The American Superweapon


In a fireside chat on December 29, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt called upon the country to become the “arsenal of democracy,” a phrase that would prove enduring.

The President, coaxing a still deeply antiwar country toward what he thought its real self-interests to be, wanted American industry to gear up for war production in order to help those countries fighting the Nazis and Japanese. He presented the idea as the best way for the United States to remain neutral. Within a year, of course, Japan made the case for neutrality moot and the United States needed weapons for itself as well.

When Roosevelt made the speech, the arsenal was largely empty. The Navy, to be sure, was the equal of any in terms of ships, but it lacked the munitions to fight for any extended time. The Army had only three hundred thousand men, and its equipment was so antiquated that George C. Marshall wrote that its status had been reduced to “that of a third-rate power.”

But the arsenal did not stay empty for long. Just four and a half years after the phrase was coined, the United States had twelve million men under arms. Its navy was larger than all other navies in the world combined; its air force ruled the skies of the entire globe. In those years American industry turned out 6,500 naval vessels, 296,400 airplanes, 86,330 tanks, 64,546 landing craft, 3,500,000 jeeps, trucks, and personnel carriers, 53,000,000 dead-weight tons of cargo vessels, 12,000,000 rifles, carbines, and machine guns, 47,000,000 tons of artillery shells.

The United States accomplished this astonishing industrial feat by turning the world’s greatest free-market economy, virtually overnight, into a centrally planned one. Centrally planned economies have always proved dismally inefficient at producing goods and services wanted by consumers, but they have done far better producing instruments of war. The Soviet Union can’t manufacture adequate examples of some of the simplest consumer items (locally produced condoms, for instance, are known in the Russian vernacular as “galoshes”). Its nuclear-powered missile submarines, however, are highly respected examples of the most complex machines ever developed. When total war had to be fought, total control of the economy was essential.


When Roosevelt first moved to put the economy on a wartime footing, he relied on the alphabet soup that had been so much a part of the New Deal. It didn’t work. The NDAC (National Defense Advisory Commission), the OPM (Office of Production Management), and the SPAB (Supplies, Priorities and Allocations Board) all came into existence during 1940 and 1941 but coordinated poorly with one another. In addition, the separate supply administrations of the Army and Navy continued to operate, often at cross purposes, while they both furiously resisted any outside interference from nonmilitary parts of the government.

Further, American industry, finally booming again after eleven years of depression, was not interested in dancing to Washington’s tune.

After Pearl Harbor Roosevelt quickly decided that a different approach was needed. Although William S. Knudsen and Sidney Hillman were co-heads of the OPM, the office in charge of the effort, in early January 1942 the President called in Donald Nelson, the OPM’s director of priorities.

Nelson had been executive vice president of Sears, Roebuck, at a salary of seventy thousand dollars a year, before going to work for the government at fifteen thousand dollars. Fiftythree years old, he was a large-boned man, a little overweight (at a time, of course, when men were virtually expected to be overweight). His quiet demeanor, spectacles, and thin hair gave him the air, in the words of a contemporary, “of a Middle Western Buddha.” There was nothing Buddha-like about his private life, however. Twice divorced and twice widowed, he was married a total of five times.

“I’m tired of the way this production thing has been muddled,” the President told Nelson. “How would you like to take over the job?”

“I will if I can boss it,” Nelson replied.

“You can write your own ticket,” Roosevelt told him, “and I’ll sign it.”

Nelson, Vice President Henry Wallace, and the President discussed the new government agency that would be created to take over the functions of the earlier ones. Nelson suggested calling it the War Production Administration, but Roosevelt suddenly realized that its initials would then be WPA and knew that that would never do, so he settled on War Production Board instead.

Nelson went back to his office and proceeded to write the ticket Roosevelt had promised him. He gave the War Production Board the powers it needed to turn the United States economy into a war machine. He gave himself as chairman the powers he thought he needed to make it all work. When he took the plan back to Roosevelt, the President signed it as Executive Order 9024. With that, Donald Nelson became, in effect, the CEO of the American economy. He was fitted for the job.

Nelson had been born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1888. He graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in chemical engineering and planned to get his Ph.D. But first he went to work as a chemist for Sears, Roebuck, where he stayed for the next thirty years. He soon left the laboratory behind him, moving over into management and rising steadily through the corporate ranks.