THE Second World War was a war of mass, but not, like the First, of massed manpower; it was a war of massed machines. In view of this, American production and construction, which reached Wellsian proportions, can be said to have been directly responsible for the victory over Germany and Japan. Such a statement, though true in a strictly military sense, is of course only part of the story. This article, summarizing the record of American industrial production and analyzing the merits and defects of certain of the weapons which it turned out, purports to tell only that part. It deliberately leaves out of account the spiritual imponderables which determine how, and how successfully, material power is used. It does not discuss the political factors responsible for the fact that we fought the Axis nations with powerful allies and not alone, and it makes no attempt to describe the brave and great accomplishments of those allies. Instead, it concentrates on the physical aspects of our own war effort. They need to be stressed, for perhaps the chief military lesson of the ordeal through which we have just passed is that although size of armies is an important element in modern warfare, as the Russian campaigns showed, wars today are not won by "big battalions" but by big industries.

Our industrial potential was the greatest advantage which we possessed over our enemies in the Second World War. We possessed no such overwhelming advantage in training for combat, in will-to-fight, in leadership, in tactics and in the quality of our equipment; indeed, the enemy was often on a par with us, or superior to us, in these respects. But we could build an airfield or a pipeline in a fraction of the time the enemy needed; and we could turn out ten tanks to his one. Our armies were not the largest; but together the United States Army, Navy and Air Force undeniably formed the mightiest fighting force ever assembled in history. Our factories and shipyards, operating with our industrial management, skilled workers, factory superintendents, foremen, cost-accountants and efficiency experts -- in short, American capital and labor, united in a free-enterprise system -- gave that fighting force the sinews of its strength. If ever the United States forgets that industrial "know-how" is essential to victory in modern war, it will be on the way to becoming a second-class Power.

To say this is not to disparage the fighting men who gave their blood for victory. As General of the Army George C. Marshall rightly emphasized in his last report as Chief of Staff, "technology does not eliminate the need for men in war." Man is still master of the machine. Leadership, too, is of basic importance. Furthermore, of course, the quality of the equipment must be high, or its quantity will not avail. But the fact remains that quantity -- the mass quantity of American production lines -- overwhelmed the enemy in this war. Previous articles in this series have had to concentrate so much upon the operational history of the war that our prodigies of production, supply and construction were, in the main, overlooked. These will now be briefly recounted, and an attempt will also be made to compare a few of the weapons we produced with those of the enemy.


"By any standards," the Mead investigating committee of the United States Senate has reported, "the war production task has been a huge success. . . . . The failures have been in the confusion, the delay, and the waste of effort, matériel, and money. More could have been done, and it could have been done sooner and at much less cost. But this is the counsel of perfection and it is the wisdom of hindsight."

What were some of the practical accomplishments of American factories?

Before 1939, it was an accepted truism that wars are fought with the navies in existence at the moment the conflict begins. Not so on this occasion. During this war, the United States built an incomparably larger navy than was possessed by any nation before it began. This fleet, bigger than all the other fleets of the world combined, isolated Japan.

The Navy's "pipeline," or floating-base system of supply, permitted a continuity of naval operations which five or six years earlier was unimaginable. The Fleet's service forces -- humble toilers of the sea -- serviced the combatant ships so well that the field of fleet operations can now be considered global; the Navy is tied to its base no longer. Before the war, the maximum practicable limit of fleet operations was considered to be 1,500 to 2,500 miles from base. During the war, our ships thought nothing of remaining away from our most advanced permanent bases, Pearl Harbor or the West Coast, for months and even years on end. The modern fleet in wartime rarely casts anchor. It is refueled, reprovisioned, reammunitioned at sea; it gets mail and movies at sea; new planes from ferry carriers are flown aboard the fleet carriers; new pilots, spare parts, engines -- all of the thousand and one items a fleet needs -- are brought by the ships of the service forces to the fleet's operating area and transferred at sea. At an advance base in some island atoll, mobile floating drydocks, floating machine shops, barracks ships, water-distilling ships, supply ships, tankers and a score of other types repair and service damaged vessels and give the fleet a "breather" between operations. The logistical achievements of the naval war in the Pacific defy all comparisons.

American shipyards and factories produced this service force -- the 829,000 tons of it built in Navy yards and the 2,813,000 tons turned out for the Navy by the Maritime Commission. The development of the process of supply had to be matched by a comparable development of skill in seamanship; it takes a good seaman, indeed, to bring his ship alongside a broad-beamed tanker in a heavy sea and fuel while underway. Good seamen are made by experience, and many were the ships damaged in such operations while green officers learned the A.B.C.'s of blue water. But ship repair and maintenance facilities, at advanced bases and back on the West Coast, though gorged with large numbers of ships damaged by Kamikaze pilots, were always equal to the task. The American Fleet became the most seagoing fleet in the world, though a great many of the Americans who manned it had never before known salt water. This result could not have been attained, however, without the support of a gigantic industry. A vast industrial establishment is now a sine qua non of modern sea power.

The production of the amphibious fleet of almost 80,000 landing craft and boats forms another epic. Our ability to land and supply great forces over open beaches confounded both the Germans and the Japanese. The craft involved, many of them of "Buck Rogers" design, offered peculiar production problems. They were surmounted with a rapidity which amazed the enemy.

Other examples of the indispensability of American industry to the armed services are the special antisubmarine vessels and equipment which were produced at top speed in order to meet the submarine menace. The number of destroyers, destroyer-escorts and patrol vessels of many types which was built is almost incredible. They were equipped with all sorts of amazing new devices, like the antisubmarine rocket launcher called the "hedgehog."

A basic factor not only in the victory on the seas but also in the world-wide victory on land was obviously the bridge of ships produced for the American Merchant Marine. We were able to build ships far faster than the submarines could sink them, even at the height of the U-boat campaign. The total number of Maritime Commission ships built was 5,425, totaling 53,239,000 tons. The millions of tons of special naval combat and auxiliary and amphibious shipping were additional to this figure. Millions of man-hours also went into the work of converting and repairing ships. There has been nothing in history even remotely approximating this shipbuilding achievement.

Perhaps even more impressive was the record of American aircraft construction. When President Roosevelt in early 1942 called for 60,000 planes, many government officials and observers (including this writer) thought he was making a propaganda gesture and that the goal was excessive, if not impossible of attainment. Yet the nation proceeded to produce 296,601 military and special purpose planes, many of them of new design, and incorporated in its production schedule thousands of modifications and changes each year. In other words, the American factory combined flexibility with mass production. Air power, of course, was absolutely indispensable. Without air superiority, the startling victories of the past two years would have been impossible.

The record of the production of weapons for the ground armies was only slightly less impressive than were the shipbuilding and aircraft construction programs. Almost 87,000 tanks, 2,434,553 trucks, 17,400,000 rifles, carbines and sidearms, 315,000 pieces of field artillery and mortars and 4,200,000 tons of artillery shells gave our ground forces the superiority in mobility and fire power which, as General Marshall rightly pointed out, played such a major rôle in our triumph. With them should be mentioned a staggering variety and number of other items, running all the way from 51,000,000 pairs of shoes to 1,412,506 sulfadiazine tablets. In our ground battles we sometimes enjoyed only a slight superiority in numbers (particularly in the early days in North Africa, in the campaigns in Sicily and Italy, and in some of the battles in western Europe), but due to our tremendous production of ammunition and weapons our superiority in fire power was sometimes immense. And the jeep and the two-and-a-half ton truck, as well as the other automotive vehicles, born in Detroit, were the basis of our strategic as well as our tactical land mobility.

Here, then, are three clear-cut ingredients of victory: tremendous superiority at sea and in the air, and on land a superiority in fire power (sometimes slight, but generally marked) and in mobility. The superiority at sea enabled us to project our strength across the oceans, to outflank the enemy, to choose our places for attack, and to land where the enemy was weak. Once our superiority in the air was established, it aided us immeasurably in all combat operations on land and sea, and correspondingly hampered the enemy. It protected our industrial installations and those of our Allies; and it enabled us to project our striking power into the heart of the enemy's country, reducing his industrial output and hence his fire power and mobility. External and internal blockade by sea power and air power were extremely important in weakening the Axis nations. Our massed artillery fire was a product of the factories of America; and our ability to replace matériel losses quickly intensified our hitting power.

The 1944 report of the War Production Board tells the story:

In 1944 a flood of munitions poured from our forges and foundries, mills, factories, and ordnance plants to a height and at a speed that could hardly fail to inundate those who lay in its path. The stream had been growing rapidly in power from year to year, coming close to flood level in 1943 and rising still higher in 1944. The 1944 munitions record in terms of number of weapons is even more spectacular than the $61,300,000,000 value of the year's output: 96,359 planes, including 16,048 heavy bombers; 30,889 ships; 17,565 tanks; 595,330 Army Service Force trucks; 3,284 heavy field guns and howitzers; and 7,454 light ones; 152,000 Army aircraft rocket launchers and 215,177 of the 2.36-inch bazookas; 1,416,774 short tons of ground artillery ammunition; and much more besides. . . .

A country that, despite manpower shortages, material pinches, the tremendous production engineering problems presented by skyrocketing military requirements, and other difficulties, could produce in 1944 $199,001,000,000 in goods and services, was an invincible opponent.


If we are to understand the lessons of this war correctly, and be guided by them in framing our postwar standards of national defense, the advantages conferred upon us by mass production must be emphasized again and again. These advantages should not blind us to the fact that though we excelled in quantity, we by no means always excelled in quality. The Japanese, with what has been characterized somewhat too scornfully as their "fiveand-ten-cent store industry," were not often ahead of us in quality of equipment; but in some weapons the Germans had a distinct superiority.

The claim that our men were better equipped than any ever before sent into battle is, generally speaking, perfectly true; but it is true because of the quantities of equipment with which they were supplied rather than because all the items were of high quality. Some articles were better qualitatively as well as in more profuse supply. Our automotive equipment, heavy bombers, radar (though not all of it), aircraft carriers and landing craft were much better than the enemy's. Our proximity fuse -- one of the war's greatest developments -- our antiaircraft fire control director and our radar "gun sight" licked the buzz bombs and wrought frightful attrition in the Japanese Air Force. Our recoilless guns and the Garand rifle were excellent. But the enemy had qualitative advantages in many categories.

At the start, the Japanese jungle equipment, the Zero fighter, and notably the Japanese torpedoes and mines, were superior in very many respects to comparable items of American equipment. During the course of the war we overtook Japan's lead in most if not all of these categories; but even at the end some models of Japanese torpedoes carried heavier charges than ours, and the others were just about as heavy and as accurate as our own. In the last months, the Japanese introduced some heavy mortars and heavy rockets which our troops viewed with considerable respect. And at the war's end the Japanese possessed the three largest submarines in the world -- one of 5,700 tons and two of 3,800 tons each. The biggest of these had three decks, three planes, a hydraulically operated catapult, a crew of 200 men and capacity for 1,000 tons of supplies. Though inferior in some respects to American submarines, these ships had adequate radar and radio, were painted with radar-repellant paint, and were equipped with the German Schnorkel, or air intake and exhaust tubes, which enabled them to cruise submerged at periscope depth more or less indefinitely. We had no submarine of corresponding size or utility.

The Germans possessed a clear-cut technical lead in many categories right down to the end of the war. Some of them were as follows:

(1) Rockets. Some of the German antiaircraft shells were rocket-propelled and controlled by radar or radio (thus resembling our proximity fuse), and some were designed to weaken the effectiveness of our aircraft radar. The Germans had a definite laboratory lead in the development of missiles of many types -- controlled and guided, target-seeking, and free. This lead was being narrowed at the war's end. Nevertheless, they had under development a transatlantic rocket that would be capable of making the crossing in about 17 minutes, and new forms of V1 and V2, some of them piloted models, were in the experimental stage. Antiaircraft rockets, airborne rockets and many other types considerably in advance of our thinking in this field were also under development. The German bazooka was better than ours.

(2) Aerodynamics and aircraft propulsion and armament. The Germans had progressed further in experimental work on the problem of compressibility than we had, and had developed a new wing form. New wind tunnels with far greater velocities than any we possessed were in use or under construction. In jet propulsion, the Germans were technologically several years ahead of us. Some of their newest aircraft armament was equal to, or superior to, our operational equipment.

(3) Artillery. The improved German 88 mm. gun was probably the best three-purpose gun (antitank, antiaircraft and field artillery piece) developed during the war. Many new types of artillery, including very huge mortars and long-range field guns, were under development or construction. Some of them had rocket-assisted shells. Among these were a 380 mm. howitzer and rocket "guns" with smooth-bore barrels, 400 feet long, intended for the bombardment of London. A new 120 mm. antitank gun was likewise in development. The Germans were also working on a 32-inch siege gun, with a barrel 141 feet long, which fired an eight-and-a-quarter ton projectile.

(4) Infrared rays. The Germans were well advanced in the use of infrared for photography, and for tank and aircraft detection.

(5) Tanks. The Germans made no attempt to build an all-purpose tank, as we did, but developed many different types. Ours had some advantages over German models, but generally speaking, German tank development was well ahead of our own.

(6) Torpedoes. The German electric, acoustic and "spider" torpedo -- the latter controlled by a long, thin, trailing wire -- were superior to ours.

(7) Marine engineering. The Germans had developed engines using far higher pressures and temperatures than ours, although these were not yet satisfactory. They were also experimenting with chemical engines.

(8) Submarines. The Germans had designed submarines with new hull forms and new types of engine, as, for example, those which operated on the principle of hydrogen peroxide propulsion used in rockets. These vessels had the extraordinary underwater speed of 18 knots, and new ones being designed had underwater speeds up to 21 and 25 knots. They could remain submerged at periscope depth indefinitely, breathing through! the Schnorkel, which added only a slight feather of foam to the wake left by the periscope. Armed with improved instruments and torpedoes, these new submarines would have been a major menace had the war continued. The Germans also used, with some success, a considerable number of ingenious midget submarines, man-controlled torpedoes and motor boats. They clearly were ahead of us in the development of submarines, despite our continued assertions to the contrary.

(9) Mines. The German land and sea mines were more advanced than our own. The "oyster" or pressure mine, used in Cherbourg harbor, was a particularly crafty one.

(10) Machine guns and machine pistols. In weight, flexibility, cyclic rate of fire and general utility, the German machine guns and sub-machine guns had many advantages over ours. German powder gave off less smoke -- a fact noted in General George C. Marshall's report; and German use of flash-hiders made the positions of their weapons difficult to spot.

This list of qualitative advantages of the Germans in weapons and equipment could be extended. For instance, the enemy's combat clothing was in many respects superior to ours; however, that point should not be labored, for the quality of some items of our clothing was better.

The foregoing should not be taken as lessening the importance of the rôle played by American mass production. Nor does it indicate that there is anything wrong with American inventors, except that there are not enough of them. There is a considerably higher proportion of scientists to practical engineers in England, for example, than in this country; we have emphasized engineering development and production at the expense of the laboratory, and our wartime policy toward scientific education has put us still further behind. Nor, again, was there anything basically wrong with American design. The German Army, however, had a more flexible system for the development of new weapons and for correcting the faults of equipment disclosed in the test of battle. Too often, the enemy beat us to the battlefield with weapons and ideas.

It may be argued that our success in producing the first atomic bomb shows that the United States Army is farsighted and quick to adapt and to learn. But the history of the atomic bomb illustrates precisely the main point that this article is attempting to make. For the "secret" of the atomic bomb -- a secret we still possess -- is the secret of mass production and industrial "know-how," the secret that underlay our progress toward victory throughout. We hold no monopoly in the theory of atomic fission; indeed, the Germans were at one time well ahead of us in nuclear physics. Many of the key physicists and scientists in our experiments were of foreign birth, many of them German. The real secret of our success with the atomic bomb is simply the skill and efficiency of American industry. There is scarcely a branch of that industry which did not contribute to making the bomb. Machines never before built, never before even dreamed of, new chemical processes, carbon of a purity never heretofore refined, are part of the secret. All the industrial and manufacturing talent of America contributed. The real secret of the atomic bomb is not a formula of physics but the unwritten summary of the total industrial experience of Americans.

There is an important lesson in this. We must remember that for a time Germany was ahead of us in the development of the atomic bomb, as she was in many other branches of military science, and that we overtook her lead in this and in some other fields (notably that of radar) largely because of our greater industrial resources and production know-how. Those factors, plus the initiative and ingenuity of American scientists and engineers, gave us the bomb first. It is worth noting that many of our outstanding developments in the field of military equipment were not the product of the vision of the Army and Navy, but of the Office of Scientific Research and Development -- of civilian scientists and engineers, working with American industry under general government supervision.


General Marshall shows in his last report that the battle deaths of the United States Army per month of conflict in this war -- a monthly average of 4,576 -- were greater than in any of our previous wars (although losses in the Civil War were far greater in proportion to population). Our toll of about a million killed, wounded and missing was nevertheless considerably lighter than most civilian and military leaders had dared expect in a conflict of such scope. The official breakdown of the casualty lists as of October 1, 1945, is as follows:

As General Marshall points out, and as all observers have reiterated, the mass of weapons and equipment which we were able to produce and to send overseas, not only to our own forces but to our Allies, spared us far heavier casualties. Some of the statistics of this victory of supply are here summarized, from official sources:

In addition to these amounts, almost a million short tons of supplies were sent overseas to maintain the six Marine divisions and ancillary units which did such great work in the Pacific. And the Navy shipped millions of tons -- a number as yet uncalculated -- from our coasts to provision the fleet. The sum total, dwarfing our accomplishments in the First World War, represents a prodigious achievement. We produced the goods and we distributed them -- by train, ship, plane, truck, muleback, pipeline, shank's mare. We sent them over most of the known world and often into terrain hitherto scarcely charted -- across the oceans, down the great rivers, over the plains of Europe, above the rearing crags of the Himalayas, through the jungles of New Guinea and Africa.

Construction kept pace with production and transportation. Army engineers and Seabees, transportation-corps troops and dock "wallopers," turned the earth, built new railroads, carved roads out of mountains, opened passages where none was before. American machinery, used with American mechanical aptitude and optimism, built in a few days airfields of a sort which our enemies took months to complete. We made ports where the open seas had lapped for centuries, cleared out blocked harbors, constructed roads through jungles. Construction, as well as production, changed military strategy. The two together were responsible, for example, for the Burma campaign, an overland invasion, supplied by air from India, which defied all previous military rules and made an amphibious invasion superfluous.

Here, from J. A. Krug's final WPB report, is an indication of what we sent to our Allies:

In a little over four years the United States transferred under lend-lease goods valued at more than $37,000,000,000 besides rendering some $4,500,000,000 of service to our Allies. Shipments included almost $21,000,000,000 of ships and munitions, over $2,000,000,000 of petroleum products, more than $8,500,000,000 of industrial materials and products, and $6,000,000,000 of foods and other agricultural products.

Impressive as these figures are, they do not fully measure the problems involved in supplying such amounts. Foreign demand was primarily for materials and components needed to supplement domestic production of the Allied nations, and the emphasis was on specialty items which caused disproportionate impacts on United States production capacity. Thus Soviet steel requirements were primarily for alloys and the more difficult carbon shapes. . . . U.S.S.R. and United Kingdom requests . . . were for tools and machinery of a particularly elaborate and complex nature, and often quite different in design from what our factories were accustomed to produce. Electrical equipment . . . had to be built in accordance with European standards; machine tools and various instruments had to be designed for metric measurements. . . .

And so, by the grace of God, by the courage of the men of the United Nations, and by American industrial know-how, the war was won. The material power which turned the scales was that of big industries, not of big battalions. And -- a final point -- the unparalleled American production machine which sent that power to the firing lines, those manned by our own men and those manned by our Allies, was based on a free-enterprise system.

The experience reveals our strength and our weakness. Political know-how is, obviously, a primary component of our safety; our government's first task must be to try to achieve a working international agreement to maintain peace. This survey, however, does not attempt even to broach that part of the subject. In view of the uncertainties that nevertheless cloud the future, we clearly must emphasize fundamental scientific research and applied development far more than we have done in the past. This time we had quantity but not always quality; we must make sure that henceforth our weapons will be the best, as well as the most abundant. The keystone of our material power is our mass production skill. Facing the uncertain world of tomorrow, we would be stupid indeed if we frittered away this birthright.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • HANSON W. BALDWIN, military and naval correspondent of the New York Times; author of "The Caissons Roll," "Strategy for Victory" and other works
  • More By Hanson W. Baldwin