Review: Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II

Image resultAuthor(s): Mark R. Wilson

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press

Copyright Date: 2016

ISBN: 9780812248333

Hardcover: 392 pages

Reviewed by: Dr. Benjamin Franklin Cooling, Professor of National Security Studies, The Eisenhower School, National Defense University


In some circles, a popularized dogma is that the real winners of World War II were private business and industry. Just ask popularizer Art Herman, Freedom’s Forge (2012), and now academic Mark Wilson. Wilson best invites criticism of all parties and concludes that self-serving corporate memory won. The touch of anti-statism that permeates all America particularly enabled public relations to build a compelling alternate history or dogma, approximating more the South’s Lost Cause interpretation after the Civil War or Weimar Germany’s after World War I. Wilson has contributed previously to The Business of Civil War and knows how to ferret out details and synthesize analysis from published and unpublished sources. This present work tells a tale stretching from two world wars to the Cold War, with World War II as the high table for interpreting the private sector as savior of the Free World. He also suggests how the struggle between public and private sectors for heroes, villains, and “who won” has continued to shape economic and political development even today. Arguably, his most useful chapter is his last, styled “reconversion.” Here, Wilson builds into a tight discussion of privatizing resourcing in the early Cold War, thereby fulfilling and perpetuating America’s capitalist dream. Yet it was World War II that “offers sobering lessons about the power of economic elites to shape American politics.”

Wilson’s narrative invites reflection on how “business and government were reluctant, contentious, and even bitter partners” in the war effort. In fact, Wilson shows World War II public-private partnering as a continuation of battles between corporate and government, capital and labor, regulation and free enterprise as well as in-fighting between politicians, military, and private elite personalities and philosophies dating back to the Progressive Era. Wilson recounts the story from shadows of the Great War (World War I) that conditioned how the United States planned for the next one, to building the arsenal (even before Pearl Harbor’s casus belli), through what Wilson styles “one tough customer” or the government’s exacting price constraints and tight regulation in the second conflagration while inducing product competition yet also providing massive public investment to get the job done. Wilson also dips into unsavory wartime labor unrest—strikes and seizures that contradict the notion that all America put shoulders to the common weal in patriotic unity. Wilson’s book is hard hitting, but balanced, detailed without being pedantic, and eminently stimulating.

Aside from what Wilson suggests World War II teaches us (maybe less than he thinks), does his book yield anything useful for acquisition professionals today? No doubt the system of public-private partnering in World War II was made more robust by political statist philosophy, marginal private weapons-production capability until underwritten by central government financing, and innovative infrastructure provisions. “Arsenic and red tape” as one long-lost postwar account called it, or Bruce Catton’s classic War Lords of Washington (1948), reveals in more colorful prose the machinations of top officials (and those have not gone away). Moreover, the times dictated private capacity to augment, not replace, government in-house capabilities and basic innovative fiscal creation of warfighting, not merely deterrent capability. The choice of quantity over quality superimposed on the exigency of fighting a hot war was an industrial/mobilization age emergency measure (or “expedient corporatism”) and reflected best, perhaps, by the penultimate public/private endeavor—the Manhattan Project. Wilson really wants us to focus on the continuum of liberal progressive-protectionist conservative friction; the battle of free enterprise versus state socialism is still with us. Only at the end does the reader realize the basic deference and dependency that befell the government’s national security/common defense responsibilities; by the time of Eisenhower, McNamara has reached its epitome today. Wilson’s story is not an explanation resting upon the evolving nature of war, technological change, or even the fundamental tautological difference between industrialized world wars and the atomic Cold War. The reader must do the work of extrapolation. Wilson’s book does stand at the threshold of better explaining the migration of the Arsenal of Democracy to the Military-Industrial Complex and National Security State.