President Trump on Friday invoked the Defense Production Act, ordering General Motors to manufacture ventilators for the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, though the company says the project was already underway. The president’s move came after weeks of debate over whether the government should impress private industry into producing health-care supplies in the emergency.
Though the Defense Production Act is a Korean War-era statute allowing the government to compel companies to aid the country in time of crisis, the law is rooted in America’s mobilization during World War II. Much of the recent discussion about directing industry to join the coronavirus fight seems to have been driven by a hazy, golden-hued memory of that wartime mobilization. The subject deserves to be considered instead in all its complex reality.
Certainly, the dominant portrait of leaders and people working together to produce America’s stunning accomplishments is valid, but accompanying this central reality was a counterpoint of fumbles, failures and even an occasional fiasco that can inform and temper our current perceptions. How Americans surmounted those stumbles is as much a part of the honor they are due as their amazing achievements.
When the thunderclap of war burst on the United States in December 1941, Americans were staring into an abyss of world domination by Germany, Japan and Italy, not stepping out to march in a certain victory parade. As historian Richard Overy captured the moment: “On the face of things, no rational man in early 1942 would have guessed at the eventual outcome of the war.”