Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945

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Subject

Koistinen, Paul A.C. Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004. xiii + 657 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7006-1308-0.


Summary

Traditionally, historians have generalized the New Deal as a wide-ranging program that was designed for relief, recovery, and reform. In his book, Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945, Paul A. C. Koistinen argues that these same precepts were at the heart of the U.S. mobilization for the Second World War. Koistinen further states that this mobilization was made possible by the reforms that were begun by the New Deal, and that by pushing these reforms to their logical extremity, the United States was able to win the war by establishing the “Military-Industrial Complex.” By taking this line of argument, Koistinen supports the New-Deal-reform-related arguments of historians Patrick D. Regan and Alan Brinkley.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the United States was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. Its military and munitions industry was in poor condition and unprepared for anything beyond meaningless war-games. Yet, the executive branch of the federal government was convinced that support of Great Britain in its struggle against the fascist powers was vital to American interests. This was the relief phase of mobilization and would require the reduction of three major obstacles. The first obstacle was Americans’ political reluctance to once again become involved in the bloody affairs of Europe. The second was the reluctance of industrialists and consumers alike to redirect production capacity to military uses. In the late 1930s, the United States was beginning to see an increase in its economic fortunes; which meant average Americans were once again willing and able to purchase consumer goods, and industry was ramping up to meet this renewed demand. The third obstacle was the physical limitation on military production wrought by the lingering effects of the Depression. While the United States would manage to relieve Britain's precarious position sufficiently for it to continue its war effort, the halting U.S. bureaucratic machinations and propagandizing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt could do little heavy lifting.

By fall of 1941, it had become obvious to a wide spectrum of Americans--in and out of government--that war was inevitable, and the process of mobilization could begin in earnest; this was the recovery phase, in which the United States attempted to catch up with the world’s other leading military powers. Recovery would require a philosophical shift in the appearance and conduct of the Roosevelt administration, which had spent 8 years carrying the torch of the Progressivism reform of the U.S. commercial landscape; now it would have to partner with big-business if it wanted to achieve its ultimate goals. Koistinen argues that many reformers supported mobilization, since it would unavoidably lead to more jobs and a stronger economy, but they were disconcerted over what they saw as the equally unavoidable roll-back of New Deal social reforms that would attend recovery.

No sooner had recovery begun, than the difficulties that had first been encountered during relief began to assert themselves. Clearly the task of shifting a capitalist economy from butter to guns, on the heels of a major economic upheaval, was going to require a new form of government. Hence reform was forced to coincide with recovery.

As with the New Deal, mobilization would spawn a bewildering array of bureaus, committees, and boards, all empowered to promote specific components of production, from raw materials to physical plant construction, to labor, transportation, and production prioritization. As with the New Deal, the relative effect of these entities was a function of the personalities and rivalries of those individuals chosen to operate them, of the institutional efficiencies/authority (or lack thereof) written into their charters, and of the demands placed on them by the global military situation at any given time. One thing remained clear: The only way the United States would be able to reach and maintain production levels that would ensure victory would be through a partnership between industry and government unlike anything ever attempted. It would be a partnership in which the products of individual industrial concerns would serve the public good, and yet one that would leave industries as freestanding capitalist entities. Industry would thus be virtually nationalized, but still free to seek profits. The arrangement formed a powerful mutual dependency, with government dependent on industry for the weapons it needed to survive, and industry--devoted to war-time production by external events--dependent on government for the steady flow of dollars to stay in business.

To make this partnership work, the federal government would have to adopt a new procurement method that would subsidize the costs industry incurred during the development phase of production. Government would also have to redraw the process by which it awarded contracts to favor the upper tiers of the industrial food chain. These practices would ensure that physical plants were constructed and development moved forwarded with no consideration given to corporate profitability along the way. These processes also ensured instructional knowledge and capacity would be concentrated in a small number of companies who could in turn forge closer, more responsive relations with government. This new approach to government-industry relations would also require the federal government to clear the way of obstacles that might impede industry’s progress. This would mean resolving labor issues, adjusting regulatory stipulations and restrictions, and in general maintaining an orderly marketplace.

By the end of 1943, the process of recovery had been completed. The tide of war had shifted in America's favor and production levels had peaked. With this, the focus shifted to maintaining production in the face of pressing domestic demands from the neglected consumer economy. This necessitated the balancing of wages and consumer goods and the demands of the war. Koistinen makes the case that the economies of scale, the levels of production, and the confidence engendered by the industry-government partnership forged a coalition that made victory in the Second World War possible. While mobilization for the First World War had been nearly as sophisticated, it had not been on the scale of the later conflict. This difference alone made a new style of cooperation necessary. This cooperation between government and industry for military purposes would become one of the most enduring features through the Cold War and beyond.

Commentary

Koistinen’s view of America as sptringing into mobilization not so much as a result of the innate virtue of capitalism, but as a result of the superior organizational tradition of the New Deal gives him a unique persective on mobilization. His consideration of various social groups and their role in mobliztion gives his work a well-rounded feel.

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