133 of 141 people found the following review helpful
Did you ever see those cool WWII newsreel-turned-into-tv-shows, like "Victory at Sea"? One of them is entitled- "America the Arsenal of Democracy" and man, what they showed there- making tanks as fast as the assembly-line could move, warehouse full of bombers as far as the eye could see, and making Liberty ships in under a week. Honestly, it was amazing.
This book takes that idea, and runs with it, concentrating mostly on the story of William Knudsen and Henry Kaiser.
William Knudsen was the head of General Motors, who was drafted by FDR to run the war materiel production efforts for the war. When it turned out Knudsen wasn't getting the cooperation he needed, FDR just made him into a three-star general!
The tale of Henry Kaiser is better known, he brought mass production techniques to shipbuilding. Kaiser decided to use welding instead of riveting and brought in unskilled workers (many of whom were women) to build these "wonder-ships'.
This then, really, is the story of how America won WWII. By the end of WWI, the USA out produced every other nation combined! Just one US company produced more than entire Axis nations.
Now, there is also a political undercurrent behind this amazing story, and that is that it was the practice of free enterprise that was behind these production miracles. Free enterprise is the big hero here.
It's an amazing story and well told (politics aside). However, I think now I want to see that newsreel of "America- the Arsenal of Democracy" again.
96 of 107 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2012
I read and reviewed the 'advance copy' some months ago. The book is for Amazon readers interested in the creation of the modern America, WW2 history, the wedding of capitalism & politics with the economy, and the micro/macro-economic outcomes of personality and possibility.
'Freedom's Forge' is the story of an uncompromised time of cooperation between the public and private sectors but it wasn't easy. Herman delivers a timely and extraordinary encapsulation of this other time in America. The topic was an easy sell to me. The subject matter has long been a personal interest. There is so little being published on the topic that one's pursuit of the curiosity is rather like the blind man defining an elephant.
For this reader "Freedom's Forge" is closely associated with my early career experience. The time is a mystery from the only recent past and the curiosity to keep my eyes open for hints. Long ago, my old grizzled techno-industrialist boss cut his eyeteeth in WW2 industry and summed it up for me. I was just a kid-scientist working my first job out of grad school. I had constructed my first technical project plan for his review ... "How long?" he yelled. "My God, son, WW2 was only a 44 month program!". I was stunned and smitten with curiosity from then till now. The more I look, the more I see that confirms that something thoroughly amazing occurred in those 44 months.
US factories yielded superior products in total and in volumes that boggle the imagination even in an iPad, smartphone modern world (though they aren't made in the USA). The feat was an ostensibly unrivaled milestone in organized human civilization. There is simply no macro/micro-econometric precedent like this 44 months. That's the phenomena Herman explores. Surely the war was motivation but ... the Japanese and Germans were motivated too. More than motivation ... the American response was a concert of genius, individual trust and a national trust that is unfortunately difficult to grasp in its 70 year distance. In only 40 months, the US accomplished the feat at every level to enable the modern super power ... it was an hellacious cat-drive ... civilians of independent minds, inter-racial, uni-sex and all re-tooled to the cadence of the steadily increasing casualties from the front.
In modern context, consider that The F-35 has been a 132 month program and remains incomplete. The next US aircraft carrier will have been a 72 month program if it is commissioned as planned and with only minor naval architectural changes from its predecessors. Between 1942 and war's end, 5, 6 and 7 or more generationally significant leaps in designs of all types were manufactured and rolled out. These modern things aren't 'bad' but there was once another way that worked far more efficiently and quickly.
Having visited and worked in some of these old WW2 engineering and production sites all over the US, Britain and Australia one can still find the strange quirks. One Australian armored vehicle final assembly plant (still in operation) was `cut & pasted' with the precise architectural plans of its US counterpart. There was just no time to re-engineer the construction plans... strangely in retrospect, no one had time to notice that the sky lights should face in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere. Larry Bell of WW2 Martin aircraft fame and the Bell Helicopter founder bricked narrow the hangar doors and installed structural columns in his helicopter plants to insure no one at Bell ever tried to imagine a fixed wing aircraft. I've visited Stalin's `east of the Urals' sites where US made machinery and designs of this era are very much in evidence. The vital machine tools that were the critical enabler to build the T-32's & T-34's in such volume were shipped to Stalin through Murmansk & Arkhangelsk ... the old Bridgeport's and Cincinnati's are still turning ... billets of steel are not easily transformed into tanks. The UK was jokingly imagined to capsize with the weight of the American materials staged for D-Day. These are my quirky examples and not from `Freedom's Forge'.
Comprehending the reality of the cumulative effort, the tens of thousands of businesses that suddenly made the parts that contributed to the entire process in its time and place is beyond one's grasp if you are at all familiar with modern industry. Herman's narrative fills in some of the home front mega-story away from the front lines, the battles and the generals that are far better known.
How could so much be accomplished in the US and nearly alone? `Freedom's Forge' carries the reader through the behaviors of the public and private leadership, their subordinates and the system they built with willing civilians and rancorous, seething bureaucrats. A labor strike at a critical juncture in the US support of the UK cost 14 ship builds that the enemy capitalized with torpedo casualities. Rarely can one find such disparate proportionality over cents/hr. The resolution of ideas, technology and processes extended from the iron mines of MN to the thousands of forges and intricate part factories and to assembly lines that rolled product onto the revolutionary new Liberty ships (the Merchant Marine took the highest casualties of any service just moving stuff)... and it was accomplished with all manner of previously inexperienced civilians.
Until Herman's 'Freedom's Forge', the story has been hazy and piecemeal. The whole history is far from complete. Herman provides the accounts of well-known Henry Kaiser and the less known William Knudsen among so many lost names that conjured a new nation out the economic collapse of the Depression. It is a genuine untold story. There are other materials to consider but I've found no narrative that ranges as wide and deep as 'Freedom's Forge' to attribute so many fascinating characters and stories to such a phenomenal human endeavor.
5-stars and an important book! This is the first 'advanced copy' that I have purchased after publication. I loved it!
p.s. I'm curious about other reviewer's observation regarding the author's `balance issues'. The organized labor strikes are a matter of historical record. The poor safety conditions and casualty records among workers is documented in every industry. The loss of output directly assignable to the strikes is quantified historically. The extraordinary rise of US wages is documented.
That the New Dealers and FDR had to call on the military to break coal mining strikes that affected steel output, and then quell other strikes is a matter of historical record. If the author had failed to include the union conflicts, he would have demonstrated another kind of `lack of balance'. The author, for instance, does not mention the Philadelphia transit union strike over union seniority and pennies/hr that shut down the huge Philadelphia based defense industry for a month. The big labor/New Dealer situation had deteriorated into union-interest against the national issue of winning the war with the fewest casualties. Organized labor is seen to pick and choose the choke points to best strike `Freedoms's Forge' for whatever purpose, now long forgotten and rarely recalled.
Ickes & Truman are historically documented to use the bureaucracy to perecute the `$1 a year men' in non-value adding assaults. The whole story, good and bad, and for the readers worldview are well covered in this book to consider.
50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2012
The book is full of ironies.
The biggest is that lend-lease saved the Soviets in 1942/1943 from complete collapse. The material and means to deliver it came from lend-lease, both the finished goods and the machine tools. And it was the arch-capitalist, Knudsen, who made it happen, with his diligent planning and leadership in 1940.
Another irony is that the US communists in the labor unions led strikes in 1940-1941 which drained the war effort. Had those strikes spread, the USSR might not have gotten its war material.
One final irony is that Knudsen saved the Roosevelt administration by getting a credible and effective war production going by releasing the free market.
Knudsen deserves a place next to Marshall as the key, pivotal personality who led the US to final victory.
Roosevelt also deserves a lot of praise for picking Knudsen and for standing by him.
40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2012
Arhtur Herman has provided a good history of the contribution of American business to the Allied war effort in World War II.
While this book is primarily about two people, Bill Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser, it has a large cast of characters, a multitude of corporations (mostly large ones) and an almost endless list of weaponery that spilled out of factories and docks all across the nation.
On May 30, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt called Bill Knudsen away from leading General Motors to lead the defense effort. FDR had been walking a tight rope for some time in the conflict between American isolationists and the need to equip and modernize a depleted military while Europe was itself suffering under the German army and Imperial Japan's invastion of China and other parts of Asia was in process. He chose Knudsen because of his reputation of being able to bring an efficient operation into play. Knudsen was the man who was critical to the automobile business by advocating and bringing out changes in car models yearly. After working for Henry Ford, he went to GM and put forth the idea that people would want a new model every year and that the industry had to gear itself for this type of business. With it, he propelled the sales for Chevrolet and proved to Henry Ford that people would buy something other than black. Knudsen believed in precise tooling of parts so that product moved smoothly down the production line. He had no regard or time for "craftsman" techniques in manufacture. He wanted parts to be precise and fit together without coaxing by a person with tools.
Henry Kaiser is also prominent in this book and rightly so. He was a man of immense personal charm, and dreamed on a very large scale. He was a giant in building roads and eventually became the master of the liberty ships that were provided by America in such abundance during the war.
There is the expected play of politics throughout the book. FDR appointed Knudsen a three star general, Kaiser secured contracts for vast ventures but not without making enemies as he did so. While he was immensely successful in many areas, he suffered the burden of a lot of bad press when his Liberty ships began to crack apart under stress and extreme cold, but hardly anything could deter him or keep him from pressing forward his next idea, one of which was the small aircraft carrier meant for convoy duty.
That America could pull this off is incredible. When you read of the tons of military equipment that was produced for war it is staggering. When the war started, America had six carriers, later reduced to four after early battles. SeePacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 Yamamoto was correct when he stated that he feared Japan had only awakened a sleeping giant. During the war 141 aircraft carriers were produced, granted many of them of much lesser size for mainly convoy duty, but without question, we outproduced the Axis. I would take some issue with his charge that Speer was labeled as the person that laid Europe in ruins. Speer, in spite of bombings, was able to increase German armament numbers throughout the war, but he had total control, and of course forced or slave labor has no union to represent them. Hitler was the culprit here and Speer one of the few Germans that received prison time. SeeInside the Third Reich.
There is a lot of information regarding labor unions during this time. Unfortunately, their image is not too favorable. It was a time when labor had an ally in the White House, and the AFL and CIO were in a serious competition to sign up members. Inevitably, strikes were called and production was lost. Of all the moves made by the unions, the most disastrous was from the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis who called for a strike in April of 1943 and FDR blew up and order the army to take over the mines. This sent them back to work until June 19, when 60,000 miners struck and created a wrath of public opinion against the union. They were back to work in three days and the end result was Congress passing legislation over the veto to call for a 30 day notice for all strikes and the end of the secret ballot for union membership. In addition, blacks were starting to enter the work force and the labor unions have a poor record of discrimination against them, a far cry from today.
For me, one of the greatest stories are those of the women who poured into factories and shipyards, and for the first time were doing jobs that only men had done previously. Bearing the hardship of the labor, and the hazardous conditions in many plants, women came forward to help save the world and have never looked back. Imagine, the widow of Confederate General James Longstreet driving to work at the age of 80!!! She was one of the many.
The book itself can spark further debate as to what was and what we are now. Obviously, those that favor big government can claim that it was FDR and his administration that provided all of this, while those of the other side can lay claim that it was free enterprise that saved the world. They both have their points, but I suppose it was a combination of the two that swept fascism away. Could we do it again? No chance of something of this scope being done again. With government as big and cumbersome as it is today, and so full of regulation there would be little opportunity to pull something like this off in such a short time, and we have a media much more responsive and critical of anything and everything. I fear that this feat was a one time thing. Keep in mind that all this was done in a little over forty months.
I encourage readers to get a copy. I have revised to three stars. There is a serious flaw in the information provided about the civilian construction workers massacred by the Japanese at Wake Island. The author cites numbers in the twenties while there was actually almost one hundred people bound in barbed wire and machine gunned to death. You just cannot miss something so important and expect good reviews.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2012
Arthur Herman has once again made an important contribution to the narrative history of America. This immensely detailed and wonderfully readable book tells the true story of how the "arsenal of America" came to be and correctly attributes that phrase to the immigrant businessman who coined it rather than the President who got credit for it . There are heroes and villains in this story and Herman painstakingly lays out how the villains almost won. The New Dealers led by the mendacious Harold Ickes, FDR's Secretary of the Interior, came closer than was known, to turning American industry and the American state into a centrally-planned disaster that would have lost the war. And Herman convincingly demonstrates that when it was over, though they had fought against the process at every turn, they took the credit anyway and used it as justification for government intervention in markets from which we have yet to recover. Among the astonishing revelations within these pages are the borderline treasonous actions of the CIO and to a lesser extent the AFL and Herman eviscerates their claims and actions against the national interest in the period 1940-44, with deliberate language and unfailing scholarship. Less surprising is the picture Herman paints of a Congress unable to aid the war effort but always ready to accuse, investigate and harass those who could.
Read this wonderful book and you will never forget the names of the business leaders, companies and individual workers whose extraordinary free market cooperation saved the world. And when you are finished, you will surely cast a skeptical eye upon the vilification of those companies who in our own age, have made possible the defence of America with their capital, energy and innovation.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2012
I'm a World War II buff and always enjoy new information on a well-plowed subject. Herman does a good job reconstructing the FDR Administration response to the war beginning in the late 30s. Key to the account is the role of business and businessmen rather than government in the industrial miracle that crushed the axis. New to me was the tug of war between the New Dealers, adamantly opposed to any corporate advantage, and the specialists who knew how to get things done. Automobile manufacturers figured out how to make bombers in mind-boggling quantities. it's a great story about how men got together to work for a common goal. I was surprised to learn that more workers died on assembly lines in '42 and '43 than men died in combat. Add to that the amazing number of executives who keeled over under the stress of war production.
Another point that emerges is how the New Dealers managed to control the narrative of production. To listen to the official line it was bureaucrats who finessed all the complicated arrangements for parts and sub assemblies, new factories, and innovative technologies. Herman tells a different story.
Herman relies on a lot of published sources and I am concerned that he retransmits error. I spotted some factual errors that annoyed me based even on my own limited knowledge. He mislabels the San Joaquin Valley as the San Jose Valley. He thinks the Treblinka concentration camp was a factory for war materiel (it was solely a killing camp).
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Arthur Herman has written several excellent books. His previous opus, _Gandhi and Churchill_, is a standout. It's intelligent, nuanced, thoughtful, enlightening, and balanced.
_Freedom's Forge_ is, regrettably, none of those things.
First, there's the writing. It's all short, declarative sentences, without too many long words or complex ideas. It'd make adequate young-adult prose. Even at that level, it veers close to self-parody in spots. For instance, no less than twelve of the twenty chapters end with a melodramatic, single-sentence paragraph (e.g., "Then Big Bill Knudsen came to the plane's rescue." Dun dun dunnnnh!). The same hokey device is used to terminate many individual sections, as well. (Just a little shift in punctuation and emphasis would render the prose worthy of period pulp fiction: "Then--seemingly out of nowhere!--HENRY KAISER proved to be ... *the hero of the hour!!!*")
Then there's the tone, which is fawning to the point of sycophancy. Herman's heroes are *always* pure in word, deed, and motivation. Anyone who opposes them is *invariably* deluded, black-hearted, or self-serving. (Pursuing your individual self-interest is Good if you're one of Herman's Heroes, but it's Bad if you're not.) There's a judicious selection of anecdotes, carefully chosen to reinforce the distinction.
In support of this, thirdly, Herman indulges in naked--and, in some cases, quite distasteful--propagandizing. A few examples:
* He concludes his account of the development of the Sherman tank with the comment that "one British officer pronounced the M4A4 'the finest tank in the world.'" That might (just) have been a defensible statement early in 1943. It was demonstrably untrue by later that year, and became less and less true as the war continued. (British troops called the Sherman "the Ronson lighter", for its tendency to catch fire; Germans termed it "the Tommy cooker".) Herman's selective quote leaves, at the least, a highly misleading impression. Perhaps Herman doesn't know this. In that case, he's being disgracefully sloppy. Or perhaps he does know it, and chose to leave the anecdote in anyway to imply that the Sherman was better than it really was. In that case, he's being intellectually dishonest.
* Says Herman of Bernard Baruch: "... this time Baruch was willing to get into harness--perhaps because he knew the really hard work had already been done." This is pure, unsupported, uncalled-for, and contemptible character assassination. Herman has zero evidence for Baruch's frame of mind. Nothing in this book justifies this kind of sneering backhand innuendo, and there is no sign that Herman made any effort to determine what Baruch actually was thinking. I will refrain from speculating on Herman's own mental state when he wrote this particularly noxious piece of drivel.
* Whenever Herman has a particularly controversial or polemical or just plain dubious conclusion to draw, he doesn't cite it, or justify it, or explain it. He just states it, as if it were a self-evident fact that all reasonable people will (of course) concur with. Alternative interpretations, on the other hand, are ignored, dismissed, or knocked down with straw men. For instance, it could rationally be concluded from the facts given that "Massive government spending is a good way to stimulate the economy!" Herman spends precisely one glancing sentence on this (perfectly plausible) argument--not to refute it, but simply to handwave it away.
And, finally, here's the worst thing:
NONE OF THE ABOVE WAS NECESSARY.
The facts and the figures are still astounding. They, not Herman, tell the story both accurately and unforgettably. Bill Knudsen and Henry Kaiser *really were* heroes. American business *really did* perform prodigies. Incentive-driven, decentralized, engineering-led production *really did* totally outclass the "rational" planned economies. Everything Herman is trying to argue could be argued, eloquently and convincingly--if he'd dropped the juvenile propaganda techniques and told the story straight.
If Arthur Herman had just let the facts speak for themselves, in other words, he'd have written a stellar book--and I'd have drawn the very conclusions he's shoveling at me ... all by myself, thank you, without any prompting. Instead, I'm left with a good deal of skepticism, not to mention a nasty aftertaste. If Arthur Herman wants me as a reader, he'll to have to go back to writing books for grownups.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2012
I bought the book to learn about the 'greatest generation's' time before and during World War Two, and came away with a frightening conclusion. If World War Two took place today, we would probably have a different outcome.
We have thrown away our industries, given our children an education that for all purposes is worthless, made enemies of those who know how to do things, or get things done (not that some of them have not helped with that view along the way).
Not always, but for the most part, President Reagan got it right. Government is not the solution, government is the problem. If Washington ran the war effort top to bottom, like they wanted to, then we just might have fought the war the same way in those old documentary films, with broomsticks for rifles, trucks with the word 'tank' painted on the side, and a piece of pipe and cutoff broomsticks for a mortar and mortar rounds.
There are no 'captains of industry' today that could do the job these people did. Just used car salesmen and investment bankers and finance people. And way too much government interference. I don't hold the money people at fault as much as some people do. When you are told (by Washington) to give mortgages to people who don't qualify for them, tell everyone that it's all going to be free and you don't have to pay for it, then what do you expect is going to happen?
If you read the book, then who is today's William Knudson? Who is Henry J. Kaiser? If anyone suggests that Steve Jobs would have been one such candidate, remember, it was Steve Wozniac who actually built the Apple I on a piece of plywood.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2014
This book appears to have been written by Henry Kaiser’s public relations department. It completely distorts history in order to “prove” that he almost single handedly won the war. As an example the book claims that Kaiser Magnesium produced the incendiary bombs used to incinerate Japan’s cities when in fact it was Standard Oil’s napalm bombs that were responsible. Kaiser’s magnesium “goop” bombs were only 8% of the total tonnage of incendiary bombs dropped.
Even more laughably it credits Kaiser with inventing the escort carrier, conveniently forgetting the 45 escort carrier of the Bougue class that preceded the Casablanca class into service by a year, as well as the earlier merchant ship conversions.
It also gives sole credit to B-24’s for winning the Battle of the Atlantic. It correctly points to Convoy ON5 as the pivotal battle, but claims the 6 U boats sunk were by combined air/surface attacks when in fact they were sunk solely by the vessels of the Royal Navy. May 1943 was the month the battle of the Atlantic was won, but out of the 41 U-boats sunk, B-24’s only sunk 4. They played a role, but not a leading role.
Not worth reading in any way
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2014
Being a history buff, I have read way too many books about World War II. This book reveals the side I never knew before and it is probably one of the most important parts of the war. How did America prepare itself to fight World War II? How did we prepare ourselves to make the machines that would make the machines that would fight the war? One of my favorite history books I've read in a number of years because it revealed so many new stories of the grit, determination, and patriotism of those in the United States who were able to arm the troops that would win the war.