- American Industrial Mobilization in World War II
In viewing the history of the American economy over the past century, three signal movements dominate. First, the Great Depression, with resultant efforts to promote recovery and the “New Deal,” is generally seen as most influential since it has formed our perceptions of economic development and determined how we measure economic performance. Secondly, from a strictly economic viewpoint, the abandonment of the gold standard—that is, the “floating” of the American currency in the foreign exchange markets between 1933 and 1971—and the attendant “globalization” of American and world trade are equally important. The third economic movement was the American industrial mobilization to assure success in World War II. This World War II industrial mobilization occurred over a relatively brief period—three to four years—and required complete reordering of the American economic “factors of production.” It achieved an almost tripling of total output. Yet in the literature of the Second World War and economic history, this industrial mobilization has received relatively little attention.
The formulation of economic policy and the pursuit of the industrial mobilization were fraught with bitter political acrimony and contention. It has been suggested that the current discourse in economic theory between the Keynesians on the left and the “monetarists” on the right was crystalized by their respective interpretations of the industrial mobilization.1 The efforts of President Franklin Roosevelt to formulate and pursue U.S. foreign and defense policies before and into the Second World War were constrained by the initial inability of his administration to obtain the industrial mobilization and military rearmament it required. The Grand Alliance among Great Britain, [End Page 149] the Soviet Union, and the United States that achieved victory in 1945 was militarily dependent on the American industrial mobilization. Yet the story of supply, production, technology, transportation, and armament does not make for lively narrative. The consequence is that the history of the American industrial mobilization has receded, amid scant popular interest, from a passing historical concern into the remote recesses of the archives.
In the literature dealing with the industrial mobilization, there are the seven volumes of the total seventy-nine volumes in the official United States Army in World War II series (1953–2005). These deal with the mobilization and attendant logistics. None of the S. E. Morison semi-official eleven volumes of U.S. Naval Operations In World War II (1948–59) deal with the navy’s mobilization. Similarly, none of Frank Craven and James Lea Cate’s nine volumes on the air forces (1983–92) are devoted to mobilization.2 Subsequent works covering the naval and air services have come forth with the assistance of those services, but without the imprimatur that the official histories carry. A variety of biographical studies came out immediately after the war and usually defended individual roles and programs. It must always be kept in mind that the major policymakers during World War II, from Roosevelt on down, did not produce memoirs or official biographies, unlike their British peers. The two cabinet level “diaries”—Harold Ickes (1953–57) and Henry Morgenthau (1947)—are neither reliable nor objective as to the narrative of the struggling industrial mobilization effort. The current literature tends to fall into the polemical, with narratives supporting either one side or the other of the conflicted administration of the industrial mobilization.3
The contentious history of the World War II mobilization is rooted in the failure of the United States to effectively mobilize for the prior 1917–18 war. In the aftermath of that war, Congress enacted the National Defense Act of 1920, which established a planning process in the War Department headed by an assistant secretary of war whose purpose was to assure that, in any future war, the United States would be able to promptly and efficiently mobilize. As President...