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A Matter of Priorities: American Production in World War II, Part 1

Determining needs

“It would be unwise to assume we can defeat Germany simply by outproducing her. . . . Wars are won by sound strategy implemented by well-trained forces which are adequately and effectively equipped.”

– Brig. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, U.S. Army War Plans Division

How many men will the United States need in uniform? Where and how quickly will it get the arms, equipment, and supplies needed to support them in an upcoming global war? These were questions the leaders of America’s armed services had been wrestling with for months. Army leaders remembered the domestic production chaos experienced in World War I when half-trained troops arrived in France and fought German armies using Allied weapons – many units even had to wear British uniforms! Thanks to astute lobbying by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, this time America was addressing the military manpower and logistic needs earlier, but was it early enough? Would the money coming in – $9 billion and counting – be properly allocated? Most important of all, who would get what, when? Tough questions, made tougher because of a variety of needs and demands – all urgent, many conflicting.

To avoid a repeat of what historian Geoffrey Perret called “the production farce” of World War I, in 1924 the War Department created the Army Industrial College (AIC). Its one-year curriculum annually brought together promising young officers, economists, and industrialists to mutually teach and learn what it took to equip an army in time of war. Its conclusions were organized into a 20-page survey of industry outline, annually updated, and incorporated into the military industrial mobilization plan. Its appendices identified “who could make what, how well, how quickly and at what price” and by 1941, when stacked, were more than four feet high.

Simultaneously, the War Department placed what came to be called “educational orders” of important new weapons designed to work out production problems as much as possible under the interwar budgetary constraints. For example, a medium tank contained about 4,500 individual parts. The prime contractor might make 1,000. Hundreds of subcontractors would be needed to make the other 3,500. Thanks to the work of the AIC, the War Department had the names and addresses of every one.

Then, of course, there was the problem of manpower itself. In July 1941 President Roosevelt requested an estimate of how big an army the nation would need to defeat the Axis. To answer that question, Marshall turned to Maj. Albert Wedemeyer of the General Staff. Wedemeyer had studied at Germany’s Kriegsakademie and got to know the Wehrmacht’s methods and many of the field marshals and generals now fighting.

Army intelligence projected that by 1943 Germany and its allies would field 400 divisions. Using the standard offensive ratio of two to one, that meant to achieve victory America and its allies had to deploy 800 divisions. With German armies in the summer of 1941 advancing at will into Russia, Wedemeyer, anticipating its defeat, wrote off any contribution from the Soviet Union. He calculated that Britain and its Empire could provide 100 divisions. The balance, 700 divisions, had to come from America.

Economists and industrialists agreed that the maximum population percentage the military could siphon without wrecking industrial mobilization was 10 percent. In 1940, America’s population was about 135 million with a workforce of about 40 million men and almost 13 million women, making the low figure 4 million and the high figure 13.5 million. A combat infantry division of 15,000 men requires about 25,000 support troops. Not taking into account the needs of the other branches, 700 Army divisions required up to 28 million men, more than 20 percent of America’s population – an impossible number.

After some serious number crunching and allowing for the needs of the other branches, Wedemeyer determined the Army could obtain a maximum number of 8.8 million men organized into 216 divisions. To move 5 million of these men to Europe would require 1,000 transports of at least 7,000 tons. Building such a fleet and training and equipping the troops would take roughly two years.

With Wedemeyer’s plan broadly accepted, it seemed Marshall would achieve his goal of quickly having a fully equipped and trained army. Then President Franklin Roosevelt blew the plan out of the water by authorizing almost half of all military production in 1941 to go to the British.

To be continued


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...