- - Monday, June 11, 2012


By Arthur Herman
Random House, $28, 413 pages, illus.

Some time ago, a TV personality coined the phrase “the greatest generation” to describe those of us who were schooled during the Great Depression, beat the veteran armies of Japan and Germany to a pulp in a worldwide war and turned our industry into a war machine the likes of which the world had never seen. But he was wrong. Our generation was just as ignorant, clumsy and befogged as any of its predecessors, but it was American and - at least to us - that made all the difference.

We expected problems to occur; they did, and we solved them. We did not think all wisdom lay in government hands, nor for that matter did government officials. Our national effort in producing the sinews of war in the great quantities it eventually did was as dependent on private initiative - meaning, creativeness and subject knowledge, as on government direction.

Arthur Herman in his latest book, “Freedom’s Forge,” documents American industry’s reaction to World War II and how our country truly became the arsenal of democracy and its consequent effect on the battlefield.

In 1939, President Roosevelt met with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall to iron out the Army’s 1940 budget. Treasury wanted it cut by $6 million for fear that the country’s mandatory debt limit would be breached with consequent turmoil in the financial markets.

The normally taciturn Marshall then made an impassioned speech pointing out that the U.S. Army was short of everything, including men, arms and vehicles. It had 325 inferior tanks compared to Germany’s superior 2,000 and had greatly fewer numbers in virtually everything else. Immediate action was needed desperately. Roosevelt was convinced and sent a message to Congress asking for $700 million for the Army and predicting a production of 50,000 airplanes a year, a fantastic number that hardly anyone thought possible.

It was clear that American industry would have to go into high gear to produce what was needed and that a production coordinator could play a critical role. FDR made the obvious choice of Big Bill Knudson of General Motors.

The story of Bill Knudson is classic American. At a young agehe immigrated to the United States from Denmark with little money or formal schooling. He had, however, what might be called an innate sense of engineering. He knew how things worked and sensed the best way to manufacture them. He also thought that work was the best and most interesting way to spend one’s time. With this attitude, he soon rose to a prominent position in the Ford Motor Co. assisting Henry Ford in refining his assembly line. The assembly line was simply one method of manufacture. Parts were stamped out by machine and accordingly were interchangeable, while the people who did the assembly did not have to be as skilled as the mechanics who previously made the parts by hand.

The assembly line was quintessentially American, faster and cheaper, and it helped bring order to the factory floor. Knudson became a master at devising efficient assembly lines, but in time left Ford. He was immediately snapped up by General Motors, who put him in charge of the Chevrolet division, which was tottering on the verge of extinction. Under Knudson’s guidance, however, Chevrolet regained financial stability and after continuous improvement became the best-selling automobile in the country while Knudson became head of General Motors.

Knudson left that well-paying position to become, at Roosevelt’s request, head of the Office of Production Management for a dollar a year. He had a prestigious title but no real authority. He could not force anyone to do anything or not do anything, but he was a great motivator. He was difficult to argue with because events usually proved him right, and under his guidance, American industry reached a production capability that surprised even those engaged in the process. The assembly line and decentralization, contrary to European practice, were the two guiding principles for increased production, and then increased production.

The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor had outraged everyone, New Dealer or anti-New Dealer, and the whole country was eager to strike back. Thus, companies took on projects they would otherwise avoid, and staffs worked overtime to master their inflated quotas. The author, whose anti-New Deal feelings occasionally surface, chastises organized labor for going on strike too often.But labor differences are bound to arise when industries undergo such massive transformations, and none of these stoppages became critical.

The author gives us a number of case histories to enable us to see how the process worked. When first built, the B-24 bomberwas dangerous to fly, but after numerous late-night planning sessions, it was modified enough to become workable. Because of its long range, the British used it for anti-submarine measures over those parts of the Atlantic that had been unreachable by previous aircraft. The B-24 thus played a vital role in finally eliminating the submarine threat to Atlantic convoys, but could not have done so without the coordinated correctional planning of a wide variety of private-industry experts.

We not only outproduced the Axis in numbers, but also in quality. Our success came from the respect industry and a pragmatic government had for each other. Government wanted armament that battlefield experience had shown to be valuable, and industry produced it in numbers that surprised everybody.

No, ours was not the greatest generation; but it was happy in its unity and will to win. If the current generation could achieve that same kind of unity, no goals are beyond reach.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer and World War II veteran.

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