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Freedom's Forge
Cover of Freedom's Forge
Freedom's Forge
How American Business Produced Victory in World War II
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • SELECTED BY THE ECONOMIST AS ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
"A rambunctious book that is itself alive with the animal spirits of the marketplace."—The Wall Street Journal
Freedom's Forge reveals how two extraordinary American businessmen—General Motors automobile magnate William "Big Bill" Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser—helped corral, cajole, and inspire business leaders across the country to mobilize the "arsenal of democracy" that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II. Drafting top talent from companies like Chrysler, Republic Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and Frigidaire, Knudsen and Kaiser turned auto plants into aircraft factories and civilian assembly lines into fountains of munitions. In four short years they transformed America's army from a hollow shell into a truly global force, laying the foundations for the country's rise as an economic as well as military superpower. Freedom's Forge vividly re-creates American industry's finest hour, when the nation's business elites put aside their pursuit of profits and set about saving the world.
Praise for Freedom's Forge
"A rarely told industrial saga, rich with particulars of the growing pains and eventual triumphs of American industry . . . Arthur Herman has set out to right an injustice: the loss, down history's memory hole, of the epic achievements of American business in helping the United States and its allies win World War II."The New York Times Book Review

"Magnificent . . . It's not often that a historian comes up with a fresh approach to an absolutely critical element of the Allied victory in World War II, but Pulitzer finalist Herman . . . has done just that."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A compulsively readable tribute to 'the miracle of mass production.' "Publishers Weekly

"The production statistics cited by Mr. Herman . . . astound."The Economist

"[A] fantastic book."Forbes

"Freedom's Forge is the story of how the ingenuity and energy of the American private sector was turned loose to equip the finest military force on the face of the earth. In an era of gathering threats and shrinking defense budgets, it is a timely lesson told by one of the great historians of our time."—Donald Rumsfeld
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • SELECTED BY THE ECONOMIST AS ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
"A rambunctious book that is itself alive with the animal spirits of the marketplace."—The Wall Street Journal
Freedom's Forge reveals how two extraordinary American businessmen—General Motors automobile magnate William "Big Bill" Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser—helped corral, cajole, and inspire business leaders across the country to mobilize the "arsenal of democracy" that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II. Drafting top talent from companies like Chrysler, Republic Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and Frigidaire, Knudsen and Kaiser turned auto plants into aircraft factories and civilian assembly lines into fountains of munitions. In four short years they transformed America's army from a hollow shell into a truly global force, laying the foundations for the country's rise as an economic as well as military superpower. Freedom's Forge vividly re-creates American industry's finest hour, when the nation's business elites put aside their pursuit of profits and set about saving the world.
Praise for Freedom's Forge
"A rarely told industrial saga, rich with particulars of the growing pains and eventual triumphs of American industry . . . Arthur Herman has set out to right an injustice: the loss, down history's memory hole, of the epic achievements of American business in helping the United States and its allies win World War II."The New York Times Book Review

"Magnificent . . . It's not often that a historian comes up with a fresh approach to an absolutely critical element of the Allied victory in World War II, but Pulitzer finalist Herman . . . has done just that."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A compulsively readable tribute to 'the miracle of mass production.' "Publishers Weekly

"The production statistics cited by Mr. Herman . . . astound."The Economist

"[A] fantastic book."Forbes

"Freedom's Forge is the story of how the ingenuity and energy of the American private sector was turned loose to equip the finest military force on the face of the earth. In an era of gathering threats and shrinking defense budgets, it is a timely lesson told by one of the great historians of our time."—Donald Rumsfeld
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter ONE

    The Gentle Giant

    My business is making things.

    --William S. Knudsen, May 28, 1940

    On a freezing cold day in early February 1900, the steamer SS Norge pulled into New York Harbor. It was carrying five hundred Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish passengers looking for a new beginning in a new world. One of them stood eagerly on deck. Twenty-year-old Signius Wilhelm Poul Knudsen braced his Scotch-plaid scarf tight against the cold and yanked a gray woolen cap more firmly on his head.

    William McKinley was president. Theodore Roosevelt, fresh from his triumph at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, was governor of New York. The United States had just signed a treaty for building a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific--in Nicaragua.

    New York City was about to break ground for a subway system. And six cities--Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Chicago, and St. Louis--had agreed to form baseball's American League.

    Young Knudsen's first sight after passing the Verrazano Narrows was the Statue of Liberty, holding her barely discernible torch high in the fog. Then, as the ship swung past Governors Island, objects loomed out of the icy mist like giants from Norse legend.

    They were the office buildings of Lower Manhattan, the first skyscrapers--the nerve centers of America's mightiest companies. Almost half a century later, Knudsen could recall each one.

    There was the twenty-nine-story Park Row Building, topped by twin copper-tipped domes and deemed the tallest building in the world. There was the St. Paul Building, completed in 1898, twenty-six stories, or 312 feet from ground floor to roof. There was the New York World Building with its gleaming golden dome. In a couple of years, they would be joined by the Singer Building, rising forty-seven stories; the Woolworth Building at fifty-seven stories; and then, looming above them all, the Standard Oil Building, its 591-foot tower topped by a flaming torch that could be seen for miles at sea--a torch to match that of Lady Liberty herself.

    "When you go to Europe," Knudsen liked to say, "they show you something that belonged to King Canute. When you go to America they show you something they are going to build." No king or emperor had built these mighty edifices, the twenty-year-old Danish immigrant told himself. No king or emperor had built this country of America. It was ordinary men like himself, men who worked hard, who built with their minds and hands, and became rich doing it. Signius Wilhelm Poul Knudsen was determined to be one of them.

    He was one of ten children, the son of a Copenhagen customs inspector who had made his meager salary stretch by putting his offspring to work. Work for Knudsen had begun at age six, pushing a cart of window glass for a glazier around Copenhagen's cobblestone streets. In between jobs, he had squeezed in time for school, and then night courses at the Danish Government Technical School. Bill Knudsen was still a teenager when he became a junior clerk in the firm of Christian Achen, which was in the bicycle import business.

    Knudsen's first love was bicycles. With one of Achen's salesmen, he built the very first tandem bicycle in Denmark. In a country with more bicycles than people, he and his friend became minor celebrities. Soon they were doing stints as professional pacers for long-distance bicycle races across Denmark, Sweden, and northern Germany.

    But Knudsen had bigger horizons. He knew America was the place where someone skilled with his hands and with a head for things mechanical could flourish. So he had set off for New York, with his suitcase and thirty dollars stuffed in his pocket. Years later, when...

About the Author-
  • Arthur Herman, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World, which has sold more than half a million copies worldwide. His most recent work, Gandhi & Churchill, was the 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 19, 2012
    Herman (How the Scots Invented the Modern World) tells the epic story of the American businessmen who, in only a few years, helped America become the largest military power in history. These include William Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who turned General Motors into “the largest industrial corporation in the world,” and industrialist Henry Kaiser, the “master builder” responsible for infrastructure projects throughout the country. In 1940, Roosevelt personally called upon Knudsen to oversee the assignment of contracts worth billions of dollars to produce the guns, tanks, planes, and other equipment needed for battle. Eschewing centralization in favor of free-market incentives, Knudsen directed the forging of “‘the arsenal of democracy,’” as factories around the nation converted to wartime production. Kaiser, meanwhile, presided over the creation of a new navy, America’s “Liberty ships,” which Churchill called “the foundation of all our hopes.” At times, the book falls into not-so-subtle hagiography of American capitalists, who are portrayed as selfless patriots who succeed despite the efforts of opportunistic labor organizations and big government New Dealers hostile to the free market. However, Herman has a knack for generating both suspense and patriotic self-congratulation. A cross between Ayn Rand, Herman Wouk, and the Wall Street Journal, the book is a compulsively readable tribute to “the miracle of mass production.” Agent: Glen Hartley, Writers Representatives.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from April 15, 2012
    It's not often that a historian comes up with a fresh approach to an absolutely critical element of the Allied victory in World War II, but Pulitzer finalist Herman (Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, 2009, etc.) has done just that. The author argues powerfully against the conventional wisdom that America's rearmament took place under the guidance of a competent federal government that brought business and labor together for the country's defense. To the dismay of New Dealers who had hoped to use the war to bring business under government control, the production of the flood of war materiel that drowned the Axis was achieved by the voluntary cooperation of businesses driven as much by the profit motive as by patriotism, solving problems through their own ingenuity rather than waiting for government directives. The physical and organizational challenges were overwhelming. The production of sufficient familiar armaments required expanding existing moribund plants and constructing new ones, then manufacturing new machine tools and organizing their use to maximize efficiency. Doing the same for enormously complex new weapons, in particular the B-29 bomber with 40,000 different parts made by 1,400 subcontractors, was an even more staggering task, exacerbated by materials shortages and recalcitrant labor unions. A story resting on the statistics of industrial production runs a constant risk of lapsing into tedium, but Herman's account never falters. He carries it off in engaging style by centering this sweeping narrative on the efforts of two colorful business leaders, Henry Kaiser and William Knudsen, who led the struggle to produce ships, planes and arms for Britain and then for America in a war that many had persisted in believing wasn't coming. A magnificent, controversial re-examination of the role of American business in winning WWII.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2012

    Pulitzer Prize finalist for Ghandi & Churchill, Herman here presents businessmen as the good guys, showing how two in particular--Danish immigrant William Knudsen and shipbuilding magnate Henry Kaiser--pummeled businesses around the country to build what was needed for the war effort. The result? Service to democracy and the creation of the military-industrial complex. Not just for history fans.

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • The Wall Street Journal "A rambunctious book that is itself alive with the animal spirits of the marketplace."
  • The New York Times Book Review "A rarely told industrial saga, rich with particulars of the growing pains and eventual triumphs of American industry . . . Arthur Herman has set out to right an injustice: the loss, down history's memory hole, of the epic achievements of American business in helping the United States and its allies win World War II."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "Magnificent . . . It's not often that a historian comes up with a fresh approach to an absolutely critical element of the Allied victory in World War II, but Pulitzer finalist Herman . . . has done just that."
  • Publishers Weekly "A compulsively readable tribute to 'the miracle of mass production.' "
  • The Economist "The production statistics cited by Mr. Herman . . . astound."
  • Forbes "[A] fantastic book."
  • Donald Rumsfeld "Freedom's Forge is the story of how the ingenuity and energy of the American private sector was turned loose to equip the finest military force on the face of the earth. In an era of gathering threats and shrinking defense budgets, it is a timely lesson told by one of the great historians of our time."
  • Carlo D'Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War "World War II could not have been won without the vital support and innovation of American industry. Arthur Herman's engrossing and superbly researched account of how this came about, and the two men primarily responsible for orchestrating it, is one of the last great, untold stories of the war."
  • Andrew Roberts, author of The Storm of War "It takes a writer of Arthur Herman's caliber to make a story essentially based on industrial production exciting, but this book is a truly thrilling story of the contribution made by American business to the destruction of Fascism. With America producing two-thirds of the Allies' weapons in World War II, the contribution of those who played a vital part in winning the war, yet who never once donned a uniform, has been downplayed or ignored for long enough. Here is their story, with new heroes to admire--such as William Knudsen and Henry Kaiser--who personified the can-do spirit of those stirring times."
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