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

By Rein, Christopher M. | WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Rein, Christopher M., WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts


Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II. Arthur Herman, New York: Random House, 2012. $28.00. cloth, i-xiv, 413 pp.

Since the culmination of the conservative revolution in 1980, interests on the right have commissioned countless studies to challenge the liberal-consensus interpretation of events that dominated the previous half-century. Sadly, many of these revisionists have often either ignored or manipulated historical evidence in order to advance their own views. Arthur Herman's Freedom's Forge fits solidly within this genre.

Commissioned and funded by the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Freedom's Forge attempts to rewrite history by deemphasizing the collaboration of government, business and labor that supplied the Allies and the fighting men and women on the front lines who actually won the war and substitute instead an alternate reality where the private sector alone triumphed over obstructionist "New Dealers" in the Roosevelt administration and a labor movement supposedly dominated by communists to singly-handedly win the war. Herman actually seems to believe that, "their foes weren't German or Japanese soldiers but Washington politicians and bureaucrats, shrill journalists, military martinets, the denizens of Big Labor as well as Big Government." The attack continues unabated throughout the work, recreating a fanciful, almost fictional world and unfortunately letting political bias and partisan screed get in the way of what could have been an interesting story.

The advance praise touts Freedom's Forge as "one of the last great, untold stories of the war," (dustjacket) but Herman's heavy reliance on secondary sources suggest that much of the story has already been told. In tracing the lives of William Knudsen and Henry Kaiser, his two protagonists, Herman relies heavily on a 1947 biography of Knudsen and a 1989 biography of Kaiser. The scanty archival research suggests that there really isn't much new to this story, other than the twisting to fit a conservative meta-narrative.

Knudsen and Kaiser seem to have been chosen as a framework for the narrative because both were self-made men who rose from humble origins to amass great wealth, a staple of conservative defenses of capitalism and the myth that anyone with talent can succeed. Herman goes out of his way to highlight other Horatio Alger-esque success stories, perhaps in an attempt to deflect criticism of all the captains of industry who inherited their wealth rather than earning it. But Kaiser's case in particular calls into question the private sector's ability to succeed without government support. We learn that Kaiser made his mark fulfilling government contracts let under the 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act, at one point even jumping from a moving train in order to reach a contract office on time and enter a bid. Kaiser's shipbuilding empire during World War II was fueled entirely by government contracts (highlighting the private sector's inability to anticipate and meet the national need for merchant shipping in the absence of any clear profit motive) and quickly collapsed in the post-war years. …

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