How the WWII attack on Pearl Harbor gave birth to America’s defense industry

Women took the jobs of men leaving for World War II. Here, workers from the Republic Drill and Tool Company in Chicago attach precision drill points used in the production of ships, tanks and guns, August 1942.

Ann Rosener/FSA/OWI Collection/Library of Congress

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The American century began on the nation’s darkest day.

“When the Japanese bombs in Hawaii literally propelled us into World War II”, Barrons wrote on December 15, 1941, “they set in motion forces reaching the whole world”.

The subject was dislocations in supply lines. But the most powerful force set in motion by the attack on Pearl Harbor was the US military-industrial complex. Propelled by a new national sense of mission, this massive force would win the war and then, over the following decades, transform the United States into a global superpower.

Such an idea would have seemed absurd in the late 1930s, when the US military ranked in size with that of Portugal and the Netherlands. Today, the United States spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined, supporting approximately 750 overseas bases in 80 countries. American business has followed the military, with brands like

Coca Cola

Google and Starbucks are ubiquitous from China to Chile, while Wall Street serves as the world bank and the US arms industry its arsenal. An empire, in all but name.

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But empires come at a cost, and Americans have shown fatigue in the face of the “eternal wars” and diminishing returns of this overseas kingdom. Publishing magnate Henry Luce first envisioned an “American Century” in February 1941. It may now be ending quietly.

Entering World War II was key to America’s rise, and it wasn’t a certainty. “There is no reason to believe that Mr. Roosevelt has changed his fundamental foreign policy: to defeat Hitler at all costs, but to do so, if possible, without the involvement of American troops abroad,” Barrons wrote on December 8, 1941, a day after which that possibility no longer existed for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor, followed by chilling rumors in the marketplace of “enemy planes approaching the Atlantic coast,” put America’s isolationist tendencies on hold, at least for the duration of the war.

“All are eager to help today,” Barrons editor George E. Shea Jr. wrote on December 15, noting the unions’ “sudden end to strikes” and a “surge in enlistments”. Business leaders, too, were cooperating with “the last ounce of their ability,” Shea wrote, and within a month American industrial might would be tied to Roosevelt’s War Production Board. The goal was to turn America into “the arsenal of democracy”.

Under “production czar” Donald Nelson, a former Sears executive hired to run the WPB, factories that once made cars and refrigerators churned out planes and tanks; women took jobs from men going to war; everyone was working overtime.

Between 1941 and 1945, the United States produced 300,000 military aircraft, compared to 100,000 for Germany. American industry also produced 10 battleships, 211 submarines, 88,000 tanks, 12.5 million rifles and the first atomic bombs, ending the World War and starting a Cold War.

The 5,000th Boeing B-17 built since the attack on Pearl Harbor is surrounded by factory workers in Seattle, May 1944.

Undergrowth Archives/Getty Images

It took time for the industry to retool in times of peace. But just as the WPB had applied Henry Ford’s mass production concepts to warfare, American industry was now applying military efficiency to civilian production.

Once the company was up and running, it encountered an American populace brimming with cash and eager to spend on televisions, washing machines, and upgraded cars like the streamlined 1949 Ford. The resulting economic boom continued into the 1950s. Brands like Holiday Inn, Pizza Hut, and Dunkin’ Donuts were at the forefront of a growing service industry; developments like Levittown paved the way for suburbia; air travel, powered by sleek new jets developed during the war, was now within the reach of many.

And America continued to be the arsenal of democracy. Today, the United States accounts for 36% of global arms exports, by far the largest of any country, supporting a thriving industry led by titans such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon.

There is no indication that US defense spending is falling anytime soon. But Americans’ appetite for adventures abroad may fade after post-World War II slogs across Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The American century began with a bang. It may end with a moan.

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