Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
7 July 2014
Reviews by Larry A. Grant, The Citadel
"All of Us Have a Duty to Perform in This World"—America's Mobilization for the Second World War
Descriptors: Volume 2014, 20th Century, World War II Print Version
A Call To Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II
By Maury Klein
New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 898. ISBN 978–1–59691–607–4.
Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II
By Arthur Herman
New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. xiv, 415. ISBN. 978–0–8129–8204–6.

During the Second World War, Army Quartermaster General Edmund B. Gregory stated that "It's axiomatic that you can't save time and money at the same time" (M[aury] K[lein] 251). However, sometimes revolutionary developments overturn this maxim, as they did for Gregory during the war. When Henry Ford implemented an assembly-line method of building automobiles at his Highland Park plant, he shortened the time needed to make a car from many hours to ninety minutes. Twenty-five years later, in the greatest war in human history, Ford's method ensured that more men were provided with more of the material needed to kill their fellow men than anyone could have imagined a few years before.

Like A Call To Arms, Arthur Herman's Freedom's Forge documents industry's response to the call for mobilization, covering the same ground and reaching similar conclusions. For example, the notion of the Greatest Generation gets a similar treatment, and both books dismiss the postwar myth that an ultra-competent federal government centrally managed America's rearmament effort. New Dealers certainly hoped to extend their control over business during the war, but the conflict demanded a level of expertise transcending ideology and necessitated some degree of accommodation with business leaders. The need to defeat the Axis powers trumped partisan political motives.

Herman tells a compelling and sympathetic tale of personalities—the industrialists William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser. Both men often figure in A Call To Arms as well, of course, but tend to get lost in the throng of characters that crowd Klein's account. Freedom's Forge contains nineteen chapters including the conclusion. The first eight treat the period prior to Pearl Harbor. These constitute the most extensive discussion to date of Knudsen's mobilization work. Herman describes a modest man who, motivated by patriotism and loyalty, answered the president's call to leave his position in the automotive sector and take on the daunting job of changing the direction of American industry. Having accepted, Knudsen set out to persuade industry leaders to begin making the changes essential for victory in the war to come.

Knudsen initially received no official standing or legal authority from FDR, but worked behind the scenes in a field—mass production manufacturing—as specialized and intricate as brain surgery. He used his reputation from the automotive industry and his powers of persuasion to coax American manufacturers to retool their plants for war production. Because so few people understood his work, he never received the recognition he richly deserved. At one point, he was even criticized by Eleanor Roosevelt, when auto workers lost their jobs as industrial priorities changed. Knudsen had in fact anticipated and tried to prevent such hardships by maintaining production for civilian markets, but he was accused of interfering with mobilization by people ignorant of the difficulties involved in the changeover from peacetime to wartime production. Eventually, the government forced the automobile lines to close after Pearl Harbor, which caused mass unemployment while Detroit repurposed its plants; hence the First Lady's misplaced criticism. Knudsen did not try to explain himself to her or to the press (AH 162–63).

In early 1942, reading the news as it came over the ticker tape, Knudsen learned he had been fired (AH 164), swept aside in yet another of FDR's attempts to arrive at the proper organizational structure for the war. Since he was too valuable to leave languishing on the sidelines, Roosevelt soon commissioned Knudsen as a lieutenant general, giving him free rein to get on with the work of spurring production. He remains the only civilian to be given such a high army appointment.

Henry J. Kaiser came into his own after the shooting started. He had earned a reputation as a dam builder during the Depression, but was confident of his ability to move into and conquer a new field, in this case, shipbuilding. Ships had previously been individually hand built by skilled craftsmen according to time-honored techniques. Kaiser not only applied the principles of mass production to the industry, but employed workers who had never even seen a ship, let alone built one. By war's end, Kaiser's shipyards had turned out almost fifteen hundred vessels for the Allies.

Together, Klein and Herman provide a salutary balance to the traditional drums-and-trumpets and "great leader" variants of military history found in many books on the Second World War. The drumming in their books is of hammers forging the tools of war and the trumpets signal the end of one work shift and the beginning of another. Both authors spotlight the little recognized true heroes of American mobilization for World War II, men who believed, as Bill Knudsen put it, that "All of us have a duty to perform in this world" (AH 340). While both of the books reviewed here are remarkable (and very readable) accomplishments, Freedom's Forge is the more accessible account and A Call to Arms the more comprehensive.

[1] See, e.g., his Union Pacific, 2 vols. (1987; rpt. Minneapolis: U Minnesota Pr, 2006), The Change Makers: From Carnegie to Gates, How the Great Entrepreneurs Transformed Ideas into Industries (NY: Times Books, 2003), The Genesis of Industrial America, 1870-1920 (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 2007), and The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America (NY: Bloomsbury, 2008).

[2] See How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It (NY: Crown, 2003), and To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (NY: Harper, 2004).

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