EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 13. Plan B: Building a New Future: A Wartime Mobilization

As we contemplate mobilizing to rescue a planet under stress and a civilization in trouble, we see both similarities and contrasts with the mobilization for World War II. In this earlier mobilization, there was an economic restructuring, but it was temporary. Mobilizing to save civilization, in contrast, requires a permanent economic restructuring.

The U.S. entry into World War II is a fascinating case study in rapid mobilization. Initially, the United States resisted involvement in the war and responded only after it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But respond it did. After an all-out commitment, the U.S. engagement helped turn the tide of war, leading the Allied Forces to victory within three-and-a-half years. 12

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

No one had ever seen such huge arms production numbers. But Roosevelt and his colleagues realized that the largest concentration of industrial power in the world at that time was in the U.S. automobile industry. Even during the Depression, the United States was producing 3 million or more cars a year. After his State of the Union address, Roosevelt met with automobile industry leaders and told them that the country would rely heavily on them to reach these arms production goals. Initially they wanted to continue making cars and simply add on the production of armaments. What they did not yet know was that the sale of private automobiles would soon be banned. From the beginning of April 1942 through the end of 1944, nearly three years, there were essentially no cars produced in the United States. 14

In addition to a ban on the production and sale of cars for private use, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned. A rationing program was also introduced. Strategic goods—including tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar—were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on consumption of these goods freed up material resources to support the war effort. 15

The year 1942 witnessed the greatest expansion of industrial output in the nation’s history—all for military use. Wartime 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 distant fronts. From the beginning of 1942 through 1944, the United States far exceeded the initial goal of 60,000 planes, turning out 229,600 aircraft, a fleet so vast it is hard even today to visualize it. Equally impressive, by the end of the war more than 5,000 ships were added to the 1,000 or so that made up the American Merchant Fleet in 1939. 16

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. 17

In retrospect, the speed of this conversion from a peacetime to a wartime economy is stunning. The harnessing of U.S. industrial power tipped the scales decisively toward the Allied Forces, reversing the tide of war. Germany and Japan, already fully extended, could not counter this effort. Winston Churchill often quoted his foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey: “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.” 18

This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a country and, indeed, the world can restructure the 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 economic restructuring. The purpose of this book is to convince more people of this need, helping to tip the balance toward the forces of change and hope.

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

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

14. Harold G. Vatter, The US Economy in World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 13.

15. Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time—Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 316; “Point Rationing Comes of Age,” Business Week, 19 February 1944.

16. “War Production—The Job ‘That Couldn’t Be Done,’” Business Week, 5 May 1945; Donald M. Nelsen, Arsenal of Democracy: The Story of American War Production (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1946), p. 243.

17. Goodwin, op. cit. note 15.

18. Sir Edward Grey quoted in Walton, op. cit. note 12.


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