EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Plan B: Rising to the Challenge: A Wartime Mobilization

Adopting Plan B is unlikely unless the United States assumes a leadership position, much as it belatedly did in World War II. The nation responded to the aggression of Germany and Japan only after it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But respond it did. After an all-out mobilization, the U.S. engagement helped turn the tide, leading the Allied Forces to victory within three-and-a-half years.10

The U.S. conversion to a wartime economy actually began in a modest way in 1940. On May 16th of that year, in a message to Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt said the United States would eventually have to step up its arms production. That spring Congress passed the Lend Lease Act, which authorized the sale of arms to the United Kingdom and allied countries without expectation of payment. And in December the President created the Office of Production Management to facilitate the shift from a peacetime to a wartime economy.11

These actions enabled the United States to begin the economic conversion needed for the war effort: to move industries into the manufacture of armaments, to establish the contracting procedures, and to launch the research and development that was needed. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States was already starting to gear up for war.12

In his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, one month after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt announced ambitious arms production goals. The United States, he said, was planning to produce 60,000 planes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 6 million tons of merchant shipping. He added, "Let no man say it cannot be done."13

Achieving these goals was possible only by converting existing industries and using materials that previously went into manufacturing civilian goods. Nowhere was this shift more dramatic than in the automobile industry, which was at that time the largest concentration of industrial power in the world, producing 3-4 million cars a year. Auto companies initially wanted to continue manufacturing cars and simply to add on production of armaments. They agreed only reluctantly
after pressure from President Roosevelt—to a wholesale conversion to war-support manufacturing.14

Aircraft needs were enormous. They included not only fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance planes, but also the troop and cargo transports needed to fight a war on two fronts, each across an ocean. From the beginning of 1942 through 1944, the United States turned out 229,600 aircraft, a fleet so vast it is hard to visualize.15

While the aircraft industry did nearly all the assembly, the auto industry supplied some 455,000 aircraft engines and 256,000 propellers. The aircraft industry was given the job of assembling all planes to ease its fears that the auto industry would become firmly entrenched in the manufacture of aircraft and would dominate the industry after the war.16

The year 1942 witnessed the greatest expansion of industrial output in the nation's history—all for military use. Early in the year, the production and sale of cars and trucks for private use was banned, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned.17

In her book No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how various firms converted. A sparkplug factory was among the first to switch to the production of machine guns. Soon a manufacturer of stoves was producing lifeboats. A merry-go-round factory was making gun mounts; a toy company was turning out compasses; a corset manufacturer was producing grenade belts; and a pinball machine plant began to make armor-piercing shells.18

In retrospect, the speed of the conversion from a peacetime to a wartime economy was stunning. The automobile industry went from producing nearly 4 million cars in 1941 to producing 24,000 tanks and 17,000 armored cars in 1942—but only 223,000 cars, and most of them were produced early in the year, before the conversion began. Essentially the auto industry was closed down from early 1942 through the end of 1944. In 1940, the United States produced some 4,000 aircraft. In 1942, it produced 48,000. By the end of the war, more than 5,000 ships were added to the 1,000 that made up the American Merchant Fleet in 1939.19

The harnessing of U.S. industrial power tipped the scales decisively toward the Allied Forces, reversing the tide of war. Germany and Japan could not match the United States in this effort. Winston Churchill often quoted Sir Edward Grey, Britain's foreign secretary: "The United States is like a giant boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate."20

A rationing program was also introduced. In addition to an outright ban on the sale of private cars, strategic goods—including tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar—were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on consumption of these goods freed up resources to support the war effort.21

This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a country and, indeed, the world can restructure its economy quickly if it is convinced of the need to do so. Many people—although not yet the majority—are already convinced of the need for a wholesale restructuring of the economy. The issue is not whether most people will eventually be won over, but whether they will be convinced before the bubble economy collapses.

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10. For information on mobilization, see Francis Walton, Miracle of World War II: How American Industry Made Victory Possible (Macmillan: New York, 1956).

11. Harold G. Vatter, The US Economy in World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

12. Ibid.

13. Franklin Roosevelt, "State of the Union Address," 6 January 1942, at www.ibiblio.org/pha/7-2-188/188-35.html.

14. Vatter, op. cit. note 11, p. 13.

15. "War Production--The Job 'That Couldn't Be Done'," Business Week, 5 May 1945.

16. John B. Rae, Climb to Greatness: The American Aircraft Industry, 1920-1960 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1968), p. 157.

17. Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time-Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 316.

18. Ibid.

19. Car production from Rae, op. cit. note 16, p. 181; tank, armored cars, and aircraft production from "War Production," op. cit. note 15; Donald M. Nelsen, Arsenal of Democracy: The Story of American War Production (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1946), p. 243.

20. Sir Edward quoted in Walton, op. cit. note 10, p. 42.

21. "Point Rationing Comes of Age," Business Week, 19 February 1944 .


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