How DID We Win the War?

Let’s take a moment to give thanks again for someone we like to call…The Man Who Loved Government.

You wouldn’t know it from today’s Washington, but there was a time when administrative know-how was prized, government was respected, and dedicated professionals worked selflessly to implement smart policies masterminded by an experienced President and largely cooperative Congress. Such was the case during World War II when victory or defeat hung by the slenderest of threads. Luther Gulick and Bernard Baruch were among those experts and without their organizational savvy we might now all be speaking German or Japanese — or more likely, not be speaking at all.

Baruch served in a variety of roles as a trusted Roosevelt trouble-shooter.

Gulick supervised the War Production Board, smaller war plant production and a vital agency of refugee relief that provided life-saving food, clothing and shelter to some half billion war refugees. He also worked on issues of war reparations from Germany and Japan and surveyed the evidence against Nazi leaders at Nuremberg.

Gulick’s copy of the Nuremberg courtroom layout

But one of his greatest contributions came shortly afterwards when he published a slim volume based on a series of lectures in 1946 at the University of Alabama. The 1948 book, “Administrative Reflections From World War II,” might have been titled, “How and Why We Almost Lost the Most Terrible War in History But Pulled Off  the Greatest of Victories.”

In a nutshell, Gulick found that Democracy, uh, trumps Totalitarianism. You might think that in a contest between unruly democracies and single-minded dictatorships, democracies would lose, but you would be wrong, of course. Gulick showed why.

His story begins with Europe already at war and the U.S. torn over jumping in to aid our allies, or opting for “America First” and staying out of it. Roosevelt tried to prepare, appointing two leading Republicans as secretaries of War and Navy and, on the advice of Einstein and other top scientists,  ordering a top secret effort to build an atomic bomb. Congress boosted defense spending.

After Pearl Harbor, Congress which had barely voted to extend the draft (it won by a single vote) declared war on Japan with only a single dissenter — pacifist Jeanette Rankin from Montana,  the first woman to hold national office in America. Roosevelt demanded 60,000 planes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns and 8 millions tons of shipping, and government bureaucrats and corporate industrialists rushed to comply. Soon there were more factories and shipyards than could be staffed or supplied, and the process had to be administratively reorganized. Wages and prices required emergency stabilization. Thanks to some key victories in the Pacific and the fierce Soviet resistance that stopped the Germans at Leningrad and Stalingrad, the tide of battle turned in 1943, although the most savage fighting lay ahead. The biggest limiting factor in the war effort: getting enough manpower.

The story broke down into four chapters, Gulick wrote: 1: the opening chaos and imminence of defeat; 2: the little-understood interplay of military, social, political, economic and personality factors; 3: the forging of successful working relationships; and 4: the extraordinary unity and power of the usually individualistic American public.

Ever the passionate chartist, Gulick provided a diagram of all the needed wartime resources (manpower, factories, science etc.), when they were brought on line month to month, and through what alphabet soup of agencies.

Gulick then drew some lessons: In wartime, resources are strictly limited. But they are intermutable — they can be shifted around. This requires administrative know-how, manpower and time. Still there were major failures. The U.S. ignored the lessons of WWI and did not mobilize in time. Military intelligence was poor. Supply and production problems abounded — nobody had an idea of what would be needed and how it was to be provided. The same for raising an army — suddenly up to 15 million men (and soldiers were men then) were needed, along with plans on how to de-mobilize after the war. Internationally, the U.S,. had only a spotty idea of how to reshape the post-war world, jeopardizing the fruits of victory.

On the plus side — victory. From 1940-44, America put together the greatest fighting force in history, a triumph of the singleness of command. The U.S. created a vast transport system and unparalleled war production. Public opinion was marshaled without surrender of notable liberties (with the significant exception of the shameful confinement of Japanese-Americans). The standard of living was maintained and scientific research, particularly military, fluorished. And new government machinery, notably the United Nations, emerged.

Finally, Gulick concluded, “the American governmental system was found to be fully adequate for the management of the  war.” The mission was properly defined to guarantee enthusiastic public support. Good administration translated purpose into action. Coordination with allies, with civilian industry, with all government agencies, was a crucial element in victory. Good planning produced successful operations. Knowing when and how to decentralize decision-making was likewise vital.

But the biggest advantage of America was what the Axis thought would be our downfall — our addiction to comfort and aversion to sacrifice, our moral and ethical code, our divisions as a polyglot society and the competing interests of capital and labor. Whereas the dictatorships with their single leader unbound by the distractions of democracy could act with vigor and dispatch. But in the end, there was no one to tell Hitler or Tojo when they were going disastrously wrong.

“The greatest superiority of the free peoples, however, arose from two things,” Gulick wrote: “the superiority of their broad plans and their elasticity, their quickness to change in the face of need. I think it requires no argument to show that these two superiorities spring directly from the democratic process. Broad plans are more valid when they have been subject to to the kind of review and criticism which democracy alone affords. Broad plans which are hatched in secret by a small group of partially informed men and then enforced through dictatorial authority contain fatal weaknesses until too late.”

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