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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previously to The Business of Civil War and knows how to ferret out details and synthesize analysis from published and unpublished sources.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.

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

During World War II, the United States helped vanquish the Axis powers by converting its enormous economic capacities into military might. Producing nearly two-thirds of all the munitions used by Allied forces, American industry became what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “the arsenal of democracy.” Crucial in this effort were business leaders. Some of these captains of industry went to Washington to coordinate the mobilization, while others led their companies to churn out weapons. In this way, the private sector won the war—or so the story goes.

Based on new research in business and military archives, Destructive Creation shows that the enormous mobilization effort relied not only on the capacities of private companies but also on massive public investment and robust government regulation. This public-private partnership involved plenty of government-business cooperation, but it also generated antagonism in the American business community that had lasting repercussions for American politics. Many business leaders, still engaged in political battles against the New Deal, regarded the wartime government as an overreaching regulator and a threatening rival. In response, they mounted an aggressive campaign that touted the achievements of for-profit firms while dismissing the value of public-sector contributions. This probusiness story about mobilization was a political success, not just during the war, but afterward, as it shaped reconversion policy and the transformation of the American military-industrial complex.

Offering a groundbreaking account of the inner workings of the “arsenal of democracy,” Destructive Creation also suggests how the struggle to define its heroes and villains has continued to shape economic and political development to the present day.

Reading Program

Summary    Review

ARJ 80 | January 2017 Contents

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ferreiro-200From the Chairman and Executive Editor


Survey of Small Business Barriers to Department of Defense Contracts





arj-jan-17-article-2-thumbUsing Heuristics for Supportability Analysis of Adaptive Weapon Systems in Combat





arj-jan-17-article-4-thumbThe Threat Detection System That Cried Wolf: Reconciling Developers with Operators





arj-jan-17-article-3-thumbIncreasing Army Supply Chain Performance Using an Integrated End-to-End Metrics System





arj-jan-17-article-5-thumbScandal and Tragedy? Or Acquisition Lessons Relearned by the F-35 Program





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Scandal and Tragedy? Or Acquisition Lessons Relearned by the F-35 Program

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Col Roger Witek, USAF (Ret.)

Major defense acquisition programs historically have had difficulty controlling cost, maintaining schedule, and attaining performance due to various acquisition strategy challenges. Likewise, with previous joint aircraft programs (F-111, V-22, T-6) and now with the F-35 program, challenges associated with Balancing Requirements, Harnessing Technology, Demanding Commonality, Evoking Concurrency, and Encouraging Partnering have affected schedule, cost, and performance outcomes. This article summarizes the triangulated research analysis on the comparison of previous joint aircraft acquisition programs, the mining and coding of government agency/think tank reports and scholarly journals on the F-35 program, and the mining and coding of questionnaires given to subject matter experts working on the F-35 program. It argues that the F-35 program has relearned some old lessons and learned some new ones, and it makes recommendations on joint aircraft acquisition strategies for the future to avoid the perception of scandal and tragedy. Continue reading

Increasing Army Supply Chain Performance Using an Integrated End-to-End Metrics System

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Fan T. Tseng, Laird Burns, James T. Simpson, and David Berkowitz

Army Materiel Command and the University of Alabama in Huntsville partnered to develop an integrated end-to-end performance metrics system. The integration includes data pulls from multiple data systems into a metrics calculation and aggregation system that generates strategic performance metrics such as Customer Wait Time (CWT), with capabilities spanning from bottom-up supply chain performance aggregation capabilities to in-depth traceability to source (tactical) level data and documents. To support the best national defense, we must ensure that our warfighters receive the supply support they need in a timely and efficient manner. Supporting this effort requires a near-real-time system that measures and reports on supply chain strategic performance characteristics such as CWT. Data integrity is an integral part of the process, as is reaching common agreement on appropriate data sources, algorithms to calculate metrics, and the design of a visual dashboard that supports leadership decisions and performance evaluation, with drill-down capability for lower level decision making. Continue reading

The Threat Detection System That Cried Wolf: Reconciling Developers with Operators

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Shelley M. Cazares

The Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security use many threat detection systems, such as air cargo screeners and counter-improvised-explosive-device systems. Threat detection systems that perform well during testing are not always well received by the system operators, however. Some systems may frequently “cry wolf,” generating false alarms when true threats are not present. As a result, operators lose faith in the systems—ignoring them or even turning them off and taking the chance that a true threat will not appear. This article reviews statistical concepts to reconcile the performance metrics that summarize a developer’s view of a system during testing with the metrics that describe an operator’s view of the system during real-world missions. Program managers can still make use of systems that “cry wolf” by arranging them into a tiered system that, overall, exhibits better performance than each individual system alone. Continue reading

Using Heuristics for Supportability Analysis of Adaptive Weapon Systems in Combat

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Samuel H. Amber

The new U.S. Army vision contends that heuristics are practical tools for achieving innovation. Overcoming complex terrain and adaptive hybrid threats in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan requires technological innovation. Supportability issues result from modifying deployed weapon systems with new technology for countering these types of threats. Collecting detailed data on deployed weapon systems is constrained in combat zones. A solution for modeling supportability requirements of adaptive weapon systems in a constrained data environment involves heuristics. This modeling effort is achieved by modifying a decision matrix to include heuristics as an alternative field data source.   Continue reading

Survey of Small Business Barriers to Department of Defense Contracts

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Ronnie Schilling, Thomas A. Mazzuchi, and Shahram Sarkani

A key tenet of the Better Buying Power initiatives is to increase small business participation in Department of Defense contracting. The department has had mixed success in retaining small businesses and meeting small business contracting goals. Results of a survey given to 681 small business leaders show many factors commonly exist that prevent small businesses from pursuing defense contracts. Some factors are more common than others, with the most cited factors related to a lack of communication from government leads or to the government taking too long to give approvals and make decisions. Statistical evidence also supports the perceptions, of smaller and newer small businesses, that the defense business is more challenging for them than for their larger and more experienced competitors. However, this turned out to be the case for only a subset of the factors we explored. Continue reading

From the Chairman and Executive Editor

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Dr. Larrie D. Ferreiro

Chairman Larrie FerreiroThe theme for this edition of Defense Acquisition Research Journal is “Thinking Small in Order to Think Big,” as many of the articles drill down into the important details of processes and procedures in order to develop larger lessons for defense acquisition. The first article, “Survey of Small Business Barriers to Department of Defense Contracts,” by Ronnie Schilling, Thomas A. Mazzuchi, and Shahram Sarkani, examines the factors that small businesses see as inhibiting them from pursuing defense contracts, which Better Buying Power specifically attempts to encourage. They found that lack of communications and long timelines for approvals and decisions were some of the most important reasons cited by small business leaders. The next article, “Using Heuristics for Supportability Analysis of Adaptive Weapon Systems in Combat,” by Samuel H. Amber argues that, given the difficulty of obtaining supportability data on deployed weapon systems that often have been modified for combat, incorporating heuristics as an alternative field data source in the decision matrix can improve the development of supportability requirements. Continue reading

Precision Strike Annual Review (PSAR-16)

The Precision Strike Association (PSA) will hold its Precision Strike Annual Review (PSAR-16) March 15-16, 2016, at the Waterford Conference Center in Springfield, Virginia. The theme for the annual review will be “Precision Engagement Acquisition Strategy to Support 3rd Offset.” As the nation nears the edge of the technical envelope, it behooves both government and industry to work cooperatively in the new “better, faster, cheaper” acquisition environment to anticipate, get ahead of, and develop the next new thing in precision. As a member of PSA, you will be part of an open forum where the voice of the precision strike community can be heard in the exchange of ideas. Here, the art and science of precision strike, including all aspects of the kill chain, is advocated and advanced. Here, important issues are socialized with a national and global perspective with key Department of Defense and industry leaders. PSA membership provides unique access to senior government officials through our events, many of which are open to PSA members only. For more information on PSA or to register for the annual review, visit