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No Ordinary Time, Page 48

Doris Kearns Goodwin

  As Churchill readied his return to England, Hopkins handed him a note to take to his wife, Clementine. “You would have been quite proud of your husband on this trip,” Hopkins told Mrs. Churchill. “First because he was ever so good natured. I didn’t see him take anybody’s head off and he eats and drinks with his customary vigor. If he had half as good a time here as the President did having him about the White House he surely will carry pleasant memories of the past three weeks.”

  The hectic days and late nights took a toll on Hopkins, however. “His lips are blanched as if he had been bleeding internally,” Lord Moran observed, “his skin yellow like stretched parchment and his eyelids contracted to a slit so that you can just see his eyes moving about restlessly, as if he was in pain.” Living on sheer will and unquenchable spirit, Hopkins collapsed as soon as Churchill left, checking himself into the Naval Hospital in a state of nervous exhaustion.

  When Churchill reached London, an affectionate message from the president awaited him. “It is fun,” Roosevelt told Churchill, “to be in the same decade with you.”

  • • •

  “We must raise our sights all along the production line,” Roosevelt told the Congress in his State of the Union message on January 6, 1942. “Let no man say it cannot be done.” He then proceeded to outline a staggering set of production goals for 1942: sixty thousand planes, forty-five thousand tanks, twenty thousand anti-aircraft guns, six million tons of merchant shipping. “The figures,” U.S. News reported, “reached such astronomical proportions that human minds could not reach around them. Only by symbols could they be understood; a plane every four minutes in 1943; a tank every seven minutes; two seagoing ships a day.” Thoroughly convinced that a dramatic announcement of spectacular goals would both rally the American public and serve notice on the Axis powers that America’s vast industrial might would soon be producing munitions for all its Allies in every theater of war, the president had arbitrarily taken a pencil and revised the figures upward on the eve of his speech. When Hopkins questioned the wisdom of reaching so high, Roosevelt jauntily replied: “Oh—the production people can do it, if they really try.”

  Ironically, while the leaders of industry clung to a more or less static view of the American economy, rooted in prevailing notions of limited annual growth, it was Franklin Roosevelt and his impractical theorists, who never met a payroll, who held to a powerful vision of the country’s latent potential, spurred by government spending, to produce more than anyone had ever dreamed possible.

  “These figures,” Roosevelt told a cheering Congress, “will give the Japanese and the Nazis a little idea of just what they accomplished at Pearl Harbor.” Henceforth, Roosevelt said, workers must be prepared to work long and hard to turn out weapons twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Henceforth, every available tool, whether in the auto industry or the village machine shop, must be devoted to the production of munitions. “The militarists of Berlin and Tokyo started the war,” he concluded, his voice rising. “But the massed, angered forces of common humanity will finish it.”

  The automobile industry was the first to feel the force of the president’s fighting words. The time for persuasion had passed; a complete ban was imposed on the retail sale of new passenger autos and of light and heavy trucks. The order froze all stock in the hands of dealers until January 15. On that date, a program of rationing the 450,000 cars and trucks on hand, plus the two hundred thousand currently on the assembly line, was announced. First call went to the government for lend-lease; the remainder was parceled out to doctors, police, and others whose operations were essential to public health and safety. The drastic action was necessary, Office of Price Administration chief Leon Henderson said, so the entire manufacturing facilities of the auto industry could be brought into the national armaments program.

  “In the dealers’ holiday-decorated showrooms,” Time reported, “the stillness of death” prevailed, as forty-four thousand auto dealers and their four hundred thousand employees were laid off. To Eleanor’s mind, this human hardship could have been avoided if the big automobile companies had accepted the necessity for conversion earlier. Instead, blindly insisting they could produce great quantities of both cars and planes, they had exposed the workers to a perilous situation.

  Taking out her anger and frustration on OPM chief William Knudsen, Eleanor accosted him one afternoon to ask what he intended to do about all the people being thrown out of work. “Mr. Knudsen looked at me like a great big benevolent bear,” Eleanor said, “as if to say, ‘Now, Mrs. Roosevelt, don’t let’s get excited.’”

  “I wonder if you know what hunger is?” Eleanor countered. “Has any member of your family ever gone hungry?”

  Later, when called upon to explain her severity, Eleanor softened her attack. “I said nothing derogatory about anyone and nothing which I would not apply to myself,” she argued. “None of us, whether we are government officials or private individuals, can afford to sit back and wait for the development of these problems without feeling the urgency that a group of hungry children in our homes would put upon us.”

  In truth, the auto industry’s reluctance to convert before Pearl Harbor was part of a larger failure of will in the nation as a whole, but Knudsen was the man on the spot, and as a result he was the one to shoulder the blame. Though Knudsen had been denied power commensurate with his responsibility, the president determined on January 13, 1942, that a shake-up was in order. He announced that former Sears, Roebuck executive Donald Nelson would head a powerful new organization, the War Production Board, which would have “final” decisions on procurement and production. It was the greatest delegation of power the president had ever made.

  Knudsen was conducting a meeting when his secretary broke in to convey the news which had just come over the wire. “Look here,” Knudsen told a colleague, holding a piece of paper torn from the ticker. “I’ve just been fired.” Knudsen was stunned. The president who had called him Bill and treated him so warmly had not even had the courtesy to explain the shake-up face to face.

  In the White House, Hopkins realized that the situation had been handled badly, but he knew from long experience that Roosevelt could never be made to tackle controversy head on. Securing the president’s agreement to offer Knudsen a special commission in the army, Hopkins urged Federal Loan Administrator Jesse Jones to see Knudsen that night and persuade him to accept the post. “I have never seen a more disconsolate man,” Jones reported. “After dinner he sat at the piano and played and hummed sad tunes as though his heart would break.” Jones advised him to accept the presidential appointment, but Knudsen was so hurt he couldn’t figure out what to do. Finally, Jones took matters into his own hands. He called the White House and asked for Hopkins. “Knudsen,” Jones announced, “will accept a 3 star generalship in the Army,” which put him in charge of “promoting production for war.” When Knudsen failed to contradict him, Jones knew that the decision—which turned out to be an excellent one for everyone concerned—had been made.

  The following day, with everything seemingly settled, the president invited Knudsen to the White House for lunch. At this point, wanting nothing so much as to leave the relationship on good terms, the old master set to work. His abundant charm was everywhere, in his warm greeting when Knudsen walked in, his generous praise of Knudsen’s accomplishments, and his good-natured banter about Knudsen in a uniform. By the end of the luncheon, Knudsen said he would take any position the president offered. It was a triumph for Roosevelt. His ingenious maneuvering had produced a new director of war production without permanently alienating the old.

  • • •

  Gradually, one step at a time, the war was brought home to the American people. The tooling up period was over. The U.S. economy was finally prepared to swing into production on an unprecedented scale. “For more than a year,” novelist Winston Estes observed in Homefront, “new defense factories and plants had been sprouting up from the landscape as though the ground underneath had
been fertilized. And still they continued to appear, larger and more mysterious, turning out arms and munitions in unthinkable quantities.” And while the new plants were being built, manufacturing concerns of every imaginable type were moving to convert their old plants to the production of weapons. A merry-go-round factory was using its plant to fashion gun mounts. A corset factory was making grenade belts. A manufacturer of stoves was producing lifeboats. A famous New York toy concern was making compasses. A pinball-machine maker was turning out armor-piercing shells. Despite continuing shortages of raw materials, 1942 would witness the greatest expansion of production in the nation’s history.

  On January 30, the President signed an Emergency Price Control Bill, which gave Henderson and the Office of Price Administration added, though still not sufficient, power to keep prices down. Under the new legislation, Henderson could impose ceilings on a selective range of consumer items from raw materials to finished goods; he could have violators imprisoned or fined, and he could fix maximum rents in defense areas. At the same time, a preliminary rationing system was established to hold the demand for goods to the available supply.

  In the White House, Eleanor tried to set an example for housewives. When the need for parachutes put an end to silk stockings, she wore heavy black cotton stockings instead, announcing that she would do without just like everyone else. When a shortage of sugar was first contemplated, since the army and navy needed alcohol derived from sugar to make smokeless powder, Eleanor promised that the White House would be very careful in the use of sugar, relying on corn syrup and other substitutes wherever possible, replacing desserts with salads, if necessary. Eleanor’s comments, Representative Emmanuel Celler of New York charged, provoked a run on sugar, which made sugar rationing inevitable. Without the hoarding brought about by the fear of loss which Eleanor incited, Celler argued, there would never have been a sugar shortage.

  “It never crossed my mind,” Eleanor rather naively said in self-defense, “that you couldn’t tell the American people the truth and count on them to behave themselves accordingly. It is perfectly obvious that a housewife who goes out and buys 100 pounds of sugar for herself and puts it away is putting up the price of sugar for herself and her family. It is also obvious that she cannot buy enough pounds of sugar to last her through the war . . . . Sooner or later the hoarder is going to have to face the shortage and it is a lot more chummy to get into the boat with the rest of the citizenry from the start.”

  • • •

  On the war front, everything was going badly. In the Far East, Japan’s success was so complete that it surprised even the Japanese. In a matter of weeks, the Empire of the Rising Sun had seized what colonial powers had taken centuries to acquire. Nearly a million square miles of land—including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaya, Burma, the Dutch East Indies—and a hundred million people had come under Japan’s domain. In the Philippines, General Jonathan Wainwright and his embattled troops were on the verge of defeat.

  In the Atlantic, the United States was still losing its battle with the German submarine; merchant ships were still being sunk faster than new ships could be put into service. In the month of January alone, forty-three ships were sent to the bottom of the sea, with a loss of more than a thousand lives. By cutting off the supply line, Hitler was striking at the heart of the American war effort. “We are in a war of transportation,” U.S. Maritime Commission Chairman Emory Land confirmed, “a war of ships. It’s no damn sense making guns and tanks to be left in the U.S.” General Eisenhower, deputy chief of the War Plans Division, admitted that tempers were short. “We’ve got to have ships and we need them now.”

  When the situation at sea was at its worst, Lord Moran found Churchill in his London map room. “He was standing with his back to me, staring at the huge chart with the little black beetles representing German submarines. ‘Terrible,’ he muttered. He knows that we may lose the war at sea in a few months and that he can do nothing about it. I wish to God I could put out the fires that seem to be consuming him.”

  On Sunday, February 15, the bottom seemed to drop out when Singapore, the symbol of Western power in the Far East, fell to the Japanese. “The news came to a great many people as a shock,” Eleanor recorded in her column. “I had talked with the President and he said resignedly that of course, we had expected it, but I know a great many people did not.” With food stocks running low and water supplies threatened, General Arthur Percival marched out under a white flag to surrender to the Japanese commander.

  “Perhaps it is good for us,” Eleanor mused, “to have to face disaster, because we have been so optimistic and almost arrogant in our expectation of constant success. Now we shall have to find within us the courage to meet defeat and fight right on to victory. That means a steadiness of purpose and of will, which is not one of our strong points. But somehow, I think we shall harden physically and mentally as the days go by.”

  At the center of the storm, the president remained, in presidential assistant William Hassett’s recollection, “calm and serene, never impatient or irritable.” Through all the bad news from the Far East, through the dark days of the submarine menace, there was “never a note of despair, chin up, full of fight.” The years may have drawn lines around his eyes, New York Times reporter Anne O’Hare McCormick noted on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, on January 30, 1942, but “neither time nor the hammer blows of defeat in the Pacific have shaken his steady self-assurance.” On the contrary, despite the titanic tasks before him, he is “more at ease in all circumstances, more at home in his position, than any leader of his time. His nerves are stronger, his temper cooler and more even. If he worries, he gives no sign of it.” Indeed, McCormick concluded, perhaps because “the uncertainties are resolved and the great debate is over, his mood seems brighter, if anything, than it was a few months ago.”

  • • •

  If the fortunes of the war depended upon American shipping, then the only answer, Roosevelt reasoned, was to build ships and more ships, twice as many as the Germans could sink. In his State of the Union message, Roosevelt had set an incredibly high goal of eighteen million tons for 1942. Now, in the wake of the terrifying sinkings, he raised his sights even higher—to twenty-four million tons. “I realize that this is a terrible directive on my part,” Roosevelt admitted to Emory Land, “but I feel certain that in this very great emergency we can attain it.”

  The crisis in shipping could not have occurred at a worse time. After years of neglect, the U.S. merchant fleet ranked only “fourth in tonnage in foreign trade, fifth in speed and eighth in number of new, first class oceangoing ships.” From building fewer than a hundred ships a year, the U.S. Maritime Commission was now charged with building twenty-nine hundred ships right away; from dealing with forty-six shipways, it was now responsible for nearly three hundred; from thinking in terms of one hundred thousand men, it could soon count on more than seven hundred thousand. In peacetime, a shipfitter used to serve a four-year apprenticeship; the training period was now reduced to seven weeks. “It gives you a feeling like holding a hand grenade after removing the pin,” Admiral H. L. Vickery admitted.

  In attempting the impossible, the government turned to Henry Kaiser, an irrepressible sixty-year-old industrialist who had been involved in the building of Boulder Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and the Oakland-San Francisco Bridge. Though new to the shipping business, Kaiser was an entrepreneurial genius who instinctively grasped Roosevelt’s rule that “energy was more efficient than efficiency.” He sent bulldozers to build his first yard in Richmond, California, across the bay from San Francisco on January 20, 1941. Eighty-five working days later, he laid his first keel.

  Lavishly spending the government’s money, building ships as fast as steel could be found, Kaiser reached for every crane, derrick, and bulldozer he could lay his hands on. He hired workers with little regard for qualifications on the theory that anyone could be trained on the job; he grafted the techniques of mass production to the art of building a ship,
replacing riveters with welders to cut weight and save time, using prefabricated bulkheads, decks, and hulls to move the ships off the ways as quickly as possible.

  Under Kaiser’s leadership, the average time to deliver a ship was cut from 355 days in 1940 to 194 days in 1941 to 60 days in early 1942. With six new yards in operation after only one year in the business, Sir Launchalot, as he was dubbed, had become the pacesetter for the entire shipbuilding industry. The Maritime Commission translated each new record he set into a schedule increase for shipyards across the nation, from Bath and South Portland to Norfolk and Vancouver.

  To be sure, the finished product—the Liberty Ship—was an ugly duckling which fell short of traditional shipbuilding standards. It was not fast and it tended on occasion to split in half. But Roosevelt reasoned it was better to have a lot of makeshift ships now—each one capable of carrying 2,840 jeeps, 440 light tanks and three million C-rations—than a fleet of faster, more graceful, more durable ships after the war was lost.

  • • •

  As the dismal days of February drew to a close, Roosevelt decided to give a fireside chat, his first since Pearl Harbor. The speech was intended to involve the American people in the drama of the war, to lay out for them in the frankest terms the situation the Allies faced. At the same time, he hoped to reassure them that, despite the blackness of the present outlook, victory was bound to come. “No one,” Robert Sherwood said, “is as good as the President in fixing the line between keeping up morale and confidence on the one hand and being too optimistic on the other.”

  Roosevelt told his speechwriters he was going to ask the American people to have a map of the world before them as they listened to him speak. “I’m going to speak about strange places that many of them never heard of—places that are now the battleground for civilization . . . . I want to explain to the people something about geography—what our problem is and what the overall strategy of the war has to be. I want to tell it to them in simple terms of ABC so that they will understand what is going on and how each battle fits into the picture . . . . If they understand the problem and what we are driving at, I am sure that they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin.”