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The American Economy during World War II

Christopher J. Tassava

For the United States, World War II and the Great Depression constituted the most important economic event of the twentieth century. The war’s effects were varied and far-reaching. The war decisively ended the depression itself. The federal government emerged from the war as a potent economic actor, able to regulate economic activity and to partially control the economy through spending and consumption. American industry was revitalized by the war, and many sectors were by 1945 either sharply oriented to defense production (for example, aerospace and electronics) or completely dependent on it (atomic energy). The organized labor movement, strengthened by the war beyond even its depression-era height, became a major counterbalance to both the government and private industry. The war’s rapid scientific and technological changes continued and intensified trends begun during the Great Depression and created a permanent expectation of continued innovation on the part of many scientists, engineers, government officials and citizens. Similarly, the substantial increases in personal income and frequently, if not always, in quality of life during the war led many Americans to foresee permanent improvements to their material circumstances, even as others feared a postwar return of the depression. Finally, the war’s global scale severely damaged every major economy in the world except for the United States, which thus enjoyed unprecedented economic and political power after 1945.

The Great Depression

The global conflict which was labeled World War II emerged from the Great Depression, an upheaval which destabilized governments, economies, and entire nations around the world. In Germany, for instance, the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party occurred at least partly because Hitler claimed to be able to transform a weakened Germany into a self-sufficient military and economic power which could control its own destiny in European and world affairs, even as liberal powers like the United States and Great Britain were buffeted by the depression.

In the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt promised, less dramatically, to enact a “New Deal” which would essentially reconstruct American capitalism and governance on a new basis. As it waxed and waned between 1933 and 1940, Roosevelt’s New Deal mitigated some effects of the Great Depression, but did not end the economic crisis. In 1939, when World War II erupted in Europe with Germany’s invasion of Poland, numerous economic indicators suggested that the United States was still deeply mired in the depression. For instance, after 1929 the American gross domestic product declined for four straight years, then slowly and haltingly climbed back to its 1929 level, which was finally exceeded again in 1936. (Watkins, 2002; Johnston and Williamson, 2004)

Unemployment was another measure of the depression’s impact. Between 1929 and 1939, the American unemployment rate averaged 13.3 percent (calculated from “Corrected BLS” figures in Darby, 1976, 8). In the summer of 1940, about 5.3 million Americans were still unemployed — far fewer than the 11.5 million who had been unemployed in 1932 (about thirty percent of the American workforce) but still a significant pool of unused labor and, often, suffering citizens. (Darby, 1976, 7. For somewhat different figures, see Table 3 below.)

In spite of these dismal statistics, the United States was, in other ways, reasonably well prepared for war. The wide array of New Deal programs and agencies which existed in 1939 meant that the federal government was markedly larger and more actively engaged in social and economic activities than it had been in 1929. Moreover, the New Deal had accustomed Americans to a national government which played a prominent role in national affairs and which, at least under Roosevelt’s leadership, often chose to lead, not follow, private enterprise and to use new capacities to plan and administer large-scale endeavors.

Preparedness and Conversion

As war spread throughout Europe and Asia between 1939 and 1941, nowhere was the federal government’s leadership more important than in the realm of “preparedness” — the national project to ready for war by enlarging the military, strengthening certain allies such as Great Britain, and above all converting America’s industrial base to produce armaments and other war materiel rather than civilian goods. “Conversion” was the key issue in American economic life in 1940-1942. In many industries, company executives resisted converting to military production because they did not want to lose consumer market share to competitors who did not convert. Conversion thus became a goal pursued by public officials and labor leaders. In 1940, Walter Reuther, a high-ranking officer in the United Auto Workers labor union, provided impetus for conversion by advocating that the major automakers convert to aircraft production. Though initially rejected by car-company executives and many federal officials, the Reuther Plan effectively called the public’s attention to America’s lagging preparedness for war. Still, the auto companies only fully converted to war production in 1942 and only began substantially contributing to aircraft production in 1943.

Even for contemporary observers, not all industries seemed to be lagging as badly as autos, though. Merchant shipbuilding mobilized early and effectively. The industry was overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission (USMC), a New Deal agency established in 1936 to revive the moribund shipbuilding industry, which had been in a depression since 1921, and to ensure that American shipyards would be capable of meeting wartime demands. With the USMC supporting and funding the establishment and expansion of shipyards around the country, including especially the Gulf and Pacific coasts, merchant shipbuilding took off. The entire industry had produced only 71 ships between 1930 and 1936, but from 1938 to 1940, commission-sponsored shipyards turned out 106 ships, and then almost that many in 1941 alone (Fischer, 41). The industry’s position in the vanguard of American preparedness grew from its strategic import — ever more ships were needed to transport American goods to Great Britain and France, among other American allies — and from the Maritime Commission’s ability to administer the industry through means as varied as construction contracts, shipyard inspectors, and raw goading of contractors by commission officials.

Many of the ships built in Maritime Commission shipyards carried American goods to the European allies as part of the “Lend-Lease” program, which was instituted in 1941 and provided another early indication that the United States could and would shoulder a heavy economic burden. By all accounts, Lend-Lease was crucial to enabling Great Britain and the Soviet Union to fight the Axis, not least before the United States formally entered the war in December 1941. (Though scholars are still assessing the impact of Lend-Lease on these two major allies, it is likely that both countries could have continued to wage war against Germany without American aid, which seems to have served largely to augment the British and Soviet armed forces and to have shortened the time necessary to retake the military offensive against Germany.) Between 1941 and 1945, the U.S. exported about $32.5 billion worth of goods through Lend-Lease, of which $13.8 billion went to Great Britain and $9.5 billion went to the Soviet Union (Milward, 71). The war dictated that aircraft, ships (and ship-repair services), military vehicles, and munitions would always rank among the quantitatively most important Lend-Lease goods, but food was also a major export to Britain (Milward, 72).

Pearl Harbor was an enormous spur to conversion. The formal declarations of war by the United States on Japan and Germany made plain, once and for all, that the American economy would now need to be transformed into what President Roosevelt had called “the Arsenal of Democracy” a full year before, in December 1940. From the perspective of federal officials in Washington, the first step toward wartime mobilization was the establishment of an effective administrative bureaucracy.

War Administration

From the beginning of preparedness in 1939 through the peak of war production in 1944, American leaders recognized that the stakes were too high to permit the war economy to grow in an unfettered, laissez-faire manner. American manufacturers, for instance, could not be trusted to stop producing consumer goods and to start producing materiel for the war effort. To organize the growing economy and to ensure that it produced the goods needed for war, the federal government spawned an array of mobilization agencies which not only often purchased goods (or arranged their purchase by the Army and Navy), but which in practice closely directed those goods’ manufacture and heavily influenced the operation of private companies and whole industries.

Though both the New Deal and mobilization for World War I served as models, the World War II mobilization bureaucracy assumed its own distinctive shape as the war economy expanded. Most importantly, American mobilization was markedly less centralized than mobilization in other belligerent nations. The war economies of Britain and Germany, for instance, were overseen by war councils which comprised military and civilian officials. In the United States, the Army and Navy were not incorporated into the civilian administrative apparatus, nor was a supreme body created to subsume military and civilian organizations and to direct the vast war economy.

Instead, the military services enjoyed almost-unchecked control over their enormous appetites for equipment and personnel. With respect to the economy, the services were largely able to curtail production destined for civilians (e.g., automobiles or many non-essential foods) and even for war-related but non-military purposes (e.g., textiles and clothing). In parallel to but never commensurate with the Army and Navy, a succession of top-level civilian mobilization agencies sought to influence Army and Navy procurement of manufactured goods like tanks, planes, and ships, raw materials like steel and aluminum, and even personnel. One way of gauging the scale of the increase in federal spending and the concomitant increase in military spending is through comparison with GDP, which itself rose sharply during the war. Table 1 shows the dramatic increases in GDP, federal spending, and military spending.

Table 1: Federal Spending and Military Spending during World War II

(dollar values in billions of constant 1940 dollars)

Nominal GDP Federal Spending Defense Spending
Year total $ % increase total $ % increase % of GDP total $ % increase % of GDP % of federal spending
1940 101.4 9.47 9.34% 1.66 1.64% 17.53%
1941 120.67 19.00% 13.00 37.28% 10.77% 6.13 269.28% 5.08% 47.15%
1942 139.06 15.24% 30.18 132.15% 21.70% 22.05 259.71% 15.86% 73.06%
1943 136.44 -1.88% 63.57 110.64% 46.59% 43.98 99.46% 32.23% 69.18%
1944 174.84 28.14% 72.62 14.24% 41.54% 62.95 43.13% 36.00% 86.68%
1945 173.52 -0.75% 72.11 -0.70% 41.56% 64.53 2.51% 37.19% 89.49%

Sources: 1940 GDP figure from “Nominal GDP: Louis Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson, “The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1789 — Present,” Economic History Services, March 2004, available at (accessed 27 July 2005). 1941-1945 GDP figures calculated using Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” available at Federal and defense spending figures from Government Printing Office, “Budget of the United States Government: Historical Tables Fiscal Year 2005,” Table 6.1—Composition of Outlays: 1940—2009 and Table 3.1—Outlays by Superfunction and Function: 1940—2009.

Preparedness Agencies

To oversee this growth, President Roosevelt created a number of preparedness agencies beginning in 1939, including the Office for Emergency Management and its key sub-organization, the National Defense Advisory Commission; the Office of Production Management; and the Supply Priorities Allocation Board. None of these organizations was particularly successful at generating or controlling mobilization because all included two competing parties. On one hand, private-sector executives and managers had joined the federal mobilization bureaucracy but continued to emphasize corporate priorities such as profits and positioning in the marketplace. On the other hand, reform-minded civil servants, who were often holdovers from the New Deal, emphasized the state’s prerogatives with respect to mobilization and war making. As a result of this basic division in the mobilization bureaucracy, “the military largely remained free of mobilization agency control” (Koistinen, 502).

War Production Board

In January 1942, as part of another effort to mesh civilian and military needs, President Roosevelt established a new mobilization agency, the War Production Board, and placed it under the direction of Donald Nelson, a former Sears Roebuck executive. Nelson understood immediately that the staggeringly complex problem of administering the war economy could be reduced to one key issue: balancing the needs of civilians — especially the workers whose efforts sustained the economy — against the needs of the military — especially those of servicemen and women but also their military and civilian leaders.

Though neither Nelson nor other high-ranking civilians ever fully resolved this issue, Nelson did realize several key economic goals. First, in late 1942, Nelson successfully resolved the so-called “feasibility dispute,” a conflict between civilian administrators and their military counterparts over the extent to which the American economy should be devoted to military needs during 1943 (and, by implication, in subsequent war years). Arguing that “all-out” production for war would harm America’s long-term ability to continue to produce for war after 1943, Nelson convinced the military to scale back its Olympian demands. He thereby also established a precedent for planning war production so as to meet most military and some civilian needs. Second (and partially as a result of the feasibility dispute), the WPB in late 1942 created the “Controlled Materials Plan,” which effectively allocated steel, aluminum, and copper to industrial users. The CMP obtained throughout the war, and helped curtail conflict among the military services and between them and civilian agencies over the growing but still scarce supplies of those three key metals.

Office of War Mobilization

By late 1942 it was clear that Nelson and the WPB were unable to fully control the growing war economy and especially to wrangle with the Army and Navy over the necessity of continued civilian production. Accordingly, in May 1943 President Roosevelt created the Office of War Mobilization and in July put James Byrne — a trusted advisor, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, and the so-called “assistant president” — in charge. Though the WPB was not abolished, the OWM soon became the dominant mobilization body in Washington. Unlike Nelson, Byrnes was able to establish an accommodation with the military services over war production by “acting as an arbiter among contending forces in the WPB, settling disputes between the board and the armed services, and dealing with the multiple problems” of the War Manpower Commission, the agency charged with controlling civilian labor markets and with assuring a continuous supply of draftees to the military (Koistinen, 510).

Beneath the highest-level agencies like the WPB and the OWM, a vast array of other federal organizations administered everything from labor (the War Manpower Commission) to merchant shipbuilding (the Maritime Commission) and from prices (the Office of Price Administration) to food (the War Food Administration). Given the scale and scope of these agencies’ efforts, they did sometimes fail, and especially so when they carried with them the baggage of the New Deal. By the midpoint of America’s involvement in the war, for example, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the Rural Electrification Administration — all prominent New Deal organizations which tried and failed to find a purpose in the mobilization bureaucracy — had been actually or virtually abolished.


However, these agencies were often quite successful in achieving their respective, narrower aims. The Department of the Treasury, for instance, was remarkably successful at generating money to pay for the war, including the first general income tax in American history and the famous “war bonds” sold to the public. Beginning in 1940, the government extended the income tax to virtually all Americans and began collecting the tax via the now-familiar method of continuous withholdings from paychecks (rather than lump-sum payments after the fact). The number of Americans required to pay federal taxes rose from 4 million in 1939 to 43 million in 1945. With such a large pool of taxpayers, the American government took in $45 billion in 1945, an enormous increase over the $8.7 billion collected in 1941 but still far short of the $83 billion spent on the war in 1945. Over that same period, federal tax revenue grew from about 8 percent of GDP to more than 20 percent. Americans who earned as little as $500 per year paid income tax at a 23 percent rate, while those who earned more than $1 million per year paid a 94 percent rate. The average income tax rate peaked in 1944 at 20.9 percent (“Fact Sheet: Taxes”).

War Bonds

All told, taxes provided about $136.8 billion of the war’s total cost of $304 billion (Kennedy, 625). To cover the other $167.2 billion, the Treasury Department also expanded its bond program, creating the famous “war bonds” hawked by celebrities and purchased in vast numbers and enormous values by Americans. The first war bond was purchased by President Roosevelt on May 1, 1941 (“Introduction to Savings Bonds”). Though the bonds returned only 2.9 percent annual interest after a 10-year maturity, they nonetheless served as a valuable source of revenue for the federal government and an extremely important investment for many Americans. Bonds served as a way for citizens to make an economic contribution to the war effort, but because interest on them accumulated slower than consumer prices rose, they could not completely preserve income which could not be readily spent during the war. By the time war-bond sales ended in 1946, 85 million Americans had purchased more than $185 billion worth of the securities, often through automatic deductions from their paychecks (“Brief History of World War Two Advertising Campaigns: War Loans and Bonds”). Commercial institutions like banks also bought billions of dollars of bonds and other treasury paper, holding more than $24 billion at the war’s end (Kennedy, 626).

Price Controls and the Standard of Living

Fiscal and financial matters were also addressed by other federal agencies. For instance, the Office of Price Administration used its “General Maximum Price Regulation” (also known as “General Max”) to attempt to curtail inflation by maintaining prices at their March 1942 levels. In July, the National War Labor Board (NWLB; a successor to a New Deal-era body) limited wartime wage increases to about 15 percent, the factor by which the cost of living rose from January 1941 to May 1942. Neither “General Max” nor the wage-increase limit was entirely successful, though federal efforts did curtail inflation. Between April 1942 and June 1946, the period of the most stringent federal controls on inflation, the annual rate of inflation was just 3.5 percent; the annual rate had been 10.3 percent in the six months before April 1942 and it soared to 28.0 percent in the six months after June 1946 (Rockoff, “Price and Wage Controls in Four Wartime Periods,” 382).With wages rising about 65 percent over the course of the war, this limited success in cutting the rate of inflation meant that many American civilians enjoyed a stable or even improving quality of life during the war (Kennedy, 641). Improvement in the standard of living was not ubiquitous, however. In some regions, such as rural areas in the Deep South, living standards stagnated or even declined, and according to some economists, the national living standard barely stayed level or even declined (Higgs, 1992).

Labor Unions

Labor unions and their members benefited especially. The NWLB’s “maintenance-of-membership” rule allowed unions to count all new employees as union members and to draw union dues from those new employees’ paychecks, so long as the unions themselves had already been recognized by the employer. Given that most new employment occurred in unionized workplaces, including plants funded by the federal government through defense spending, “the maintenance-of-membership ruling was a fabulous boon for organized labor,” for it required employers to accept unions and allowed unions to grow dramatically: organized labor expanded from 10.5 million members in 1941 to 14.75 million in 1945 (Blum, 140). By 1945, approximately 35.5 percent of the non-agricultural workforce was unionized, a record high.

The War Economy at High Water

Despite the almost-continual crises of the civilian war agencies, the American economy expanded at an unprecedented (and unduplicated) rate between 1941 and 1945. The gross national product of the U.S., as measured in constant dollars, grew from $88.6 billion in 1939 — while the country was still suffering from the depression — to $135 billion in 1944. War-related production skyrocketed from just two percent of GNP to 40 percent in 1943 (Milward, 63).

As Table 2 shows, output in many American manufacturing sectors increased spectacularly from 1939 to 1944, the height of war production in many industries.

Table 2: Indices of American Manufacturing Output (1939 = 100)

1940 1941 1942 1943 1944
Aircraft 245 630 1706 2842 2805
Munitions 140 423 2167 3803 2033
Shipbuilding 159 375 1091 1815 1710
Aluminum 126 189 318 561 474
Rubber 109 144 152 202 206
Steel 131 171 190 202 197

Source: Milward, 69.

Expansion of Employment

The wartime economic boom spurred and benefited from several important social trends. Foremost among these trends was the expansion of employment, which paralleled the expansion of industrial production. In 1944, unemployment dipped to 1.2 percent of the civilian labor force, a record low in American economic history and as near to “full employment” as is likely possible (Samuelson). Table 3 shows the overall employment and unemployment figures during the war period.

Table 3: Civilian Employment and Unemployment during World War II

(Numbers in thousands)

1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945
All Non-institutional Civilians 99,840 99,900 98,640 94,640 93,220 94,090
Civilian Labor Force Total 55,640 55,910 56,410 55,540 54,630 53,860
% of Population 55.7% 56% 57.2% 58.7% 58.6% 57.2%
Employed Total 47,520 50,350 53,750 54,470 53,960 52,820
% of Population 47.6% 50.4% 54.5% 57.6% 57.9% 56.1%
% of Labor Force 85.4% 90.1% 95.3% 98.1% 98.8% 98.1%
Unemployed Total 8,120 5,560 2,660 1,070 670 1,040
% of Population 8.1% 5.6% 2.7% 1.1% 0.7% 1.1%
% of Labor Force 14.6% 9.9% 4.7% 1.9% 1.2% 1.9%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population, 1940 to date.” Available at

Not only those who were unemployed during the depression found jobs. So, too, did about 10.5 million Americans who either could not then have had jobs (the 3.25 million youths who came of age after Pearl Harbor) or who would not have then sought employment (3.5 million women, for instance). By 1945, the percentage of blacks who held war jobs — eight percent — approximated blacks’ percentage in the American population — about ten percent (Kennedy, 775). Almost 19 million American women (including millions of black women) were working outside the home by 1945. Though most continued to hold traditional female occupations such as clerical and service jobs, two million women did labor in war industries (half in aerospace alone) (Kennedy, 778). Employment did not just increase on the industrial front. Civilian employment by the executive branch of the federal government — which included the war administration agencies — rose from about 830,000 in 1938 (already a historical peak) to 2.9 million in June 1945 (Nash, 220).

Population Shifts

Migration was another major socioeconomic trend. The 15 million Americans who joined the military — who, that is, became employees of the military — all moved to and between military bases; 11.25 million ended up overseas. Continuing the movements of the depression era, about 15 million civilian Americans made a major move (defined as changing their county of residence). African-Americans moved with particular alacrity and permanence: 700,000 left the South and 120,000 arrived in Los Angeles during 1943 alone. Migration was especially strong along rural-urban axes, especially to war-production centers around the country, and along an east-west axis (Kennedy, 747-748, 768). For instance, as Table 4 shows, the population of the three Pacific Coast states grew by a third between 1940 and 1945, permanently altering their demographics and economies.

Table 4: Population Growth in Washington, Oregon, and California, 1940-1945

(populations in millions)

1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 % growth
Washington 1.7 1.8 1.9 2.1 2.1 2.3 35.3%
Oregon 1.1 1.1 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.3 18.2%
California 7.0 7.4 8.0 8.5 9.0 9.5 35.7%
Total 9.8 10.3 11.0 11.8 12.4 13.1 33.7%

Source: Nash, 222.

A third wartime socioeconomic trend was somewhat ironic, given the reduction in the supply of civilian goods: rapid increases in many Americans’ personal incomes. Driven by the federal government’s abilities to prevent price inflation and to subsidize high wages through war contracting and by the increase in the size and power of organized labor, incomes rose for virtually all Americans — whites and blacks, men and women, skilled and unskilled. Workers at the lower end of the spectrum gained the most: manufacturing workers enjoyed about a quarter more real income in 1945 than in 1940 (Kennedy, 641). These rising incomes were part of a wartime “great compression” of wages which equalized the distribution of incomes across the American population (Goldin and Margo, 1992). Again focusing on three war-boom states in the West, Table 5 shows that personal-income growth continued after the war, as well.

Table 5: Personal Income per Capita in Washington, Oregon, and California, 1940 and 1948

1940 1948 % growth
Washington $655 $929 42%
Oregon $648 $941 45%
California $835 $1,017 22%

Source: Nash, 221. Adjusted for inflation using Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” available at

Despite the focus on military-related production in general and the impact of rationing in particular, spending in many civilian sectors of the economy rose even as the war consumed billions of dollars of output. Hollywood boomed as workers bought movie tickets rather than scarce clothes or unavailable cars. Americans placed more legal wagers in 1943 and 1944, and racetracks made more money than at any time before. In 1942, Americans spent $95 million on legal pharmaceuticals, $20 million more than in 1941. Department-store sales in November 1944 were greater than in any previous month in any year (Blum, 95-98). Black markets for rationed or luxury goods — from meat and chocolate to tires and gasoline — also boomed during the war.

Scientific and Technological Innovation

As observers during the war and ever since have recognized, scientific and technological innovations were a key aspect in the American war effort and an important economic factor in the Allies’ victory. While all of the major belligerents were able to tap their scientific and technological resources to develop weapons and other tools of war, the American experience was impressive in that scientific and technological change positively affected virtually every facet of the war economy.

The Manhattan Project

American techno-scientific innovations mattered most dramatically in “high-tech” sectors which were often hidden from public view by wartime secrecy. For instance, the Manhattan Project to create an atomic weapon was a direct and massive result of a stunning scientific breakthrough: the creation of a controlled nuclear chain reaction by a team of scientists at the University of Chicago in December 1942. Under the direction of the U.S. Army and several private contractors, scientists, engineers, and workers built a nationwide complex of laboratories and plants to manufacture atomic fuel and to fabricate atomic weapons. This network included laboratories at the University of Chicago and the University of California-Berkeley, uranium-processing complexes at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, and the weapon-design lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Manhattan Project climaxed in August 1945, when the United States dropped two atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan; these attacks likely accelerated Japanese leaders’ decision to seek peace with the United States. By that time, the Manhattan Project had become a colossal economic endeavor, costing approximately $2 billion and employing more than 100,000.

Though important and gigantic, the Manhattan Project was an anomaly in the broader war economy. Technological and scientific innovation also transformed less-sophisticated but still complex sectors such as aerospace or shipbuilding. The United States, as David Kennedy writes, “ultimately proved capable of some epochal scientific and technical breakthroughs, [but] innovated most characteristically and most tellingly in plant layout, production organization, economies of scale, and process engineering” (Kennedy, 648).


Aerospace provides one crucial example. American heavy bombers, like the B-29 Superfortress, were highly sophisticated weapons which could not have existed, much less contributed to the air war on Germany and Japan, without innovations such as bombsights, radar, and high-performance engines or advances in aeronautical engineering, metallurgy, and even factory organization. Encompassing hundreds of thousands of workers, four major factories, and $3 billion in government spending, the B-29 project required almost unprecedented organizational capabilities by the U.S. Army Air Forces, several major private contractors, and labor unions (Vander Meulen, 7). Overall, American aircraft production was the single largest sector of the war economy, costing $45 billion (almost a quarter of the $183 billion spent on war production), employing a staggering two million workers, and, most importantly, producing over 125,000 aircraft, which Table 6 describe in more detail.

Table 6: Production of Selected U.S. Military Aircraft (1941-1945)

Bombers 49,123
Fighters 63,933
Cargo 14,710
Total 127,766

Source: Air Force History Support Office


Shipbuilding offers a third example of innovation’s importance to the war economy. Allied strategy in World War II utterly depended on the movement of war materiel produced in the United States to the fighting fronts in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Between 1939 and 1945, the hundred merchant shipyards overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission (USMC) produced 5,777 ships at a cost of about $13 billion (navy shipbuilding cost about $18 billion) (Lane, 8). Four key innovations facilitated this enormous wartime output. First, the commission itself allowed the federal government to direct the merchant shipbuilding industry. Second, the commission funded entrepreneurs, the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser chief among them, who had never before built ships and who were eager to use mass-production methods in the shipyards. These methods, including the substitution of welding for riveting and the addition of hundreds of thousands of women and minorities to the formerly all-white and all-male shipyard workforces, were a third crucial innovation. Last, the commission facilitated mass production by choosing to build many standardized vessels like the ugly, slow, and ubiquitous “Liberty” ship. By adapting well-known manufacturing techniques and emphasizing easily-made ships, merchant shipbuilding became a low-tech counterexample to the atomic-bomb project and the aerospace industry, yet also a sector which was spectacularly successful.

Reconversion and the War’s Long-term Effects

Reconversion from military to civilian production had been an issue as early as 1944, when WPB Chairman Nelson began pushing to scale back war production in favor of renewed civilian production. The military’s opposition to Nelson had contributed to the accession by James Byrnes and the OWM to the paramount spot in the war-production bureaucracy. Meaningful planning for reconversion was postponed until 1944 and the actual process of reconversion only began in earnest in early 1945, accelerating through V-E Day in May and V-J Day in September.

The most obvious effect of reconversion was the shift away from military production and back to civilian production. As Table 7 shows, this shift — as measured by declines in overall federal spending and in military spending — was dramatic, but did not cause the postwar depression which many Americans dreaded. Rather, American GDP continued to grow after the war (albeit not as rapidly as it had during the war; compare Table 1). The high level of defense spending, in turn, contributed to the creation of the “military-industrial complex,” the network of private companies, non-governmental organizations, universities, and federal agencies which collectively shaped American national defense policy and activity during the Cold War.

Table 7: Federal Spending, and Military Spending after World War II

(dollar values in billions of constant 1945 dollars)

Nominal GDP Federal Spending Defense Spending
Year Total % increase total % increase % of GDP Total % increase % of GDP % of federal
1945 223.10 92.71 1.50% 41.90% 82.97 4.80% 37.50% 89.50%
1946 222.30 -0.36% 55.23 -40.40% 24.80% 42.68 -48.60% 19.20% 77.30%
1947 244.20 8.97% 34.5 -37.50% 14.80% 12.81 -70.00% 5.50% 37.10%
1948 269.20 9.29% 29.76 -13.70% 11.60% 9.11 -28.90% 3.50% 30.60%
1949 267.30 -0.71% 38.84 30.50% 14.30% 13.15 44.40% 4.80% 33.90%
1950 293.80 9.02% 42.56 9.60% 15.60% 13.72 4.40% 5.00% 32.20%

1945 GDP figure from “Nominal GDP: Louis Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson, “The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1789 — Present,” Economic History Services, March 2004, available at (accessed 27 July 2005). 1946-1950 GDP figures calculated using Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” available at Federal and defense spending figures from Government Printing Office, “Budget of the United States Government: Historical Tables Fiscal Year 2005,” Table 6.1—Composition of Outlays: 1940—2009 and Table 3.1—Outlays by Superfunction and Function: 1940—2009.

Reconversion spurred the second major restructuring of the American workplace in five years, as returning servicemen flooded back into the workforce and many war workers left, either voluntarily or involuntarily. For instance, many women left the labor force beginning in 1944 — sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily. In 1947, about a quarter of all American women worked outside the home, roughly the same number who had held such jobs in 1940 and far off the wartime peak of 36 percent in 1944 (Kennedy, 779).

G.I. Bill

Servicemen obtained numerous other economic benefits beyond their jobs, including educational assistance from the federal government and guaranteed mortgages and small-business loans via the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 or “G.I. Bill.” Former servicemen thus became a vast and advantaged class of citizens which demanded, among other goods, inexpensive, often suburban housing; vocational training and college educations; and private cars which had been unobtainable during the war (Kennedy, 786-787).

The U.S.’s Position at the End of the War

At a macroeconomic scale, the war not only decisively ended the Great Depression, but created the conditions for productive postwar collaboration between the federal government, private enterprise, and organized labor, the parties whose tripartite collaboration helped engender continued economic growth after the war. The U.S. emerged from the war not physically unscathed, but economically strengthened by wartime industrial expansion, which placed the United States at absolute and relative advantage over both its allies and its enemies.

Possessed of an economy which was larger and richer than any other in the world, American leaders determined to make the United States the center of the postwar world economy. American aid to Europe ($13 billion via the Economic Recovery Program (ERP) or “Marshall Plan,” 1947-1951) and Japan ($1.8 billion, 1946-1952) furthered this goal by tying the economic reconstruction of West Germany, France, Great Britain, and Japan to American import and export needs, among other factors. Even before the war ended, the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 determined key aspects of international economic affairs by establishing standards for currency convertibility and creating institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the precursor of the World Bank.

In brief, as economic historian Alan Milward writes, “the United States emerged in 1945 in an incomparably stronger position economically than in 1941″… By 1945 the foundations of the United States’ economic domination over the next quarter of a century had been secured”… [This] may have been the most influential consequence of the Second World War for the post-war world” (Milward, 63).

Selected References

Adams, Michael C.C. The Best War Ever: America and World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women during World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Air Force History Support Office. “Army Air Forces Aircraft: A Definitive Moment.” U.S. Air Force, 1993. Available at

Blum, John Morton. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976.

Bordo, Michael. “The Gold Standard, Bretton Woods, and Other Monetary Regimes: An Historical Appraisal.” NBER Working Paper No. 4310. April 1993.

“Brief History of World War Two Advertising Campaigns.” Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections, 1999. Available at

Brody, David. “The New Deal and World War II.” In The New Deal, vol. 1, The National Level, edited by John Braeman, Robert Bremmer, and David Brody, 267-309. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975.

Connery, Robert. The Navy and Industrial Mobilization in World War II. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951.

Darby, Michael R. “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941.” Journal of Political Economy 84, no. 1 (February 1976): 1-16.

Field, Alexander J. “The Most Technologically Progressive Decade of the Century.” American Economic Review 93, no 4 (September 2003): 1399-1414.

Field, Alexander J. “U.S. Productivity Growth in the Interwar Period and the 1990s.” (Paper presented at “Understanding the 1990s: the Long Run Perspective” conference, Duke University and the University of North Carolina, March 26-27, 2004) Available at

Fischer, Gerald J. A Statistical Summary of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission during World War II. Washington, DC: Historical Reports of War Administration; United States Maritime Commission, no. 2, 1949.

Friedberg, Aaron. In the Shadow of the Garrison State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Gluck, Sherna Berger. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War, and Social Change. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

Goldin, Claudia. “The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment.” American Economic Review 81, no. 4 (September 1991): 741-56.

Goldin, Claudia and Robert A. Margo. “The Great Compression: Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 107, no. 2 (February 1992): 1-34.

Harrison, Mark, editor. The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Higgs, Robert. “Wartime Prosperity? A Reassessment of the U.S. Economy in the 1940s.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 1 (March 1992): 41-60.

Holley, I.B. Buying Aircraft: Materiel Procurement for the Army Air Forces. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964.

Hooks, Gregory. Forging the Military-Industrial Complex: World War II’s Battle of the Potomac. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Janeway, Eliot. The Struggle for Survival: A Chronicle of Economic Mobilization in World War II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951.

Jeffries, John W. Wartime America: The World War II Home Front. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.

Johnston, Louis and Samuel H. Williamson. “The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1789 – Present.” Available at Economic History Services, March 2004, URL:; accessed 3 June 2005.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kryder, Daniel. Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State during World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Lane, Frederic, with Blanche D. Coll, Gerald J. Fischer, and David B. Tyler. Ships for Victory: A History of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1951; republished, 2001.

Koistinen, Paul A.C. Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Lingeman, Richard P. Don’t You Know There’s a War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.

Milkman, Ruth. Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Milward, Alan S. War, Economy, and Society, 1939-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Nash, Gerald D. The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Nelson, Donald M. Arsenal of Democracy: The Story of American War Production. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946.

O’Neill, William L. A Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Overy, Richard. How the Allies Won. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.

Rockoff, Hugh. “The Response of the Giant Corporations to Wage and Price Control in World War II.” Journal of Economic History 41, no. 1 (March 1981): 123-28.

Rockoff, Hugh. “Price and Wage Controls in Four Wartime Periods.” Journal of Economic History 41, no. 2 (June 1981): 381-401.

Samuelson, Robert J., “Great Depression.” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., ed. David R. Henderson, 2002. Available at

U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Fact Sheet: Taxes,” n. d. Available at

U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Introduction to Savings Bonds,” n.d. Available at

Vander Meulen, Jacob. Building the B-29. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Watkins, Thayer. “The Recovery from the Depression of the 1930s.” 2002. Available at

Citation: Tassava, Christopher. “The American Economy during World War II”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL