Tag Archives: Franklin Roosevelt

A mind-boggling tale: How America rearmed to win World War II

A review of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

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Since I was born six months before the U.S. entry into World War II, I grew up familiar with a long list of names — little-heard now, more than half a century later — that were associated with the U.S. role in the war that seized hold of Planet Earth for a half-dozen years and set America’s course as a superpower for the balance of the 20th Century. Jimmy Doolittle, Henry Kaiser, George Marshall, Hap Arnold, Curtis LeMay, Paul Tibbetts, and a host of others — every one of whom figures in the epic story so skillfully told in Freedom’s Forge.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Freedom’s Forge focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945.  Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.

Nothing since — not the Apollo moon landings, not the war in Vietnam, not even America’s protracted wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East — has come even remotely close to the magnitude of World War II. Over the five-year period from July 1940, when the U.S. began to rearm, until August 1945, when Japan surrendered, “America’s shipyards had launched 141 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, and . . . almost 52 million tons of merchant shipping. Its factories turned out 88,410 tanks and self-propelled guns, 257,000 artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.6 million machine guns — and 41 billion rounds of ammunition. As for aircraft, the United States had produced 324,750, averaging 170 a day since 1942.”

Can the human mind today even comprehend what must have been involved in manufacturing 300,000 airplanes and 100 aircraft carriers?

This staggering output of weapons came as a result of a profound transformation of the American economy, engineered in significant part by Bill Knudsen and Henry Kaiser. The two could hardly have been more different, and they didn’t like each other. Knudsen was a modest and unassuming Danish immigrant who worked closely with Henry Ford on the Model T and later built and ran General Motors into the world’s largest industrial corporation, dwarfing Ford’s output. Kaiser, a West Coast construction magnate who was the son of German immigrants, was flashy, outgoing, and immoderately persuasive — a model of self-promotion. Together with a host of others in and out of government, these two men led the conversion of the U.S. economy to unparalleled heights as the “arsenal of freedom.” Nonetheless, “[i]n 1945 Americans ate more meat, bought more shoes and gasoline, and used more electricity than they had before Hitler invaded France.”

Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading Freedom’s Forge, there was one discordant note. Author Arthur Herman, a free-market conservative who wrote this book as a visiting scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, advanced a political message throughout. That message could be summed up as “FDR, the New Deal, labor unions — bad. Business, businessmen, military leaders — good.” He could hardly have been more blatant. But the man writes well, and he did a stellar job of telling this unimaginably complex story between the covers of a single volume.

In the conclusion, Herman quotes Josef Stalin when he first met at Tehran with Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943: he “raised his glass in a toast ‘to American production, without which this war would have been lost.'” There could be no higher praise for capitalism, coming as it did from the dictator of the Communist Soviet Union.

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Filed under Business, Nonfiction

One remarkable man, and the origins of the CIA

A review of Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

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It’s said the spying is the second oldest profession, though I suspect that peeping Toms, who are spies after all, predated prostitutes. But no matter.

In later years, this profession of indeterminate age has been dignified with the French term, espionage. That way it sounds more civilized. But in the modern era, espionage has been anything but civilized. And in its American incarnation, we owe a good part of its unsavory reputation to the imagination of Wild Bill Donovan, the larger-than-life subject of Douglas Waller’s comprehensive new biography.

Donovan was what is sometimes termed a “force of nature.” He won a Medal of Honor in World War I for his indisputable courage on the battlefield, and he proved himself brave — sometimes to the point of recklessness — over and over again in his repeated excursions onto the front lines in the Second World War. Donovan was a law unto himself both in his (often-public) private life and in his extended role during World War II as the founding director of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. He was a conservative Republican who somehow managed to survive for years in a Democratic Administration. He went head-to-head with many of the most powerful, stubbornest, and most manipulative figures of the age, including Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevent, Douglas MacArthur, Chiang Kai-Shek, and J. Edgar Hoover — and, more often than not, came out the winner. He personally landed with the first waves of troops in virtually every major amphibious invasion by Allied forces in the European and North African theater, usually against explicit orders. He was a favorite target of Nazi propaganda. J. Edgar Hoover, his bitterest enemy, despised him so much that he even went to the extreme of arresting OSS agents to embarrass Donovan.

Under Donovan’s forceful leadership, the upstart American agency horned itself in on the storied operations of MI6, the British Secret Service, and forced one Allied commanding general after another to shelter his agents in their armies. Against the prevailing wisdom in military circles, and often the determined opposition of his superiors, he mounted extensive operations to organize partisans in North Africa, in France, in the Balkans and Central Europe, and ultimately in Germany itself.

In short, William J. Donovan, raised hell in World War II. He truly deserved the nickname he acquired from an enlisted man in awe of his seemingly crazy orders on the field in the Argonne forest.

Ultimately, Donovan came to covet the position as the founding director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an entity he conceived and began lobbying for in 1943, well before the end of the war. However, his unrestrained antics soured Roosevelt and Truman alike, and he was denied the post, to his everlasting disappointment. But it’s a mark of his impact on the new agency that several of the signature directors of the CIA had worked directly for him in the OSS: Allen Dulles, Bill Casey, Richard Helms, and William Colby.

The author, Douglas Waller, is a former correspondent for Time magazine. He has also written several books about the U.S. military.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction