The Lessons of the World War II Mobilization Relevant to Today’s Struggles
by Bill Onasch


Onasch speaking, David Riehle seated. Photo by Mary Erio

[This is the prepared text for remarks cut short by a schedule crunch at the New Crises, New Agendas conference, held in North Kansas City April 3-4, 2009.]

There’s general agreement that World War II was the most pivotal period in modern history and we could easily devote an entire conference to its ramifications. It was fostered by the world wide Great Depression that began in 1929–and it ended that era marked by so much suffering. But the cure was in most respects even worse than that affliction. Seventy million perished; numerous cities, towns and villages throughout Europe and Asia, along with their industrial capacity, were destroyed; and the curse of nuclear fission has haunted us ever since.

The focus of this session is on one narrow, though ultimately decisive, component of the Second World War–the economic mobilization in the United States–and lessons from that experience that are useful in confronting today’s crises.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt early on favored joining with the British Empire to stop the expansion of German and Japanese rivals. But there was strong majority sentiment among the American people not to get involved in the wars in Europe and the Pacific. In order to overcome this domestic opposition Washington adroitly maneuvered Japan in to firing the first shot. On December 7, 1941, more than two years after war began in Europe, the Japanese navy bombed Pearl Harbor. Hitler and Mussolini joined their Axis partner in Tokyo by declaring war on the United States at the same time.

Unlike the clueless economic advisers surrounding President Obama, FDR’s White House team weren’t scratching their heads on December 8. They had long been preparing for this day. Now that they were in the war defeat was unthinkable, victory would be sweet.

They knew there would be resistance to conversion of American industry to war. They had previously encountered reluctance in their promotion of America as an “arsenal of democracy,” a phrase used by FDR in a radio fireside chat a year before American entry in to the war. He wanted to supply Britain with desperately needed arms at a time when they seemed to be on the ropes. But many companies were skittish about sacrificing market share to competitors while converting to what might only be a fleeting opportunity, perhaps soon cut short by a German victory.

Some American corporations in fact had substantial ties to the Nazi regime. Henry Ford, a personal admirer of Hitler, had plants in Germany starting in 1912. They were converted in the mid-30s to war production for the Third Reich. The company later demanded–and received–over a million dollars in compensation from the U.S. government for bombing damage to their Cologne plant.

After acquiring Opel in 1929, General Motors had an even bigger presence in Germany. In 1938 Hitler personally decorated GM Vice President James D. Mooney with the Order of the German Eagle, rewarding his efforts in rebuilding the Wehrmacht.

These are not the only examples of “patriotic” American companies serving as an “arsenal of democracy”–for both sides.

After Pearl Harbor, the administration in Washington was ready to take a much tougher approach to corporate prima donnas. No longer politely requesting, essentially they told Big Business we are taking control of the economy. We will tell you what to produce and how much. You’ll get the labor power, capital equipment, and raw materials you need–and you will be generously rewarded on a cost plus basis.

They also instituted rationing of just about every thing. They established mechanisms for controlling prices and, especially, wages. They obtained a no strike pledge from almost all unions–with the notable exception of the United Mine Workers–and all contracts and grievances were regulated by government boards.

They put together an amazing group of young bean counters, known by the suitably dull name of. Statistical Control, that coordinated industrial planning. Among their number was Robert McNamara, who went on to become president of Ford, and later Secretary of Defense, and Tex Thornton, the founder of Litton Industries.

Brushing aside hesitation among the auto bosses, car production came to a total halt in the spring of 1942, not to resume for four years. But no auto worker was outcast and starving. The industry expanded to unprecedented numbers with more overtime available than could be worked by mere mortals, as they cranked out planes, tanks, and jeeps. And the UAW and other union contracts in all industries remained in force.

When existing plant capacity was insufficient the government built new plants for the corporations to operate. At the end of the war many of these were essentially given away. For example, a bomber plant in the Fairfax district of KCK became the Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac plant until the city agreed to help GM build a more modern facility adjoining the old B-O-P about 20 years ago.

Of course, millions were also drafted in to the armed forces creating labor shortages. This led to a new influx of African-Americans in to well-paid union jobs. This was not done without a fight, led by the leader of the Sleeping Car Porters union, A Phillip Randolph. Nor was racial tension put aside for the duration–there were major race riots in places such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago.

We all know about Rosie the Rivetter. It’s estimated 3.5 million women who normally wouldn’t have sought employment outside the home went to work in the war economy.

In addition to straight forward conversion of existing industries a whole new one was created from scratch–though hardly one we can be proud of. Few at the time, not even Vice-President Truman, knew much about the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. More than a hundred thousand, including thousands of scientists, worked at four secret locations. The disclosed cost in current dollars –to produce just three bombs--was 127 billion.

The converted American economy was what enabled the United States to become a true world arsenal, not only supplying U.S. forces fighting on three continents and at sea but also providing critical aid to British and Soviet allies. The Axis simply could not match this pace. Without this mobilization it’s likely different victors would today be telling the history of the war.

What enabled this to succeed?

First was the proven superiority of a planned economy in contrast to the chaos of the market economy. Contrary to all the myths about government bureaucracy the centralized planners proved to be far more effective at making things work than the captains of industry sailing their ships aimlessly through the Depression.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor most American workers and farmers became dedicated supporters of the war effort and showed readiness to accept many sacrifices. Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, became the credo of not just tree huggers but an important contribution from the home front during war-time shortages.

Spending for war piled up enormous deficits. But there was no disaster as the “fiscally responsible” had predicted. On the contrary, economic growth, and improving living standards, continued after the war and the huge debt was steadily reduced.

What were the downsides to this remarkable economic achievement?

Unimaginable death and destruction, certainly. Institutionalizing war spending as a big, permanent part of the economy was another. While workers were saddled with a wage freeze during the war the corporations made obscene profits from war production–as they continue to do today. Prior to deficit war spending most workers didn’t pay any income tax under what was once a much more progressive scale. That changed during the war and today workers pay the lion’s share of taxes. And union subordination to the war effort greatly strengthened bureaucratic trends in the labor movement that have led to futile attempts to be “partners” with the employers and their politicians.


Christine Frank. Photo by Erio

The climate crisis is a greater emergency than even World War II. As Christine [Frank] explained so forcefully, it is the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced and time for effective response is running out. We have no hope without massive conversion of our economy once again–this time not for war but to save our planet as a sustainable home for human beings. Our main enemy today is not some foreign power or crazed terrorist. It’s the corporations destroying our biosphere at the same time they have wrecked our economy.

We know from Christine’s presentation the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is electric power generation. There are, of course, proven technologies ready to go that can produce electricity virtually free of either carbon pollution or nuclear waste which has its own unacceptable deadly threat. But we will not see replacement of fossil fuels with these genuine clean, renewable energy sources in the market economy.

Black & Veatch, a local engineering company heavily involved in construction and upgrades of electric power plants, recently calculated the cost of various energy sources per kilowatt hour. Coal came in at 7.8 cents. Natural gas 10.6. A new nuke 10.8. Wind in an ideal location could be as low as 9.9 but it would be prudent to have natural gas back-up for when the wind is insufficient to keep up with demand–raising its price to about 12 cents. Solar was off the chart.

I believe we have to spend whatever it takes to keep our planet hospitable to human civilization. Between the money being spent on war and bailing out banks we could find more than enough to pay the bill.

But that’s not the way you think if you’re part of the class with ownership stake in the utilities, or fossil or radioactive fuels, or the transportation and chemical industries that also depend on these polluters. They may try to greenwash their filthy industry. They may offer scams such as clean coal, biofuel, or safe nukes. They may even agree to pay indulgences for their carbon transgressions, passing the cost on to the end consumer. But we can’t depend on changing their profitable but destructive ways through market incentives. Certainly the war time government never dreamed of the market finding its way to building massive quantities of planes, ships and tanks.

We need a government today to be deadly serious about the emergency and not be afraid to tell the captains of free enterprise, you have failed, you no longer fool us–we’re taking charge now.

I want to give you a broad outline of what I think we need from a government dedicated to the climate crisis emergency.

It would create a brand new public sector dedicated to halting and reversing global warming. For starters, it would gain leverage by nationalizing the finance, auto, energy, and transportation sectors of the economy. It would run them in the public interest with a management team made up of scientists, environmentalists, and worker representatives.

We know from historical experience the presently failing auto industry, for example, doesn’t have to be limited to building cars. Those plants, and those workers, can build a lot of useful things–clean transit vehicles, high speed trains, wind turbines, you name it.

We won’t stop there. Like the Manhattan Project, we’ll also assemble the brightest scientists to work up a comprehensive plan that can take us from triage to the beginning of recovery.

We’ll start reversing the destruction of urban sprawl, reclaiming wetlands, forests, and farmlands destroyed in the name of development. We’ll create a flourishing, affordable organic agriculture. Our slumping construction industry will have plenty to do, clearing the scars of sprawl and rebuilding and retrofitting our cities to green standards. There will be generations of work installing new solar and wind power sources with accompanying grid. While saving our planet, we’ll also create the biggest job stimulus in history–more than enough to absorb those displaced from the worst polluters.

Just like the workers in war-time conversion, those in new genuine green jobs will be guaranteed decent wages and union contracts and, of course, none will suffer loss of pay and benefits while retraining for new jobs.

But, unlike during the war, the unions will not abandon their primary mission to maintain fair treatment, safe and reasonable working conditions, on the job as well as quality living standards for working families.

I can hear some muttering, “Yeah, this sounds great but when is it going to happen–and how?”

The when is hard to predict–though time is not on our side. The how, I believe, comes in two parts. And here we can look for inspiration and guidance in the legacy of a remarkable labor leader, the late Tony Mazzocchi.

Some of you may know of Tony, a long time leader in the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, as the Founding Brother of the Labor Party. Less well known was his commitment to not only nurturing labor-environmental alliances but his advocacy of building a working class environmental movement, what he called a Just Transition movement.

Job one for us is to build such a grass roots, working class led, mass movement dedicated to a green conversion of our economy, with just transition protection for workers. That kind of support was crucial to the World War II effort and it will be an indispensable part of the solution to the climate crisis.

We need to talk to those beside us in the workplace and on campus. We should be getting on the agenda of every union meeting, community organization meeting, even meetings of the Sierra Club. We have to launch a great discussion, fortified from time to time by public meetings, conferences, demonstrations.

But ultimately we have to take political power. We will not do that through lobbying. We will not do that by begging. We will not do that by applauding inconsequential gestures that appear to move forward only in comparison to the reactionary global warming deniers of the past administration.

The only way for the working class to take power away from those destroying our living standards today and the future of our kids tomorrow, is to replace them with a party of our own. Never has there been a more urgent need for the Labor Party Tony Mazzocchi sought to establish. Yet we have to acknowledge efforts to build such a party, after a promising start in the mid-Nineties, are presently dormant.

We didn’t call this conference to take on the easy questions. Just the opposite. We think we have no choice but to deal with the hardest ones, to speak what few others are prepared to say at the present, to tell it like it is.

That includes speaking frankly about the political situation we face. Many today, including some of you, have hope that the Obama administration will bring needed change to deal with the twin crises. I don’t think so. I’ve got arguments to support my belief but right now logical argument alone is not going to change many minds of Obama supporters. That will require experience as the new administration’s plans become clearer.

Some of my progressive friends say this is an experience we must share, that we must not be seen as an obstacle to change. Well, whether we like it or not, we are all going to share the experience. If the unpopular warnings and predictions we issue today prove themselves true I think this earns us credibility when inevitably, as the Book of Psalms put it, “hope deferred maketh the heart grow sick.”

We’re not going to leave here today with all of the hard or easy questions answered. But I think we have no choice but to keep plugging away for our ideas.

We have confidence that the working class can be won over to save the day. No body else has both the power and self-interest to do so. We know from what Dave [Riehle] just told us, that change can come quickly and from unexpected venues. Even now, there are some occasional lightning flashes on the horizon. Who would have predicted a year ago a victorious plant occupation in the city of Chicago led by the smallest industrial union? Who expected a parade of Black and Brown workers celebrating union recognition at the world’s biggest hog plant in a tiny town in North Carolina?


Bob and Diana Sukiel. Photo by Erio

Last night Firebox Bob and Mamma Pipes [Bob and Diana Sukiel] led us in singing Solidarity Forever. Those lyrics are a reminder of the power our class possesses. “Without Our Brain and Muscle Not a Single Wheel Can Turn!”

During his election campaign, President Obama expropriated a Spanish chant popularized in the union and immigrant rights movements: si, si puede–yes, yes we can.

We know we can. Perhaps we should modify Obama’s purloined chant to sí, sí hacemos–yes, yes we will!

Thank you very much.

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