On the evening of Dec. 29, 1940, nearly a year before the United States was thrust into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt made one of the most important fireside chats of his presidency. He had watched with mounting dismay as Nazi troops stormed across Europe and as Britain hung on desperately against German air attacks. “If Great Britain goes down,” Roosevelt said on more than 500 radio stations in this country and innumerable shortwave stations around the world, “the Axis powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, and the high seas — and they will be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere.”
Roosevelt knew all too well that there was fierce isolationist opposition in this country to American involvement in “Europe’s war,” but he also knew that sympathy for England was rising and that the United States desperately needed to strengthen its own defenses as well as those of democracies overseas. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” he said. “For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war. . . . There will be no ‘bottlenecks’ in our determination to aid Great Britain.”
With those words, FDR set the United States on the course it was to follow through another year of ostensible neutrality and then four years of warfare around the world. The story of how America became the “great arsenal of democracy” is the subject of “A Call to Arms,” and I can’t imagine it being told more thoroughly, authoritatively or definitively. Maury Klein, professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island and the author of numerous books on the history of business and industry, crowns his long career with this massive examination of one of the most important aspects of 20th-century American history and one of the least documented or understood. We know a great deal about the battles that were fought in Europe, Africa and Asia, but we know far less about the incredible mobilization of American industry that — together with the appalling sacrifices made by Russian soldiers and civilians — made it possible to win the war.
At the beginning of nearly 800 pages of closely packed text, Klein writes: “Too often America’s mobilization has been portrayed as a smoothly flowing process in which patriotic Americans rose to the challenge and performed what has been called ‘miracles of production.’ While some of the results might seem miraculous in scope, nothing about the process was smooth or flowing. It was rather an arduous, chaotic, contentious grind that exacted a high physical and psychic toll.” In large part this was because of “a basic quandary underlying mobilization: how to organize the economy while still preserving the essential machinery of democratic government,” or, as he puts it many pages later: “the difficult question of how far a democracy could venture in wartime without becoming in large measure the sort of totalitarian state that was its enemy.”
As mobilization began, the country was still suffering deeply from the prolonged effects of the Great Depression. The economy moved in fits and starts, and military preparedness had been allowed to fall by the wayside, primarily as a reaction against the expense, in dollars and human lives, of World War I. Immediate action was needed: “Building up the military required manpower and productive capacity. The latter in turn needed factories, raw materials, machine tools, skilled workers, adequate transportation, fuel, good designs, and an efficient organization. Each of these components had its own requirements, and putting them together in an effective manner could be fiendishly difficult.” The “aviation industry was barely a generation old” and completely unequipped for the mass production of warplanes that was absolutely necessary. It was in the same condition as the shipbuilding industry: “lack of facilities, painfully slow construction techniques, changing technology, and, above all, lack of orders to keep the industry vibrant.” German U-boats began to patrol the Atlantic coastline, destroying outmoded American merchant and naval ships in vast numbers, and there were almost no planes to protect them. By 1941 it wasn’t just a matter of finding a way to supply Great Britain but of defending the United States itself.
“Isolationism versus intervention” certainly divided the country in the early 1940s, but “far more threatening to defense production were the acrimonious splits between management and labor and those within the ranks of the labor movement.” Soft-coal miners under the pugnacious leadership of John L. Lewis repeatedly threatened to strike and on occasion actually did; railway workers were militant and disposed to strike. On the other side, many business and industry leaders sought to roll back the gains labor had made during the high years of the New Deal, and though many businesses made admirable patriotic sacrifices, others engaged in profiteering.
We like to remember the war years on the home front as a period of unity and sacrifice, but disunity and selfishness were at least as common. As was noted by Julius Krug, who in 1943 served as director of the Office of War Utilities, American civilians “were subjected to inconvenience rather than sacrifice.” They “pocketed record earnings, paid off their debts, amused themselves, and spent freely on whatever they could find,” especially on the black market for “gasoline, meat, cigarettes, tires, and stolen or phony [ration] coupons.” One congressman, having tested opinion in his district, said, “It’s amazing how willing people are to have someone else sacrifice for the war.”
It is no less amazing that ultimately the country overcame all its divisions and animosities — not to mention bitter internecine warfare in the many alphabet-soup agencies and boards set up to manage the mobilization — and became exactly the arsenal Roosevelt had called for. It is here, in describing and analyzing both the broad and the minute aspects of the process, that Klein is at his very best. The complete remaking of the aircraft and shipbuilding industries; the protracted but ultimately successful search for a viable form of synthetic rubber; the rise of “Big Science” and the “increasing dependence of scientists on government funding for their work”; the emergence of women as essential to the workforce, “as butchers, lumberjacks, steelworkers, service station attendants, taxi drivers, truck drivers, milkmaids, firewomen, bartenders, ‘bellehops,’ repairwomen for all kinds of machinery, and railroad workers”; the pervasiveness of racial prejudice, “as American as apple pie”; the unending efforts in Washington to exercise meaningful controls over wages and prices, to keep inflation from getting out of hand — all this and far more Klein deals with confidently and intelligibly, in rich and revealing detail.
To say so may seem a commonplace, but wartime mobilization changed this country as have few other events in its history, and by no means always for the better. The bizarre and inherently unjust system of taxation under which we now labor has its roots in the war years, as do the many environmental depredations that arose out of our need for ever more petroleum and its byproducts, “the life blood of modern civilization.” The American West, empty and neglected through most of its history, was completely transformed; its cities grew explosively thanks to migration by people seeking defense employment in its new factories and to soldiers stationed there or nearby who discovered the region’s many attractions. Despite gas rationing and other restrictions, our romance with the automobile grew ever more ardent, laying the groundwork for the interstate highway program of the 1950s and all the effects, both good and bad, it has had on our landscape and our lives.
It must finally be mentioned that the story Klein tells is very much a human one. Some of the names that appear in these pages are familiar to this day, not merely Roosevelt but also his doughty secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, and the omnipresent financier and sage Bernard Baruch. Others are undeservedly forgotten, among them the remarkable industrialist Henry J. Kaiser; the jack of all trades Jimmy Byrnes; the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson; and the head of the Office of Price Administration, Leon Henderson. Many of the others have never been heard of beyond their families or immediate communities, but in introducing them to us Klein puts a real, intimate human face on a tale (and a book) of massive dimensions. In every respect, “A Call to Arms” is a remarkable and singularly important piece of work.
A CALL TO ARMS
Mobilizing America for World War II
By Maury Klein
Bloomsbury. 897 pp. $40