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Freedom's Forge: How American Business Built the Arsenal of Democracy That Won World War II

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Remarkable as it may seem today, there once was a time when the president of the United States could pick up the phone and ask the president of General Motors to resign his position and take the reins of a great national enterprise. And the CEO would oblige, no questions asked, because it was his patriotic duty.   In Freedom’s Forge, bestselling author Arthur Herman takes Remarkable as it may seem today, there once was a time when the president of the United States could pick up the phone and ask the president of General Motors to resign his position and take the reins of a great national enterprise. And the CEO would oblige, no questions asked, because it was his patriotic duty.   In Freedom’s Forge, bestselling author Arthur Herman takes us back to that time, revealing how two extraordinary American businessmen—automobile magnate William Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser—helped corral, cajole, and inspire business leaders across the country to mobilize the “arsenal of democracy” that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II.   “Knudsen? I want to see you in Washington. I want you to work on some production matters.” With those words, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enlisted “Big Bill” Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who had risen through the ranks of the auto industry to become president of General Motors, to drop his plans for market domination and join the U.S. Army. Commissioned a lieutenant general, Knudsen assembled a crack team of industrial innovators, persuading them one by one to leave their lucrative private sector positions and join him in Washington, D.C. Dubbed the “dollar-a-year men,” these dedicated patriots quickly took charge of America’s moribund war production effort.   Henry J. Kaiser was a maverick California industrialist famed for his innovative business techniques and his can-do management style. He, too, joined the cause. His Liberty ships became World War II icons—and the Kaiser name became so admired that FDR briefly considered making him his vice president in 1944. Together, Knudsen and Kaiser created a wartime production behemoth. Drafting top talent from companies like Chrysler, Republic Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and Frigidaire, they turned auto plants into aircraft factories and civilian assembly lines into fountains of munitions, giving Americans fighting in Europe and Asia the tools they needed to defeat the Axis. In four short years they transformed America’s army from a hollow shell into a truly global force, laying the foundations for a new industrial America—and for the country’s rise as an economic as well as military superpower.   Featuring behind-the-scenes portraits of FDR, George Marshall, Henry Stimson, Harry Hopkins, Jimmy Doolittle, and Curtis LeMay, as well as scores of largely forgotten heroes and heroines of the wartime industrial effort, Freedom’s Forge is the American story writ large. It vividly re-creates American industry’s finest hour, when the nation’s business elites put aside their pursuit of profits and set about saving the world.


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Remarkable as it may seem today, there once was a time when the president of the United States could pick up the phone and ask the president of General Motors to resign his position and take the reins of a great national enterprise. And the CEO would oblige, no questions asked, because it was his patriotic duty.   In Freedom’s Forge, bestselling author Arthur Herman takes Remarkable as it may seem today, there once was a time when the president of the United States could pick up the phone and ask the president of General Motors to resign his position and take the reins of a great national enterprise. And the CEO would oblige, no questions asked, because it was his patriotic duty.   In Freedom’s Forge, bestselling author Arthur Herman takes us back to that time, revealing how two extraordinary American businessmen—automobile magnate William Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser—helped corral, cajole, and inspire business leaders across the country to mobilize the “arsenal of democracy” that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II.   “Knudsen? I want to see you in Washington. I want you to work on some production matters.” With those words, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enlisted “Big Bill” Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who had risen through the ranks of the auto industry to become president of General Motors, to drop his plans for market domination and join the U.S. Army. Commissioned a lieutenant general, Knudsen assembled a crack team of industrial innovators, persuading them one by one to leave their lucrative private sector positions and join him in Washington, D.C. Dubbed the “dollar-a-year men,” these dedicated patriots quickly took charge of America’s moribund war production effort.   Henry J. Kaiser was a maverick California industrialist famed for his innovative business techniques and his can-do management style. He, too, joined the cause. His Liberty ships became World War II icons—and the Kaiser name became so admired that FDR briefly considered making him his vice president in 1944. Together, Knudsen and Kaiser created a wartime production behemoth. Drafting top talent from companies like Chrysler, Republic Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and Frigidaire, they turned auto plants into aircraft factories and civilian assembly lines into fountains of munitions, giving Americans fighting in Europe and Asia the tools they needed to defeat the Axis. In four short years they transformed America’s army from a hollow shell into a truly global force, laying the foundations for a new industrial America—and for the country’s rise as an economic as well as military superpower.   Featuring behind-the-scenes portraits of FDR, George Marshall, Henry Stimson, Harry Hopkins, Jimmy Doolittle, and Curtis LeMay, as well as scores of largely forgotten heroes and heroines of the wartime industrial effort, Freedom’s Forge is the American story writ large. It vividly re-creates American industry’s finest hour, when the nation’s business elites put aside their pursuit of profits and set about saving the world.

30 review for Freedom's Forge: How American Business Built the Arsenal of Democracy That Won World War II

  1. 4 out of 5

    Boudewijn

    In this book, two individuals are followed that - according to the author - helped American industries in becoming the arsenal of democracies. In so doing, they transformed America’s military into the biggest and most powerful in the world. They also laid the foundations for a postwar prosperity that would extend across three decades until the 1970s and fuel the economic growth of the rest of the planet. One was William Knudsen, who worked his way up from the shop floor to become president of Gen In this book, two individuals are followed that - according to the author - helped American industries in becoming the arsenal of democracies. In so doing, they transformed America’s military into the biggest and most powerful in the world. They also laid the foundations for a postwar prosperity that would extend across three decades until the 1970s and fuel the economic growth of the rest of the planet. One was William Knudsen, who worked his way up from the shop floor to become president of General Motors. The other was Henry Kaiser, who became America’s most famous shipbuilder and the living symbol of the productive power of the arsenal of democracy with his launching of the Liberty ships. Knudsen triggered a second industrial revolution based on mass production, one that lowered costs by making more, not fewer, of a product—and one that ruthlessly weeded out the old and obsolete to make way for the new. Apart from that, he created a “flexible mass production”: a manufacturing process that allows for constant modification and change. Knudsen also had faith in the power of mass production. He knew that in World War I large parts of American industry still had not switched over to the flexible-assembly-line methods that were now common in the automobile industry. If the country was going to make itself seriously ready for war, neither the politicians nor the generals nor the admirals were willing to take the lead. American business and industry would have to figure it out on their own. Roosevelt appointed Knudsen as chairman of the National Defense Advisory Commission, where his immediate focus was on how a commission that was entirely advisory, with no powers of its own, was going to proceed. One thing that certainly helped, was that the British flooded the American defence industry with orders, whereas the American army was not. One other man saw a golden oppurtunity. Meeting Britain’s urgent demand would mean gearing up America’s merchant shipbuilding capacity to an entirely new level, after being in the doldrums for almost a decade. Henry Kaiser to the rescue. Such was the beginning of what would become the most famous shipyards in the world, producing the most famous merchant ship in the world—the Liberty ship. The result? America, the isolationist nation still at peace, was fast approaching Nazi Germany in its defense output. In 1942 it would roar past it. merica was poised to produce arms in quantities no one had ever thought possible. The explosive rate of growth Knudsen and his colleagues triggered from mid-1940 to the end of 1941 eased after 1942, although the numbers of planes, ships, tanks, and weapons would continue to explode. It was all due to Knudsen and his team. When the Allies had won the war in 1945, America’s shipyards had launched 141 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, and, thanks to Henry Kaiser and his colleagues, 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. Yet America had done all this while remaining the least mobilized of the Second World War combatants. The smallest percentage of the male population entered the armed forces. Yet the output of consumer goods was larger every war year than it had been in 1939, despite the restrictions and rationing. In 1945 Americans ate more meat, bought more shoes and gasoline, and used more electricity than they had before Hitler invaded France. The dream of an economy vibrant enough to produce both guns and butter had been realized thanks to American business. What made America productive wasn’t the war or government dictates or a supreme sense of national urgency. It was the miracle of mass production, which, once turned loose, could overcome any obstacle or difficulty. The book follows Knudsen and Kaiser in their approach, how they overcame important problems such as labour shortages, union problems and ignorant generals and admirals. It gives some interesting insights behind the personalities and policies of the great American mobilization that helped to win the war.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    This is a history of the effort to mobilize war production in the US in WWII - a biography of the "arsenal of democracy". This is a massive story that is essential in understanding the link between the US during the great depression and the post-war economic boom. The book is organized around the wartime biographies of two men - William Knudsen of General Motors and Henry Kaiser, of Kaiser Industries Fame. Both men played key roles in war mobilization - Knudsen by laying the initial foundations This is a history of the effort to mobilize war production in the US in WWII - a biography of the "arsenal of democracy". This is a massive story that is essential in understanding the link between the US during the great depression and the post-war economic boom. The book is organized around the wartime biographies of two men - William Knudsen of General Motors and Henry Kaiser, of Kaiser Industries Fame. Both men played key roles in war mobilization - Knudsen by laying the initial foundations for the involvement of large industrial firms in war mobilization and Kaiser through his development of Liberty Ships and numerous other project in shipbuilding and infrastructure development. These men and their colleagues were amazing people who did wonderful achievements that materially contributed to winning the war. The story is an important one that is generally told in bits and pieces in other industries. The book is well written and moves well. Apart from the large number of interesting bits of history throughout the book, the story itself is well told and shows much thought. For example, the two lead characters, Kaiser and Knudsen, distinguished themselves in different types of industrial production. Knudsen was the star of GM who led his Chevy division past Ford. He was the master of industrial mass production and this figured greatly in the great wartime factors to produce tanks, trucks, and bombers, to name only a few products. Kaiser, on the other hand, was the master of project work. He initially gained his fame as the leader of the six company coalition behind the Hoover Dam and he was essential at developing US shipyeards to produce merchant ships and even new navy warships (such as his mini aircraft carrier). If one follows business history, this distinction between mass production and projects is fundamental and it is reasonable to look at industrial accomplishments during WWII this way. This climax of the book is -- no surprise -- the combination of the super plane (the B29) and the Atomic Bomb, the super weapon from the Manhattan Project -- that led to Japan's surrender. It is a fitting combination of project work and mass production. The book's discussion of subcontracting networks is also well done and informative. One annoying aspect of the book is its efforts to cloth the story in the ideological take of war mobilization as the triumph of free market capitalism -- as opposed to the inept bureaucrats of the New Deal and the greedy and unpatriotic strikes of the unions. While the organization and efficiency of the industrial firms contributed hugely to allied success, this was very clearly a monumental exercise of business-government cooperation. While I agree that the price system was important in assuring an efficient result, this was not what we would commonly call free market or entrepreneurial capitalism (except with the subcontractors). Why? First, the prime industries were large and oligopolistic to start with. The major players generally knew each other and could cooperate with each other - which a market observer would call more collusive than competitive. More importantly, the government picked up the risk in this contracts, so the firms got to benefit from government investment and volume while being able to recoup their costs and secure a fixed fee for a profit -- these are the "cost-plus" contracts mentioned early in the story. If the government picks up the investment tab and covers the profit risk, an effort may benefit from a firm's expertise, but this is not the "free market". The Keynesian view that wartime spending was the stimulus plan that finally got the US out of the depression is more on target. A related point on this concerns the unions, which are considered negatively in the book. If firms are getting their profits guaranteed, why fault the unions for trying to do the same? The free market interpretation sounds a bit like an effort at revisionist history. It is not accurate. More importantly, it is not necessary. The story is interesting on its own terms and the ideology detracts from the fundamental value of the book and the author's many strong points.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    I finish the vast majority of books I start (especially non-fiction), and the ones I don't, it's usually because the topic doesn't interest me. In this case, however, I find the topic--the role of American business in World War II--extremely interesting; I just couldn't handle the slanted way it was presented. And I have never before posted a review for a book I didn't finish, but in this case felt like I had a good enough understanding of its flaws to make a reasonable comment. The key businessm I finish the vast majority of books I start (especially non-fiction), and the ones I don't, it's usually because the topic doesn't interest me. In this case, however, I find the topic--the role of American business in World War II--extremely interesting; I just couldn't handle the slanted way it was presented. And I have never before posted a review for a book I didn't finish, but in this case felt like I had a good enough understanding of its flaws to make a reasonable comment. The key businessmen are lionized, with little acknowledgement of others who may have contributed, the role of luck, etc., and government (especially Democrats) are continuously denigrated. After a while, this really grated, even for someone with pretty libertarian views. For example, he gives William Knudsen complete credit for both the continuous assembly line and the "flexible mass production" process. Or paragraphs like "If the country was going to make itself seriously ready for war, neither the politicians nor hte generals nor the admiral were willing to take the lead. American business and industry would have to figure it out on their own." As well, the book is poorly copy-edited, which I have little patience for. ("In 1936 Sloan's GM was selling more cars than it had before the Depression. In 1937 it was selling more.") And frankly I think it's rather sexist for any book published in 2012 to use the term "coed." Anyway, it's too bad--I think there's an interesting story to be told here, it just isn't compelling to read when it's done in such an over-the-top way--it leaves you wondering what's really true, and what has been embellished to fit the author's pre-conceived beliefs. I suppose it's my own fault for not looking into his position a bit more; he works for the American Enterprise Institute.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Clyde

    A very good history of the incredible mobilization of American industrial might during WW2. Very well researched and quite detailed, this is the true story. I hadn't realized how unprepared the USA was for war in 1939. The amazing thing is how quickly things were turned around, mostly through the efforts of a few American industrial leaders. Some of the heroes of the great effort are well known. However, others have drifted into obscurity while some who were really not so important have been mad A very good history of the incredible mobilization of American industrial might during WW2. Very well researched and quite detailed, this is the true story. I hadn't realized how unprepared the USA was for war in 1939. The amazing thing is how quickly things were turned around, mostly through the efforts of a few American industrial leaders. Some of the heroes of the great effort are well known. However, others have drifted into obscurity while some who were really not so important have been made to seem so by various interest groups. Also, the can-do, get-it-done attitude of Americans of the time from all levels of society was a big advantage. The USA avoided the pitfalls of over-centralization that troubled German and Japanese industry during the war. However, that had a down side as it generated the mighty military-industrial complex that plagues us even to today. Good book, well written.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Luisa Knight

    I thoroughly enjoyed this read! It was both incredibly fascinating and well written! If you're interested in economics, history, The New Deal, capitalism, business, production and World War II, you'll most likely enjoy what this book offers. It closely follows the actions and leadership of the two men that essentially took America out of the Great Depression and turned it into the nation which became the world's strongest military power and aide of the War. Full of astonishing facts (such as: the I thoroughly enjoyed this read! It was both incredibly fascinating and well written! If you're interested in economics, history, The New Deal, capitalism, business, production and World War II, you'll most likely enjoy what this book offers. It closely follows the actions and leadership of the two men that essentially took America out of the Great Depression and turned it into the nation which became the world's strongest military power and aide of the War. Full of astonishing facts (such as: the U.S. was number 18 - just ahead of tiny Holland - in global military power just before World War II and by the middle of the War, it became 1st. Also, production lines got so efficient that a task force put out a Liberty ship in just four days, fifteen hours and twenty-six minutes!) and stories from Roosevelt, Churchill, production line workers, automobile mechanics, welders, sailors, airmen and others, it brings all the details and impressive achievements together in a nice, smooth flow. It might be a little comprehensive for some, but if you like learning about this era, I'm sure you'll love this book as much as I did! Cleanliness: nothing to note. **Like my reviews? Then you should follow me! Because I have hundreds more just like this one. With each review, I provide a Cleanliness Report, mentioning any objectionable content I come across so that parents and/or conscientious readers (like me) can determine beforehand whether they want to read a book or not. Content surprises are super annoying, especially when you’re 100+ pages in, so here’s my attempt to help you avoid that! So Follow or Friend me here on GoodReads! You’ll see my updates as I’m reading and know which books I’m liking and what I’m not finishing and why. You’ll also be able to utilize my library for looking up titles to see whether the book you’re thinking about reading next has any objectionable content or not. From swear words, to romance, to bad attitudes (in children’s books), I cover it all!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    I'm conflicted by this book. One one hand, it's a great examination of the American business machine in WWII - little acknowledged yet obviously a vital component to our success in the war, not to mention the postwar boom. On the other hand, it's quite slanted and partisan. The mustache-twirling villains are President Roosevelt, his New Deal Administration, and the obstructionist, utterly selfish labor unions (how dare they strike! we've got a war to win!). The saintly, self-sacrificing heroes a I'm conflicted by this book. One one hand, it's a great examination of the American business machine in WWII - little acknowledged yet obviously a vital component to our success in the war, not to mention the postwar boom. On the other hand, it's quite slanted and partisan. The mustache-twirling villains are President Roosevelt, his New Deal Administration, and the obstructionist, utterly selfish labor unions (how dare they strike! we've got a war to win!). The saintly, self-sacrificing heroes are the titans of industry, CEOs of auto, steel, and concrete companies who know best and are happy to volunteer their time for a dollar a day if only the government got out of their way. The book reminds me of "A Burns for All Seasons", the film Monty Burns commissioned for the Springfield Film Festival.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    As we all know the United States was the Arsenal of Freedom during WW2. This book does that story no great service. It pay's tribute to the technocrats and does nothing to celebrate the multiple people who took the initiative to help arm, clothe and feed the American armies and those of our allies. We don't hear anything about the people who worked in the mills and factories or how this help to start a number of seismic changes in the fabric of our culture. This book lauds those who contributed As we all know the United States was the Arsenal of Freedom during WW2. This book does that story no great service. It pay's tribute to the technocrats and does nothing to celebrate the multiple people who took the initiative to help arm, clothe and feed the American armies and those of our allies. We don't hear anything about the people who worked in the mills and factories or how this help to start a number of seismic changes in the fabric of our culture. This book lauds those who contributed to the success but who didn't own it. All in all this is a weak work and I suggest you pass it by.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Michael Elkon

    When I was in tenth grade, I was giddy at the prospect of finally getting to cover WWII in a class. The subject had been of interest for me since I was eight years old and my Dad took me on "45-minute walks" to tell me the story of the war. By age ten, I was reading books about it. So you might imagine my disappointment when in 5th grade and then again in 7th, we had "American History" and never got to the war. In fact, my 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Fluker (RIP), got to the Civil War in the final w When I was in tenth grade, I was giddy at the prospect of finally getting to cover WWII in a class. The subject had been of interest for me since I was eight years old and my Dad took me on "45-minute walks" to tell me the story of the war. By age ten, I was reading books about it. So you might imagine my disappointment when in 5th grade and then again in 7th, we had "American History" and never got to the war. In fact, my 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Fluker (RIP), got to the Civil War in the final week of school and then decided to give us a lecture on the early history of photography, which we dubbed "Daguerrotyping with Donnis." So when I got to 10th grade AP American History, I was really excited (as only a history nerd can) about finally getting to learn about WWII, not that I thought I needed to know anything else about it. Our first book for the class was "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn. I was thrilled to get to the chapter on WWII, the prospect of finally getting to cover my favorite academic subject, and was mortified to spend the next hour of my life reading about strikes. No battles, no campaigns, no invasions, just discord between virtuous workers and exploitative bosses. I mention this background because Freedom's Forge is the total inverse of Zinn's chapter on WW2. The people who won WWII, according to Arthur Herman, are not MacArthur, Nimitz, Patton, and and Eisenhower, but William Knudsen and Henry Kaiser. These two, along with numerous other executives, led an awe-inspiring effort to build an incredible number of planes, ships, tanks, and other war materials. They did so without a central planner in Washington commanding businesses to make certain products on certain schedules. Instead, Herman argues that they simply facilitated American business performing the task itself, with certain large businesses deciding to build equipment requested by the military. In essence, the government gave the businesses a task and paid the bills, leaving the titans of industry to figure out the best way to build the vast quantities of material that was used by the US, UK, and USSR. Causing Zinn to turn over in his grave, Herman is ruthlessly critical of organized labor, portraying them as enemies of production. At numerous turns, Herman states that unions went on strike and thereby jeopardized the war effort. He states that a number of the unions were led by Communist sympathizers who did not want production to be too great when the USSR and Nazis were allies, without examining that the implication would be that these agents would then want to maximize production as soon as the USSR was invaded and American supplies (especially trucks and radios) became critical to the Soviet war effort. He also argues that a number of the strikes were squabbles between unions, as that is less sympathetic than the notion that workers wanted better conditions and more pay. Herman cites a line from Adam Smith that bakers and butchers don't make food for altruistic reasons, but rather because of their desire to make money. He uses that line to justify businesses making profits during the war, but the same justification could be used to justify workers wanted better wages. He also cites an incredible statistic that twenty times more men and women were killed or injured in 1942-43 in industrial accidents than were killed or injured in combat. That stat is not especially complimentary of the factory operators whom Herman is lionizing. It's also a great advertisement for OSHA and the tort system. The description of how various businesses overcame challenges to hit and exceed production targets is fascinating. Two instances stand out. The first is Kaiser's construction of Liberty Ships, which Kaiser achieved by creating a standard, simple design and then letting his Richmond (CA) and Portland shipyards compete to see who could improve the manufacturing process the fastest, with the former winning the competition by making a Liberty Ship in four days and change. Herman doesn't ignore the fact that the Liberty Ships went through a period where they were splitting apart at the seams (lesson from the book: welding is better than using rivets, but you have to do the welding right or else bad shit happens), but he notes that Kaiser's team eventually solved the problem and many of the Liberty Ships were still on the seas two decades later. The second is the production of the B-29. Herman covers the creation of the famous B-24 plant at Willow Run (near Ypsilanti, which became known as Ypsitucky because of the number of Kentuckians who moved there to get jobs), and then was improved upon at Wichita with a production process for the B-29, which was a far more advanced bomber than the B-17 or B-24. (B-29s were also made by Bell in Marietta, a factory that was initially a failure and then turned out to be one of the best of the war.) It was bigger, faster, had a bigger bomb load (General Groves asked for that specifically from General Arnold because he was aware of the special weapon that was being produced in New Mexico and would need the capacity of the B-29 for delivery), was pressurized so it could fly higher, and had an automated gunnery system. Because of the technical issues involved in creating a plane of such dimensions, the B-29 had engine issues, i.e. they overheated constantly, especially when deployed to hot climates like, say, India, Burma, China, and the South Pacific. In peacetime, these technical issues would have taken years to solve, but with the pressure of needing to win a war on two fronts, they were solved quickly. The B-29 leads to two additional items of interest. First, the plans were made before Pearl Harbor. It's to FDR's credit that he saw WW2 coming years in advance, even when American public opinion was strongly opposed to getting involved. The task of ramping up for production would have been significantly tougher with an isolationist president. Second, Herman describes the process by which General Lemay figured out his strategy for razing Japan: he needed incendiaries rather than normal explosives and he needed his B-29s to fly lower. Unusually for an Ohio State graduate, he was exactly right. Herman ties Lemay to the story of the manufacturing process by noting that Kaiser's business had stumbled upon "goop," made from magnesium and useful in cleaning, which turned out to be highly flammable and quite adhesive. A few tests later, we had a highly effective incendiary weapon. Herman does not refer to it as napalm, mainly because proper napalm was invented by DuPont using petroleum rather than magnesium and turned out to be a more effective device in burning Japan. That's outside of his narrative. Herman also omits some details in his effort to lionize his subjects. He lovingly describes the process by which the M-3 Grant was developed and produced without mentioning the fact that it was a terrible design. He also described how effective the P-51 Mustang was with the Merlin engine, but although Herman doesn't shy away from the fact that the Merlin was a British design, he omits the fact that it was the British who figured out that pairing the engine with the P-51 created an exceptional fighter. My more fundamental criticism of Herman is that he is jingoistic in describing American production successes being unique in the war. He concludes that the US stayed away from a planned economy and that caused the US to produce more than the other combatants combined. He omits the fact that the US was bigger than all of the other participants and, crucially, was untouched during the war, which meant no bombs falling on factories or invading forces. It's pointless to compare the feats of American and Soviet industry when the Soviets had to relocate a large number of their factories across the Urals because of the German invasion. Herman concludes that American business won the war, but he never attempts to grapple with the advantages that it had over the other combatants. Moreover, Herman cites Richard Overy's "Why the Allies Won" in his acknowledgments, but that book paints a picture very different than Herman's dismissal of any non-Americans. Overy states that "the Soviet economy outproduced the German economy from a resource base a good deal smaller and with a workforce far less skilled," which he concludes is a "remarkable achievement" that might be the result of the Soviets' centrally planned economy and repressive state. In the end, Overy notes the common factors in the American and Soviet successes in producing, which contradicts Herman's point-of-view. Herman's POV runs away with him in the conclusion, when he claims that New Dealers tried to take credit for war production ending the Depression and that the economic boom after the war vindicated Keynes. Herman disagrees with this point, but doesn't explain why. In fact, the book stands as a vindication of Keynes. The US economy had substantial excess capacity, which the government filled by placing a massive amount of orders for military goods. As a result, unemployment vanished and the economy boomed. When the war ended, industry converted to peacetime production and the pent-up demand sustained the boom. This is exactly what Keynes would prescribe: the government stimulating demand during a downturn by spending. The fact that the orders were placed with private businesses as opposed to the government employing workers itself is immaterial. Add in the fact that the massive expansion during the war took place in an environment of high top tax rates (note that, supply-siders) and Herman's book supports Keynesianism, not the reverse. Overall, this is an enjoyable read. I plowed through it in a little over a week. The stories of how businesses ramped up their production are interesting. One should just take a lot of what Herman says about unions, government, and other countries with a grain of salt. He's hardly impartial on these subjects. Just as Zinn and his ilk have to be read with the understanding that they are advocates, the same is true with Herman.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Aminah Yaquin

    This book is startling in its evocation of the recognition of executive authority as measured not by status and money, but by the randomness of genius as it is developed in individuals whose talents and prodigious skills are honed by doing, and their ranks in a company earned, not purchased. Vestiges of the excitement of shared collective enterprise and pride in work, were still extant when I was young,and made even factory work very appealing...something Total Quality Management approached, but This book is startling in its evocation of the recognition of executive authority as measured not by status and money, but by the randomness of genius as it is developed in individuals whose talents and prodigious skills are honed by doing, and their ranks in a company earned, not purchased. Vestiges of the excitement of shared collective enterprise and pride in work, were still extant when I was young,and made even factory work very appealing...something Total Quality Management approached, but has since fallen into demise as the production of goods has given way in our country to the cottage industries of such destructive arenas for labor as telephone debt collecting and our ubiquitous, infernal prisons. Here is a book that celebrates, unashamedly and deservedly, the joys and accomplishments of business in stabilizing society, distributing wealth, and rewarding top management not with anarchic hedonistic perks like secret sex clubs and more paper money than most small nations ever see in their existences, but rather with the power to actualize accomplishment at every level of their business purview, big and small. How this made it possible for USA to shore up Britain's defenses,and defeat Hitler is enthralling reading so far. This book was Pulitzer nominated. Herman writes beautifully and with an unbowed spirit of confidence in true entrepreneurship.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mal Warwick

    The mind-boggling story of how America rearmed for World War II 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 Tibbet The mind-boggling story of how America rearmed for World War II 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. From www.malwarwickonbooks.com

  11. 5 out of 5

    Adam Yoshida

    In Freedom's Forge, Arthur Herman does something that I didn't think that anyone could: he teaches something that (for me, at least) is genuinely new, relevant, and interesting about the Second World War. This book follows a handful of American industrialists - from Henry Kaiser, who led the construction of the Liberty Ships that carried vital war materiel to to Bill Knudsen, a Danish immigrant and former General Motors executive who led the industrial mobilization effort in the opening years of In Freedom's Forge, Arthur Herman does something that I didn't think that anyone could: he teaches something that (for me, at least) is genuinely new, relevant, and interesting about the Second World War. This book follows a handful of American industrialists - from Henry Kaiser, who led the construction of the Liberty Ships that carried vital war materiel to to Bill Knudsen, a Danish immigrant and former General Motors executive who led the industrial mobilization effort in the opening years of the war and went on to serve as a Lieutenant General in the Army - as they turn the great American machine into Franklin Roosevelt's "Arsenal of Democracy." Freedom's Forge reminds me greatly of another book that I thoroughly enjoyed in recent years, Amity Shales "The Forgotten Man" in that it provides a convincing revisionist history of an era whose story has too often been told entirely through the words of historians sympathetic to Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, and the New Deal. Rather than an example of the virtues of centralized control, Herman argues, the Second World War provides an example of the creative dynamism of the capitalist system. The industrial might that allowed America to win the war and then feed and clothe the world in the years after didn't come from the central planners in Washington but, instead, as a result of the self-interested and largely-voluntary cooperation of the titans of American business.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jared Bryson

    I don’t know how you make industrial production during the 1940s exciting and patriotic, but Arthur Herman does it. He champions the production hero’s of the 1940s who helped produce the economic juggernaut that was the United States. He details the battles between the free market business community and the progressive/labor forces as well. An exceptional, eye-opening book on both business and history. A look at WWII that I’ve never seen before. Exciting. I could go on and on. If you like busines I don’t know how you make industrial production during the 1940s exciting and patriotic, but Arthur Herman does it. He champions the production hero’s of the 1940s who helped produce the economic juggernaut that was the United States. He details the battles between the free market business community and the progressive/labor forces as well. An exceptional, eye-opening book on both business and history. A look at WWII that I’ve never seen before. Exciting. I could go on and on. If you like business or WWII, this is a book for you.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Cropredy

    As I write this, we are in the midst of a pandemic. It is widely acknowledged we are "at war" with the virus, but don't have enough testing, tracing, isolation or PPE to get the upper hand in the war. Yet in 1939-41, Roosevelt realized the US was unprepared for a real war and took steps to rapidly turn US industrial might into war production, long before Pearl Harbor. Some of this production went to Britain and France, and then more to the Soviet Union. How is it that we could mobilize 80 years a As I write this, we are in the midst of a pandemic. It is widely acknowledged we are "at war" with the virus, but don't have enough testing, tracing, isolation or PPE to get the upper hand in the war. Yet in 1939-41, Roosevelt realized the US was unprepared for a real war and took steps to rapidly turn US industrial might into war production, long before Pearl Harbor. Some of this production went to Britain and France, and then more to the Soviet Union. How is it that we could mobilize 80 years ago but can't today? To get some insight, I selected this book to learn more on how the US mobilized for World War II. The book is mostly written from the "great man" style of history writing, with considerable time spent on William Knudsen and Henry Kaiser, giants in the 1930s industrial era (GM and construction, respectively). As described by Herman, these were men who could mobilize for large projects having learned how to mass produce quality cars (Knudsen) and build the Hoover Dam (Kaiser + others). They were deeply connected, had talented subordinates, were supremely self confident, and took risks. Herman, who comes from the Heritage Foundation, has little use for the New Dealers in the Roosevelt administration. The industrialists are lauded. There's even a book blurb from Glenn Beck - probably the first book I've ever read with his blurb. But, he gives Roosevelt credit for vision and leadership and partisan jabs are infrequent and light. I found the book had many fascinating stories - how the shipyards on the West Coast arose almost overnight to product Liberty ships; how production lines were streamlined to mass produce airplanes; how the constant request for modifications from the field were handled without disrupting the need for ever-increasing unit quantities of planes, tanks, and ships. It is pretty clear that neither environmental reviews or permitting were part of the process. The book wisely omits the Manhattan Project and just focuses on the application of men and women to turning steel and aluminum into war materiel. Well-written and you'll certainly learn things and want to know more (like how was the raw material supply chain revolutionized? or how was the transportation system improved to ensure deliveries when they were needed? or why were there frequent labor strikes and how did they get resolved?) In 1940, the US converted existing manufacturing of civilian products to war machines. In 2020, we don't seem to be able to convert existing manufacturing (perhaps because there no longer exists such options) to making more reagents or swabs or masks. Mobilization seems to be Etsy. Something for leaders to consider in 2021 (I wish).

  14. 5 out of 5

    Matt Caris

    There are really almost two books to review here. One is the meat of the book itself, between the introduction and conclusion, and it is remarkable. Excellent narrative history of how the Arsenal of Democracy came to be, and the personalities behind it. Well worth everyone's time, and a needed counterweight to the typical Washington idea that a single point person, a "czar" of some kind, and top-down direction is the solution to truly great problems. There is no way the government could have pla There are really almost two books to review here. One is the meat of the book itself, between the introduction and conclusion, and it is remarkable. Excellent narrative history of how the Arsenal of Democracy came to be, and the personalities behind it. Well worth everyone's time, and a needed counterweight to the typical Washington idea that a single point person, a "czar" of some kind, and top-down direction is the solution to truly great problems. There is no way the government could have planned and centrally managed defense production at anything approaching the level of success the war economy actually reached. The match of big businesses (GM, GE, Ford, etc.) with the engineering talent and depth to not only learn to build military products but even learn how to contribute to improving their designs, and the smaller subcontractors - which could find the military equipment parts they were best suited to make - was a perfect one. The writing is generally strong, the history / scholarship solid (though really, even a cursory editing process should have noted the dozens of references to the "U.S. Air Force," or an individual as an Air Force officer, when the USAF didn't exist, but I digress), and it is an enjoyable and less-well known part of the World War II story. The other book to review lives largely (though not exclusively) in the front matter and conclusion, and that's Herman's political axe to grind. I'm not talking about criticizing the New Deal or New Deal Democrats in general - that's a matter of history, and is a fair argument to have. But Herman goes out of his way to bang the drum for the GOP in general and unrestricted free market economics in particular, and to trash Democrats. There's a whole discussion at the beginning of the book about 1930s "isolationism" being the policy and attitude of the Democrats, not the country as a whole and leading figures of both parties. Herman hammers FDR for being slow to recognize the threat and take action, and for basically being dragged into the process of rearmament - of course, given isolationism wasn't a Democratic platform plank but a major feature of the US political landscape, acting as FDR did in May/June 1940 is easier to view as a remarkable feat of political leadership rather than "acting too late." And, of course, it was that 18 months of lead time - both in setting up the production capacity and conversion from civilian to defense production and in terms of starting major defense appropriations (such as the Two Ocean Navy act) - that made the production miracles after America entered the war possible. But Herman's political angle goes far beyond partisan politics. Herman twice refers - in the introduction and conclusion - to the huge numbers of workers killed or injured on the job during the war; many times more than US combat casualties in 1942-43, for example. Yet the book itself rarely talks about the perils these workers faced, minus a few anecdotes about sprained ankles at the shipyard. The only real mentions of labor in general mostly concern a handful of major unions and their role in strikes. Herman portrays all the major unions as obstacles - intentional or unintentional - to the war production effort, and ignores things like the no-strike pledges the AFL and CIO both made and supported. He also highlights the economic gains of workers during the war in terms of income growth and wage increases without even the remotest consideration to the role union organizing may have had in facilitating those wage increases. But most egregious is Herman's effort (mercifully, only in the conclusion, so you can safely ignore it and not miss the good parts of the book) to use the Arsenal of Democracy to stump for laissez-faire economic policies. He makes one good and important argument - about how the historiography of war production was dominated by those who focused on the government's role and over-emphasized the central planning features, but it devolves rapidly after that. Herman can't stop himself at the (very reasonable) argument that government offered highly effective incentives and support for decisions that business made, but did not try to decide and manage everything itself, but instead goes so far as to hammer Keynesianism universally and argue that government just got in the way, and it is ludicrous. In trying to do so, Herman contradicts himself at every turn. Washington financed plant expansion through tens of billions of dollars in loans; it gave companies huge advances (up to 30%!) on prime contracts. These incentives certainly helped industry take leaps it otherwise would not have made due to the financial risk involved (indeed, though Herman never says it explicitly, one of the war's biggest flops - Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose," which he teamed up with Henry Kaiser to build - clearly only ever got off the drawing board thanks to the availability of government money for these kinds of high-risk activities). Government funded housing for workers, transportation for shipping all manner of components to the primary assembly sites. It helped manage the supply of materials to prevent shortages. Above all, it pumped (by Herman's own numbers) $183B of military orders and $50B of Lend-Lease orders into the industrial economy. Private capital investment in the US was $10.6B in 1945, according to Herman - private business could never have afforded to do this on its own, regardless of the potential profits. If that's not Keynesianism, I don't know what is. Even Henry Kaiser, the "maverick" of the bunch of industrialists Herman lionizes in the book, got his experience doing work for government - first building roads for state and local governments, then moving onto huge dam-building projects during the 30s, all funded by government. Judging by some of Herman's other writing, he can't help himself at all with these kinds of arguments, whether they are relevant or not. His "gangster rap death-cult" quote in a recent NRO piece is emblematic of his ability to shoot himself in the foot with his own personal politics when they have nothing to do with what he's actually writing about. They're flawed, they're not necessary, and they threaten to - but, fortunately, do not entirely succeed in - fatally weakening an otherwise impressive work.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Whitaker

    Good book about a great topic. Strong historical details and color, but there was a lot of jumping around and repetition, the economic details weren't always clear, and there's a strong political point of view. But glad I read it overall. Three things I learned: 1. The US military was only the world's 18th largest by 1939 so defense production had to accelerate massively as WWII broke out 2. The War Production Board rationed consumption of civilian goods and had some say in wages and prices, but Good book about a great topic. Strong historical details and color, but there was a lot of jumping around and repetition, the economic details weren't always clear, and there's a strong political point of view. But glad I read it overall. Three things I learned: 1. The US military was only the world's 18th largest by 1939 so defense production had to accelerate massively as WWII broke out 2. The War Production Board rationed consumption of civilian goods and had some say in wages and prices, but production decisions by businesses remained fully voluntary (helping unlock innovation) 3. General Motors alone produced ~10% of US munitions for the war and the private US auto industry ~20% -- not only vehicles but also machine guns, aircraft engines, etc.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Shane Hawk

    Arthur Herman covered thousands of pages of research into less than 400 pages with so much detail your head will spin. This is a great read for anyone interested in how American businesses shifted from the consumer economy to wartime production during WWII. Truly astounding.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Mattupurath

    It was a good book it talked about how America at the start of the war was in economic hardships and how America went to the Major corporations for assistance and what they had to go trough to please the government.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mad Russian the Traveller

    Bias toward corporatism/cronyism, but otherwise interesting account of the industrial might of the the USA back in the day.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    I enjoyed this book. The author brought to life the scale-up of American manufacturing during the years before WWII until then end of the war.

  20. 5 out of 5

    JustEvan

    Spectacular book. Besides the fascinating specifics of history the book makes it crystal clear how the free market was the foundation of winning WWII. Highly recommended!

  21. 4 out of 5

    George

    A fascinating premise ultimately brought down by an author primed only to bring his ideological biases and hammer them home continuously. This is an easy, light read that adds tremendous colour and a new take on the history of WWII, but should be taken with significant salt. Borrow and bring it to the beach; do not bring this into a historical discussion without significant caveats and context. A few additional thoughts: While I can appreciate Herman's desire to use historical figures to drive a A fascinating premise ultimately brought down by an author primed only to bring his ideological biases and hammer them home continuously. This is an easy, light read that adds tremendous colour and a new take on the history of WWII, but should be taken with significant salt. Borrow and bring it to the beach; do not bring this into a historical discussion without significant caveats and context. A few additional thoughts: While I can appreciate Herman's desire to use historical figures to drive a narrative that would otherwise mostly feature production statistics, the "Great Man Theory of History" feels oddly out of place for a contemporary nonfiction book. In reading more about his work afterwards, I can see that this is Herman's usual MO, but I often found it jarring in trying to understand the vast, complex, and (I'm sure to Herman's chagrin) bureaucratic system of American production during World War II. As an analytical work, Herman is fundamentally out of his league. He is determined to make an argument, primarily through the lens of former GM Executive Donald Knudson, and serial entrepreneur Henry Kaiser (the eponymous creator of Kaiser Permanente, I learned), that the US free-market system is what won it the war. These two characters feature prominently throughout the story and in Herman's telling are in many ways the driving force of the war production effort on the US side. Indeed, their entrepreneurial spirit is enlivening and their ideas, particularly those of staid, dutiful Knudson, are not only catalytic, but foundational to almost the entire American war effort. And yet while the narrative rumbles along pleasantly, the argumentative leaps and turns are at times painful. The American free market system, absent government controls (until they're there), absent a centralized war production coordination figure (until there is one), and run by the largest and most successful American businesses (but also mostly their subcontractors), is the driving force of America's success. Blind, dumb, and rudderless "New Dealers" and unions are what nearly lost the US the war. The frustrating thing about Herman's argument is that the least grandiose parts of it are interesting and could advance our understanding of the war. The Keynesian 'gun factory go brrr' argument is due for an upgrade and a more nuanced appreciation of government-business-labour relationships during this time is actually a conversation we need to have in light of proposals around 'Green New Deals' and all the rest, but Herman's singular focus on advancing a narrow, conservative agenda strangles that possibility in the crib. That old uncle of yours who loves WWII may give you this book - and feel free to take it - just make sure you have a beer or two while you peruse.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Gunnar

    Herman gives the story behind the mobilization of American industry in World War II the attention it deserves. I knew, in vague terms, that the country made a remarkable transformation from the depths of the Depression to the world's most productive country in just a few short years. What I didn't understand, and Herman so skillfully illustrated, was that this transformation was the result of a kind of dance between industry, which was both patriotic and profiteering, and government, which was i Herman gives the story behind the mobilization of American industry in World War II the attention it deserves. I knew, in vague terms, that the country made a remarkable transformation from the depths of the Depression to the world's most productive country in just a few short years. What I didn't understand, and Herman so skillfully illustrated, was that this transformation was the result of a kind of dance between industry, which was both patriotic and profiteering, and government, which was intrusive and often inept. The collaboration between industries is what's fascinating here. Dam-builders became boat-builders. Ford created airplanes. What made that flexibility possible, and the insight that the German and Japanese industrial base missed entirely, was that the problem wasn't the construction of a specific ship or bomber. The problem was the manufacturing process. Once Ford's master builders were brought to bear on the B-24 Liberator, they transformed it from a craft-based, hand-made activity into a carefully planned mass production system, going from 350 planes a year to over 650 planes a month. Their focus on interchangeable parts, a rational assembly line, and simplicity in production are still in use today. I'm a software guy. Our current preoccupation with optimization and configurability are exactly contrary to the manufacturing lessons of World War II. Collaboration between industries encouraged more general approaches that incorporated the best ideas from all the partners and led to a truly astounding improvement in production methods that carried the country well through the latter half of the 20th century. The parallels with the open source process, and the lessons for the "IT assembly line" today are hard to ignore.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mary Catelli

    A good overview of the build-up for war production and its operations

  24. 4 out of 5

    Brenton

    Arthur Herman has written a magnificent tribute to American capitalism, and to the men who pioneered the concept of mass production. This is hardly an arid history of engineering, but a mind-boggling, fast-paced narrative of the remarkable men who built the ships, planes, and armaments that transformed a woefully inadequate American military into a technological juggernaut that rolled back the axis powers on two continents. At the outbreak of World War II, America’s military ranked eighteenth i Arthur Herman has written a magnificent tribute to American capitalism, and to the men who pioneered the concept of mass production. This is hardly an arid history of engineering, but a mind-boggling, fast-paced narrative of the remarkable men who built the ships, planes, and armaments that transformed a woefully inadequate American military into a technological juggernaut that rolled back the axis powers on two continents. At the outbreak of World War II, America’s military ranked eighteenth in the world. But by 1942 America factories were producing more war material than Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. American factories were building a plane every five minutes, and producing 150 tons of steel every minute. Eight aircraft carriers were produced every month, and fifty merchant ships every day. The total time needed to construct a complete Liberty Ship was reduced again and again, until the record was set at just under five days. By the end of the war, American shipyards produced 141 aircraft carriers, 8 battle ships, 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, and 52 million tons of merchant shipping. They also delivered 88,410 tanks, 257,000 artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.6 million machine guns, and 41 billion rounds of ammunition. A total of 324,750 aircraft rolled off the assembly lines. After 1942, 170 aircraft were produced every day. “Freedom’s Forge” is a must-read for anyone who loves the American entrepreneurial spirit, and World War II buffs alike.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Mitchell

    This is an important book that seems largely without peer. Another book came out within a few years of this called "The Arsenel of Democracy," which is an important complement for a small number of very important blind spots of this book. Freedom's Forge is not just a story about how the United States mobilized from a peace time economy to a stunning war economy juggernaut under extremely challenging conditions, Arthur Herman explores how changes to production during World War II set the stage f This is an important book that seems largely without peer. Another book came out within a few years of this called "The Arsenel of Democracy," which is an important complement for a small number of very important blind spots of this book. Freedom's Forge is not just a story about how the United States mobilized from a peace time economy to a stunning war economy juggernaut under extremely challenging conditions, Arthur Herman explores how changes to production during World War II set the stage for an entirely new economy and amazing production for all manner of materials and products. It is a story with important implications for today's massive twin challenges of Covid-19 and climate change. I'm afraid that many of the people who should be burying themselves in scholarship about this time will be turned by Herman's book because of his clear hatred of worker unions and general anti-government bias. What is important here though is how Herman documents the importance of decentralized and market-based approaches to production along with central government financing. Theorists of the science of complexity would call it emergence. Economists have another term: “spontaneous order.” It was the most powerful and flexible system of wartime production ever devised, because in the end no one devised it. It grew out of the underlying productivity of the American economy, dampened by a decade of depression but ready to spring to life. Out of what seemed like chaos and disorder to Washington would come an explosion of innovation, adaptation, and creativity—not to mention hard work—across the country. This book is inspiring, dramatic, and desperately needed in the public consciousness today. Too many people believe the lesson of how the U.S. mobilized its economic power so successfully in World War II can be boiled down to: "the government made industry build stuff." To the extent this is true, it is important to understand that so much of what industry did and how it organized itself was based more on loose centralized coordination and voluntary (if sometimes reluctant) participation from companies large and small. Freedom's Forge closely follows the experiences of Bill Knudsen and other up-and-coming titans of the era like Henry Kaiser and Steve Bechtel. These are people that I believe, if they were alive today, would set about disrupting the now top-heavy and bureaucratic firms that they established as companies that could build things on a scale that was previously unimaginable - and often do it on time and under budget. The story is also blindly lionizing of business and brutal in its attacks on labor. Throughout the book, Herman never fails to note a strike or other action from organized labor that is portrayed as harming the war effort. There is little mention of why labor felt it so important to strike and even less discussion about the ways the thuggish friends of Henry Ford (Harry Bennett first among them) consistently undermined the war effort while others at Ford desperately tried to deliver what was needed. These holes in the plot are covered much better by A J Baime's The Arsenal of Democracy in general, which I recommend reading after Freedom's Forge. Regarding one reason why I find it so hard to stomach Herman's constant attack on organized labor is that he notes this at the end of the book, "It had not come without a human cost. The number of workers, male and female, who were killed or injured in the U.S. industries in 1942–43 exceeded the number of Americans killed or wounded in uniform, by a factor of twenty to one." Put simply, at that casualty rate, I think workers had good reason to seek better conditions and compensation for the risks they were taking. We are asked to appreciate - in both books - the toll that the war took on those at the top of industries trying to amp up production while dealing with public opinion and demands from DC and keeping the business viable for the future, etc. But there was little doubt the men running those industries would come out with all the their limbs and able to provide for their families. That said, Herman does justify some of his anti-worker sentiment by including evidence that Communists had wanted to disrupt the U.S. war effort by encouraging strikes. I don't mean to suggest that Herman is wrong every time he criticizes labor, but there is no understanding of why patriotic Americans would have felt compelled to strike. It feels odd to spend so much time griping out the shortcomings of a book that I think is on the essential reading list of anyone trying to figure out how we solve the massive problems we face. A good example of this is the M4 Sherman, which had replaced many rivets with welds after many had doubted welding would work as well. But experts in the auto industry knew how it could be done - the trick wasn't an invention in this case, it was simple knowledge that some people had and others did not. I'm convinced that many of our current problems would be easier to solve if the right people could be brought together - that sounds trivial but considering we may not even know who the "right" people are today that need to be brought together, it is a tall order. While The Arsenal of Democracy focuses almost solely on Ford Motor Company, Herman covers far more companies and aspects of the economic transition. Some of the stories are sufficiently compelling in themselves to make a great movie. One of the lines that will stick with me for a long time came from Bill Knudsen: Suddenly Knudsen said, “George, do you know what a conference is?” Kenney said no. “A conference is a gathering of guys that singly can do nothing and together decide nothing can be done.” This is a masterful book. However, the biggest problem with it is that the author describes but doesn't fully grasp the most important takeaways aren't that business is great in an of itself - but that decentralized problem-solving is astonishly powerful. Herman mostly gets this, likely in some of the ways that Hayek understood and evangelized for. However, I think Herman and many others fail to see that one of the greatest impediments to decentralized problem-solving is massive corporations that are poorly managed and top heavy. They see government as the enemy when they should be targeting inefficient bureaucracy in general.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Charlie Newfell

    Well researched and detailed book on the change-over of US manufacturing to the WWII effort. Incredible in the story of the amount of airplanes, tanks, and ships that were poured out each week. What is missing is the people. Not the notable CEO's and FDR's $1 a year men ( yes, all men in those days) but the average worker in those plants. More manufacturing workers were killed in industrial accidents than on the battlefield in 1942 and 1943. Wow! That deserves a story in itself, yet I had to loo Well researched and detailed book on the change-over of US manufacturing to the WWII effort. Incredible in the story of the amount of airplanes, tanks, and ships that were poured out each week. What is missing is the people. Not the notable CEO's and FDR's $1 a year men ( yes, all men in those days) but the average worker in those plants. More manufacturing workers were killed in industrial accidents than on the battlefield in 1942 and 1943. Wow! That deserves a story in itself, yet I had to look it up, as it is not mentioned until the last page-- as a footnote. Still, an impressive piece on the business side.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Terry Quirke

    Whilst overall good and well written, it has a clear bias that personally I found a little grating. It presents the captains of industry in a basking light but there is very little touching on the imperfections or downsides and also the experience of people on the shopfloor to provide balance or even comparisons to the other nations at war (the only time they are mentioned is to show howg reat the USA is doing, rather than an analysis of what they were doing differently). I'm a bit of a WW2 buff Whilst overall good and well written, it has a clear bias that personally I found a little grating. It presents the captains of industry in a basking light but there is very little touching on the imperfections or downsides and also the experience of people on the shopfloor to provide balance or even comparisons to the other nations at war (the only time they are mentioned is to show howg reat the USA is doing, rather than an analysis of what they were doing differently). I'm a bit of a WW2 buff but it's the battles, Generals etc that i know rather than the how. A good, informative read if you can get over the one-sided information flow.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    Very fascinating read on how American Business was primarily responsible for the war materials being produced that helped the Allies to victory over the Axis, covers the how's, why's and both sides of management vs. labor vs./with the government. Pretty heavy read close to textbook like but if you are interested in the subject it goes by really quick!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    An ode to capitalism and the virtues of the military-industrial complex. Good portrait of Bill Knudsen and Henry Kaiser, two industrial wizards who made a large difference in arming America during WWII. The overall tone of the book is defensive, and it detracts from the interesting anecdotes that otherwise make this a quick and enjoyable read.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    Thank you to Paula Pike for the recommendation. It was a well written history of the industrial efforts used to provide war supplies for the Allied war effort in WWII. Never considered it at all before and also the effects it played on the post-war economy were very enlightening.

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