Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II is a first-rate book that describes how business and government worked together to defeat Germany and Japan. Pulitzer Prize nominee Arthur Herman retells the saga of WW2 from an economic perspective. In 1940, the US economy was weak and production capacity was low. FDR, reluctantly acknowledging that a war with Germany was inevitable, enlisted the help of two industrial giants: Bill Knudsen, General Motors superstar, and Henry Kaiser from California, whose company had built the Hoover Dam.
Knudsen faced an uphill battle – the country didn’t have nearly enough tanks, ships, and weapons to fight, must less win, the war. An unskilled labor force and obstinate unions were uncooperative. Knudsen persevered, however, and America’s factories succeeded in churning out tools, tanks, and torpedoes for the World War II war machine.
FDR commissioned Kaiser to build Liberty ships and, using mass-production techniques like using welding instead of rivets, his shipyards built ships in 45 days (and in one case, in under five). Kaiser cared about his employees, paid them well, and provided them with health insurance, which was a novelty at that time (and which led to the founding of Kaiser Permanente).
Knudsen’s and Kaiser’s industrial success story propelled America to victory in World War II and laid the foundation for a post-war economic boom from 1945-1960.
Freedom’s Forge, far from being another dry tome about American history, is an exciting book because Herman masterfully describes the Sturm und Drang surrounding the lead characters – Knudsen, Kaiser, and FDR. One minor fault: the book is short on photos and illustrations, which would have helped the reader better visualize what was happening. I strongly recommend this book for World War II history buffs and for high school and college students because it provides a singular viewpoint that differs from the usual political and military versions of the war.
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