Freedom’s Forge – A Book Review.

Ever had one of those “oh crap, how could I have missed that?” moments? A moment of enlightenment? A moment when what you believe is replaced with a bigger, greater truth?

Such is the book “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II,” by historian Arthur Herman.

There are many long held myths Herman rips apart in his meticulously researched book.

The first is the myth most grew up with in regard to the American economy and America’s entrance into World War II. We were basically taught that prior to the war, the country was in a great depression and when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, forcing the US into the war, the economy and production of goods stopped, turned on a dime, and made what became known as “the arsenal of democracy.” Reality is much more interesting.

Prior to Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had placed a call to General Motors head William Knudson – a Danish immigrant. Knudson had worked with Henry Ford and helped establish the first true optimized production line. After leaving Ford. Knudson went to GM, where he turned GM around to become a force within the automobile industry.

But it was “the call” that changed all that.

Knudsen? I want to see you in Washington. I want you to work on some production matters.” With those words, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enlisted “Big Bill” Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who had risen through the ranks of the auto industry to become president of General Motors, to drop his plans for market domination and join the U.S. Army. Commissioned a lieutenant general, Knudsen assembled a crack team of industrial innovators, persuading them one by one to leave their lucrative private sector positions and join him in Washington, D.C. Dubbed the “dollar-a-year men,” these dedicated patriots quickly took charge of America’s moribund war production effort.

Henry J. Kaiser was a maverick California industrialist famed for his innovative business techniques and his can-do management style. He, too, joined the cause. His Liberty ships became World War II icons—and the Kaiser name became so admired that FDR briefly considered making him his vice president in 1944. Together, Knudsen and Kaiser created a wartime production behemoth. Drafting top talent from companies like Chrysler, Republic Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and Frigidaire, they turned auto plants into aircraft factories and civilian assembly lines into fountains of munitions, giving Americans fighting in Europe and Asia the tools they needed to defeat the Axis. In four short years they transformed America’s army from a hollow shell into a truly global force, laying the foundations for a new industrial America—and for the country’s rise as an economic as well as military superpower.

The production numbers for the US during the war are simply staggering. While Freedom’s Forge gives more details, the numbers show the US produced more products than the other countries in the war – combined. At the same time, the US did this with a lower percentage of men fighting and a lower percentage of women working in factories than any other country. In addition, as a percentage, the US economy produced more for domestic goods vs. war goods than any other country. All of this was due to the vision and foresight of William Knudson and men like Henry Kaiser.

While a book on the production of goods during World War II may sound dry and boring, Herman somehow manages to make the focus on the people. As he says in the interview below, part of the reason he wrote the book was to pay homage to the other half of the greatest generation – the half that stayed home and equipped soldiers to fight the war.

The book details the problems faced by Knudson such as unions and worker strikes that threatened to slow production down. Just as critical was the opposition from Washington and bureaucrats who seemed at times to not care about the results, but rather control of the manufacturing and economy.

In many ways, “Freedom’s Forge” tells of a time similar to that in which we find ourselves now with government control strangling businesses instead of allowing them to use their knowledge and expertise. Like today, it Knudson faced governmental forces who were not interested in what was best for the country, but rather what was best for themselves.

In the end, it was Knudson and his “dollar-a-year” men who did more to win the war than any person in Washington. That is perhaps the biggest myth Herman lays to rest – that government and not private industry – had the vision and expertise to win battle of wartime production.

However, the exploits and sacrifices of Knudson and other manufacturing leaders are often forgotten. There is no good reason for this other than after the war, many of the “dollar-a-year” men passed away or retired soon after the war (Knudson died in 1947) which allowed a void which revisionist historians were eager to fill with the idea it was government who got production rolling and how the ideas of John Maynard Keynes actually brought the US out of the depression.

In fact, nothing was further from the truth.

In some ways, like many good books, “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II: is a little bit of a love story. It is the love story between Knudson, Kaiser and their adopted country. It is a love story of what has become known as “the greatest generation.” It is a story written by a man who loves the truth.

We picked up “Freedom’s Forge” thinking it could be interesting. What we got instead was a book that was so toe curdling good, we give it five stars out of five – and wish we could go higher.

It is just that good.

Below is an interview given by Arthur Herman on MSNBC.


In addition, the American Enterprise Institute recently hosted an event at which Dr. Herman spoke about his book and research. Videos of his presentation can be found here. (They are well worth the time.)

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