The Industrial and Economic Power of the United States during the Second World War

02 Jan

US Economic Potential and Power Prior to the War
To fully consider the economic and industrial might of the United States during the Second World War in context, it is imperative to remember that America out-produced Germany, Japan, and Italy in vital economic sectors prior to her entry into the war in 1941. Although still mired in the Depression, the US output of steel and coal dwarfed that of Germany in 1938 – with the latter doubled by the US.[1] More importantly, in the US, American auto manufacturers produced 4.8 million cars in 1937; while at that same time Germany produced just 331,000; and, Japan just 26,000.[2] This is fact is key – it is these same factories which were producing Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler vehicles in America prior to 1942 shifted their focus and turned over production-lines to tanks, armored vehicles, and aircraft. As Richard Overy notes in Why the Allies Won, economies and weaponry alone have never won wars; however, the US had a superior supply and logistics system in place to bring this endless supply of war materiel to the theaters of war. Notes a German divisional commander in Normandy, in Why the Allies Won: “I cannot understand these Americans. Each night we know that we have cut them to pieces, inflicted heavy casualties, mowed down their transport. But – in the morning, we are suddenly faced with fresh battalions, with complete replacements of men, machines, food, tools and weapons. This happens day after day…”[3]

The Economic and Military Mobilization of America
As Overy adeptly reminds the reader in Why the Allies Won, America wisely kept its best and brightest minds in the laboratories and factories at home in the newly mobilized war economy. It was in the public and private sector’s mobilization to a wartime economy whose strength won the war for the Allies.[4] The strategies conceived by FDR and Congress in December of 1941 turned the US into a military super-power on the backs of American industry: “American industry provided almost two-thirds of all the Allied military equipment produced during the war: 297,000 aircraft, 193,000 artillery pieces, 86,000 tanks, 2 million army trucks. In four years American industrial production, already the world’s largest, doubled in size.”[5] This is an incredible statistic. That the US produced two-thirds of the materiel for all of the Allied nations is astonishing.

As the military mobilization grew throughout America post-1941, dramatic demographic and sociological shifts began to transcend barriers which contributed to the economic and industrial might from 1942 through 1945. Unemployed Americans who were previously shut out of the Depression-era workplace, now found solace in regions of the country whose industry needed their hands. African-Americans, although still segregated within branches of the US military, found a place in the new workforce. Women were also beneficiaries of the new economy, whose place alongside this new and diverse workforce earned them the nickname “Rosie the riveter.”[6]

From Liberty Ships to B-24’s
The new industrial and economic might of the US, coalesced by a new, diverse and hungry workforce along with the best minds from the public and private sector, was able to complete the production of individual builds of military materiel in record time. Just as “speed in combat saves lives,” so did the speed realized from new production methods contribute to Allied victory: “[Henry] Ford put them to work making airplanes the way he made cars and the way Kaiser made ships, by dividing and subdividing the manufacturing and assembly processes into hundreds of repetitive tasks… By 1944 Willow Run’s crews were rolling a B-24 through the main assembly shed’s gaping exit and out on to the airfield every sixty-three minutes.”[7] David M. Kennedy in Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and the War, 1929-1945, offers that in 1944 an astonishing 96,318 military and naval aircraft exceeded the combined production of Germany, Japan, and Great Britain.[8]

A Democracy or Totalitarianism?
America’s transition in production from “cars to tanks” by such private sector behemoths as Ford, Boeing, and GE, among others, supplied a patriotic citizenry at war. From Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World: “The real news, as Charles E. Wilson of General Motors put it, ‘is that our American methods of production, our know-how about the business, could be applied to mass production of all these war things … and that is the one factor that I think our Axis enemies overlooked.’”[9] Out of patriotic necessity, corporate America “shifted gears”. However, like any profit-driven corporation, they were paid for these ‘products’ by the US federal government. Ferguson addresses this paradigm shift: “As John Hancock and Bernard Baruch observed: ‘With the coming of war a sort of totalitarianism is asserted. The government tells each business what it is to contribute to the war program.’”[10] The patriotism and genius of Hancock and Baruch notwithstanding, the industrial and economic power of America transcended ideologies – as attested by Germany and Japan in World War Two.

1. David M Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and the War, 1929-1945. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 616-617.
2 Ibid., 617.
3 Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995) 319.
4 Ibid., 325.
5 Ibid., 192.
6 Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 496.
7 David M Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and the War, 1929-1945. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 653-654.
8 Ibid., 654.
9 Niall Ferguson, The War of the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) 527.
10 Ibid., 527-528

Eisenhower, D.D. Report to the Supreme Commander to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the Operations in Europe. London, 1946.
Ferguson, Naill. The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Kennedy, David. M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and the War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.  Page references are to the 1997 edition.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Page references are to the 2005 edition.

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Posted by on January 2, 2012 in World War II - General


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