Mark Wilson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.
Trump Administration Fails Mobilization
It is now clear that in the early weeks of the current coronavirus crisis, in February and March 2020, the Trump administration failed Mobilization 101. By late February, we know now, several government officials, including White House economic advisor Peter Navarro and Rick Bright, then head of the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, were calling for the ramping up of industrial output of key items. But in March, it became clear that the effort to acquire ventilators and masks, among other items, had become a chaotic mess, comparable to the early months of the Civil War in 1861, with individual state governors bidding against one another to acquire scarce supplies. President Trump, at a press conference on March 19, endorsed this decentralized approach. “[G]overnors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work,” Trump stated. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items, and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”
Although the Trump administration refused at first to oversee procurement, in more recent weeks, the administration has edged toward doing more to coordinate industrial mobilization. In March, the General Motors Corporation (GM) negotiated an agreement with Ventec, a manufacturer of ventilators, to have GM mass-produce those items in a big Kokomo, Indiana plant, in which it had formerly made electronic components for automobiles. At the end of March, President Trump signed a memorandum declaring that the Defense Production Act (DPA) would be used to facilitate the GM effort; in early April, the government signed a $500 million contract with GM, for ventilators to be delivered in the coming months. The government then announced similar ventilator contracts, again invoking the DPA, with several other companies.
Strong Echoes of World War II
Here there were strong echoes of World War II, not just in the use of federal powers, but also in the deals such as the one between Ventec and GM, in which a specialty producer allowed a big industrial corporation to mass produce its designs under license. That was one of the main methods of US military-industrial mobilization in World War II, which saw big automakers, including GM, Ford, and Chrysler, turn out thousands of units of aircraft engines, bombers, and other weapons that had been designed first by specialty firms, such as Pratt & Whitney, Consolidated Aircraft, and Sperry Gyroscope.
Despite this evidence of a policy shift in the direction of a more World War II-style industrial mobilization, President Trump’s comments in mid-March suggested that today’s leaders remain ignorant, perhaps willfully so, of many relevant historical lessons. During the world wars, the Cold War, and even more recently, US leaders took it for granted that national authorities could and should use the available legal authority—including the National Defense Act of 1916, the First and Second War Powers Acts of 1941-42, and the DPA—to coordinate crash mobilization programs.
During World War II, when close to half the national economy was mobilized for war, the government, working through emergency civilian agencies such as the War Production Board, as well as military organizations, allocated key materials, prioritized orders, and compelled companies to produce for the war effort. During the Korean War, the DPA provided legal authority for similar actions, without much controversy. (It was the DPA’s provisions for price and wage controls, not its powers over allocation and production, which caused most of the political struggles over mobilization on the Korean War home front.) During and after the Cold War, the DPA has been used frequently to provide priority for Defense Department orders.
Ignoring the Lessons of History
Although there are some recent indications that US leaders are beginning to apply lessons from history, by using more national coordination and expert leadership for ongoing efforts such as the crash vaccine development program, “Project Warp Speed,” it is far from clear whether the tide has turned in the right direction. In 2020, more than in the early 1940s, there is a widespread reluctance, at all levels of American government, to increase levels of public coordination and regulation, even in cases where the need seems obvious.
This is a result of a decades-long, bipartisan effort to denigrate government, while celebrating private entrepreneurs and capitalism. As I and other historians have argued, this ideological assault on public capacities has been going on for nearly a century, and has warped our understanding of the history of the US industrial mobilization for World War II, among many other subjects. It is likely that many American leaders in 2020 misunderstand the World War II record as one in which the industrial mobilization was won by heroic entrepreneurs, without any positive contributions from government (or workers).
World War II Showed the Government Is Essential
This misreading of past and present helps to explain the Trump administration’s missteps in February and March; unfortunately, it may well limit the efficacy of current and future programs, including the race to develop and produce vaccines. During World War II, political leaders and mobilization officials did not hesitate to combine a diverse assortment of solutions, which ended up including not only conversions of private plants and creative licensing deals, such as the one struck between Ventec and GM, but also a heavy reliance on government-owned, company-run factories, along with some fully government-run facilities.
In the coming months, we would benefit from similarly pragmatic, heterogeneous, and imaginative approaches to tough problems, some of which may rely mainly on agile private actors, and some of which may require heavy national intervention. With thousands of lives and billions of dollars at stake, we will all benefit from thinking about the real, complex records of past crises, including the Great Depression, as well as World War II.
Mark R. Wilson is a professor in the Department of History at UNC Charlotte, where he also directs the program in Capitalism Studies. He is the author of the books Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), and The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). He is presently working on a history of the U.S. military-industrial complex since 1950.