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Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman. Random House, 2012, 346 pp.

Admittedly, the B-29 fuselage on the cover of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman caught my eye and led me to scan the first few pages. Thank goodness for slick-looking dust jackets because Herman’s book is a page-turner. It is 1939, and Hitler attacks Poland. Soon Britain stands alone. Far away the United States struggles out of the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) knows that the ocean cannot forever protect America from the chaos engulfing Europe. He decides to prepare via US industrial might, but industry is not all that mighty in the late 1930s. What to do?

The “greatest generation” story of how US industry ramped up to build liberty ships in record time and crank out bombers by the hundreds is probably familiar, at least vaguely, to most people. Herman’s book goes deep to tell the story of the men behind that production, shining light on names like Henry Kaiser and others perhaps unfamiliar to Airmen. Wisely, FDR summons and corrals these men, relying on their peacetime métier to make that wartime industrial miracle happen.

And what men they are—the best in their fields: Bill Knudsen and mass production, the aforementioned Henry Kaiser and big construction, and “Cast-Iron Charlie” Sorensen and Ford Auto, to name just a few. Herman explains where these individuals came from and how their American industrial backgrounds—successes and failures—position them to foment brilliant recommendations and tough decisions to get US industry in high gear. It will not be easy; the state of many US industries is dismal. Further, these individuals are human; some simply do not like each other. We witness big egos at play. They clash, on occasion, even to the point of physical violence.

Airpower advocates will find that the book has a certain appeal, simply from the standpoint of how all the airframes such as B-24s and P-51s begin coming out of car factories. Yes, car factories. But be advised that the book focuses on masters of industry as opposed to masters of the air. If one is researching the machinations of, say, Hap Arnold or Jimmy Doolittle in this tale, he or she should note that Herman covers them only slightly. General Arnold’s classic book Global Mission is the best go-to source for how A Few Great Captains played their roles, as described by DeWitt S. Copp in his classic work of the same name.

However, one military person does stand out—and rightfully so—albeit briefly. In May 1940 as German tanks traverse France like so many bumper cars, an epochal scene occurs at the White House. Gen George C. Marshall asks FDR if he can have the famous three minutes to give, as Herman appropriately describes it, “the speech of his life” (p. 10). Once FDR grants Marshall the time, the president then receives a stern remonstration to rearm America, and quickly. This is classic “cometh the hour, cometh the man” stuff. Herman captures, perhaps unknowingly, the real pivotal moment that saves America. There is, however, a slight variance with Herman’s timing of the event and that of other sources: the author indicates that an urgent telegram from Churchill to FDR, after the fall of France, triggers that meeting; FDR’s historical calendar, however, shows Churchill’s telegram arriving a day later. This discrepancy, however, is not a detractor. Those, but only a few, lie elsewhere.

For instance, when it comes to the production numbers of tanks, planes, machine guns, and so forth, the book contains a good deal of data—actually, an incredible amount of data. The before-and-after numbers are staggering, and a reader may become desensitized to them. Nevertheless, the numbers do work to convey the magnitude of production; they do add to the story’s coherence. Also, the creative modular construction of the liberty ships is fascinating, but to a nonengineer, the processes described might be difficult to follow. Readers may need to google terms such as retractor conveyor (p. 186) to get a visual idea of this assembly line. A diagram or graphic would have been helpful here. And Herman does not narrate the industrial experts’ histories on one timeline. He covers the prominent characters in significant detail, appropriately dedicating a chapter to each. However, readers will have to backtrack to establish who is meeting whom—and when—as their careers intertwine.

Finally, a warning is in order for anyone enamored of FDR and his New Deal. Herman takes aim in an almost iconoclastic way. True enough, prescient FDR eventually brings America’s industrial know-it-all men together. But as they undertake the business of industrial conversion for war, they constantly clash with skeptical administration New Dealers who persistently watch, hover, and probe to ensure that big business does not profit too much—never mind that America’s survival is at stake. Bill Knudsen, in particular, constantly brushes away inimical bureaucrats as a struggling farmer swats away gnats while racing to finish a harvest ahead of an approaching hailstorm.

Interestingly, one aspect of this saga is not mentioned but inferred. As automakers, dam builders, and clothing manufacturers struggle to accelerate production, they do so without computers, PowerPoint, or any other type of modern cyber convenience. One can almost hear the typewriters clattering away in the background and the screaming into 1930s telephones as monumental problems of factory locations, contracts, material shortages, and worker strikes are sorted out. Perhaps this is instructive for us today: could the United States meet this type of challenge without our modern communications, let alone make it happen at all?

No plot spoiler here. History shows that US production capability eventually wins the wars in Europe and the Pacific. Still, Herman writes of these men, their challenges, the obstacles, and crushing deadlines in a way that makes the heart pound.

Col John R. Culclasure, USAF, Retired

US Army Command and General Staff College

Fort Belvoir, Virginia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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