American military, giving us the tools to win World War II, but it was also a huge boon to American business and industry because they became leaner, more efficient operating organizations as a result of the wartime effort.”
Quirky and surprising
While doing his research, Herman came across a few quirky stories and surprising facts.
“One that will completely surprise people when they read the book,” he said, “because it’s so at variance from our usual textbook image” that the United States was caught off-guard by the Pearl Harbor attack.
In fact, “the war production effort was well underway well before Pearl Harbor,” Herman pointed out.
“As I explain in the book, it really began in the summer of 1940 when Roosevelt realized war is going to come” and that he had to get the country ready for it,” so FDR called “Bill Knudsen, president of General Motors, and says, how do I do it?”
With the system that Knudsen put in place, with Roosevelt’s blessing, Herman continued, “far from being caught off guard, we had gone from a standing start to a wartime production that was fast approaching that of Hitler’s Germany. A lot of people don’t realize that but this is in fact what American industry could do.”
There was a second surprise that Herman discovered.
“The most interesting statistic, stunning statistic that came out of my research was that in 1942, as this war production effort is going on, the number of Americans killed or injured in war-related industries surpassed the number of Americans in uniform killed and wounded in action in the war by a factor of 20 to 1,” he said.
The civilian sector of “what we call the Greatest Generation were [not] just sitting at home or just comfortably handling jobs while people in uniform were out risking their lives at sea and on land and in the air,” he said.
To the contrary, he explained, war production was “incredibly dangerous work. It involved enormous sacrifice from lots of people, including business executives. One hundred eighty-nine General Motors senior executives died on the job during the war.”
Summing up, Herman said that what is “really the thesis of the book” is that “this was a huge effort [that] was made possible by the productive forces that are part of a free-market American economy,” and not by any centralized planning devised in the Pentagon or the Washington bureaucracy.