‘The size of the internal American market and its wealth of buying power and also raw materials . . . guarantee the American automobile industry internal sales figures that alone permit production methods that would simply be impossible in Europe. The result of that is the enormous export capacity of the American automobile industry.”
So wrote a young Adolf Hitler in the unpublished “Second Book” of Mein Kampf. And he was right. Which raises the question of why he would declare war on such an awesomely productive power on December 8, 1941, when his alliance with imperial Japan (whose leaders hadn’t even bothered to give the Führer advance notice of Pearl Harbor) required no such thing. For it was the greatest exports of the American automobile industry — the nearly 300,000 aircraft, 90,000 tanks, and 400 million tons of bombs it retooled itself to produce during the war — that would prove to be the doom of the Third Reich.
As Americans, we’re likely to focus on American-led campaigns and battles — names such as Midway, Iwo Jima, Normandy, and Bastogne — and the brave men who fought and died in them. But the indelicate fact is that four of every five Germans who died in ground combat were killed by Russians, and that it was the Soviet Union under the bloody-minded Josef Stalin that provided the sheer mass of bodies required to stop Germany in its tracks. As British historian Andrew Roberts puts the matter in his brilliant recent book The Storm of War, America’s most important contributions were made thousands of miles from the front lines. “Grossly to oversimplify the contributions made by the three leading members of the Grand Alliance in the Second World War,” he writes, “if Britain had provided the time and Russia the blood necessary to defeat the Axis, it was America that produced the weapons.”
Just how the United States managed this is Arthur Herman’s subject in his engaging new book, Freedom’s Forge. His narrative is impressive in both its breadth and its detail, and fills out the gauzy images of war bonds and Rosie the Riveter that constitute the casual American’s understanding of the war economy. But though his scope is plenary, Herman wisely tells much of the story through two paradigmatic captains of industry: Bill Knudsen, who as one of Roosevelt’s “dollar-a-year” men did as much as anyone to ensure that free enterprise survived and thrived on a war footing; and Henry Kaiser, an industrial dynamo who built just about everything short of fully formed infantrymen for the war effort.
Kaiser was of that truly American type whose business is business. He started out as an ambitious camera-shop owner and in the course of the first two decades of the 20th century became one of the most important road-graders and -pavers west of the Mississippi, connecting the burgeoning West Coast to the heart of America. He then turned his sights to dam building, and was instrumental in forming the conglomerate known as the Six Companies that put up the Hoover and Boulder Dams. By 1940, Kaiser and his company were building shipyards in Seattle, and the experience convinced him that — why not? — he could build merchant freighters for the desperate British, whose own fleet was being decimated by German U-boats. And so he did — 747 of the famed Liberty ships for Britain, and later America, before the war was over.
He installed massive new yards in Richmond, Calif., and Portland, Ore., and from there turned shipbuilding, which had been an idiosyncratic, artisanal process, into just another example of assembly-line mass production. The first Liberty freighter out of the Richmond docks in May 1941 took 253 days to build and launch. When Admiral Howard Vickery of the Maritime Commission told him that that would need to come down to 105 days, Kaiser and his team gulped but signed on. A year and a half later, the Richmond yards assembled Hull No. 440, later christened the Robert E. Peary, in four and a half days.
Eventually Kaiser would turn to making the steel for the ships himself rather than having it brought in from the major foundries in the Midwest, building the first large-scale steel-production facility west of the Rockies in Fontana, Calif. His Six Companies would also help rebuild Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack, and their engineers and workers would die alongside Marines in the heroic but ill-fated defense of Wake Island against the Japanese. By the end of the war, Kaiser was even building aircraft carriers, and had become a living legend.