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How American Business Produced Victory in World War II
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Remarkable as it may seem today, there once was a time when the president of the United States could pick up the phone and ask the president of General Motors to resign his position and take the reins of a great national enterprise. And the CEO would oblige, no questions asked, because it was his patriotic duty.
In Freedom’s Forge, bestselling author Arthur Herman takes us back to that time, revealing how two extraordinary American businessmen-automobile magnate William Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser-helped corral, cajole, and inspire business leaders across the country to mobilize the “arsenal of democracy” that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II.
“Knudsen? I want to see you in Washington. I want you to work on some production matters.” With those words, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enlisted “Big Bill” Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who had risen through the ranks of the auto industry to become president of General Motors, to drop his plans for market domination and join the U.S. Army. Commissioned a lieutenant general, Knudsen assembled a crack team of industrial innovators, persuading them one by one to leave their lucrative private sector positions and join him in Washington, D.C. Dubbed the “dollar-a-year men,” these dedicated patriots quickly took charge of America’s moribund war production effort.
Henry J. Kaiser was a maverick California industrialist famed for his innovative business techniques and his can-do management style. He, too, joined the cause. His Liberty ships became World War II icons-and the Kaiser name became so admired that FDR briefly considered making him his vice president in 1944. Together, Knudsen and Kaiser created a wartime production behemoth. Drafting top talent from companies like Chrysler, Republic Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and Frigidaire, they turned auto plants into aircraft factories and civilian assembly lines into fountains of munitions, giving Americans fighting in Europe and Asia the tools they needed to defeat the Axis. In four short years they transformed America’s army from a hollow shell into a truly global force, laying the foundations for a new industrial America-and for the country’s rise as an economic as well as military superpower.
Featuring behind-the-scenes portraits of FDR, George Marshall, Henry Stimson, Harry Hopkins, Jimmy Doolittle, and Curtis LeMay, as well as scores of largely forgotten heroes and heroines of the wartime industrial effort, Freedom’s Forge is the American story writ large. It vividly re-creates American industry’s finest hour, when the nation’s business elites put aside their pursuit of profits and set about saving the world.
Advance Praise for Freedom’s Forge:
“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.”
“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
“Thankfully Freedom’s Forge sets the record straight, comprehensively and compellingly. Free markets, not big government, are the true source of America’s incredible strength. They enabled us to win World War II, thereby saving Western civilization. And since the war free markets have produced an endless cornucopia of new products and services-and will continue to do so as long as they exist.”
-Steve Forbes, Chairman and CEO of Forbes
Mr. Herman – a visiting scholar at AEI- will speak on the themes of his book at an AEI book forum on May 14, 2012. Click here for further details.
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