The Business of Fighting

By Reutter, Mark | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Business of Fighting


Reutter, Mark, The Wilson Quarterly


A CALL TO ARMS: MOBILIZING AMERICA FOR WORLD WAR II

By Maury Klein

Bloomsbury Press

897 pp. $40.00

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TODAY, WHEN THE MILITARY CONSUMES nearly 60 percent of Washington's discretionary spending, it's hard to imagine that, less than a century ago, Portugal and 16 other nations fielded bigger armed forces than that of the United States. On the brink of World War II, American infantrymen were still carrying the same Springfield rifles that had been standard issue in the first great war. While the fact that America was wretchedly unprepared for World War II is embedded in nearly every account of the global conflict that started with Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, the subsequent mobilization of the American "home front" in support of the war effort has become the stuff of legend.

Having manufactured a mere 1,700 warplanes before 1939, American factories turned out 325,000 more by 1945, as well as 88,000 tanks and 2.5 million machine guns. While the United States didn't always produce the best equipment (German Panther tanks made mincemeat of American Shermans), it did produce the most weaponry, which ultimately turned the tide against Hitler and imperial Japan. This immense undertaking has been the subject of many books, most recently Arthur Herman's Freedom's Forge (2012) and Paul Kennedy's Engineers of Victory, published earlier this year. In A Call to Arms, Maury Klein, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island, offers his own sweeping saga of how bureaucrats and businessmen converted a Depression-ravaged economy into what President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call "an arsenal of democracy."

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America's initial reluctance to enter the war was compounded by the public perception that businessmen were pushing the country into the conflict to make a profit. After World War I, many munitions factories had been shuttered when they lost their government contracts and in the face of public antiwar sentiment. "In their bitterness," Klein writes, "many people found a convenient scapegoat in the war industries and vowed never to repeat that mistake." But of course, eventually the nation's attitude changed. "To many a U.S. citizen," reported Time, "the screaming headlines of the German smash through Belgium and down into France came like an unremitting, seven-day Orson Welles broadcast of an invasion from Mars."

Foremost on Klein's radar screen is President Roosevelt. Klein credits FDR for his early attempts to awaken an isolationist country to the threat posed by Hitler and for pushing mobilization forward through gifted oratory and "blank-check" spending. Others who stride across the book's stage include Henry Kaiser, builder of the indispensable "ugly duckling" Liberty ships that ferried supplies to America's far-flung troops and allies abroad, "rubber czar" William Jeffers, the squabbling New Dealers Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes, the courtly banker Bernard Baruch, the waffling War Production Board chief Donald Nelson, and the thundering isolationist and United Mine Workers boss John L. Lewis.

Klein interweaves descriptions of his cast of characters with accounts of the challenges the American war machine came up against. Initially, Japan and Germany made headway toward hobbling American shipping and cutting off the country's sources of important raw materials. (Silk, for example, essential to the manufacture of parachutes and bags for the powder charges in large guns-until the development of nylon--had been sourced primarily from Japan. …

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