Review: "Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II"
Throughout Mark Wilson’s book, Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II, the author presents a thorough and engaging account of the contentious relationship that existed between business and government leaders during the Second World War. In his analysis, Wilson focuses his attention on the problems, fears, and political tensions that were felt during America’s mobilization of the home front – a period in which millions of men and women labored tirelessly to produce mass-quantities of ships, vehicles, aircraft, and munitions for the Allied war effort. Through the lens of an economic and “business history,” Wilson effectively traces the development of manufacturing in the Thirties, the buildup of American weaponry and supplies (both before and during the years of WWII), and provides a thorough account of the confrontational relationship that ensued between government officials and business leaders during the war (as well as the years of reconversion). Wilson’s argument deviates substantially from traditional historiographical interpretations that primarily focus on the positive (and negative) effects that business leaders and their companies had on mobilization efforts. Instead, Wilson chooses to focus his argument on the public sector, and points out that government investments, regulations, interventions in labor disputes, as well as military oversight all played a substantial role in the conversion of American industry to a wartime economy. This is important to consider, he argues, since interpretations of this period often relegate the vast contributions made by the public sector. As Wilson clearly demonstrates, however, the transformation of the U.S. economy into a “destructive creation” was only possible (and feasible) through the collaborative efforts of government, military, and private officials (Wilson, 4). Not only did the U.S. government effectively limit labor disputes between unions and companies, but it also provided the necessary framework and materials for a vast expansion of American industry that – according to Wilson – should not be ignored.
Wilson's Main Points
In their efforts to transform the American economy, Wilson argues that business leaders often tried to portray their contributions to the war effort in a more positive manner that downplayed the role of government assistance (Wilson, 286). Following years of tension with the Roosevelt administration and his New Deal policies, Wilson argues that business leaders hoped to use the war effort as an opportunity to garner popular support from the American public by portraying government interference (federal seizures of corporations, and nationalization efforts) as ineffective, unconstitutional, and illegal. Companies and business leaders – who were greatly disturbed by the possibility of New Deal policies being expanded – also emphasized the socialist practices of progressive politicians who took an “active role in manufacturing materiel, buying industrial plant, and [in] regulating prices and profits” of private corporations (Wilson, 286). To bring attention to these perceived evils, Wilson points out that business leaders led a massive public-relations campaign in which they distributed thousands of anti-state pamphlets, articles, magazines, and radio broadcasts to the general public. According to Wilson, these efforts proved largely successful (particularly in the postwar years) as the self-promulgation of the private sector’s war efforts helped lead to a better public-image. In turn, these efforts also helped lead to the development of a military-industrial complex (MIC) during the Cold War as politicians began to shift away from “New Deal” era politics. With American politicians trying to distance themselves from a socialist marking (as a result of anti-Communist sentiment brewing during this time), Wilson argues that a newfound emphasis was placed on a privatization of the military in the postwar years, as companies and private industry were increasingly sought after to develop contracts with government agencies to produce munitions, weapons, and supplies in the decades that followed. Wilson argues that the effects of this new relationship (a result of the private sector’s demonization of government in WWII), are still seen in today’s “political-economic environment” (Wilson, 288).
Wilson’s argument is both informative and compelling with its main points. His book is both thorough and detailed in its account of mobilization efforts, and can be equally appreciated by the general public and academics due to its easy-to-read format and high-degree of research and inquiry.
Wilson also does a superb job organizing the contents of his book; offering a chapter-by-chapter analysis of business-governmental relations that is both detailed and informative to its readers. I was particularly impressed with the wide array of primary documents that Wilson relies on for his research, as well as his ability to present his findings in a story-driven manner that is easy to read from start to finish. Additionally, I found Wilson’s comparison of mobilization efforts (between both the First and Second World Wars) to be particularly interesting since it demonstrated not only the clear differences that existed between both of the movements, but also provided a clear sense of causation behind the economic and political fears that plagued the 1940s era. I felt that this was a great addition to the book since it illuminated many business aspects of the war that I was unfamiliar with. As someone who enjoys historical accounts of World War Two, I was already familiar with the vast array of political and social histories available on this topic. However, through the lens of “business history,” Wilson is able to offer a unique perspective of the war that I found to be extremely helpful in broadening my understanding of this great conflict; particularly the mobilization efforts on the home front.
My only complaint about this book stems from the lack of attention that Wilson gives to the lower-class individuals and workers that made the mobilization effort a success; specifically, the ordinary men and women that worked on the production lines of both small and large corporations. More details pertaining to the experiences of the working class would have remedied this particular deficiency. However, the absence of these experiences is not necessarily a bad thing, as it does not detract from his overall argument; particularly since it is clear that Wilson’s main focus for this work is on the business and political elites of the mid-twentieth century.
Overall, I give this book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of mobilization during World War Two. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!
Was victory in World War Two possible without the aid of the Americans?
In regard to questions regarding this book, I found myself drawn to issues involving American contributions to the war effort during World War Two. For starters, was victory for the Allies even possible without American intervention in the war? More specifically, did the economic contributions of the Americans (alone) win the war against the Axis powers? What made these contributions possible? Is it possible that America’s private sector could have met wartime goals for production without interference from the government? Or was nationalization of industry the only way production goals could be met on such a large scale? In regard to issues of government control, why did the American public initially support the efforts of Roosevelt to nationalize the defense sector in the Thirties? Did the Great Depression play a role in swaying public opinion towards the government over private industry? If so, then why was this the case? Did the Great Depression cause Americans to distrust private corporations?
This book also inspired questions regarding labor-relations during the Second World War. For starters, were the seizures of corporations and industries by the federal government Constitutional? Moreover, were such measures even necessary, given the fact that so many industries were already fulfilling production quotas set by the military? Can the threats of “government seizure” be equated to the use of fear tactics? If so, was the federal government following a wartime policy of production that resembled totalitarian states when they seized companies not following their plan of action? This line of questioning also leads to questions regarding the seizure of Montgomery Ward. What legal right did the government have to seize this business, given that it was predominantly a civilian-based manufacturer of goods? Were the two seizures that Montgomery Ward faced less about production/economic problems, and more a result of competing egos between Roosevelt and Avery? Finally, in regard to labor disputes, was federal control over businesses preferable to unions and their members? Did strikes – in this era of government intervention – actually hurt the efforts of unions in the long term?
Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion
1.) What was Wilson's thesis? What are some of the main arguments that he makes in this work? Is his argument persuasive? Why or why not?
2.) What type of primary source material does Wilson rely on in this book? Does this help or hinder his overall argument?
3.) Does Wilson organize his work in a logical and convincing manner?
4.) What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? How could the author improve the contents of this work?
5.) Who was the intended audience for this piece? Can scholars and the general public, alike, enjoy the contents of this book?
6.) What did you like most about this book? Would you recommend this book to a friend?
7.) What sort of scholarship is Wilson building on (or challenging) with this work?
8.) Did you learn anything after reading this book? Were you surprised by any of the facts and figures presented by Wilson?
Wilson, Mark. Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.