*** World War II campaigns -- arsenal of democracy

World War II: Arsenal of Democracy--Chronology

Figure 1.--It took time to retool for war, but this is what an American automobile plant looked like whgen fully mobilized in 1943. It is a Chrysler plant turning out M3 Sherman tanks. Other automoibile plants churned out bombers. In additioin to existing factories, massive new factoiries were built. Notice the assembly line approach--something the suposedly efficent Germans did not develop to amy extent.

" We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice, as we would show were we at war. .... I have the profound conviction that the American people are now determined to put forth a mightier effort than they have ever yet made to increase our production of all the implements of defense, to meet the threat to our democratic faith. As President of the United States I call for that national effort. I call for it in the name of this Nation which we love and honor and which we are privileged and proud to serve. I call upon our people with absolute confidence that our common cause will greatly succeed."
-- Fraklin Roosevelt, December 29, 1940.

"To win World War II, the British gave speeches,the Americans have money, and the Russians gave blood."
-- Joseph Stalin. Probably apocryphal, but widely quoted and certainly something he could have said AFTER the War.

The United States did not have a significant arms industry at the time of World War I (August 1914). And President Woodrow Wilson who fervently desired to keep America out of the War made no effort to create one. But when America entered the War (April 1917), the United States began to transform its industrial base for war. President Woodrow Wilson turned to financeer Bernbard Baruch to manageng the country's economic mobilization as chairman of the War Industries Board. That took time, but within a year had begun to produce munitioins and arms at a staggering level. This did not, however, have a major impact on the War, although American trucks from existing plants that did not have to be retooled did have an impact. Before American industry began to deliver arms in quantity, the Ameriucan Expeditionary Force (AEF) using mostly British and French arms helped crack the Western Front wide open and the Germans asked for an armistice (November 1918). Very shortly after the War, the American people soured on the War and Congress began a series of investigatioins which turned up nothing, but began calling armns manufacturers the 'Merchants of Death'. Major corporatioins turned away from arms manufaturing and Congess cut military approporiations to the bone. As a result, as Germany and Japan poured huge sums into milatary armament, America again had no substantial arms industry ot army (1930s). And the powerful Isolationist Movement with major Congessional support was detrmined to keep it thar way. Even when Hitler and Stalin launched World War II, there was no major move to rearm (September 1939). The attitide was that the British and French would contain and bleed the Germans on the Western Front from behind the Maginot Line. This illusion was shatered when the Germans launched their long awaited Western offensive and within days had reached the Channel (May 1940). Gen. George Marshall privately told President Roosevelt that if the Germans landed five divisions on the East Coast, there was nothing the U.S. Army could do to oppose them. This was when the President set the Aesenal of Democracy in motion with a call to GM Chairman Willin Knudsen. The President began using the term Arsenal of Democracy (December 1940). The mobilization of Amrican industry began on only on a limited scale. There was still no public appetite for mass mobilization. The economy was booming again and manufactuters for the first time in a decade were making real profitss selling cars, refrigerators, washing machines, and other consumer proiducts. The initial purpose was to equip the American military, but it soon became apparent that America would have to supply Britain to keep that gallant nation in the War. The mechanism was Lend Lease (March 1941). And when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), that nation became a major recipient of American arms and supplies. Limited mobilization changed over night when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor (December 1941). Suddenly there was no limitation on mobilization and retooling. Arms production expanded in 1942, but as in World War I, it took about a year for the American industry to convert to military production and achieve really large numbers (1943). This relatively quick conversion was made possible by the actions the Roosevekt Administration began in 1940. By 1943 the Arsenal of Democracy was producing arms in staggering quantities for its own military and that of its allies. American arms production hugely exceeded what the Axis war planners though possible, actually more than the Americam miltary thought possible. Production reached such staggering levels that production began to be scaled back even before the War was over (late-1944).

Inter-war Years (1920s-30s)

The inter-ware era was a time of disarmament in most countries. Military budgets were pared back in Britain, france, and America. This was not the case in Japan. After Hitler seized power in 1933, he ordered a major rearamanent program in violation of the Versailles Peace Treaty. The democracies did not respond. The public after World War I was apauled by war and desired to avoid another war. As a result, militry expenditures were not poltically popular. The democracies by the 1930s were more concerned with domestic issues--especially efforts to fight the depression. The German rearament program, especially the Luftwaffe, had by 1938 had given NAZI Germany a significant militay advantage in Europe. The same was occuring in the Pacific with the Japanese. There were warnings about German rearmament. Churchill in particular spoke out on the subject. Hitler demonstrated the force of the Luftwaffe in Spain beginning in 1936. Hitler beginning in 1938 began to use his military advantage. He seized Austria in the Anschluss (March 1938) and then turned toward Czecheslovakia. The Munich Conference (October 1938) was a shock to the democracies. The character of the enemy they faced was made manifest in Kristallnacht. The shocked democracies began a rearmament program. This included America, although there was still considerable public opposition to arms spending in the United States. Germany's seizure of the rest of Czecheslovakia (March 1939) in violation of the Munich Agreeement made in obvious as Churchill had warned that appeasement would not work.

War in Europe (1939-41)

Hitler concluded that Munich had been a mistake. He was not to be denied his war. Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939. The results of the German rearmament program were immediately apparent as Poland was quickly defeated. Next Hitler turned west. The allies (Britain and France) were rearming assisted by the Roosevelt Administration in America. The question became whether the democracies could rearm fast enough to close the German advantge, epecially the inballance in airplanes, before Hitler struck in the West. The German Western Offensive (May 1940) shocked the world. France fell within weeks and many thought that Britain would oon follow. President Roosevelt had to decide if scarce arms needed by the American military should be sent to Britain. They were and made a crucial difference in Britain's fight for survival. President Roosevelt first used the term "Arsenal of Denocracy" on December 29, 1940 in one of his Fireside Chats, radio boradcasts, to the American people. He expalined the importance of supplying the people of Europe, at the time primarily Britain with the "implements of war". He said that the United States "must be the great arsenal of democracy". The very day he spoke, a Luftwaffe raid on London severly damaged famous buildings and churches in the city center and engulfed St. Paul's Cathedral in flames. [Gilbert, p. 356.] Hitler feared America more than any other country, but was convinced that Britain could be defeated before America could be mobilized or American industry could be effevtiverly harnassed for the war effort.

America at War (1941-45)

America had begun expanding its military production beginning in the late-1930s. Here orders from Europe (especially Britain and France) Olayed an imprtant role. Itwas the stunning German military success that set the Arsenal of Democrcy in motion, albeit vto a still limited extent (1940). The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the War and this unleased the full potential of Americn ondustrial mite. The Roosevelt Administrtion organized the most expansive armaments program ever conducted in world history. An American industrialists responded. The output American factiries mot only armed the American military, but its allies as well. The quantity and quality of those arms astonished America's enemies and allies alike. Neither the NAZIs or the Japanese had any idea just how rapidly and effectibely American industril production could be converted to war production. Air Marshall Göring whose Luftwaffe terriruzed Europe for 2 years sneared. "The Americans only know how to make razor blades." Four years later, Göring said he knew that the War was lost when American P-51 Mustangs appeared over Berlin escorting endless waves of bombers. His vaunted Luftwadde within months was soon in tatters. The record of American war production is staggering and in large measure determined the outcome of the War.

After the War

During the war. President Roosevelt relied heavily on businessmen like Baruch, Knudsen, and Nelson (the Bollar a Year Men) to run the war effort. After the War there was a shift in the narative as the businessmen left Wahington and went back to their corportatiions. First Stalin began saying that Lend Leease was not all that important. Then the New Dealers who were astoinished by the raw power of free market capitalism began claiming that it was their heroics in Washinjgton that was the real genius behind America's remrkable war-tine industrial achievemnts. Mind you, these were the same people that despite massive spending had failed to end the Deopression and who had to explain away the Roosevelt Recession (1937-38). New Deal economist John Kenneth Gailbraith argued that it wasn't untramblked capitalism, but New Deal beureaucrats and the abetnce of free market structures was what turned on Americsan indusdtry. They believed it was impossible that a free market mdechanisms simply could not achieve such stunning results. An important historian bekieves that just the oppodite is true and has discussed the Arsenal of Democracy in great detail. He argues powerfully thar the results chieved were not do to rationing, but in increasing supply and that almost entirely capitalist ebnterrprises with capitalist mansgers were reponsible for Americam industrosl success. [Herman]


Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

Gilbert, Matin.

Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.

Kimball, Warren F., ed. Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence 3 vols. ( Princeton University Press, 1984). This is a remarable collection of Roosevelt and Churchill's communications. Kimball has written excellent books on both Lend-Lease Act and on the Morgenthau Plan for occupied Germany. The collection came from presidential, State Department, prime-ministerial, Foreign Office files, and even German intercepts of previously unpublished transatlantic telephone conversations.

Sawyer, L.A. and W.H. Mitchell. The Liberty Ships (Lloyd's of London Press, 1985).

Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. "The Supreme Partnership," The Atlantic Monthly (October 1984).

Schama, Simon. A History of Britain.

Sherwood, Robert E. Roosevelt and Hopkins (1948).

Trapani, Carol, "Letters cemented partnership," Poughkeepsie Journal (December 8, 2001).


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Created: 6:22 PM 3/20/2021
Last updated: 6:23 PM 3/20/2021