America Is at War, and There’s Only One Enemy

tags: public health, national emergency, coronavirus, defense production act

Margaret O’Mara (@margaretomara) is a professor of history at the University of Washington and the author of “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.”

The United States can and should “go big” to fight the coronavirus. It has done so before, at extraordinary speed and scale. It has tools like the Defense Production Act to help do it again. And it can be transformative: The industrial mobilization during World War II had a military purpose but lasting economic and social effects, helping build the foundation for a remarkable era of postwar prosperity. To get it right, we must understand how it worked, where it fell short and what the nation needs to mobilize again.

This war is a new kind of war,” President Franklin Roosevelt declared in early 1942, a few months after the United States formally entered World War II. “It is warfare in terms of every continent, every island, every sea, every air-lane in the world.” The nation’s response was as all-encompassing as the war itself: an enormous government mobilization of industry that ramped up production, employed millions and spiked federal spending to over 40 percent of G.D.P.

Eight decades later, America again is in a new kind of war. The coronavirus pandemic has ground daily life to a halt, tanked the stock market and begun to overwhelm the medical infrastructure with more critically ill patients than hospitals can handle. As the crisis mounts, the nation is embarking on another extraordinary mobilization. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Acton Wednesday morning, expanding the powers of the executive branch to direct American factories to produce urgently needed medical supplies. On Tuesday the administration proposed an economic stimulus package that could approach $1 trillion. As Mr. Trump promised from the White House lectern on Tuesday, “we’re going big.”

But Americans need to understand that the structure of industrial intervention during World War II was far different from the bailouts being proposed now. Instead, it was something the historian David M. Kennedy calls an “ingenious commingling of the private and public realms rather than by roughly closing the hand of state power over the free market.” Using a combination of sticks (regulatory restrictions, wage and price controls) and carrots (tax breaks, subsidies), the Roosevelt administration mandated that American manufacturers swiftly turn their operations over to defense production. Tanks instead of cars rolled off Detroit’s assembly lines. War workers by the thousands squeezed into apartments in Seattle and Los Angeles as they flocked to work in newly retrofitted defense plants.

Read entire article at New York Times

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