Herman’s latest book is Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.
Earlier this summer, which by coincidence was on the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy, I met Herman at the Boar’s Head Inn to talk about the book, which he sums up as a story about “releasing the innate productive power of American business.”
Herman pointed out there were two business enterprises in Charlottesville that manufactured products that were critical to the American war effort.
Charlottesville’s war effort
One was Ix Mills, located where the Frank Ix building still stands south of downtown.
During the war, he said, Ix Mills “moved from making commercial textiles to making parachute cloth. They really became the center of the parachute cloth making for the Second World War.”
The soldiers “who jumped on D-Day” as portrayed in Stephen Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan, as well as the “airmen who had to jump out over Germany and at sea during the Second World War were using Charlottesville-produced parachutes.”
|Historian Arthur Herman|
The arrester gear allowed planes to land on the carriers without being pulled apart by a braking mechanism.
“Southern Welding, here in Charlottesville, developed the parts and manufactured the parts that went on aircraft carriers all across the Pacific. In fact, at one point, Charlottesville-made arrester gear and tailhook gear was on 43 separate aircraft carriers during the Second World War.”
When Herman thinks about D-Day, in particular, he focuses on two things.
“First of all,” he explained, D-Day was about more than amassing military personnel “but also amassing a vast industrial effort.”
Two thirds of the landing craft and sea-going vessels used on D-Day were produced in American factories, he said, and “it’s a tribute not just to the bravery of our armed forces but also to the huge logistical possibilities that American industry could generate a landing and an enterprise of the sort that the world had never seen.”
The second thing about D-Day that comes to Herman’s mind is that “the very first Americans to get news that the landings were successful were the people working the night shifts in the factories on the East Coast.”
At the Bethlehem Shipyard in Sparrow’s Point in Baltimore, he recalled, “work stopped and everybody sank to their knees and said the Lord’s Prayer as they got the news.”
That, he said, is “really fitting, that the people who produced the tools that made that victory possible were the very first to learn that what they had done, and what they had contributed to, had been a success.”
Stated succinctly, the theme of Freedom’s Forge, is that the growth of industry during World War II was “far from being a kind of Washington, D.C.[-based], bureaucrat-driven production effort” and that, he explained, “what [it] really was about was releasing the innate productive power of American business.”
More widely, he said, the success of America’s wartime industrial production effort came “in spite of” government-imposed rationing and wage and price controls.
“The rationing that everybody remembers,” he pointed out, was the result of “government controls over the consumption of civilian goods.”
For industrial goods needed by the military – airplanes, ships, weapons, and Jeeps – came about because, even before Pearl Harbor “the military learned it was best to let business and manufacturers handle it themselves,” and that it should be decentralized, Herman said.
“They learned that minimal control from Washington -- or even from the military services -- usually ended up getting products on time,” he explained, and “at a continually lower cost as well.”
That, he said, “was really the key ingredient in the whole wartime production effort,” the fact “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, really 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.”
The business executives and industrialists who are portrayed in Herman’s book – former General Motors president William Knudsen, road- and ship-builder (and health insurance pioneer) Henry Kaiser, Ford Motor Company’s Charles Sorensen, and others – are larger-than-life characters who seem to spring from the pages of an Ayn Rand novel, an assessment with which Herman agrees.
‘Creativity of the human mind’
“What Ayn Rand understood,” he said, “and one of the lessons that you get from her work, which is in some ways is reflected in this book, is that what the arsenal of democracy was really all about wasn’t ships and tanks and planes, any more than national wealth or an economy is about oil wells and gold mines and factories and industrial output or goods and services.”
Rather, he explained, “what it’s really about is creativity. It’s about the creativity of the human mind. It’s about vision. It’s about leadership and problem-solving.”
Throughout its history, he noted, American business has “been really at the forefront of all of those aspects. That’s what drives American business. That’s what drives American civilization.”
What Herman “wanted to chronicle is just how this episode in our history, a crucial moment in world history as well as for the United States, really reflected all of those kinds of powerful virtues that someone like Ayn Rand realized were at work in a free market economy.”
Those characteristics, he said, are “clearly on show in people like Bill Knudsen, the man [whom] Roosevelt brought to construct a system by which you could get this bottoms-up, free-market, private-sector drive to production,” as well as “the other characters [readers will] meet in the book.”
Herman’s previous books, he explained, 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.
The complete interview with Arthur Herman, author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, is available as a podcast on Bearing Drift radio’s “The Score.”
This article is based on three separately published excerpts from the interview, which appeared on Examiner.com on June 6, July 1, and September 2, 2012.