Sunday, March 15, 2015

World War II and the American Automobile Industry

With the advent of World War II the automobile industry was converted into the ‘arsenal of democracy.’1 From 1942 to 1945 companies manufactured no cars or auto parts; instead, the industry produced tanks, trucks, jeeps, bombs, steel helmets, planes, and small arms ammunition.2 This episode has been well studied, but the period immediately before the conflict and the transition to wartime production has been neglected been overlooked. The automobile industry’s conversion to the production of war materials was neither voluntary nor expedient.
            Barton J. Bernstein has argued that the automobile industry resisted the transformation into democracy’s arsenal.3 According to Bernstein, the industry was still on the defensive from the Depression, suspicious of the Roosevelt government, and wished to avoid the WWI epithet “merchants of death.” Instead of wartime responsibility, “auto producers contended that their equipment could not be used for armaments and that partial conversion was impossible.”4 This was particularly true of Henry Ford, who initially refused to produce airplane engines for the British Royal Air Force. In 1940, with the specter of Nazism on one side of America and Japan’s aggression on the other, FDR called for increased production of armaments with a goal of 50,000 airplanes. On May 28, the President appointed General Motors chairman William S. Knudsen to the newly-created National Advisory Defense Committee (NADC), but this did little to hasten the conversion. Knudsen moved slowly, defending partial conversion of the industry as sufficient for war production. John Rae observed that automobile companies had no need to change from production for an emerging civilian market to war materials for the government. Both government and industry assumed that with “the continuation of depression conditions, there was ample excess plant capacity and labor, so that wartime needs could be met without disturbing the normal course of the economy,” and when World War II arrived, “both government and industry had to learn their production roles from scratch.”5 Just a month before Pearl Harbor, the industry was barely restricted – only thirteen auto manufacturers held defense contracts.6 And of those who held defense contracts, only part of their production power was dedicated to the war effort. “Even after Pearl Harbor,” wrote Bernstein “the industry continued to resist conversion to war production.”7
            On February 22, 1942, the production of automobiles ceased, and American industry conducted total war against the Axis powers. When conversion was accomplished, the results surpassed expectations. John Rae noted that as the world’s greatest concentration of capital, “the American Automobile industry outstripped all others in the total volume of production and the diversity of its output.”8 Instead of cars, automobile factories accepted government contracts to produce, “completely novel and uniform products; artillery and shells, gun mountings, machine guns, fire-control systems, small-arms ammunition, fuses – all the complex equipment of twentieth century war.”9
            By December 1942, the industry had formed the Automotive Council for War Production to organize the resources of the automobile firms and maximize efficiency and production. Larry Lankton has pointed out that “working together, the auto manufacturers and the military struck a delicate balance between producing the best weapons and producing the most weapons.”10 General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler all contributed to the war effort in different ways. Chrysler produced 22,000 tanks (to Germany’s 24,000), Ford 288,000 of the novel Jeep, and General Motors assigned 120 plants to defense work.11 At the end of 1943, General Motors reported that every defense contract was in production, on schedule, and yielding more output than the government had considered possible.12 The company delivered approximately $12 billion worth of military material during the war years, and they had never made two-thirds of the items before.13
            Ed Cray, in his history of General Motors entitled Chrome Colossus, concluded that “if the corporation ever had a supreme moment, a period of unqualified contribution to the commonweal, it was during the war years of 1940 though 1945.”14 Small companies such as Packard, Studebaker, Bantam, Mack, and Willys-Overland also contributed to the war effort. James Flink summarized that “before the war had ended the American automobile industry had produced for the military 4,131,000 engines, including 450,000 aircraft and 170,000 marine engines, 5,974,000 guns and 27,000 completed aircraft.”15 Automobile makers and the military created a feedback loop of innovation and production. The military would suggest improvements, and auto companies would make changes in production. A 1950 work on the Automotive Council for War Production Freedom’s Arsenal reported: “Ingenuity on the part of the automotive engineers was outstanding . . . to cut down on welding operations one company adapted huge presses – formerly used to stamp out automobile body panels – to the forming of armor plate. These presses eliminated 64 inches of welding in two places on the tank hull.”16 Flink concluded that “American superiority in mass-production techniques – techniques developed in the automobile industry – was indeed the main reason for the Allied victory.”17

            In May 1940, Franklin Roosevelt challenged American industry to produce fifty thousand airplanes. The production of airplanes proved to be the automobile industry’s most formidable wartime operation. Airplanes, wrote Rae, were “items that few automobile men had ever seen, let alone manufactured.”18 Further complications arose because the airplane industry opposed any foothold for potential competitors, and the industries had divergent philosophies; the airplane industry aimed for quality, and the automobile industry aimed to produce in quantity. Nevertheless, “these difficulties caused less trouble than might have been expected especially because both industries were staffed by men who realized that there was a vital job to be done.”19 The automobile industry began by producing Rolls-Royce engines. By the fall of 1940, the industry produced fuselages, wing sections, and various airplane parts.20 Output for 1942 alone was 47,000 aircraft. Chief in this effort was Ford’s Willow Run Plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan. Built distant from any labor force, the plant became a “social disaster.” Makeshift shacks were built to house the workforce. In addition, Ford experienced a shortage of materials and trained labor. Willow Run became known as Will-it-Run. “As late as September, 1943,” wrote Rae “the Air Force was seriously considering asking the government to take charged of Will-It-Run.”21 During the dispute, Walter Reuther suggested that idle plants be devoted to aircraft manufacturing that included government, the automobile companies and the UAW. He claimed that five hundred airplane could be manufactured a day. The provocative suggestion never materialized. Finally, by late 1943, Willow Run began to produce four- and five hundred B‑24 bombers a month.

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