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  • Arsenal of World War II; The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945
  • Gregory Hooks
Arsenal of World War II; The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945. By Paul A. C. Koistenen (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2004) 657 pp. $49.95

Koistenen has long been a recognized authority on the World War II economic mobilization. In this book, he cements his mastery of it. Mobilizing the United States for war was the subject of heated debate, setting in motion acrimonious political battles. The stakes were extraordinarily high, both at home and abroad. The vast economic resources mobilized by the United States were of decisive strategic importance during World War II. The success of the economic mobilization enabled the United States not only to outfit its own troops but also to provide munitions to allies. At home, the World War II mobilization undermined [End Page 313] the political and institutional support that was vital to the New Deal. Depression-era agencies and New Dealers in Congress left the war much weakened. In contrast, business leaders in and out of government and military agencies were much more powerful by the war's end. The decline of the New Deal and the ascent of big business and the military were propeled by the economic mobilization.

One question that can be raised from a social scientist's perspective is, Why did the New Deal decline while the military establishment and big business grew stronger? Koistenen's examination of these issues in his first book stressed the political power of big business, suggesting that corporate power, not efficiency, led to these outcomes.1 When returning to this topic in the Arsenal of World War II, Koistenen's views have softened. Now he identifies technological and logistical demands as the main cause.

Although this massive volume is detailed, and in most respects thorough, several important issues were given slight attention. Koistenen's investigation of the mobilization through the lens of the War Production Board (WPB) is certainly plausible. The WPB was the most visible planning agency; when created in 1942, it was charged with overall coordination and control of the mobilization. Nevertheless, the WPB's centrality was challenged by the autonomous military agencies as well as independent civilian agencies controlling labor and oil. Moreover, the Office of War Mobilization (lodged in the White House) challenged and ultimately superseded the WPB's policymaking authority. In addition, the financing of the industrial expansion played a large role in tilting the balance of power. But Koistenen provides little information about the activities of the Defense Plant Corporation or the direct lending supplied by the Army and Navy. By the war's end, the United States owned more than 40 percent of the nation's industrial assets. Koistenen has little to say about the manner in which the postwar disposition of these assets contributed to the concentration of economic power in civilian sectors. Nor is he concerned about the industrial facilities and network of relationships that would serve as the foundation for the military-industrial complex of the 1950s and 1960s.

Koistenen's review of archival materials is exhaustive; his bibliographical essay is invaluable to anyone studying these issues. In this sense, his research about World War II is definitive. However, because he devoted so little attention to engaging, criticizing, and evaluating theoretical accounts of the overall balance of power and its legacy for the postwar period, Koistenen leaves important questions unanswered. The changing balance of economic and military power in the United States has been a central concern for historians and social scientists throughout the postwar era, beginning with Mills.2 Nonetheless, his careful historiography [End Page 314] provides a valuable foundation and guide to those who study World War II to understand the origins of the postwar power structure.

Gregory Hooks
Washington State University


1. Koistenen, The Hammer and the Sword (New York, 1979).

2. C. Wright Mills, The Power of Elite (New York, 1956).



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