World War II: American War Production

American world war II war production
Figure 1.--After Pearl Harbor, flags came out all over America. This is a street scene in Lincoln, Nebraska, a few months after the Japanese attack and the German declaration of war. Notice the cars lining the street. They were produced in automobile plants located theroughout the industrial Midwest. They used vast quantities of steel, copper, crome, and other materials. Just look at those cars made from steel and cleaming with chrome. You did not see street scenes like this in Berlin, let alone smaller German cities. The NAZIs launched the war with an industrial plant that that could not fully mechanize the Wehrmacht. Even for Barbarossa, horse power was a major mode of the Wehrmscht's transport. American industry did not only fully motorize the U.S. Army, but the armies of its allies as well. And when American trucks began arriving in large numbers, it gave the Red Army the mobility that the Wehrmacht at its peak could only dream. At the time this photograph was taken, the assembly lines which turned out these cars were rapidly being converted to war production. Source: John Vachon. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.

World War II was an industrial war. The NAZI's used Germany's industrial prowess to build modern weapons and the Wehrmacht was the first military to develop effective tactics for the new weapons. Germany had, however, had an industrial plant a fraction of that of the United States. This was one reason that Hitler launched the invasion of the Soviet Union when he did. He realized that he would have to defeat the SovietvUniion when before America with its industrial strength entered the War. Goebells quiped that the Americans only knew how to make razor blades. Hitler and many senior Whermacht officers knew that America posed a mortal threat to the Reich. There was no discussion of racial supermen in America. From the beginning President Roosevelt stressed industrial production. And here America had an unparalled capacity to produce. The key to winning the War was production. The record of American war production is staggering and in large measure determined the victorty of the the Allies in the West and auded the Soviets in the East. American produced weapons and equipment in quantities that suprised not only the British, but many Amnericans as well. American production rose to levels neither the NAZIs and Japanese did not believe possible--both the rapidity of conversion to war production or the absolute quantities.

American Industry

At the time Hitler launched World War II, there was only one country in the world that had the potential to wage modern war on mltiple frontrs and a world-wide basis. That was the United States. America would prove to have the capacity not only to fully equip its own forces, but those of its allies as well. The question became when would a country determined to stay out of another Europen war, recognize the growing danger and begin to prepare for it. The United States had the capacity to build modern weapons, but did not do so. It had no conscription law and its small army ws not equipped with modern weapons. World War II would prove to be a mechanize war. And only the United States had the aility to build the implements of modern war. Unlike the Europeans, the United States Army did not have a modern tank. The Congress has severly limited military sprnding, cutting expenditures to the bone. U.S. industry had the technical and indutrial capacity to build tanks, other mechinized vehicles, artillery, and other weeapons. This has come from the enormous American industrial expnsion during the late-19th and early-20th century. The result was amnechanized America, including American agriculture. In contrast, European agricultural was not mechanized. This affected the industrial capacity of European countries, including Germany. A key element of American industrial development was taken by Henry Ford who introduced the assembley line and mass production. The result was the Model-T Ford which put an automobile within the price range of the average American worker and astronomical prodution runs. It also signicantly incresed stell production in America--the single most important metal needed to conduct war. Europen workers at the time for the most part were buying bicycles. Europen automobile companies were more like craft shops, producing high-quality automobiles for well-to-do custimers. This meant that America had the capacity to build mechanized vehicles in huge numbers and a time when the vaunted German Wehrmat went to war still heavily dependent on draft animals. And it was not just capacity, but techolgical advances and manufacturing techniques made America such a powerful potential adversary. As a result, American autombile companies plyed a major role in the economies of most the World War II combatant countries (England, France, and the Soviet Union). And here we are not just talking about cars, but trucks and farm vehicle as well--including tracked vehicles. It would be an American inventor that created the suspension system used by the Soviet T-34 tank. He tried to sell it to the U.S. Army rejected it.

Harnessing Free Market Capitalism

Hitler launched the long-awaited Western offensive (May 10). President Roosevelt had hoped that the Allies would be able to stop the Germans with American material support. The Deutsche Wehrmacht proved him terribly wrong. Within only 5 days the Netherlands surrendered (May 15). And the Dutch Army at the time was about the same size as the U.S. Army. General Marshal told President Roosevelt that if the Germans landed five division in America, there would be nothing that the U.S. Army could do to stop them. Belgium surrendered 2 weeks later (May 28). The Belgians who had effectively resisted the German at the start of World War I, surrendered 2 weeks later (May 28). At the time the British and French were attempotung to escape the German Panzers at Dunkirk. At first it looked like few of the men could be brought off the beach. In that enviroment, President Roosevelt picked up the phone and made certainly the most important telephone call of the War. And he made it to a very unlikely person--Willian Knudsen. Knudsen was an ardent Republican who had vocally opposed the President for 8 years and the very embodiment of the individuals who the President had called economic royalists. To the credit of both men, they put aside partisan differences and cooperated to save not only America, but the the Free World as well. The United States had the greatest industrial potential of any country. But potential had little practical meaning in the current crisis. American industry was not geared for war. The United State was not even manufacturing tanks despite what had transpired in Europe. And there was not realistic plan for converting American industry for war. Nor was there any expertise in Washington for beginning the effort. This is why Roosevelt called Knudsen. And the team of other Roosevelt-hating Republicans that Knudsen put together accomplished the most remarkable industrrial trnsformation in history. By the times Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, American arms production had equaled that of NAZI Germany--and that was just the begginning of an American industrial tidal wave which would overwealm the Axis.


Bill Knudsen asked President Roosevelt for 18-months to help prepare America for war (May 1940). He got his 18 months--almost to the day. The Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the War (December 1941). And Knudsen and his colleagues delivered on his promise to in a way that not only amazed the Axis powers, but many Americans as well. The team of other Roosevelt-hating Republicans that Knudsen pulled together accomplished the most remarkable industrial trnsformation in history. [Herman] By the times Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor (December 1941), American arms production was approaching production levels in NAZI Germany that took over 6 years to bring about. The Japanese estimated that America would not be prepared to launch a Pacific offensive until mid-1943, but thanks to Knudsen and his colleages, the United States had the needed arms not only to launch its first offensive of the war only 8 months after Pearl Harbor at Guadalcanal, but and even larger offennsive three months later--striking at the Germans with the Torch landing in North Africa. And that was not all of the story. Much of Montgomery's equipment at El Alemain was American. The Japanese had joined the Axis thinking the Germans would force the United States to direct its energies at Europe. Thanks to men like Bill Knuden, the United states would prove to be the only county that proved fully capable of conducting war on a global scale, supplying it own armies and those of its allies on multiple fronts. (It should be noted that Hitler's inability to properly equip his allies was a major factor in the Wehrmacht's failure.) And this was just the beginning of the American industrial transformation. The United States became in a very real sense the arsenal of democracy--a term Knudsen invented. The numbers are staggering. By the end of the first year of war, American war production exceeded that of the entire Axis (December 1942). The follwing year found Anerican factories out producung Germany, the Soviet Union, and Britain combined (December 1943). American industry not only equipped Armerican armies, but those of our Allies and the Soviet union to boot. Just the output of Ford Motor Corporarion alone would exceed that of the entire Italian nation.

Weapons Production

Congress primariy concerned with the Depression and balooming budget dfecits significatly constrained military budgets during the intr-War er. The Rooseveklt Afministratiion by te mid-1930s begn ton push fior increased defense spending as the treats in Europe ad the Pacific increased. The emphasis was on aircraft abnd ships as planners hoped to limit military casualties by imprioved technology. As aresult, the U.S. Arny would fight the War with some inferior wapons. Tanks were a special problem. America had fought World War I largely with British and French weapons. This was not the case in World War II. The American industry not only fully equipped its own very substantial firces, but those of its Allies as well. The sheer volume of production was astoninshing. American productuon along significantly exceeded that of the entire Axis and that does not even take into ccount British and Sovie production. Qualirty was a different matter. Tanks were a special problem. But the quality of American weaponry steadily improved during the War. The British produced their own bomber force, but relie heavily on American production in other areas. The Soviets wre not impressed with American tanks, but relied heavily on Lend Lease for awide range of equipment and weapons. Trucks, aircraft, and radios were especially important as was supplies like blankets and food, SPAM became an English word every Red Army soldier knew. While not weapons, the trucks and SPAM played an important role in the Red Army drive west.


The Ameican aircraft industry and its expansion is one of the key factors in World War II. Air Force chiefs believed that the War could be won in the air. This proved not tobe the case, but air superiority proved to be a key factor in American combat victories. And President Roosevevelt well before the out break of war had given a priority to aircraft production. Here merica had acritical advantage as commercial airlines had developed in the 930s, significantly expanding aircraft development nd production capabilities. A major factor in American aircraft production was the large aluminium industry and power generation capacity needed to rapidly expand production. America expaned aircraft production to 23,000 planes in 1940 both to equip its own military and to assist Britain and France. Great priority was given to aircraft production even before the War. President Roosevlt gave apriority to ircrt even when Congressiional military buggets were very limited. The famed B-17 Flying Fortress was developed very early (1935) and entered into service (1938) just as Hitler was using the Luftwaffe to force the Allies to back down and the Czechs to acceed to his demands. Actual American production was, howover, very limited until the War. We do not yet have overall American 1939 aircraft production data, but Ameican plants wre producung aircraft for the Allies as well as the U.S. military. This was complicted for several months after the outbreak of the War because of the Neutrality Acts. Production in 1940 (July-August) totaled 3,600 aircraft, about half of which was trainers. This reflected the need to train large numbers of pilots at the beginning of the War. Most were still were Americans, but included some Allied pilots, especilly British. While the numbers seem small compared to what was to come, they were still substantial at the time. The British fought off the Germnan Luftwaffe (July-September 1940). This would be the only successful Allied campaign of the War in which American aircraft did not play a successful role. American aircraft production increased sharply in 1941, but we are not sure just how much as we do not yet have full 1940 data, but we suspect that it was about three times. Production reached 18,500 in 1941. Less than half were combat aircraft, again primarily because of trainer production. At the end of the year of course, America was thrust into the War because of the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1940). This removed all Congressional budget constraints on production. Production more than doubled in 1942 to nearly 47,000 aircraft. More than half were now combat aircraft, although trainer production was still sizeable. The United States once actual combat commenced was shocked to learn that its fighters in particular (both the Army P-40 and the Navy F5F Wildcat) were inferior to Axis fighters. American flyers had to develop tactics to reduce that advatage until Ameican aircraft plants could develop and produce more advanced types. Combat results in the Pacific were especially shocking because American planners had so underestimted the Japanese. Aircraft production was so sizeable in 1942 that 1943 production did not double, but it nearlt did. Production reached 84,900 aircraft, substantially more than the entire Axis. Over 60 percent were combat aircraft. The production of trainers peaked at 21,000 planes in 1943. The aircraft loses at Pearl Harbor which were at the time were substantial were a mere 2-days output of American aircract plants. And the quality of auircraft was imprioving. The Grumman F6F Hellcat which became the primary U.S. carrier fighter reached the fleet ad trasformned the Pacific War. By 1944 America built 96,300 planes, more planes than were possessed by the Axis combined and this does not include British and Soviet production. The Germans built 40,000 war planes in 1944, but the arrival of P51 Mustangs in the skies over Germany resulted in the destruction of the Luftwaffe. And American production was75 percent combat aircraft. Trinerproduction declined to 8,000 andwas exceeded by tranport aircraft, primarily the C-47. This wasthepeak of prodution, an incredible 11 planes an hour were rolling out of American aircraft plants. And the quality of the planes produced was now preminent. Except for the German Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow), the American planes were by 1944 the best planes flown by superbly trained pilots, many now with extensive combat experience. Production included both the P-51 Mustangb that could accompany the Allied bombers in strikes over Germany and the B-29s that could reach the Japanese Home Islands from the newly won bases in the Marianas. Aircraft production was dialed dialed back in 1945 as Germany surrendered (May 1945) and Japan (August 1945). Production totaled 45,900 airctaft (through August 1945). That included more than 80 percent combat types. Total American aircraft production (July 1940-Augut 1945) totaled 296,000 aircraft. [U.S. Army Air Forces] America would end the War with the most powerful airforce in the world operating all over the wrld. It would prove to be major factor in the Cold War.


Ships were viital to the American war effort. A two ocean sea barrier protected the United States, but to support its Allies and to project power the United States needed ships of all kinds and in large numbers. As with Britain, the United States had reduced the size of its fleet and limited production during the inter-war era. After Pearl Harbor, ships of all classes were required to fight a two-ocean war. American industry reponded and even created whole new classes of ships. Many new shipyards were opened. Production included both naval war ships and merchant shipping. We do not yet have details on naval warship contruction. The story of mechant ship construction is that of the liberty ships. The Kriegsmarine and its u-boat arm was assigned the task of cutting Britain off from its Empire and the United States. Had they succeeded, Germany may well have won the War. The goal was to sink more ships than the Allies could build and by the time Ameruicacenteed the War, Admiral Dönitzwith expanding U-boat prodctiion was beginning to do just that. Part of the American response was to increase ship construction and here the liberty ship was the center-piece of the American effort.

Motorized Vehicles

World War II unlike World War I was a war of movement. The Germans in their early campaigns demonstrated the effectiveness of rapid movement. The tank made the headlines. The tank was a major factor on World War battlefields. It was the Germans who developed an effective tactical doctrine to effectively employ the tank. German tanks were effective, but like many German World War II weapons over-engineered and not easily adapted to massproduction. The German tanks were expensive and complicated to build and dificult to maintain in the field. America produced 4,000 tanks in 1940 and 41. The United States rapidly retooled its huge automobile industry to build military vehicles. There were 17 Chrysler, Cadilac and other plants converted to produe tanks. America by 1942 was producing 4,000 Sherman M-4 tanks a month. Germany could only produce 4,000 tanks annually. Hitler announced plans to expand production to 800 per month in 1943. Imressive, but less than 15 percent of what FDR planned for American plants in 1943. [Goodwin, p.363.] American tank production reached nerarly 30,000 in 1943 America would supply 37,000 tanks to her Allies. It is all too true that German tanks were better than American tanks (armour protection and fire power), but the M-4 Sherman had some advantages over the German tanks (speed, maneurability, and ease of maintenance). In addition, the Soviets were also significantly outproducing the Germans and theit T-34 which was actually superior to many German tanks. In addition, the British was also producing the Challenger tank. While tanks attracted great attention, the humble truck played a critical role in radidly moving men and equiopment. And no country produced trucks like America. And the United States wiuld supply an incredible 800,000 tanks to her Allies. The Siviets did not think much of American tanks. American trucks were another matter. These trucks would prove to be an important factor in thevgreat victories of 1944,.

Small arms

The United States produced the best infantry rifle of the War--the M-1 Garand. Two million were delivered to America's allies.


Electronics are not a weapon as such, but played an important role in World War II. The american military did not have avery advanced electrionics program, but the United states had a huge electronics industry as a result of commercil radio. Virtually every American home had a radio by the 1930s and lisened to popular entertaines. And more and more crs came equipped with radios. This meant American industry had at capability to produce electrionic equipment. Electronics played an imporant ole early in the War. German Panzes that smashed into France (My 1940) were equipped with radios, the French tanks were not, giing the Panzers a great advantage in command and control. Both the British and Germans had developed radar bfore the War, but as it was seen as a efensive technology, the British gave much more attention to it than the Germans. And the Chain Home Radar system proved a key factor in the RAF Battle of Britain victiory. The resulting Batle of the Beams and comprable work on ASDIC (SONAR) meant thathe British had amuch more advanced electrionics warfare capability, but not the industrial capacity to produce the needed equiopment. As in other ares, the Anglo-American Alliance fit togegher like a jig-sae puzzel. Compare this to the Axis. The Germans had radar technology, but did not share it with the Japanese until late in the War. American radar plyed an important role in American Pacific naval victiries. The Americans using British technology produced radars that could be placed on every ship and eventully even small planes. This would oom the U-boats in the North Atlantic. American plants turned out radio equipment and walkie-talkies tha gave American infrantry men unprecdented communications capabilities. Virtually every American second lieutennt had the capability to callin artillery and air strikes on enemy positions. Growing American electronics capabilities led to the proximity fuse which also played an important ole in the Pacific War.

Atomic Weapons

Not only did the United States have the industrial capacity to churn out conventionaln weapons and equipment in prodigious quabntities, but it also embarkened on an enormous research and prouction effort to produce an atmic bomb. The American Manhattan Program was the largest weapons development program in history. It was initiated by President Roosevelt when work done by German physicists led to concern that the NAZIs might build an atomic bomb. Important scientists in 1939 concluded that German scientists had begun to develop an atomic bomb for the NAZIs. These scientists induced President Roosevelt to launch an American atomic bomb project. The project was, however, given serious attention only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor bringing America into the war. General Leslie R. Groves (1896-1970), Deputy Chief of Construction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was assigned to oversee the project. The Manhattan Project us named after the New York borough where the first office headquarters was located and began June 1942. Groves had just completed another rush project, the construction of the Pentagon. He considered himself an astute judge of men and chose Robert J. Oppenheimer (1904-67) to lead the scientific team. Oppenhimer was a respected, but relatively unknown theoretical physicist. Enrico Fermi and Leo Salard working in a converted squash court beneath the University of Chicago's carried out the first controlled nuclear reaction occurred confirming that nuclear fission could unleash huge amounts of energy. The major difficulty in building an atomic bomb was in obtaining the required quantity of fissionable material. A huge facility was built an Oak Ridge, Tennessee to separated the U-235 isotope needed for the bomb from the more common U-238 isotope. The Hanford Engineer Works was built in Washington to produce plutonium. Groves chose Los Alamos, New Mexico as a location to actually develop and assemble the bomb or "gadget" a it was called. This isolated town had by March 1943 been turned into a high-technology boomtown. The Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge provided the bomb-grade U-235 used for the Little Boy bomb. The Harford plant provided the Plutonium used in the Fat Man bomb.

Weapons Quality

The Anerican soldier and sailor was told while being trained that he was going into battle that he was being armed with the most advanced weapons of the War. With the exception of the M-1 Garand rifle this was not the case. One historian provides an assessment of what the situation was at the ionset of the War and the first year. "Our Wilcat front-line fighters were inferior to the Japanese Zero; obsolere Brewster F2A Buffalos were rightlybknown as 'flying coffins'. The Bouglas TBD Devestator bomber was a death trap, its pilots essentially wiped out atvthe Battle of Miday trying to drop often unreliable torpedoes. American designed Lee, Grant, and Sturt tanks -and even the muchhearalded Sherman ('Ronson Lighters') - were intrinsically inferior to most contemprary German models, which had far better armor and armament. With the exception of the superb M-1 rifle, it is hard to rank any amerucan weapons system as comparable to those used by the Wehrmacht, at least until 1944-45. We never developed guns comparable to the fas-firing , lethal German .88 artillery platform. Our anti-tank weapons of all calibers remained substandard. Most of the machine guns and mortars were relible--but of World War I vintage. [Hanson] The arthor is esentially correct, although we would say that American artillery was very effective from the beginning of the War and large numbers of radios led to greater artillery support for small units. And the author does not mention the American duce and a half truck anc C-47 cargo planrs. And we would say that vastly improved weapons began reaching Americam forces by 1943, including the F4F Hellcat, Essex class carriers and the Fletcher-clss destroyers. Perhaps even more important, American fighting men even duringthe first year of the war devised tactics to get use even inferior weapons effectively. And it i important torember tht having the most effective weapn is not the critical element in a war as long as weapons are reaponbly effecive. The German tanks in their great Western offensive were not really superior to French tnks, it was their tactics that prevailed.


Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time (Simon &Schuster: New York, 1994), 759p.

Hanson, Victor Davis. In War: Resolution.

Herman, Arthur. Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II (Random House, 2012).

U.S. Army Air Forces. Army Air Forces Statistical Digest, World War II. Table 79.


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Created: 12:40 AM 6/21/2010
Last updated: 10:47 PM 12/27/2012