Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II Hardcover – May 8 2012
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“A rambunctious book that is itself alive with the animal spirits of the marketplace.”—The Wall Street Journal
“A rarely told industrial saga, rich with particulars of the growing pains and eventual triumphs of American industry . . . Arthur Herman has set out to right an injustice: the loss, down history’s memory hole, of the epic achievements of American business in helping the United States and its allies win World War II.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Magnificent . . . It’s not often that a historian comes up with a fresh approach to an absolutely critical element of the Allied victory in World War II, but Pulitzer finalist Herman . . . has done just that.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A compulsively readable tribute to ‘the miracle of mass production.’ ”—Publishers Weekly
“The production statistics cited by Mr. Herman . . . astound.”—The Economist
“[A] fantastic book.”—Forbes
“Freedom’s Forge is the story of how the ingenuity and energy of the American private sector was turned loose to equip the finest military force on the face of the earth. In an era of gathering threats and shrinking defense budgets, it is a timely lesson told by one of the great historians of our time.”—Donald Rumsfeld
“World War II could not have been won without the vital support and innovation of American industry. Arthur Herman’s engrossing and superbly researched account of how this came about, and the two men primarily responsible for orchestrating it, is one of the last great, untold stories of the war.”—Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War
“It takes a writer of Arthur Herman’s caliber to make a story essentially based on industrial production exciting, but this book is a truly thrilling story of the contribution made by American business to the destruction of Fascism. With America producing two-thirds of the Allies’ weapons in World War II, the contribution of those who played a vital part in winning the war, yet who never once donned a uniform, has been downplayed or ignored for long enough. Here is their story, with new heroes to admire—such as William Knudsen and Henry Kaiser—who personified the can-do spirit of those stirring times.”—Andrew Roberts, author of The Storm of War
About the Author
Arthur Herman, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World, which has sold more than half a million copies worldwide. His most recent work, Gandhi & Churchill, was the 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
The two businessmen who are at the center of this book are Bill Knudsen, a Danish immigrant engineer who had advanced to the presidency of General Motors and Henry J. Kaiser, the industrial gadfly whose serial businesses included the amazing Liberty Ships that served as the workhorses of the War.
Knudsen was the businessman in the New Deal, the production expert who forced the military to describe their needs and then guided industry into producing them. It was he who educated the government official who had built their careers on skepticism of business of the need to let industry do its job without interference that would disrupt its methods. It was he who knew that complicated processes should be contracted to large companies with strong engineering departments, while spreading the small, simple tasks to small business, even Mom and Pops working out of their garages.
Kaiser was the road builder and housing contractor experienced in dealing with government contracts and who knew no unconquerable challenge and is best remembered for the cheap, quickly manufactured Liberty Ships, but who also built aircraft carriers and aircraft to government specifications.
In addition to those icons there were many others who played their roles in converting industry from civilian to military production.Read more ›
Quality leadership is key to the success of any venture. The heroes so carefully delineated and brought to life by Herman (even with all their human warts) deserve our new found respect and admiration for their incredible contributiions to the war effort.
Kudos to Arthur Herman on a job extremely well done.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book takes that idea, and runs with it, concentrating mostly on the story of William Knudsen and Henry Kaiser.
William Knudsen was the head of General Motors, who was drafted by FDR to run the war materiel production efforts for the war. When it turned out Knudsen wasn't getting the cooperation he needed, FDR just made him into a three-star general!
The tale of Henry Kaiser is better known, he brought mass production techniques to shipbuilding. Kaiser decided to use welding instead of riveting and brought in unskilled workers (many of whom were women) to build these "wonder-ships'.
This then, really, is the story of how America won WWII. By the end of WWI, the USA out produced every other nation combined! Just one US company produced more than entire Axis nations.
Now, there is also a political undercurrent behind this amazing story, and that is that it was the practice of free enterprise that was behind these production miracles. Free enterprise is the big hero here.
It's an amazing story and well told (politics aside). However, I think now I want to see that newsreel of "America- the Arsenal of Democracy" again.
'Freedom's Forge' is the story of an uncompromised time of cooperation between the public and private sectors but it wasn't easy. Herman delivers a timely and extraordinary encapsulation of this other time in America. The topic was an easy sell to me. The subject matter has long been a personal interest. There is so little being published on the topic that one's pursuit of the curiosity is rather like the blind man defining an elephant.
For this reader "Freedom's Forge" is closely associated with my early career experience. The time is a mystery from the only recent past and the curiosity to keep my eyes open for hints. Long ago, my old grizzled techno-industrialist boss cut his eyeteeth in WW2 industry and summed it up for me. I was just a kid-scientist working my first job out of grad school. I had constructed my first technical project plan for his review ... "How long?" he yelled. "My God, son, WW2 was only a 44 month program!". I was stunned and smitten with curiosity from then till now. The more I look, the more I see that confirms that something thoroughly amazing occurred in those 44 months.
US factories yielded superior products in total and in volumes that boggle the imagination even in an iPad, smartphone modern world (though they aren't made in the USA). The feat was an ostensibly unrivaled milestone in organized human civilization. There is simply no macro/micro-econometric precedent like this 44 months. That's the phenomena Herman explores. Surely the war was motivation but ... the Japanese and Germans were motivated too. More than motivation ... the American response was a concert of genius, individual trust and a national trust that is unfortunately difficult to grasp in its 70 year distance. In only 40 months, the US accomplished the feat at every level to enable the modern super power ... it was an hellacious cat-drive ... civilians of independent minds, inter-racial, uni-sex and all re-tooled to the cadence of the steadily increasing casualties from the front.
In modern context, consider that The F-35 has been a 132 month program and remains incomplete. The next US aircraft carrier will have been a 72 month program if it is commissioned as planned and with only minor naval architectural changes from its predecessors. Between 1942 and war's end, 5, 6 and 7 or more generationally significant leaps in designs of all types were manufactured and rolled out. These modern things aren't 'bad' but there was once another way that worked far more efficiently and quickly.
Having visited and worked in some of these old WW2 engineering and production sites all over the US, Britain and Australia one can still find the strange quirks. One Australian armored vehicle final assembly plant (still in operation) was `cut & pasted' with the precise architectural plans of its US counterpart. There was just no time to re-engineer the construction plans... strangely in retrospect, no one had time to notice that the sky lights should face in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere. Larry Bell of WW2 Martin aircraft fame and the Bell Helicopter founder bricked narrow the hangar doors and installed structural columns in his helicopter plants to insure no one at Bell ever tried to imagine a fixed wing aircraft. I've visited Stalin's `east of the Urals' sites where US made machinery and designs of this era are very much in evidence. The vital machine tools that were the critical enabler to build the T-32's & T-34's in such volume were shipped to Stalin through Murmansk & Arkhangelsk ... the old Bridgeport's and Cincinnati's are still turning ... billets of steel are not easily transformed into tanks. The UK was jokingly imagined to capsize with the weight of the American materials staged for D-Day. These are my quirky examples and not from `Freedom's Forge'.
Comprehending the reality of the cumulative effort, the tens of thousands of businesses that suddenly made the parts that contributed to the entire process in its time and place is beyond one's grasp if you are at all familiar with modern industry. Herman's narrative fills in some of the home front mega-story away from the front lines, the battles and the generals that are far better known.
How could so much be accomplished in the US and nearly alone? `Freedom's Forge' carries the reader through the behaviors of the public and private leadership, their subordinates and the system they built with willing civilians and rancorous, seething bureaucrats. A labor strike at a critical juncture in the US support of the UK cost 14 ship builds that the enemy capitalized with torpedo casualities. Rarely can one find such disparate proportionality over cents/hr. The resolution of ideas, technology and processes extended from the iron mines of MN to the thousands of forges and intricate part factories and to assembly lines that rolled product onto the revolutionary new Liberty ships (the Merchant Marine took the highest casualties of any service just moving stuff)... and it was accomplished with all manner of previously inexperienced civilians.
Until Herman's 'Freedom's Forge', the story has been hazy and piecemeal. The whole history is far from complete. Herman provides the accounts of well-known Henry Kaiser and the less known William Knudsen among so many lost names that conjured a new nation out the economic collapse of the Depression. It is a genuine untold story. There are other materials to consider but I've found no narrative that ranges as wide and deep as 'Freedom's Forge' to attribute so many fascinating characters and stories to such a phenomenal human endeavor.
5-stars and an important book! This is the first 'advanced copy' that I have purchased after publication. I loved it!
p.s. I'm curious about other reviewer's observation regarding the author's `balance issues'. The organized labor strikes are a matter of historical record. The poor safety conditions and casualty records among workers is documented in every industry. The loss of output directly assignable to the strikes is quantified historically. The extraordinary rise of US wages is documented.
That the New Dealers and FDR had to call on the military to break coal mining strikes that affected steel output, and then quell other strikes is a matter of historical record. If the author had failed to include the union conflicts, he would have demonstrated another kind of `lack of balance'. The author, for instance, does not mention the Philadelphia transit union strike over union seniority and pennies/hr that shut down the huge Philadelphia based defense industry for a month. The big labor/New Dealer situation had deteriorated into union-interest against the national issue of winning the war with the fewest casualties. Organized labor is seen to pick and choose the choke points to best strike `Freedoms's Forge' for whatever purpose, now long forgotten and rarely recalled.
Ickes & Truman are historically documented to use the bureaucracy to perecute the `$1 a year men' in non-value adding assaults. The whole story, good and bad, and for the readers worldview are well covered in this book to consider.
The biggest is that lend-lease saved the Soviets in 1942/1943 from complete collapse. The material and means to deliver it came from lend-lease, both the finished goods and the machine tools. And it was the arch-capitalist, Knudsen, who made it happen, with his diligent planning and leadership in 1940.
Another irony is that the US communists in the labor unions led strikes in 1940-1941 which drained the war effort. Had those strikes spread, the USSR might not have gotten its war material.
One final irony is that Knudsen saved the Roosevelt administration by getting a credible and effective war production going by releasing the free market.
Knudsen deserves a place next to Marshall as the key, pivotal personality who led the US to final victory.
Roosevelt also deserves a lot of praise for picking Knudsen and for standing by him.
While this book is primarily about two people, Bill Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser, it has a large cast of characters, a multitude of corporations (mostly large ones) and an almost endless list of weaponery that spilled out of factories and docks all across the nation.
On May 30, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt called Bill Knudsen away from leading General Motors to lead the defense effort. FDR had been walking a tight rope for some time in the conflict between American isolationists and the need to equip and modernize a depleted military while Europe was itself suffering under the German army and Imperial Japan's invastion of China and other parts of Asia was in process. He chose Knudsen because of his reputation of being able to bring an efficient operation into play. Knudsen was the man who was critical to the automobile business by advocating and bringing out changes in car models yearly. After working for Henry Ford, he went to GM and put forth the idea that people would want a new model every year and that the industry had to gear itself for this type of business. With it, he propelled the sales for Chevrolet and proved to Henry Ford that people would buy something other than black. Knudsen believed in precise tooling of parts so that product moved smoothly down the production line. He had no regard or time for "craftsman" techniques in manufacture. He wanted parts to be precise and fit together without coaxing by a person with tools.
Henry Kaiser is also prominent in this book and rightly so. He was a man of immense personal charm, and dreamed on a very large scale. He was a giant in building roads and eventually became the master of the liberty ships that were provided by America in such abundance during the war.
There is the expected play of politics throughout the book. FDR appointed Knudsen a three star general, Kaiser secured contracts for vast ventures but not without making enemies as he did so. While he was immensely successful in many areas, he suffered the burden of a lot of bad press when his Liberty ships began to crack apart under stress and extreme cold, but hardly anything could deter him or keep him from pressing forward his next idea, one of which was the small aircraft carrier meant for convoy duty.
That America could pull this off is incredible. When you read of the tons of military equipment that was produced for war it is staggering. When the war started, America had six carriers, later reduced to four after early battles. SeePacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 Yamamoto was correct when he stated that he feared Japan had only awakened a sleeping giant. During the war 141 aircraft carriers were produced, granted many of them of much lesser size for mainly convoy duty, but without question, we outproduced the Axis. I would take some issue with his charge that Speer was labeled as the person that laid Europe in ruins. Speer, in spite of bombings, was able to increase German armament numbers throughout the war, but he had total control, and of course forced or slave labor has no union to represent them. Hitler was the culprit here and Speer one of the few Germans that received prison time. SeeInside the Third Reich.
There is a lot of information regarding labor unions during this time. Unfortunately, their image is not too favorable. It was a time when labor had an ally in the White House, and the AFL and CIO were in a serious competition to sign up members. Inevitably, strikes were called and production was lost. Of all the moves made by the unions, the most disastrous was from the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis who called for a strike in April of 1943 and FDR blew up and order the army to take over the mines. This sent them back to work until June 19, when 60,000 miners struck and created a wrath of public opinion against the union. They were back to work in three days and the end result was Congress passing legislation over the veto to call for a 30 day notice for all strikes and the end of the secret ballot for union membership. In addition, blacks were starting to enter the work force and the labor unions have a poor record of discrimination against them, a far cry from today.
For me, one of the greatest stories are those of the women who poured into factories and shipyards, and for the first time were doing jobs that only men had done previously. Bearing the hardship of the labor, and the hazardous conditions in many plants, women came forward to help save the world and have never looked back. Imagine, the widow of Confederate General James Longstreet driving to work at the age of 80!!! She was one of the many.
The book itself can spark further debate as to what was and what we are now. Obviously, those that favor big government can claim that it was FDR and his administration that provided all of this, while those of the other side can lay claim that it was free enterprise that saved the world. They both have their points, but I suppose it was a combination of the two that swept fascism away. Could we do it again? No chance of something of this scope being done again. With government as big and cumbersome as it is today, and so full of regulation there would be little opportunity to pull something like this off in such a short time, and we have a media much more responsive and critical of anything and everything. I fear that this feat was a one time thing. Keep in mind that all this was done in a little over forty months.
I encourage readers to get a copy. I have revised to three stars. There is a serious flaw in the information provided about the civilian construction workers massacred by the Japanese at Wake Island. The author cites numbers in the twenties while there was actually almost one hundred people bound in barbed wire and machine gunned to death. You just cannot miss something so important and expect good reviews.
Read this wonderful book and you will never forget the names of the business leaders, companies and individual workers whose extraordinary free market cooperation saved the world. And when you are finished, you will surely cast a skeptical eye upon the vilification of those companies who in our own age, have made possible the defence of America with their capital, energy and innovation.
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