Freedom’s Forge: A Look Back at American Industry in WWII

Recently I have been working my way through “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in WWII” by Dr. Arthur Herman. In it, Dr. Herman tells the story of how U.S. business leaders were mobilized to build ships, tanks and weapons faster (and better) than the enemy, leading to victory in WWII. It is a biography of the “arsenal of democracy”, necessary in understanding the link between the US during the great depression and the post-war economic boom.

In 1941, when Roosevelt announced plans to build 50,000 planes a year, Hitler scoffed, saying: “What is America, but beauty queens, millionaires, stupid records, and Hollywood?” But, by the war’s end, Mr. Herman notes, “American businessmen, engineers, production managers, and workers both male and female” had turned out two-thirds of all the military equipment used by the Allies in World War II, including 286,000 warplanes, 86,000 tanks, 8,800 naval vessels, 2.6 million machine guns “and 41 billion rounds of ammunition.”

Holy cow. Imagine what must have been involved in manufacturing 286,000 airplanes, 86,000 thanks, and 8,800 naval vessels.

This monumental output of materiel came as a result of a profound transformation of the American economy, engineered in part by Bill Knudsen (General Motors) and Henry Kaiser (Kaiser Industries). Knudsen was a manufacturing genius who designed the plants and production lines for both Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan of General Motors. Kaiser, on the other hand, was a shipbuilder who had been one of the main contractors for the Hoover Dam. The two were vastly different (and didn’t like each other), but worked together to revolutionize American industry.

I am about 1/3 of the way through the book right now; this is a great read for anyone interested in how American businesses shifted from the consumer economy to wartime production during WWII.