With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

What broke American steel

When World War II ended, no industry was stronger or more important than American steel.

But over the last 60 years, the industry has suffered a steady decline, becoming less competitive and far less central to the US economy. 

Immediately after the war, the global demand for steel was more voracious than ever. Mills owned by foreign competitors had been devastated by the bombings. Cities in Europe and Asia needed to rebuild, and American cities were growing rapidly as well. Demand for new cars was great, and the Interstate Highway was under construction.

America's steel mills were producing steel at a furious pace, making more than half the world's steel in the late 1940s, and about 40% of the world's steel throughout the 1950s. 

In the 10 years starting in 1948, American steel mills averaged nearly 700,000 workers. Today only 83,000 people still work in the nation's steel mills.

Part of that decline is due to much more efficient processes. The basic oxygen furnaces and continuous casters now in use can make steel using a fraction of the work, energy and manpower required by open hearth furnaces the industry used during its heyday. 

Additionally, much of the steel produced today comes from recycled scrap, as opposed to using the more expensive and complex process of turning iron ore into steel. In fact, the biggest steelmaker in the United States, Nucor (NUE), uses recycled scrap. It started with a single minimill in 1969. 

"Nucor did more to kill traditional American steel production than the Chinese ever did," said Stephen Mihm, a University of Georgia history professor who specializes in the history of business.

Read entire article at CNN