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Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945

Author(s):Koistinen, Paul A.C.
Reviewer(s):Tassava, Christopher

Published by EH.NET (January 2005)

Paul A.C. Koistinen, Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004. xiii + 657 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7006-1308-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Christopher Tassava, Metropolitan State University.

In this monumental and magisterial work, Paul A.C. Koistinen, professor emeritus at California State University-Northridge, addresses World War II, the key moment in the history of the subject he has spent a lifetime studying: “the political economy of American war — the means that the nation has employed to mobilize its economic resources for defense and hostilities” (p. 1). Over the course of Arsenal of World War II, Koistinen demonstrates, more deeply and broadly than any other scholar, how the federal government directed the American war effort.

Arsenal of World War II is not a general history of American mobilization for World War II, but rather an authoritative examination of five key organizations: the National Defense Advisory Commission, the Office of Production Management, the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board, the War Production Board, and finally, the Office of War Mobilization. The NDAC is the subject of the book’s first and briefest part, OPM/SPAB feature in the second part, and WPB/OWM are the focus of the third and longest part. (Two additional chapters address labor supply and labor relations from 1940 to 1945.)

These major organizations and the scores of others that composed the “alphabet soup” of the wartime federal government were tied together in constituting but also opposing “the growing mobilization alliance between the corporate community, whose members predominated in the WPB and its forerunners, and the armed services, which were responsible for most wartime demand” (p. 8). The nearly two hundred-page section on the War Production Board and Office of War Mobilization is particularly useful as an insightful study of how these two agencies balanced the competing demands of the military services, industrial contractors, and civilians.

As Koistinen explicitly points out in numerous places and implicitly demonstrates with the book’s overall argument, the WPB/OWM achieved only limited success in directing the war economy because both organizations had to work against the strong alliance of the armed forces and industry. “The military remained acutely aware that its long-run interests rested with the corporate structure. … Industry reciprocated since the army and navy negotiated and let contracts. Consequently, more often than not, the armed services and corporate America stood together on mobilization policy even though, at times, their immediate interest differed” (p. 503). As a result, “the World War II American military assumed levels of power that were unusual, and unwise, in a democratic country” (p. 505). Koistinen does not here explore the implications of this bold assertion, which seems to point back to the book’s scholarly genesis in the charged academic climate of the 1960s. Rather, Koistinen uses the book to show how the military and industry cooperated to block the ambitions of the civilian mobilization agencies from NDAC to OWM. Koistinen’s analytic skill knits together the numerous battles between the military and its would-be overseers, orienting them to his overarching argument and preventing Arsenal of World War II from devolving into an unreflective chronicle of that war-within-the-war.

By so ably summarizing and analyzing particular episodes of war mobilization, Koistinen also provides invaluable thumbnail sketches of key episodes in the history of American mobilization. In this sense, the book can serve as a kind of analytic reference work on American mobilization. Two entries in this ostensible encyclopedia are especially impressive. First, Koistinen provides an excellent account of the 1942 feasibility dispute, the War Production Board’s greatest trial by fire (pp. 303-314). The military services predictably argued that American victory depended on all-out production for their needs in 1943, while the WPB held that such a push would irreversibly destabilize the economy, harming the long-term war effort. After bitter in-fighting, the WPB prevailed; more-or-less rational planning of military and civilian requirements obtained throughout the rest of the war — but at great cost, for losing the feasibility debate permanently hardened the military against the WPB. In a second beautifully succinct look at a key moment in mobilization, Koistinen contextualizes the long debate over national service legislation, which would have mandated the conscription of civilian workers for industrial jobs that the military felt were underserved (pp. 390-401). Strongly advocated by the armed forces but few others, the “labor draft” dispute clearly demonstrated the military’s interest in maximizing its control over the civilian economy (and its distrust of organized labor). The debate only withered in 1945 when the Allies’ imminent victory showed that civilian administration of the labor-supply system had worked. In this pair of case studies and numerous others — such as his running castigation of General Brehon Somervell, the blowhard nemesis of civilian administrators throughout the war — Koistinen shows his mastery of the minutiae of American mobilization.

As is unfortunately common in contemporary publishing, the book suffers from numerous relative minor typographical flaws (including an orphaned parenthesis on page 1!) and, more troublingly, a binding error which resulted in the omission of pages 211-242 in the review copy. More substantively, Koistinen does not — and, truthfully, could not — adequately address every major mobilization agency. Despite his claim that “no significant … administration involved in economic mobilization … is neglected” (p. 8), for instance, Koistinen does not substantially examine the U.S. Maritime Commission. Shipbuilding ranked second only to aircraft manufacturing as a sector of the mobilized economy, and the Maritime Commission was responsible for forty percent of all shipbuilding, yet this sibling of the Army and Navy appears only briefly in Arsenal of World War II. (These statistics come from Frederic Lane, Ships for Victory: A History of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1951], 10).

Overall, however, these issues are more than offset by the density and clarity of the content of Arsenal of World War II and by other features of the book, from its lucid organization and prose to Koistinen’s substantial endnotes and his useful bibliographic essay. Even dedicated students of World War II’s political economy will profit from the essay, which charts Koistinen’s use of sources such as the government’s official postwar histories and key primary records like those in the U.S. National Archives, among others.

Arsenal of World War II is the fourth in a projected five-volume series; the previous three works covered the periods from 1606-1865 (Beating Plowshares into Swords, 1996), 1865-1919 (Mobilizing for Modern War, 1997), and 1920-1939 (Planning War, Pursuing Peace, 1998). The fifth will deal with the Cold War. Judging by the scale and scope of Koistinen’s accomplishment here, students of the institutional and political-economic underpinnings of American warfare should eagerly anticipate the final volume in Koistinen’s series.

A word of caution, however: readers interested in the social or cultural aspects of America’s engagement in World War II will here find little of direct interest. They should look first to other overviews of American culture and society during the war (David Kennedy’s recent Freedom from Fear [1999], John Morton Blum’s classic V Was for Victory [1976], or even Richard Lingeman’s dated but useful Don’t You Know There’s a War On? [1970]). With that grounding, they can then come back to Koistinen for a masterful account of the war’s domestic political-economic backdrop, a chronicle which has no peer in the current literature.

Christopher Tassava, Ph.D., is a member of the community faculty at Metropolitan State University (St. Paul, MN). He is currently revising his dissertation, a study of World War II merchant shipbuilding on San Francisco Bay, for publication.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII