Forget Bombs or Tanks: Capitalism Won World War II
Key Point: “We won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen, nor dreamed possible.”
The above quote is attributed to William Knudsen, president of General Motors and Roosevelt’s wartime director of production management, a man who was intimately involved in the massive production drive that made the U.S. military the best supplied military in the world during World War II.
That is the argument made by This Is Capitalism, in conjunction with the WWII Museum in New Orleans, a website by Stephens, Inc. dedicated to reinforcing the appreciation of Capitalism in American society.
This Is Capitalism has teamed up with the WWII Museum in New Orleans to produce two fascinating videos on the role of U.S. private industry in WWII. These short but informative videos discuss the ways in which two of America’s most influential entrepreneurs during World War II impacted the strategic course of the war.
William ‘Bill’ Knudsen’s story is detailed in the video Capitalism in World War II: The Arsenal of Democracy. President of General Motors Bill Knudsen’s chief contribution to the war effort was his role as Roosevelt’s wartime director of production management. The Arsenal of Democracy describes how the merger of political and economic leadership in the United States created the greatest war economy of World War II.
Capitalism in WWII: Andrew Higgins “The Man Who Won WWII” covers Andrew Higgins, whose landing craft designs, based on his own experiences building shallow-water boats in New Orleans, dramatically shaped the way the U.S. military fought World War II. With its enemies oceans away, the U.S. military relied on these small, purpose-built crafts to put boots on the ground.
The videos also discuss the role of capitalism in the integration and desegregation of the workforce. With demand for labor rising, capitalists were incentivized by market forces to integrate the workforce with static labor pools, namely women and African Americans who had previously been excluded from certain sectors of employment by discriminatory practices. Integration in the war economy would change America’s peacetime economy for good and would lead to broader societal integration in the postwar era.
Both videos are great primers on the industrialization of America’s military might in World War II, and are great as an introduction to the subject for both war buffs familiar with the military side of the war and for educators as a classroom tool.
An Interview With Rob Citino, National WWII Museum Expert
To gain a better understanding of the role that capitalism specifically had on the outcome of the Allied war effort, we sat down with National WWII Museum expert Rob Citino for a comprehensive comparative discussion of economic policies.
Rob Citino, Phd is an award-winning historian and scholar who has published ten books on military history. His principal academic focus has been on the Wehrmacht. Dr. Citino is one of the experts featured in the This Is Capitalism videos.
Our discussion with Dr. Citino ranges from the interplay of government and private industry in the U.S. war economy of World War II to the economic challenges, successes, and failures of four key belligerents of World War II to the rise of the United States as an economic superpower in the postwar era.
Warfare History Network:
The This is Capitalism videos hone in on Bill Knudsen of GM and Andrew Higgins who invented the Higgins boat. These were individuals whose contributions not only made US industry more productive, but also dramatically changed how we fought war, on a strategic and even tactical level. What other capitalists and industrialists shaped the US war effort in such a way?
Well first of all, what America was able to do as a result of individuals like Bill Knudsen and Andrew Higgins, and also as a result of our social economic system and as a result of our fantastic material wealth (much of which was lying fallow during the depression) was to mass produce and employ an economy of scale on a way that was just unheard of to the other countries, with the possible exception of the Soviet Union. We’ll have to nuance that when we get to the Soviet Union.
If you look at others, another name that has to be mentioned up top is Henry Kaiser. He was the master builder of the war. Kaiser was an energetic and hard driving guy, he was always going in all directions at once. So he started a road construction business, a lot of innovation was there in the 20s and 30s. Earth movers and Mac trucks, caterpillar tractors, even the use of hard hats on building sites. Kaiser would help build the Hoover Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam.
Kaiser went from construction to shipbuilding, having never built a ship before in his life, during World War II in Richmond, California and Portland, Oregon. They were Liberty Ships, a kind of a floating train car, the most ungainly think you could ever imagine, and he banged them out with abandon.
It used to take months to build a ship. Kaiser’s company could bang them out in 10 days. A ship is a funny thing to build because for most construction projects you speed up at the end. You’ve done all of the heavy lifting in the beginning and at the end it really goes quickly. Shipbuilding goes slowly at the end because you have to put the deckhouses on, but you can clamp together the hull fairly quickly. Kaiser was the one who hit on the notion that you can prefab these things, preassemble the deckhouses and then use a crane to put them on top of an already full constructed ship. I think that was a real breakthrough in shipbuilding. Some Liberty Ships experienced cracking in the course of the war, which almost certainly had to do with them being built as quickly as they were, but that’s mass production. You might have a certain amount of wastage in mass production because you’re going so rapidly, but at the same time, the end result is still far more ships than anyone else was able to put on the water.
Now the next point you referenced was a good one, because what are numbers? They mean nothing. I’m a historian of the German army in World War II, that’s what I’ve written all my books. And the Germans had some of the greatest achievements really against numerically superior forces, early on in the war especially, so I don’t think numbers are as important.
It’s what those numbers allowed Americans to do in the course of WWII. You said it affected strategy and even tactics. If we were going to come to grips with our enemy in the Pacific, Japan, an island nation all the way across the Pacific, or in Europe, Germany, we had to get across the Atlantic to get there. We had to form and deploy gigantic forces in a short amount of time, and the only way to get them there is by sea. You can air transport light forces into a theater, like paratroopers and light vehicles perhaps, but in order to bring the heavy metal (the way the United States fights wars is with a lot of materiel, a lot of ammunition, and a lot of heavy artillery) if you’re going to get these things to theater, the only way you can do it is by sea. And so someone like Kaiser, building these Liberty Ships literally enabled the U.S. Army, and other forces, the Air Force would have to be included as well, to fight a two ocean war simultaneously.
The real peak of that achievement is June 1944: spearheading an alliance, the United States landed a massive force in Europe, tens of thousands on the first day and millions of follow-on forces, and literally within weeks launched a gigantic landing on the island of Saipan in the Marianas. There has never been a military power before, and maybe there never will be again, with that kind of global reach. And it’s things like being able to build a Liberty Ship faster than the Germans could torpedo them in 1942 that enabled this. It’s nothing romantic, it’s a battle of attrition. You have to produce more than you’re losing. And, by and large, that is the margin of victory across all fronts for the Americans in World War II. So it is someone like Knudsen, an expert on production and the assembly line, someone like Higgins, building a little shallow draft boat for river traffic down here in the New Orleans swamps and bayous, someone like Kaiser, figuring out a way to build a big transport ship in an ungodly short amount of time, that allows America to fight the war of the rich man. The Germans always talk about their own war effort of the Wehrmacht as the war of the poor man, or the poor man’s war, and they always looked with envy at America’s material wealth. But they never would’ve seen it if we weren’t able to deploy in Europe with the vast merchant marine and naval armada we were able to build.