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Anglo-American Shipbuilding in World War II: A Geographical Perspective

Author(s):Lindberg, Michael
Todd, Daniel
Reviewer(s):Tassava, Christopher

Published by EH.NET (November 2005)

Michael Lindberg and Daniel Todd, Anglo-American Shipbuilding in World War II: A Geographical Perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. xix + 223 pp. $85 (cloth), ISBN: 0-275-97924-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Christopher Tassava, Carleton College.

This work’s title is a happy misnomer: it is actually a detailed study of merchant and naval ship-building in the United States and Great Britain over the entirety of the twentieth century — albeit oriented toward explaining the massive production in both countries during World War II. Anglo-American Shipbuilding provides an excellent overview of this broad scene, complementing older, more narrowly focused works such as Frederic Lane’s Ships for Victory: A History of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II; Edward Lorenz’s Economic Decline in Britain: The Shipbuilding Industry; Robert Kilmarx, ed., America’s Maritime Legacy: A History of the U.S. Merchant Marine and Shipbuilding Industry since Colonial Times; and Andrew Gibson and Arthur Donovan, The Abandoned Ocean: A History of United States Maritime Policy.

This study differs from those works in that Lindberg and Todd attempt to use geography to focus their analysis of shipbuilding in the United States and Great Britain. Specifically, they attempt to apply an updated version of Alfred Weber’s “location theory” to account for the “agglomeration” of shipbuilding in certain historically important industrial districts. This approach helps them describe how shipbuilding “agglomerations” such as those in the New York region and along the River Clyde in Scotland arose, thrived, and eventually failed. However, the promise inherent in this geographical approach is not, unfortunately, brought to fruition.

Chapter One, “The Academic Bedrock,” accomplishes two goals. First, it offers a good overview of the fundaments of the theory of industrial location developed by Alfred Weber in the first third of the twentieth century. (Alfred Marshall, the economic thinker most closely identified with the study of regional economic development, is discussed only briefly.) “Agglomerations” are geographically and economically distinct zones in which interlocking firms combine to perform many or all activities germane to a particular industry. In shipbuilding, for instance, a thriving agglomeration can include (in addition to a large workforce) shipyards, machinery suppliers like engine builders, steel mills and armor-plate makers, armament firms, and perhaps even shipping concerns which purchase completed ships. The first chapter also conducts the reader through a brief history of shipbuilding in the United States and Great Britain until about 1900 by focusing on the Delaware River and New York/New Jersey shipbuilding agglomerations in the U.S. and on the Thames, Clyde, and Barrow agglomerations in the U.K. In this chapter and throughout the book, Lindberg and Todd spend time on both naval and merchant shipbuilding, though often focusing on the former. This is empirically appropriate: the British and American governments have historically granted primacy to warship yards on the grounds that naval building is the more complex and strategically important enterprise.

Chapter Two, “World War I: The First Great Test,” effectively carries the narrative, but not so much the theorizing, forward by looking at the American and British shipbuilding industries during World War I. In both countries, Lindberg and Todd find that wartime success came when and where existing shipbuilding agglomerations grew broader through expansion (new or bigger yards) or deeper through intensification (new construction techniques, improved machinery). In both countries, relatively few new yards were built, either within or outside agglomerations, and none were especially successful. The mammoth Hog Island shipyard at Philadelphia illustrates this best: constructed at great cost, the yard failed to launch a single ship in time to serve during the Great War, but then continued to turn out freighters until 1921 — by which point the shipbuilding industry had all but collapsed.

Chapter Three, “The Interwar Years and the Eve of War,” continues the chronological narrative by examining American and British shipbuilding in the doldrums of the 1920s and 1930s. Focused sharply on Great Britain, this chapter shows how the British government attempted, with middling success, to reform and reconstitute the industry so as to assure the survival of the biggest and most important shipbuilding firms, if not entire agglomerations. In both the U.S. and the U.K., however, shipyard overcapacity and ongoing labor problems resulted in generalized decline and stagnation in shipbuilding.

Chapter Four, “World War II: The Ultimate Test,” is the heart of the book, and runs to nearly half its length. Like previous chapters, this one is bifurcated into separate, unevenly linked sections on Great Britain and the United States. Unlike previous chapters, however, this one is heavily focused on naval shipbuilding in both countries, and choked with minutiae regarding ship types, production numbers, and other data. These add little except to demonstrate that the British and American industries were enormously productive. The extensive coverage of naval building is, however, only loosely tied to Lindberg and Todd’s concern with agglomeration. The importance of agglomeration as a theoretical lens or an empirical fact is asserted rather than proven. The highly relevant case of American merchant shipbuilding is treated only cursorily and through the lens of naval work, American shipyards like Henry Kaiser’s Richmond yards on San Francisco Bay, for instance, were so productive because they capitalized on close geographical and organizational ties to one another, to yards elsewhere on the bay, to affiliated companies like engine builders and steel processors, and to their own conglomerate parent-firms. By largely leaving out a story like this one, Lindberg and Todd miss an opportunity to spell out what agglomeration meant in actual historical and geographical context.

Chapter Five, “Aftermath: The Legacy of British and American Wartime Shipbuilding Industries,” is a relatively rapid examination of the parallel declines of the shipbuilding industries in the two countries. (The above-mentioned books by Lorenz and Gibson and Donovan offer fuller accounts of this period.) Unable to compete with rising shipbuilding countries like Germany and especially Japan in the 1950s or South Korea in the 1970s, Great Britain’s once world-beating industry slid into disarray which was unsuccessfully resolved by nationalizing the industry in 1977. Unwilling to commit political and federal capital to shipbuilding, the American government dismantled the wartime industry and the U.S. now has only a rump shipbuilding sector focused on warship production. By way of concluding their history, Lindberg and Todd state that by the twenty-first century, “America, like Britain, had ceased to adhere to the agglomeration concept” (203).

This conclusion does not provide an adequate bookend to the theorizing in the first chapter, but it does complete an unfortunate diminution of explicit, meaningful application of agglomeration theory to shipbuilding. On the strength of the first chapter, the book seemed likely to explicate the changing power of agglomeration to Anglo-American shipbuilding or at least to cogently describe how geography has shaped shipbuilding in numerous, particular times and places. (Given the titular focus on geography, I expected maps to play a large role in making the argument. However, the book’s maps merely locate shipyards in larger regions; they do not graphically link shipyards to other elements of agglomerations, such as armament makers or steel mills.) However, this goal is not realized. The reader is never edified as to just what agglomeration meant at various moments of the twentieth century. How, for instance, did the New York agglomeration which produced so many warships during World War II benefit from proximity to, say, the Pennsylvania steel industry, or to its embeddedness in the metropolitan area’s manufacturing base? Did shipbuilding along the Clyde during World War II rest on the same positive agglomeration factors as it had during World War I? In failing to offer firm, summative conclusions about the value of agglomeration theory to the study of economic development, Todd and Lindberg do not realize the promise of their book’s initial chapter. Despite this, however, Anglo-American Shipbuilding does still stand as a good survey of naval and merchant shipbuilding in the United States and Great Britain during the twentieth century, and it can be recommended as such to historians of business, economics, and technology.

Christopher Tassava is a member of the staff of Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota), and a community faculty member at Metropolitan State University (St. Paul, Minnesota). He is presently revising his dissertation, a study of World War II shipbuilding on San Francisco Bay, for publication.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII