Category Archives: Home Front USA

Building Ships on an Assembly Line

A no-narration documentary showing the construction of a Liberty ship in just 4 days, 15 hours, and 29 minutes. In part, this was an effort to set a record, but in reality, it was a demonstration of a feat that America’s hidebound shipbuilding industry – and the Maritime Administration – doubted was possible. Shipbuilding was, after all, the ultimate bespoke industry.

The film shows the Permanente Metals No. 2 Shipyard in Richmond, California (just north of Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay) assembling the ship from sections as heavy as 80 tons.

It is hard to appreciate today, in an era where industries are disrupted on an almost daily basis – what this represents. But it is part of a story about World War II that was almost forgotten – that  it was less a matter of tactics, or strategy, or logistics that won the war. What won the war at almost every turn was improvisation, adaptability, and chutzpah.

Rethinking “Isolationism”

Popularly known as isolationism, it was more accurately unilateralism. The object was not to sever contact with the rest of the globe, especially in matters of trade and commerce, but rather to ensure that only Americans decided what the nation would and would not do overseas.

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America in World War II

Klein’s point suggests another aspect of the Second World War and its prelude that needs to be re-examined. There may well have been elements in the American polity that were strictly isolationist, or were downright xenophobic, but the core of what we have branded “isolationism” is actually something subtly and importantly different.

For many it was much less about cutting America off from the rest of the world than it was ensuring that America engaged in international affairs (commercial, political, and military) on its own terms rather than on those set by foreign powers.

Rather than lump all opponents of the war in a single basket, we need to dissect the opposition movement into its components. To appreciate why, despite numerous provocations, US entry into the war did not take place until after Pearl Harbor, we need to dig deeper into the matter.

Factoid of the Week

“A curious reversal of fortune took place in that more Americans died in industrial and work-related accidents at home than in combat overseas.”

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II

While statistically it was probably more dangerous to be an infantryman than a riveter or a welder, this offers a sobering insight. Everything was sacrificed for speed in America’s shift to a wartime economy: thrift to be sure, caution on occasion, and industrial safety all too often.

FDR’s Problem with Industry

“A second factor, easily overlooked, is the extent to which the American experience in World War I loomed over nearly every aspect of mobilization.”

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II

Klein makes a critical point here: the mobilization of the nation for the Second World War was heavily informed by the experiences – and the massive mistakes – made in the previous conflict. The result was often an overabundance of caution, especially among business leaders worried about shifting everything to wartime production, only to face a tsunami of order cancellations when the conflict ended.

Scores of businesses had been wiped out in the demobilization after World War I. Executives and investors had no cause to expect the Roosevelt administration to behave any differently from the Wilson White House. On the contrary: given how Roosevelt had spent the previous decade alternately wooing, excoriating, and emasculating the captains of American industry, they could not be faulted for seeing mobilization as the next step in the creep of government into a position of control over American business.

All of which underscores two key drivers of this blog:

  1. We cannot study World War II, as we do too often, in isolation from American politics at the time.
  2. We cannot study World War II in isolation from World War I. Indeed, it could be argued that the roots of the conflict stretch back at least to 1905.

A Winged Reunion

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was a technological marvel when it arrived in the Pacific theater in August 1942: turbocharged twin Allison engines, tricycle landing gear, Fowler flaps, butt-jointed and flush-riveted skin, bubble canopy and enough speed that it could tweak the tail of that jet age dragon called compressibility. The Japanese had nothing like it, […]

Source: Pilot and P-38 Reunited | History Net: Where History Comes Alive – World & US History Online | From the World’s Largest History Magazine Publisher

When you think of the hot fighters of the Pacific War, you are likely to be thinking about the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, Grumman’s F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat, the Vought F4U Corsair, and the North American P-51 Mustang.

Forgotten all too often was the fork-tailed devil, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Not a carrier fighter, it did not carry much of the load in the island-hopping campaign through the Central Pacific. But where it did engage – usually in the Southwest Pacific and the Philippines – it was a powerful and successful machine.

The planes were outclassed by the end of the war, not by the enemy, but by increasingly powerful US planes like the P-51, the P-47, and the Corsair. The fork-tailed devil disappeared from US inventories quickly after the end of hostilities.

But what the aircraft demonstrated was the importance of enabling industry to create and the services to experiment with a variety of weapons designs, whether those weapons are aircraft, ships, tanks, rifles, or knives. When the time came for us to choose our weapons, what saved us were not always the choices made in peacetime (examples: look up the Brewster Buffalo, the P-39 Aircobra, and the M-3 Stuart tank) but the fact that we had alternatives already far enough along in development that we had choices.


“Military spending for preparedness ended the decade-long Great Depression, and wartime outlays laid the foundation for an unprecedented period of postwar prosperity and the flowering of the consumer economy. The war created the industrial-military complex and fostered the rise of Big Science. It introduced the world to the most destructive weapons in human history and thereby set the stage for the Cold War and its lethal arms race. For the first time the military remained a large and continuing presence in American life. For the first time, too, the United States, like it or not, assumed the leading role in world affairs.”

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II