Historiography is the critical study of the interpretation of history. The “Great Man” view of history emphasizes critical decisions made by primary individuals, altering history’s course at key moments. Other views have history as a function of geography; of evolving technology; of colliding cultures; of imperialism; of racism; of industrialization; of class struggle. In any case, history, in retrospect, can seem inevitable, like a river flowing over and around obstacles, toward a future which itself cascades into the past. Napolean summarized his view, saying “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon”. More cynically, in the view of Oscar Wilde, “History is gossip”. Churchill, asked about his wartime decision making, took an assertive approach, “History will be kind to me, because I will write the history”. Of course, he meant he intended to write the history (he did – six volumes) after winning World War Two, not as a substitute for fighting the war. All of these views are surely true in some combination, although It is not clear whether President Trump’s approach – rewriting history concurrently with and as a substitute for fighting the war – will survive the CV-19 pandemic and provide him a second term in office. The 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two provides a good opportunity to look back at America’s efforts to mobilize the country to fight a common enemy in the midst of an economic crisis.
During World War I, Harry Truman, almost legally blind, used his father’s connections to the Pendergast political machine in nearby Kansas City, famous nationally for its patronage machinations, to gain entry to the American Expeditionary Force as an artillery officer, achieving the rank of Captain, and in September, 1918, used tasked Army mules to haul his company’s guns, in pouring rain, to assigned elevated positions in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, where he successfully shelled and destroyed German artillery positions, in defense of the American advance on the Argonne front, the Allies’ last major advance of the war, leading to the surrender of exhausted German forces several weeks later. After the war, Truman returned to civilian life, attempting several failed ventures in oil and gas; real estate; stock brokerage; and, famously, as a haberdasher, while running his family’s farm outside Kansas City. With unfinished law and business school training, Truman was elected an administrative judge for Jackson County, KS; then served as an employment program administrator for the Kansas City area in the early Roosevelt administration; ran successfully for U.S. Senate in 1934, was appointed to serve on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and was reelected in 1940, rising to chair its critical War Mobilization Subcommittee. Determined the country would avoid the widespread, scandalous manipulation of munitions contracts that characterized the country’s arms buildup in the first world war, Truman initiated an investigation and oversight program for the nation’s arms expenditures to maintain competitive bidding, prevent kickbacks to powerful politicians, and insure efficient allocation of taxpayer funds in the even more massive war mobilization for World War Two. Truman’s role, widely seen as effective as the country achieved its immense munitions production goals, put Truman on the cover of Time Magazine, and, then in the national spotlight, on the short list of Vice-Presidential candidates for FDR in 1944, to replace Henry Wallace, disliked by Wall Street for his vocal democratic-socialist views.
The greater challenge, the war strategy and mobilization itself, was entrusted to George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, Virginia Military Institute, career Army, former staff officer to General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War One, where Marshall served alongside other young officers Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Stillwell and MacCarthur, future theater commanders for the Second World War. FDR’s war production demands, intended to fulfill deficits in both American and Allied munitions requirements, were so massive that they shocked the Congress and the public. Marshall was tasked with planning a two-front war across the world’s major oceans against aggressive, experienced and strongly armed enemies, both deploying effective new air, sea and land combat tactics, technologies and equipment, and possessing their own substantial industrial bases as well as the benefit of forced labor, expropriated resources, and commandeered infrastructure and manufacturing plants of occupied countries. Marshall faced multiple simultaneous challenges, beginning with protecting imminently threatened primary theater staging grounds in Britain and Australia, both in desperate need of manpower, ships, munitions and equipment, to be provided under FDR’s Lend-Lease policy, but needing to overcome substantial ongoing destruction of cargo and merchant shipping by enemy submarines in both oceans. To achieve FDR’s war objectives – unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan – Marshall developed war strategies for both theaters, and then undertook plans to mobilize and train manpower for all American armed services; develop new technologies, equipment and tactics for modern air, land and naval warfare; mobilize America’s industrial base for war production; and identify and gain control of critical raw materials. All of this needed to be coordinated and integrated into a successful war plan under greatly constrained resources, while maintaining democratic standards at home, civil occupation policies abroad, and all in compliance with the strict financial standards for procurement practices under the watchful eye of Truman’s War Mobilization Subcommittee, the primary overseer for the Senate Appropriations Committee, which was hefting the bill for this colossal effort.
The successful mobilization of manpower and resources was the result of Marshall’s organization of the country’s industrial and technological capacities on a massive scale. He developed a methodology, “mapping”, later labeled “programming”, then “logistics” defining the weaponry and manpower needed to meet war objectives, then reverse-engineering these outcomes through stages of development all the way to extraction of raw materials and redeployment of civilian manpower. By continually refining measures of supply, demand, production capacities, transportation, manpower, etc,, against evolving events, Marshall identified resource tradeoffs and adjusted solutions to maximize the war-fighting capacity of the overall allied forces, and thus achieved strategic war goals. Marshall started by immediately cashiering 5,000 elderly senior officers across all the peacetime services, and then developed rational mass recruitment, testing, training and promotional standards for all ranks. He calculated the maximum armed force personnel that could be deployed from the U.S. population for combat and support services while maintaining necessary manpower for munitions production. He identified requirements for critical raw materials – petroleum with various stages of refinement; steel and various specialty metals; cotton and nylon; sulfur and other key chemicals; rubber; foodstuffs; textiles; etc. He identified segments of American industry that could be converted for munitions production; critical rail and port infrastructure; and fast-track construction and contracting methods for new factories.
There was resistance at first to these dramatic proposed changes in an economic system devoted to free market principles, strongly defended by the Supreme Court through the depths of the Great Depression, and still struggling with low employment, low consumer demand, and depressed Federal revenues. Marshall started with the major manufacturers at the head of the commercial manufacturing supply chain – the automobile industry – located safely in the north central Midwest, well out of bomber range, with well established rail and waterway transport infrastructure connecting them to east and west coast ports; to critical natural resources and materials processing plants; and with integrated steel, rubber, glass and electronics manufacturing systems. The heads of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors were invited to Washington to discuss war production, and grudgingly accepted. Marshall explained that the nation’s security was at risk, and the U.S. Government needed their help. The taxpayers would pay full costs of transitioning and constructing new plants; pay a profit on all production; pay all cost overruns; pay to transition the old plants back to commercial production after the war; then contribute the new plants to the manufacturers in addition. The automaker heads – William Sloan (GM); Henry Ford II (Ford) and Walter Chrysler (Chrysler) considered the offer, discussed it among themselves, then declined, explaining that they were beginning to gradually ramp up their commercial production as the economy recovered, and were wary of such an overarching obligation to the government, of unknown duration, which seemed inconsistent with the free market principles that had made them so successful, principles supported by the courts. Marshall told the executives that he understood their position, and that the government had an alternative, explaining that the government planned to legislate emergency authority to seize the plants, draft their employees into the army, including their senior management, and the three executives would run the plants as Army officers under his personal direction. The automakers quickly agreed to cooperate for profit, and this became the model for dedication of the American industrial base, the entire economy, to the war effort – the “Arsenal of Democracy”.
By the end of the war, Electric Boat and Portsmouth Shipbuilding were constructing a completed submarine every week. Warships were constructed at the rate of 25 per week at Oakland, Boston, Seattle, Portland, Portsmouth, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Savannah. Boeing was producing a four-engine B-29 high-altitude strategic heavy bomber, capable of an unheard of 3,000 mile range, every 3 days at its new Wichita plant. Ford, incredibly, was rolling a “Liberator” light tactical bomber off its line at Willow Run, MI every hour. Chrysler, GM and Ford were assembling jeeps, tanks and trucks by the tens of thousands at their midwest plants, raw materials flowing through processing plants, into base fabrication plants, components loading into enormous assembly plants, all through the integrated rail and port infrastructure around the Great Lakes. Firearms manufacturers in Springfield, Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport were producing various calibre rifles, handguns, and machine guns by the millions – more than one for every single second of the war. In New England, the textile mills expanded and fired up their lines, producing uniforms, coats, boots, socks, holsters, belts, packs, tents, etc. sufficient to outfit 18 million American servicemen, times two for provision of millions more Russian, British; ANZAC, Free French and Polish forces. Men, materiel and equipment were shipped out of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Savannah, following the advance of Allied forces, into the great ports of Northern Europe at Derry, Belfast, Cardiff, Liverpool, Cherbourg, Brest, Antwerp, and around the Scandinavian Peninsula, meeting Finnish and Russian icebreakers, through the Arctic and into the Russian ports at Arkangel and Murmansk. Following the invasion of North Africa, supplies flowed into Casablanca, Algiers and Oran; then, with the invasion of Southern Europe, into Naples and Marseilles. In the Pacific, supplies flowed out of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Long Beach, and into Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Manila and Calcutta, where they were flown over the Himalayas to Stillwell’s inland front in central China. A steady, unstoppable production line of ships, equipment, trucks, uniforms, helmets, rifles, sidearms, bayonets, artillery, ammunition, food, and on, and on, and on, for five years. Such was the volume of this cargo shipping that during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, Erwin Rommell, “The Desert Fox”, a committed Nazi, later commander in Normandy, after viewing aerial photographs of Allied supply ships stretching twenty miles out to sea at the port of Oran, Algeria, realized the German war effort could not overcome this onslaught of men, materiel and equipment, flew to Berlin, showed the photos to Hitler, who accepted the recommendation to abandon the African continent – Germany’s first strategic retreat of the war.
A full tenth of all U.S. war expenditures were devoted to development of the atomic bomb, a great gamble of precious resources, in a race against Germany to develop an abstract physics theory into a super-weapon, with the contested result far from pre-determined. At long last, just before the end of the European war, the device was successfully tested, and word was immediately transmitted to the new President – Harry Truman – who had no prior knowledge of the weapon, such was the project’s secrecy. In a final discussion of his war council, few questions were asked – what were estimated American casualties with an invasion (250,000-1.0 million); would the weapon work (we think so); how many can we develop quickly based on supply of processed uranium (two); how quickly can we deliver them (three months); should we warn Japan (yes). The weapons were developed, and a long, low-slung, narrow in the beam, thinly armored WWI-era cruiser, greatly admired throughout the Navy for its sleek design, Nimitz’s flagship through most of the war, the fastest ship in the U.S. Navy, in port at Oakland for repair, maintenance and leave for its crew, was commissioned for the task – the ill-fated U.S.S. Indianapolis. Japan was warned, and, while nearly defeated, its Emperor narrowly escaping a military coup, refused surrender, and Boeing’s B-29’s, flying off a specially lengthened runway at Tinian, delivered two terrible blows to the Empire of the Sun, ending the war in the Pacific, precluding the planned, devastating invasion effort, introducing the world to the technological horror of the nuclear age.
George Marshall went on to serve as Secretary of State in the Truman administration, initiating and overseeing the reconstruction and mutual defense plans for Europe, the foundation for the Atlantic Alliance that would ultimately prevail in the Cold War, and then was called to service once again to serve as Secretary of Defense at the outset of the Korean War in 1950, when Truman asked for, and gained, Congressional legislation to empower the use of the Federal government to mobilize domestic munitions production – the now-famous “Defense Production Act”.
This all provides some perspective for President Trump’s abandonment of his responsibilities in America’s current pandemic, and his effort to rewrite history in current time at his daily press briefings. The President’s dis-coordination of the country’s governmental infrastructure, established to address a long-anticipated pandemic, and address the three keys to recovery – testing, tracking and vaccination – has left the country’s governors in a mad scramble to coordinate the nation’s massive, highly sophisticated pharmacology and bioscience resources, sitting at the ready in industry, healthcare institutions and academia.
Trump’s approach is a direct function of his long business career that evolved to a successful model he mastered over a lifetime. Inheriting $400+ million from his father, Trump gambled it all away on high-profile projects based on grossly exaggerated financial assumptions, ignoring published industry warnings. In the case of the twice-failed Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, rather then heed publicized warnings, Trump used his influence to have the industry analyst fired from his investment banking firm. After going bankrupt from his wild gambles, losing all of his substantial inherited family wealth, Trump turned to Russian and other illicit foreign investors and ran an effective money-laundering scheme at Trump Tower, selling units there to Russian oligarchs and others moving cash out of their failed state, overflowing with illicit proceeds from sale of state assets, primarily natural resources. Unable to successfully buy, renovate or develop commercial real estate, suffering major losses in all cases, Trump then developed a “branding” operation, relying on promotion of his company name and his own exaggerated talents, while shifting actual responsibility for land purchase, public approvals, utility connections, construction, leasing and operation of Trump-branded properties to third parties. This all relied on the maintenance of the marketing value of the Trump “brand”, thus his interminable, habitual self-promotion; this is his primary – his only – real talent.
So as the country watches, Trump doubles down on his approach, abdicating the Federal government’s responsibilities for coordinating a national response to our current existential threat, while simultaneously boasting at every opportunity of accomplishments of others, based on exaggerated, imagined or distorted metrics; promoting various fabricated miracle cures; shifting blame for negative events from his own shoulders; engaging conspiracy theories against international organizations and China; inciting civil disobedience, carrying the oderous intimation of violence, against his administration’s own public health and safety guidelines; spouting the utterly false hope that the problem will simply go away of its own accord; rattling off incoherent laundry lists of various quantities of items shipped hither and yon; using intimidation to sideline, fire and bend the public statements of the government’s senior intelligence, military, public health and justice agencies to his varying nonsensical statements; and continuing to subvert, scramble and obstruct efforts of state and Federal governmental agencies working to coordinate the pandemic response, or even to fully measure its impact.
So, back to World War Two; how did we get there? Looking back at some of the great men of our own history, we can observe that when faced with an existential threat, they undertook their responsibilities in full, and used the greatest powers of the Executive to harness all of the nation’s people, natural and industrial resources to manage America’s – and the world’s – destiny to a stated goal. In the current crisis, we need a President who will embrace, rather than abdicate, those responsibilities – we deserve one.