Though the Defense Production Act is a Korean War-era statute allowing the government to compel companies to aid the country in time of crisis, the law is rooted in America’s mobilization during World War II. Much of the recent discussion about directing industry to join the coronavirus fight seems to have been driven by a hazy, golden-hued memory of that wartime mobilization. The subject deserves to be considered instead in all its complex reality.
Certainly, the dominant portrait of leaders and people working together to produce America’s stunning accomplishments is valid, but accompanying this central reality was a counterpoint of fumbles, failures and even an occasional fiasco that can inform and temper our current perceptions. How Americans surmounted those stumbles is as much a part of the honor they are due as their amazing achievements.
When the thunderclap of war burst on the United States in December 1941, Americans were staring into an abyss of world domination by Germany, Japan and Italy, not stepping out to march in a certain victory parade. As historian Richard Overy captured the moment: “On the face of things, no rational man in early 1942 would have guessed at the eventual outcome of the war.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt contributed his most impressive achievements precisely where they counted most: radiating confidence in victory and identifying the most vital objectives. He demanded seemingly unreachable production goals, such as his call for building 45,000 aircraft in 1942. Actual figures fell somewhat short, but the call produced prodigious results.
A rich vein of newsprint identified defects in the mobilization, not least open squabbles between high officials — sound familiar? This became an embarrassment such that in August 1942, FDR promulgated an executive order banning public controversies between administration leaders, to modest avail.
Amid the plentiful grinding and squeaking of the accelerating production effort, countless figures high and low played vital roles, some prominently, such as Andrew Higgins (designer and producer of the eponymous “Higgins boat,” the war’s signature landing craft in countless invasions), and many more in almost complete anonymity — railway workers, engineers, secretaries, farmers, factory foremen and millions of others who turned paper projections into realities with brains, skill and sweat.
Women stepped into “men’s work,” including thousands in the role of the much-popularized “Rosie the Riveter.” Other women tendered top-tier intellectual contributions as code breakers — a stunning story hidden by secrecy for decades.
Day by day, newspaper readers and radio listeners consumed far more upbeat and inspiring stories of ordinary people dutifully abiding the exactions the war effort demanded, and commonly going even further to show support — something most Americans did and will do as a matter of course today, amid the pandemic.
But Americans of that era were not all saints. There were numerous and ingenious attempts to circumvent the rationing system. This started at the top, where it was revealed that 40 percent of the members of the House of Representatives had secured unlimited access to otherwise rationed gasoline. Front-line servicemen routinely facing misery and death reviled industrial strikers, no matter the merits of the workers’ claims.
When some coal miners struck, FDR responded by seizing the coal mines and even proposing that the draft age be extended to 65 to give him power to induct the miners (or other would-be strikers) into the armed forces. But Congress balked at that grant of executive power.
While it is proper to remember that these shortfalls existed — and variations on them will be repeated today — the overall performance of our predecessors warrants our deep respect and emulation.
Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, provides us in one episode a metaphor of how individual Americans met unexpected challenges. At the launching of the new aircraft carrier Yorktown in 1943, the first lady’s duty was to break the traditional champagne bottle on the bow as the warship began its slide down the ways. This decorous ceremonial role promised to be staid and routine, but the workers had miscalculated the loosening of the structure that had held the Yorktown in place.
The ceremony had barely started when, with a mighty rumble, the 27,000-ton carrier suddenly began launching herself. With great presence of mind, Roosevelt rushed over and smashed the bottle on the bow in the mere seconds before it lurched beyond reach. This tiny but symbolic moment points to the core requirement of our moment as it was of theirs: In numberless, unanticipated ways, millions of individual Americans on their own initiative will spontaneously rally to put right what threatens to go wrong.