- 24 Mar 20
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, the US economy was transformed. On orders from F. D. Roosevelt, in almost no time, a massive turnaround had been achieved, gearing America up to produce whatever was needed to win the war. We must now act with similar urgency to combat coronavirus – and in doing so transform society across the world. From Eamonn McCann, currently in self-isolation in Derry.
One of the most perplexing aspects of the current coronavirus induced emergency has to do with the apparent inability of manufacturing industry so far to switch decisively away from making stuff we don’t need towards provision of desperately-needed ventilators, surgical masks, ICU equipment, test kits and so on.
The UK car industry is shrinking fast. Why are the car factories not being re-tooled and the 171,000 workers re-trained for more urgent production?
The most technologically advanced car sector is motorsports, employing 38,000 workers. This substantial bank of engineering and electronic skills should be put to immediate use to combat the coronavirus.
Changes on the same scale should be made across industry. We know it can be done because it’s been done before.
Japanese ‘planes bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941. By Xmas, the US economy was on a radically different footing.
“It is not enough to turn out just a few more planes, a few more tanks, a few more guns, a few more ships than can be turned out by our enemies,” President F. D. Roosevelt declaimed in a radio broadcast on December 10th. “We must out-produce them overwhelmingly, so that there can be no question of our ability to provide a crushing superiority of equipment in any theatre of the world war.”
AMERICA WAS TRANSFORMED
At the start of the war, the US was not a leading military power. It had not entered any major conflict since World War One. Its dominant ideology anathematised foreign intervention.
Roosevelt set staggering targets and commanded a 180-degree change in engineering production. Orders were dispatched to industrialists, union leaders, newspaper editors, party bosses and State legislators – Stop what you are doing! Concentrate now only on helping America prevail in a global conflict.
The US produced 60,000 aircraft in 1942, 125,000 in 1943, as well as 120,000 tanks and 55,000 anti-aircraft guns in the same period.
Industries were not asked, but directly instructed. Workers and managements were effectively conscripted.
Roosevelt ordered all car manufacture to cease “right now.” In 1941, the US manufactured more than three million cars. Between Roosevelt’s speech and the end of the war in 1945, 139 rolled off the production lines. (Not a misprint: 139).
General Motors moved immediately to making airplane engines, trucks and tanks. Chrysler specialised in fuselages. Ford’s Model T car had 15,000 parts. The B-24 bomber it was now instructed to make had 1,550,000. By mid-1942, six months after Roosevelt’s speech, B-24s were trundling off the line at a pace of one every 63 minutes.
It can be done.
Shipyards turned out vessels, so that by 1943 all Allied shipping vessels sunk since 1939 had been more than replaced. In 1944, the US built more planes than the Japanese managed during the entire war.
By 1945, more than half of all industrial production in the world was taking place in the US, around 80 percent of it war production.
America was transformed at a pace which would previously have seemed beyond the range of rationality. This was the key reason the war was won: production of what was needed for victory in the quantities and within the time required.
Sixteen million men and women had been recruited into the armed services. Twenty-four million poured into the defence industries. Eighteen million women entered the workforce. African Americans and Latinos were invited into jobs from which they had been excluded. Union officials policed production.
SPENDING ON HEALTH
At the beginning of the war, Gulf Shipbuilding had 240 workers. By 1943 this had become 30,000. In Connecticut, the Mattatuck Manufacturing Company switched overnight from making upholstery nails for furniture to cartridge clips for Springfield rifles.
The American Brass Company, makers of plumbing parts and decorative devices, began producing brass rods and tubes for weapons. The Chase Brass and Copper Company, which had never been involved in arms-related production, churned out more than 50 million cartridge cases and mortar shells and more than a billion bullets a year.
An Alabama union official recalled: “It was seven days a week, 12-hour days, 10 hours on Saturday, eight hours on Sunday, on and on, in and out, over and over and over and over again.
“The one thing was to produce material to win the war.”
The economy expanded as never before. The Depression receded in the slipstream of rocketing manufacture. Thinking shifted in dozens of different ways.
Jim Crow still skulked. Women remained oppressed. The gulf between the rich and the rest yawned wide. But many of the changes achieved at the time were to prove irreversible. Things hadn’t returned to normal. “Normal” was gone.
What had generated this altered state was that an existential threat had smashed into the consciousness of a relatively progressive US leadership, which responded as rapidly as capitalist thinking allowed.
This is not an exact model for now. But there are lessons in it.
Can we match the soaring leap in production in the US of armoured cars and ships and ‘planes under Roosevelt with a hike the likes of which has never been witnessed in production of ventilators, masks, protective clothing, testing units and whatever else health professionals tell us are needed?
Who will argue now that our future is contingent on ceding power to an elite to run the world rather than depend on the sweat and genius of the mass of the people?
Who now would speak against multiplication of spending on health? Or insist that the market be let rip through every aspect of life?
Eternal orthodoxies have become old hat.
Ideology has been twisted back into shape.
But we are only at the start of the beginning and time is scarily short.
SOCIALISM OR BARBARISM
The changes in America in the 1940s were specifically American. Now we need seismic change everywhere.
This cannot be dictated from the top. We need a world-wide do-it-yourself revolution, each of us starting from where we are.
The Adria sportswear factory in Strabane provides a micro example. Seven hundred workers were laid off two months ago when the company collapsed because of recession and ruptured supply chains. After union complaints and political and community pressure the workers are back, with preparations under way to produce masks and scrubs and gowns for hospitals.
Contrarywise, coronavirus testing kits produced in Co. Antrim by Randox are being delivered in a trickle to local authorities and health boards at £120 a time. They should be produced as fast as possible on a 24-hour basis and provided free.
If that’s a problem, the company should be taken into public ownership.
The case is overwhelming for taking the entire health and pharmaceutical sector into public hands, to be run according to the needs of the community. Any notion of the sanctity of private property must be ditched.
The defenders of the old order haven’t gone away. They have hunkered down to wait for their hour to come again. Whether that’s the future, or we emerge into a better world as a result of coronavirus, depends on us.
We will have socialism or barbarism, Rosa Luxemburg warned. Her truth has never loomed so large.
– Eamonn McCann, writing from self-isolation in Derry.