In that regard, Americans should look to 1940 — when the nation began war mobilization efforts while still fighting the Great Depression — for inspiration for how it can manage its problems today. At that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt foresaw problems on the horizon and moved aggressively and preemptively with bipartisan support to launch an expensive and expansive war preparedness program that rearmed the country, kicked off industrial mobilization, formulated an Anglo-American alliance and awakened the nation to the totalitarian and fascist menaces threatening the world. Today, we need leaders who are able to work together, assess information about the threats we face — now and in the future — and think expansively about tackling global challenges.
Following the German invasion of Western Europe on May 10, 1940, Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress, “The clear fact is that the American people must recast their thinking about national protection.” The speech moved members of both parties, and Congress appropriated more than $3 billion of additional expenditures for national defense throughout the rest of the summer, which enabled, among other things, the construction of a two-ocean Navy. Funding this effort necessitated the administration and Congress coming together to pass a $656 million revenue bill, creating a new “defense tax rate” on many consumer goods, including tires, automobiles, gasoline and alcohol — and Americans, still struggling to escape the Great Depression, accepting these additional levies.
Using this money to ramp up defense production also required cooperation from industry. Securing that cooperation necessitated passage of the Second Revenue Act of 1940 in October, which enabled an adjusted write-off schedule of business capital loss and increased taxes on corporations, both essential for unleashing American manufacturing power. This law eased the burden on industry while preventing cases of war profiteering.
The challenges confronting the United States in 1940 did not simply stem from the specter of war. The lingering Depression meant unemployment rates remained stubbornly high at 15 percent.
The president understood that to navigate a foreboding international situation and refocus the economy on military production, he needed to bring Americans together. He used action, in addition to rhetoric, to accomplish this goal.
For one, he reconstituted the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense (NDAC). The NDAC was critical for coordinating purchases, determining priorities and facilitating over $9 billion in production plant construction. It brought New Dealers, Republicans, labor advocates and business executives together for a common purpose. Its work ensured that corporations would invest capital in production, enabling America’s industrial capacity to be brought to bear against fascism. But it also safeguarded important New Deal social reforms passed over the previous decade.
The president needed buy-in from Americans across political lines, especially given public resistance to greater engagement in the European war. As such, in June, on the cusp of a campaign for an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt asked lifelong Republican Henry Stimson to assume the position of war secretary and newspaperman Frank Knox, the 1936 Republican vice presidential nominee, to become Navy secretary. This was a savvy political move, but it also displayed an appreciation for the seriousness of the times by Stimson and Knox, who willingly abandoned party politics to lead their departments in the crucial preparedness effort.
Indeed, Republicans played their part in meeting the crisis. Even as a strong vein of isolationism flourished in the GOP, it nominated internationalist Wendell Willkie for president, offering a clear indication that isolationism would not define the party and that national preparedness would not be a partisan issue. Roosevelt and Willkie actually found common ground during the campaign regarding defense, including on the importance of the first peacetime draft in American history, which Roosevelt dubbed “essential to adequate national defense.” This bipartisanship helped smooth passage of a draft law at the height of the fall presidential campaign.
Conscription increased the size of the army, but also exposed important faults in the military’s infrastructure and equipment capacity that, thanks to the foresight of the preparedness effort, were remedied before war actually came. Importantly, the passage of the law demonstrated to Americans that leaders of both parties understood the necessity of looking ahead and gauging the nation’s future needs.
Crucially, late in the year, Roosevelt sold a war-skeptical public on assistance measures that would allow the United States to provide much-needed supplies to the British without requiring cash payment. In September, the president announced that America would furnish 50 old destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases on British bases in the Western Hemisphere. In December, Roosevelt spoke to the country of trying to “eliminate the dollar sign” in supplying arms and munitions to Britain, a policy that later morphed into the important Lend-Lease Act of 1941. The president had guided Americans to understanding how allies are critical to American defense and to the importance of providing aid and supplies to keep them engaged against a common foe.
After Roosevelt secured a third term, the president spoke to the country in his end-of-year fireside chat, stating that the United States’ purpose was to be an “arsenal of democracy” and to “build now with all possible speed every machine, every arsenal, every factory that we need to manufacture our defense material.” Such a vision was only possible because Roosevelt had gained a mandate of approval for the country’s vast and expensive war preparedness program from voters.
The enormous effort to prepare America for war in 1940 required the kind of effort we need today to combat our problems, domestic and foreign. It demanded that leaders in both parties — and the American public — exercise foresight, bipartisanship, support for allies and the ability to anticipate threats and act prudently to combat them before it was too late.
Today, however, American leaders have proven incapable of embracing bipartisanship and a willingness to put country before party or reputation, especially in an election year. Politicians have let party politics and personal election efforts cloud their vision of the facts regarding threats such as Russian election interference.
But that needs to change. Problems such as climate change require anticipatory action every bit as much as the looming threat of totalitarianism did in 1940. Supporting our allies in NATO and the Afghans fighting the Taliban is as important as backing the British was in 1940. Abandoning the Kurds was a terrible signal, exactly the opposite of what Roosevelt did.
Damage has been done to America’s preparedness to confront today’s global challenges, but it is not too late. As the dark days of 1940 reveal, while our leaders have been fumbling in their response to a threatening and evolving international environment, we have overcome menacing threats before. Doing so, however, will require embracing the methods that American leaders used to tackle those challenges.