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Published by EH.Net (June 2012)

Jim Lacey, Keep from All Thoughtful Men: How U.S. Economists Won World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011. v + 267 pp. $37 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-59114-491-5.

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

In Keep from All Thoughtful Men, Jim Lacey (Institute for Defense Analyses and Johns Hopkins University) analyzes a series of debates from 1940 to 1942 over American capacity to produce munitions for the approaching and then raging war. The book (which runs to just 136 pages of narrative plus 65 pages in eight appendices of primary materials) is a valuable addition to economic-history literatures on twentieth-century America, on World War II, and on modern warfare.

Opening the book, I expected quite a different work, one centered perhaps on the way economists, essentially alone among American scholars, pushed their way into the circles of power during World War II. And while Lacey does touch on this (pp. 32-33), the book’s subtitle is quite a misnomer, one that can probably be chalked up to the publisher in these days of books entitled ?the secret history of this? and ?how that changed the world.?

Instead, Lacey (a retired U.S. Army officer and current writer on defense matters) describes the bureaucratic fights between civilian experts and military staff over the extent and speed to which the American economy — hardly firing on all cylinders as war began in Europe — could be reoriented to produce the munitions necessary for a serious military effort. At the center of Lacey’s story are three economists who, he shows, had far-sighted views of the true capacity of the American economy: the reasonably well known Simon Kuznets and two nearly forgotten figures, Robert Nathan and Stacy May.

Lacey capably uses archival and secondary sources to show that these three men, along with a small group of other civilians inside the federal bureaucracy, were able to use social-scientific methods, including, crucially, statistical techniques, to assess how large the U.S economy could grow, how quickly that growth could occur, and how much war materiel the economy could produce for use by the U.S. and Allied militaries. Lacey persuasively shows that Kuznets, Nathan, and May were able to forecast in late 1942, before the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, that June 1944 would be the moment at which the American ?arsenal of democracy? would be able to produce sufficient materiel to launch a substantial invasion of Europe. This date, of course, coincides with D-Day, which — in Lacey’s telling — is due straightforwardly to the fact that the economists won their battle with their adversaries in the military. In what might now be termed ?data-driven decision making,? Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall (and his lieutenants) duly altered his plans for a cross-channel invasion to reflect the forecast realities of American industrial production.

This, then, is what the subtitle suggests — that these three economists (and, surely, other civilians as well as some sympathetic military officers) were able to reorient American strategic planning around achievable production goals, rather than more or less imaginary targets invented by the military, politicians, or civil servants.

Lacey’s contribution to economic history consists of his ability to plumb these debates, at least up to late 1942, more deeply than previous scholars. Much of the material in this study is covered more accessibly in other scholarship, such as Paul A.C. Koistinen’s specialist-oriented Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945 (2004) or David Kennedy’s popular Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (2001). Both of these works do more than Lacey’s book to set the debates over production in broader contexts — domestic and international politics, military strategy, even socio-cultural change. But Lacey’s narrow focus is a strength insofar as he uncovers new documentary evidence to support his arguments, and makes considerable effort to debunk several ?myths? of the war, including General Albert Wedemeyer’s claim to have developed the ?Victory Plan? that matched American industrial production to Allied military needs.

In elaborating his argument, Lacey writes in a style that is never short of fluent, and sometimes actually quite elegant — which is good, because the smallest flaws in the prose would discourage a reader from plowing through Lacey’s detailed accounts of obscure bureaucratic memoranda and contentious committee meetings. Moreover, poor writing would prevent the reader from grasping some of the book’s key implicit points: that American mobilization was hardly a unified ?all for one? effort, that American leaders viciously disagreed with each other about the shape of the war, and that Allied victory in World War II was neither foreordained nor easily achieved.

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 completed a Ph.D. in American history at Northwestern University, where he studied World War II merchant shipbuilding on San Francisco Bay. christopher@tassava.com.

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