Keep From All Thoughtful Men
How U.S. Economists Won World War II
By Jim Lacey. 280 pp.
Naval Institute Press, 2011. $34.95.
The familiar story goes like this: Depression-era America housed vast untapped manufacturing potential. Harnessed to war, the Arsenal of Democracy unleashed miracles of production that bombarded the Axis with unmatchable mountains of materiel. But in fact, the story might not have played out in the comforting way we expect, except for a small heroic cadre of…economists.
Therein lies the surprising thrust of Lacey’s provocative and tightly plotted argument. Initially, he says, the military brass and FDR simply generated wish lists for production that didn’t correlate with actual American labor and financial capabilities—largely because, well, no one ever thought to bother correlating them. American leaders’ “arms programs” were likewise muddled, contradictory, and untethered to reality. (Readers may notice that these issues seem very contemporary.)
Lacey asserts that the shambling results of this looming production debacle, if uncorrected, could have cost the Allies the war. Into the breach in 1942 stepped three little-known economists. They were armed with statistics and an in-depth, professional knowledge of the complexities of finance. They conducted feasibility studies and determined possibilities and priorities. They organized apparently endless money flows to finesse war’s age-old problem: how to keep the cash from running out. Ultimately, Lacey claims—and there will be fireworks about this—these number-crunchers had more influence on the conflict’s conduct than the Joint Chiefs.
This study is not aimed at a general audience, and at times it’s as clear and lively as a college economics textbook. But Lacey’s research and analysis serve up game-changing implications about just how America really fought and won the war, which historians must now confront.