Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing by Vaclav Smil (review)
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Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing. By Vaclav Smil. (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2013. Pp. 256. $27.95 cloth)

Americans now inhabit a “new world of ‘Made in China’ and sold by Walmart,” in the process abandoning much domestic manufacturing (p. 136). Vaclav Smil shows how the United States traded factories for Facebook through a historical account of the rise and fall of manufacturing and transition to a service economy. Smil argues that “manufacturing became … a fundamental force in creating and advancing the United States’ economic, strategic, and social might” (p. vii). Yet the manufacturing prowess that propelled the United States to global hegemony is under duress, the loss of which greatly imperils the nation.

The core of the book consists of three sections. The first analyzes the tremendous growth of manufacturing between 1865 and 1940, giving much of the credit to individual entrepreneurs for the inventions and manufacturing processes that would make the twentieth century the American century. While much of the story is familiar, Smil includes important insights into the technological advances during the Great Depression that paved the way for the birth of a mass [End Page 130] consumption society after World War II, particularly in the plastics, film, and airline industries. The climax of American manufacturing hegemony is the subject of the second section, covering the years from 1941 to 1973. World War II saw not only the consolidation of the military-industrial complex but also the birth of the computer age. While mass consumption has dominated historians’ interpretations of the postwar economy and society, Smil also describes the lesser-known story of the growth of automation, computers, and microchips. The last section analyzes the retreat of American manufacturing since 1973, focusing in particular on energy scarcity, growth of global competitors, corporate blunders (particularly in the automobile industry), domestic economic challenges, and outsourcing, all of which have devastated the industrial economy. After narrating the rise and fall, Smil then assesses the current atrophied state of manufacturing, provocatively asking, “Should anything be done?” (p. 180). Surveying the prospects for a resurgence of American manufacturing, Smil argues that the chances are “no higher than even” (p. 209).

In recent years, historians have produced a body of work examining deindustrialization in the twentieth-century United States. Smil’s greatest contribution is demonstrating the technological foundations of the rise and decline. What is unique is the extent to which Smil argues that America’s economic and social fortunes are tied to the health of manufacturing. Most importantly, Smil eschews simplistic explanations of the decline of manufacturing, finding that labor costs, regulations, management strategy, or globalization alone do not explain the precipitous descent. The complexity also suggests that solutions to the malaise will not be simple either, and Smil avoids making pointed policy prescriptions. Particularly effective is Smil’s discussion of the manufacture of high-tech products. While the United States pioneered the computer age, it failed to hold that dominance in manufacturing the components, instead relying on foreign production.

An interdisciplinary scholar with a long track record of books examining the intersection of science, technology, and society, Smil [End Page 131] effectively marshals an encyclopedic array of data to back up his claims, bringing a scientist’s analytical rigor to bear on the subject, while remaining eminently readable. Smil’s expertise in energy consumption, in particular, shines in this book, as his argument that cheap energy fueled industrialization and rising energy prices in the 1970s contributed to the decline, is compelling. Made in the USA suffers from minor problems of organization and cohesion, as Smil’s propensity to deploy lists of statistics leads to a disjointed narrative. Some scholars will find Smil’s technological determinism frustrating, but others will agree that it provides a refreshing approach to a topic that is often mired in clichés. This is an accessible and important work for scholars and general readers alike.

Brandon M. Ward

BRANDON M. WARD is a PhD candidate in history at Purdue University writing a dissertation on environmental activism in post–World War II Detroit.

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