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Corporate Conservatives Go to War: How the National Association of Manufacturers Planned to Restore American Free Enterprise, 1939-1948

Author(s):Whitham, Charlie
Reviewer(s):Phillips-Fein, Kim

Published by EH.Net (December 2020)

Charlie Whitham, Corporate Conservatives Go to War: How the National Association of Manufacturers Planned to Restore American Free Enterprise, 1939-1948. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. xvii + 400 pp. $89 (hardback), ISBN: 978-3-030-43907-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kim Phillips-Fein, Department of History and Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University.


Recent political histories of the twentieth century have shifted attention to World War II as a critical moment for understanding not only the place of the United States in the world, but also the trajectory of domestic economic policy. While this literature builds on an earlier generation of foundational scholarship on the evolution of liberalism and labor-management relations in the war years — including Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform (1995), Nelson Lichtenstein’s Labor’s War at Home (1982) and Howell John Harris’ The Right to Manage (1982) — more recent work has been especially focused on the way that World War II transformed American political economy. In particular, James Sparrow’s Warfare State (2011) and Mark Wilson’s Destructive Creation (2016) addressed the extent to which the war both consolidated the changes of the New Deal and inaugurated a new fiscal era, as well as the impact that the massive public investment of the war years had on the capacity of the Allies to achieve victory and the shape of American industry in the postwar years.

Charlie Whitham’s Corporate Conservatives Go to War: How the National Association of Manufacturers Planned to Restore American Free Enterprise, 1939-1948 marks a useful contribution to this body of work. The National Association of Manufacturers has long been portrayed by scholars as a hidebound organization committed in a knee-jerk way to a reactionary set of economic policies. (As one political scientist put it in the title of a 1953 journal article: “NAM: Influential Lobby or Kiss of Death?”)

Whitham does not exactly overturn this interpretation, but he challenges it by portraying the cross-currents of thought and politics within NAM over the wartime years. He suggests that NAM was divided between moderate and conservative businessmen who were compelled to listen to and respond to each other over this time of crisis. The “exposure” of NAM to the “growing and increasingly vibrant community” of liberal business leaders who were invested in planning for the postwar era prodded the organization to abandon its “pre-war, negativistic” position of stubborn resistance to the reforms of the New Deal, pressing them to advocate a more sophisticated conservatism (p. 15).

The war years, Whitham shows, were a time of opportunity and peril for American business. On the one hand, private business was able to portray itself as largely responsible for economic revival as the nation shifted to war production. Despite the massive federal investment that enabled economic growth, corporate leaders presented private enterprise as the moving force. At the same time, though, the very dependence on public contracts and on direct federal investment could not help but raise the question: Would these continue after the war? And what would happen to the power of labor unions, which had grown so much during the war thanks to active federal pressure — would labor be pushed back as at the end of World War I, or would American industry be compelled to accept its power in peacetime as well?

The leaders of NAM were deeply concerned with these issues from early in the war. Even as they were well aware that their role in war production offered a chance to rehabilitate their public image, and even as they appreciated the recovery of economic growth in the war, they viewed the future with trepidation. As early as 1942, NAM formed a Post-War Problems Committee to investigate and propose solutions to the difficulties of reconversion. Frederick C. Crawford of Thompson Products took over as NAM president in 1943. Whitham draws heavily on Crawford’s archives (in addition to those of NAM) to show that he carefully sought to reinvigorate NAM’s image, to embrace new public relations strategies and to rehabilitate the organization in the public mind — to increase “public acceptance” of NAM “while advocating an extremely vigorous labor program, and yet not draw fire as a labor baiting organization,” as Crawford put it (p. 114).

Of special note is Whitham’s description of the “Soldiers of Production” campaign, an elaborate program coordinated by the National Industrial Information Council (a branch of NAM) whereby companies were encouraged to hold rallies on company time. Workers were gathered to listen to music played over the public address system, join in the singing of the national anthem led by a company executive, and then to receive a 20-minute talk by a NAM leader emphasizing “industry’s magnificent contribution” to the war effort and the future “postwar world of production and plenty” (p. 135). Anticipating later efforts — such as those of Lemuel Boulware at General Electric in the 1950s or even the corporate rallies of Wal-Mart — to use work hours and managerial authority to inspire a free-market politics in employees, the “Soldiers of Production” campaigns represented NAM’s attempt to mimic the grass-roots strategies of unions, only turning them to different political ends.

By the end of the war, NAM had moved away from its earlier intransigent opposition to recognizing unions at all, instead backing the Taft-Hartley Act which hemmed in labor power but conceded its legitimacy. The organization had also become cautiously more sympathetic to internationalist policies, helping to rally business support for the Marshall Plan.

Whitham remains tightly focused on the internal politics of NAM throughout, and the result is a book that may appear to some readers overly narrow. Lacking broader context about wartime strikes, ideological tensions and political conflicts during World War II, it can be difficult to fully apprehend exactly why business leaders were so anxious. Jennifer Delton’s recently-published study of NAM (The Industrialists, 2020) and Lawrence Glickman’s Free Enterprise (2019) are both helpful companions to this book, providing a larger framework for Whitham’s detailed history and a sense of how the brief period he chronicles fits into NAM’s larger history and that of free-market thought. Yet at the same time, through his close attention to the war years, Whitham helps us to see NAM — so often viewed as a static, one-note organization — as an entity that was riven by conflict and by disagreement over the right way forward during the 1940s. Far from simply being able to exert its influence, NAM leaders felt compelled to put substantial resources and effort into strategizing about how to influence federal policy and public opinion — thus raising important questions about the fraught relationship between economic might and political power in a democracy.


Kim Phillips-Fein’s most recent book is Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (Metropolitan Books, 2017).

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