The American Superweapon

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During the 1930s Sears stocked in its stores and sold through its catalogue more than one hundred thousand items, ranging from hatpins to prefabricated houses. For years it was Nelson’s primary job at Sears to learn what items were needed by the retail and catalogue operations, find out who could make them or where they could be purchased, and see to it that the merchandise appeared where and when it was needed. It was, of course, the perfect training for heading the War Production Board, for Nelson developed a familiarity with the width, breadth, and depth of American industry that was unmatched by anyone else in the country.

Once he went to work at the WPB, Nelson had three overriding priorities. First, he had to establish what the services and the Allies needed in order to win the war. Second, he had to inventory the raw materials the country had on hand together with the country’s industrial resources. Third, he had to find ways to fill any gaps.

One immediate critical shortage was rubber. Natural rubber came mostly from plantations in Southeast Asia, then largely in Japanese hands. The collecting of wild rubber in Brazil—an industry that had collapsed early in the century, when it could no longer complete with plantation rubber—was revived. In addition, several latex-producing plants that could grow in the United States, such as guayule, were cultivated. But it was synthetic rubber that saved the day. Nonexistent in 1939, our synthetic-rubber industry in 1945 turned out 820,000 tons.

The most difficult job facing Nelson was deciding what was to be produced first and what could wait. The Army Air Corps wanted bombers; the Navy needed pursuit planes. Both wanted them now. But there was not enough aluminum in the early days of the war to produce all the aircraft that were needed. The WPB had to decide which came first and take any resulting heat from the armed services.

At Sears, Donald Nelson had come to know the width, breadth, and depth of American industry better than anyone in the country.

The WPB was divided into several “industrial branches,” each responsible for a particular industry and charged with knowing exactly what every plant in that industry could produce, what it was producing at the moment, what it was already committed to produce in the future, and what inventory it possessed. These data were sent up the line to WPB divisions in charge of overall materials, allocations, production, and procurement decisions. It was at this level that the individual orders for equipment and matériel were weighed against one another, approved, given a priority, and sent to the plant that was to produce them, together with an authorization—also given priority—to draw on supplies of scarce raw materials.

Considering the task at hand, it is not surprising that the WPB was soon the largest of the wartime bureaucracies in Washington with more than twenty-five thousand employees by the end of 1942. It used as much paper every day as a good-size newspaper. What is surprising, perhaps, is that the system worked at all, but work it did as the American economy expanded by 125 percent between 1940 and 1944, from $88.6 billion to $199.2 billion.

What is astounding is how little the civilian economy was disrupted by the immense demands of war production and by the fact that about 20 percent of the male population of the country was in the armed forces.

And while certain products (such as new automobiles) were impossible to find and others (such as tires, gasoline, and red meat) were severely rationed, the civilian economy continued to supply the needs of the civilian population at a far higher level than that of the economy of any other belligerent. In the midst of total war the United States economy produced both guns and butter (or at least margarine). Indeed, at war’s end the civilian portion of the American economy was about the same size it had been in 1939.

Donald Nelson’s name is known today only to specialists of the period. But in large measure he was responsible for the American superweapon that won the war. That weapon was not the atomic bomb but the American economy. Thanks to Donald Nelson and his legions at the WPB who did an immensely complex, largely thankless job, the United States was able to win the Second World War using the same, simple strategy Ulysses S. Grant had used eighty years earlier: Assemble overwhelming men and matériel, and pound the enemy into the ground with them.