Stated succinctly, the theme of Charlottesville historian Arthur Herman’s book, Freedom’s Forge, is that the growth of industry during World War II was “far from being a kind of Washington, D.C., bureaucrat-driven production effort” and that, he explained, “what [it] really was about was releasing the innate productive power of American business.”
Herman spoke to the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner last month, just as his book arrived on shop and library shelves. In that interview, he pointed out the contributions of Central Virginia businesses to the war effort.
More widely, he said, the success of America’s wartime industrial production effort came “in spite of” government-imposed rationing and wage and price controls.
“The rationing that everybody remembers,” he pointed out, was the result of “government controls over the consumption of civilian goods.”
Industrial goods needed by the military – airplanes, ships, weapons, and Jeeps – came about because, even before Pearl Harbor “the military learned it was best to let business and manufacturers handle it themselves,” and that production should be decentralized, Herman said.
“They learned that minimal control from Washington -- or even from the military services -- usually ended up getting products on time,” he explained, and “at a continually lower cost as well.”
That, he said, “was really the key ingredient in the whole wartime production effort,” the fact “that the manufacturers and producers found ways to constantly roll the costs down."
This became, he said, "a huge boon not just for the American military, really giving us the tools to win World War II," but also a "huge boon to American business and industry because they became leaner, more efficient operating organizations as a result of the wartime effort.”
The business executives and industrialists who are portrayed in Herman’s book – former General Motors president William Knudsen, road- and ship-builder (and health insurance pioneer) Henry Kaiser, Ford Motor Company’s Charles Sorensen, and others – are larger-than-life characters who seem to spring from the pages of an Ayn Rand novel, an assessment with which Herman agrees.
‘Creativity of the human mind’
“What Ayn Rand understood,” he said, “and one of the lessons that you get from her work, which is in some ways is reflected in this book, is that what the arsenal of democracy was really all about wasn’t ships and tanks and planes, any more than national wealth or an economy is about oil wells and gold mines and factories and industrial output or goods and services.”
Rather, he explained, “what it’s really about is creativity. It’s about the creativity of the human mind. It’s about vision. It’s about leadership and problem-solving.”
Throughout its history, he noted, American business has “been really at the forefront of all of those aspects. That’s what drives American business. That’s what drives American civilization.”
What Herman “wanted to chronicle is just how this episode in our history, a crucial moment in world history as well as for the United States, really reflected all of those kinds of powerful virtues that someone like Ayn Rand realized were at work in a free market economy.”
Those characteristics, he said, are “clearly on show in people like Bill Knudsen, the man [whom] Roosevelt brought to construct a system by which you could get this bottoms-up, free-market, private-sector drive to production,” as well as “the other characters [readers will] meet in the book.”
The complete interview with Arthur Herman, author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, is available as a podcast on Bearing Drift radio’s “The Score.”