*Engineers of Victory*

by on February 9, 2013 at 2:25 pm in Books, History | Permalink

The author is Paul Kennedy and the subtitle is The Problem Solvers who Turned the Tide in the Second World War.  This is an excellent look at the managerial and logistics side of the war.  My main regret — not really a criticism — is that the central role of economists was not given more attention.  Haven’t you wondered how it was possible that say the American role in the War was started and finished in less than five years’ time?  These days it can take that long to design, approve, and build a freeway interchange.

Here is a good review of the book.  Here is a useful NYT review.

1 Steve Sailer February 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm

The hands-on experience that tens of millions of American men (and more than a few American women) had with repairing Model Ts and other complex mechanical devices helps explain why the U.S. overwhelmed Japan in the Pacific War, even though Japan was at least equal to the U.S. in naval aviation on 12/7/41.

The Japanese couldn’t boost their production to make up for their losses because, besides a smaller overall population, Japan had a much smaller population familiar with modern mechanical devices. The Japanese had superb craftsmen, but many were experts at more or less medieval technology. The Japanese couldn’t respond to losses of machines and trained men at battles like Midway because they didn’t have mechanized farms like Americans did to draw new workers from. The learning curve was just too steep for most Japanese farm boys.

In the decade after the war, the Japanese did fine at modernizing the technical skills of their masses. But in the crucial couple of years between Midway and the arrival of the B29s, the Japanese couldn’t respond fast enough to their losses, while the U.S. could mobilize tens of millions of shade-tree mechanics to wage modern industrial war, abroad and in the factories.

2 david February 9, 2013 at 4:50 pm

The Japanese had been at grindingly costly war against China since 1937, well before the invasion of Malaya and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Technologically Japan had a lead: the Zero was one of the best fighters worldwide at the start of the war. But the limit on military construction was not in skilled labour, but simple raw materials. It is true that the Japanese had relatively little industrial experience: 40% urban in 1940 compared to 60% of the US. But it would have been no use making Zeroes via American-style mass production, given that the hard limit on their production was already in steel, and Chinese iron and coal ore was being immensely difficult to extract (to say the least).

The Japanese needed American oil and steel to defeat China, and Chinese oil and steel to defeat America; in the end it could not acquire either. And annexing supplies of rubber from the Allies had failed to slow it down, since synthetic rubber turned out to be far easier to acquire than alternatives to steel.

3 Alistair February 9, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Technologically, Japan did NOT have a lead. Aside from the Zero and the Long Lance, it’s hard to think of any system at which the country excelled. Electronics, radars, metallurgy, warships, submarines, sonar, bombers, tanks, small arms, atom bombs, even medicine, Japanese offerings were 1-to-1 and ton-for-ton inferior to Allied counterparts nearly everywhere, though often competently engineered from a poor resource base.

Furthermore the Zero was a dead end in aircraft design; too small to accept improvements in armaments, armour or power plant. A lot of Zero “performance” was down to the very highly trained naval aircrews that initially flew it; perhaps the most trained subset of pilots in the war. As those whittle down, (gone after the Mariannas) the exchange ratio for Zeros collapses, even against older US aircraft. Again, the statistics belie the myth.

4 Steve Sailer February 9, 2013 at 8:05 pm

“A lot of Zero “performance” was down to the very highly trained naval aircrews that initially flew it; perhaps the most trained subset of pilots in the war. As those whittle down, (gone after the Mariannas)”

Right, the Japanese ran out of skilled manpower quickly trading blows with the U.S., and the Japanese had a much harder time finding and training replacements.

5 ChrisA February 9, 2013 at 8:58 pm


Pilots are not mechanics, so this is not the same as your original point that the US had a better supply of trained mechanics.

My view is that the early success of both Germany and Japan came from their recent combat experience versus the allies, especially in facing modern opponents. As noted above the Japanese had been fighting a long war in China, and the Germans had the invasions of Czechoslovakia, Austria and the assistance they provided during the Spanish civil war. Experienced combat veterans count for a lot in the early stages of any combat, the fog of war and so on. The learning curve though is steep and the allies had much superior resource bases. Both the Germans and Japanese recognized this, hence the German invasion of Russia and the Japanese invasion of South East Asia. It was never practical to develop these new resources however in the face of allied attacks.

The second world war is a great example of what can be done when everyone shares a common purpose (or practically everyone). So there were very limited transaction costs. As society becomes more complex, the trade offs become more complex and there are hardly any common purposes that are 100% shared by all. So transaction costs are very large, in other words the figuring out how to allocate gains and losses is more complicated and takes longer.

6 derek February 10, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Part of the problem was that the top Japanese pilots flew until they were killed, whereas the americans brought their top pilots home to train the next wave.

7 agorabum February 9, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Torpedoes. They had vastly better torpedoes. heck, ours didn’t even really work right at all until late 1943, which is one of the reasons why in non-aircraft battles, we regularly got crushed in fights off of Guadalcanal.

8 Alistair February 9, 2013 at 10:22 pm

I credit the long lance above 😉 Unfortunately you require ships to launch it from…by mid-1943 it is all but useless.

Guadacanal was very mixed. US air and better night gunnery counterbalances superior Japanese destroyer forces. The US generally did better as the campaign went on, trading 1-for-1, a long-term ratio the Japanese could not afford.

After 1943 US torpedoes were “good enough”; adding more range to unguided weapons has very limited returns past 5km; most sub and PT engagements are closer than this.

9 Roy February 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Japan never managed to make a reliable truck engine until after the war, the Germans sent them technical designs by u boat, not the other way around. While Japan wasn’t as primitive and quaint as westerners believed in 1940, it was plenty quaint and primitive,

10 Steve Sailer February 9, 2013 at 9:10 pm

More than any other single product, the ubiquity of the Ford Model T had propelled into the modern, internal combustion world a larger fraction of the American population than any other country’s population.

11 Alistair February 9, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Indeed. I recall an account of the Tenni Court defence at Imphal or Kohima. There’s a Japanese officer with a sword hacking at a tank. A perfect illustration for the Empire’s capacity to engage with the modern world.

12 liam February 10, 2013 at 1:56 am

I knew I had read a Steinbeck quote to this effect before…

“Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.”

13 Steve Sailer February 10, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Thanks. I remember that quote from “Cannery Row” from high school.

14 AndrewL February 9, 2013 at 3:03 pm

The thing about building new transportation infrastructure is: 1 – propose a new highway interchange, 2 – Develop an Environmental Impact statement, 3 – solicit public comments 4 – apply for funding (bonds, grants, etc) 5 – present final design, 6 – solicit public comments again, 7 – secure 2nd round of funding because project went over budget, 8 – re-design (and new EIS) because politician who championed the project reached end of their term or got voted out. 9 – solicit bids for construction. 10 – award to lowest bidder. 11 – secure 3rd round of funding because contractor grossly underbid and more money is required to fix those problems. 12 – open 5 years later and 3x over original budget.

That’s pretty much how things get built around here in USA.

15 Steve Sailer February 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm

To get anything built in California these days, you have to pay off all the “community organizers” within several miles. For example, to finish the Century Freeway in Los Angeles in the late 1980s after a couple of decades of construction involved payments to activists as far away as an AIDS organization in West Hollywood (ten miles to the north) to get them to drop their opposition.

California’s current High-Speed Rail project is a particularly comic example of Low-Speed Construction.

16 Rahul February 10, 2013 at 7:29 am

Is this the situation in all western nations or are there any where fast development approvals are still possible?

17 Steve Sailer February 10, 2013 at 9:11 pm

Simple housing developments get approved much faster in Texas than in California. That has something to do with the contrasting ideological climates, but then the ideological climates have something to do with the different topographies of the states: Texas has a lot of more or less fungible land, while California’s more desirable land tends to be more complex and scenic.

18 derek February 10, 2013 at 11:10 pm

The Canadian Conservative government has been dismantling many of the methods which are used to oppose projects. To much gnashing of teeth to be sure.

19 ladderff February 9, 2013 at 3:16 pm

These days it can take that long to design, approve, and build a freeway interchange.

Another puzzle, I guess.

20 John Bennett February 9, 2013 at 3:42 pm

The management of the US war effort was largely in the hands of the War Production Board. There must be a good written description of how it functioned. My father worked there and I met many of its officials at the time, but since it was a war effort, details were not widely discussed in public. The one I remember is John Kenneth Galbraith who later got me an assistantship at UC-Berkeley.

21 Bill February 9, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Yeah, John Kenneth Galbraith is probably the economist that Tyler had in mind for his contribution to the war effort. Like everyone KNOWS that the war effort is NOT a command and control economy. It is so free market.

22 Steve Sailer February 9, 2013 at 5:33 pm

And Milton Friedman, right?

23 Bill February 9, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Of course, him too!

How could we forget Uncle Milty’s contribution to public finance:

“During World War II, he worked in the Treasury Department, where he helped create the federal withholding tax system. Prior to that time, Americans had paid their taxes in a single lump sum each year.”


I think of him every time I pay my taxes.

24 C February 9, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Friedman was a part of the Statistical Research Group and worked on projects which include designing the trigger for the atomic bomb, optimizing the number of pellets in antiaircraft shells, and designing antiaircraft projectile fuses. At one point he thought statistics would beat out engineers for designs on building material, but he found he was wrong on that one.

25 Mort Dubois February 10, 2013 at 8:49 am

Just read a terrific book on this subject: “Freedom’s Forge” by Arthur Herman. Exactly what you asked for: how we managed to turn a peacetime economy into a war economy in an incredibly short length of time.

26 Robert February 9, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Where I work, a Port Authority, we spend as much time on project selection and inter-agency approval as we spend on design and construction. Our engineers often get frustrated with the length of time involved in environmental approvals. On the other hand, we don’t have the environmental quality problems coming out of China. We also have free speech and protests for the citizens. It would be much faster to put unhappy citizens in jail and confiscate their property.

27 Steve Sailer February 9, 2013 at 4:38 pm


It’s natural for a crowded, already well-developed region such as California to be highly cautious and slow-paced about major new developments.

That always reminds me of how amusing it is that libertarians think that Open Borders will usher in a libertarian paradise, when the general trend of history suggests that increased population density leads to increased government regulation.

28 Alistair February 9, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Well, maybe Mexico will become more libertarian when the population goes north 😀

29 Therapsid February 9, 2013 at 8:19 pm

The east coast of China was already crowded by the time the infrastructure investment boom of the 90’s and 2000’s began.

30 Steve Sailer February 9, 2013 at 9:13 pm

But not well-developed.

In early 1960s California, Gov. Pat Brown could build freeways, aqueducts, and UC campuses like it was still 1943. By the 1970s, however, California had a lot of those things, and diminishing hunger for more. So, Pat’s son Jerry ran as the Era of Limits candidate.

31 Rahul February 10, 2013 at 7:33 am


Although population density may indeed correlate with regulation I think the greater effect is that of prosperity.

The richer we get the more concerned we are about smaller things (e.g. freeway noise).

32 John February 9, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Don’t we have more economists working on these things that we did in WWII?

33 Crocodile Chuck February 9, 2013 at 4:38 pm

“My main regret — not really a criticism — is that the central role of economists was not given more attention”

If there were economists involved in the WWII war effort, the Allies wouldn’t have won!

34 Brian M February 9, 2013 at 5:12 pm
35 genauer February 9, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Unfortunately I bought the book.

A rip off with a catchy title. It just tells the story of a few statisticians, who went delusional and got slapped, when they tried to get into the decision making. They went then back to university.

36 Brian M February 9, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Well, that’s sort of the fate of economists, policy makers hear what they want to, you realize that obese high school graduates or a know-nothing-know-it-all, with a degree in Mediterranean Studies (so, he might as well just have a high school degree), have more influence then you ever will, and you go back to academia.

And that’s before you deal with the frustrations of watching tired old men justify their fatalism with increasingly detached theories about great stagnations/not as rich as we thought we were, etc.

I thought the author made really good points. My biggest problem with the book was it was a glorified magazine article, I don’t remember how much of the length of that book was taken up with the memos and other stuff in the appendices.

37 genauer February 10, 2013 at 2:43 am

The book is an endless collection of nonsense.

That Kuznet, May, Nathan may have induced better somewhat better and especially more timely statistics, is in no way a “financial revolution”. That wars were all the time financed by higher taxes AND credit, seems to be new to the author. UK debt was at 250% GDP in 1813.

Nowhere is any table comparing Allied vs Axis power strength in numbers, soldiers, steel, energy, etc. for WWII. He mentions in the beginning others doing that for all the wars before. And like the tables 30 – 35 in Paul Kennedy “The Rise and Fall of the Great powers”. Just plain nothing. Because if you would look at them, one would ask: why did it take so long? As a 12 year old school boy I knew better.

The guys he tries to glorify did not do any OR, or optimization work, they were just bean counters.

The only thing I learned is that it is often good to have some comitee competition and built in dissent to challenge assumption and reduce group think.

And your mentioning motivated me to take a closer look at the reviews at amazon and to not buy the new Paul Kennedy book : – )

38 Moshe Syrquin February 13, 2013 at 9:48 am

HERE IS Galbraith’s appreciation of Kuznets’ involvement with the WPB: “Simon Kuznets and his talented people had been the equivalent of several infantry divisions in their contribution to the American war effort.” John K. Galbraith, (1980, p.80), ‘The National Accounts: Arrival and Impact’, in Norman Cousins (ed.), Reflections of America: Commemorating the Statistical Abstract Centennial, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.

39 Kolohe February 9, 2013 at 4:41 pm

The US war machine that won the war in the Pacific (and enabled the Soviets to win it in the ETO) was massive, but not particularly efficient. Like the saying goes, quantity has a quality all it’s own.

40 Andreas Moser February 9, 2013 at 5:07 pm

The book about economists in World War II is “Catch-22”, especially the chapter about Milo Minderbinder.

41 Millian February 9, 2013 at 5:15 pm

“These days it can take that long to design, approve, and build a freeway interchange.”

Isn’t a world war far more urgent, existential and well-manned than a freeway interchange?

I mean, if we’re yearning for the merits of central command decision-making around here, I’m sure China is looking for economics profs.

42 Orange14 February 9, 2013 at 5:45 pm

” My main regret — not really a criticism — is that the central role of economists was not given more attention. Haven’t you wondered how it was possible that say the American role in the War was started and finished in less than five years’ time?” is one of the more outlandish statements that TC has posted. My late father spent the war as a project manager at Consolidated Aircraft (soon to be Convair) where he worked on the PBY Catalina, the B-24 and the early development of the B36 (the last prop bomber prior to the complete changeover to jet aircraft). The key to all of this was the cooperation of all aircraft companies in product development during the war years. Antitrust was not even an issue as companies freely shared ideas and technology. My dad was constantly shuttling between companies to give recommendations from the Consolidated experience and receive them from the likes of McDonnell, Douglas, Glen-Martin, Boeing, and many others. Remember also that the automotive industry was quickly turned around into a manufacturer of army vehicles of all kinds. The folks doing all this were engineers like my dad and not economists. There were economists in DC who did manage the price control system but they sure were not on the factory floor or in the design rooms.

43 david February 9, 2013 at 6:03 pm

It was the then-new field of macroeconomics and national accounts that DC turned to, to answer simple questions like “so how much industrial production can we expect to ramp up to in six months?”. The allocation of all that steel and rubber that the engineers were depending on was done by conscious design, not competitive bidding.

44 Alistair February 9, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I’m less certain about the US approach, but the British experience with Operational Research in the war was very positive. Blackett and Tizzard work demsontrable wonders in the Battle of the Atlantic and Bomber command. The scientists with 21st Army Group also do very well. The convoy system, search patterns, attack patterns, enemy production estimates, resource management, optimum weapon fusing, bombing aids, weapon mix, weapon effectiveness evaluation (& the Sherman firefly debates), bombing targets and laydowns, optimum training levels, armour vs speed optimisation, V1-defence, the list goes on and on. Many of their contributions have been featured independently on this site before.

Speer, who has a similar scientific approach but no stats training, starts to replicate the gains in Germany once he’s in charge of fighter production, but he’s only one man and the house is already falling about his ears.

45 Steve Sailer February 9, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Freeman Dyson started his career doing operations research for the RAF.

46 Alistair February 9, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Ah yes, I nearly forgot about FD. Some good work there.

47 Rahul February 10, 2013 at 7:42 am

How about “Linear Programming”. That was entirely a WW-II product, wasn’t it?

Dantzig, Kantorovich etc.?

48 Alistair February 11, 2013 at 4:42 pm

I thought LP was 1930’s, but I may be mistaken?

Wasn’t used in Soviet planning though, AFAIK. But see “Red Plenty” for the counterfactual.

49 Dave Backus @ NYU February 9, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I always liked McGraw’s take, one of the chapters in http://www.amazon.com/American-Business-1920-2000-Worked-History/dp/0882959859/

50 Dismalist February 9, 2013 at 9:53 pm

All very interesting, and no doubt meaningfully contributory, but how about economies of scale?

51 dearieme February 10, 2013 at 7:20 am

The Battle of Midway was not won by farm boys who had experience of Model Ts, nor by superior Japanese fighters and torpedoes. It was won by chance. God disposes.

52 derek February 10, 2013 at 8:22 am

Am I missing something here, but didn’t the Soviets win WWII in Europe? The British and Americans were essentially irrelevant to the defeat of the Nazis: over 80% of German casualties were on the Eastern Front. For the Germans, the Western Front was a sideshow. Even without the Americans and the British, the Germans would have lost the war in Europe, albeit just a year or so later. And why no mention of Soviet technological prowess – German troops were absolutely shocked when they first met the Soviet T-34 and KV while the Soviet Katyusha rockets put the fear of God into them? I am not saying that the British and American war effort, including technological advances, was unimportant in winning the war, only that as usual the vastly more important and significant Soviet contribution to winning the war is ignored

53 Mercher February 10, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Kennedy’s book covers the Soviet side of things — focusing on the problem of dealing with German tanks.

54 Benny Lava February 11, 2013 at 8:42 am

Yes I was going to answer Tyler’s question with “no I haven’t wondered because the answer is Stalingrad”. The war was essentially over before America had much of anything to do with it.

What next, giving economists accolades for America participating in World War 1 for a mere 6 months? Piffle.

55 Alistair February 11, 2013 at 5:06 pm

But of course, US entry DID decide WWI. 😀

As soon as America entres, the German High Command knows it must win the war inside a year, before US reinforcement becomes decisive. Spring 1918 sees the last desparate German offensives to win the war. They fail, expending their last strength and morale in doing so. The counter-offensive breaks the back of the German army.

America was totally decisive, it just didn’t do much fighting.

56 michael February 11, 2013 at 10:33 am

Without American trucks, food stuffs and other endless supplies, the Soviet Army could have never kept up offensive momentum after Stalingrad. Eastern front would have probably ground down into a stalemate.

57 Alistair February 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm

No, coming at it as a historian and analyst. I don’t think that claim can be supported. I think the western contribution was wholly necessary for victory.

Firstly, one should look at total resources rather than manpower or mortality, deployed on the separate fronts. Yes, the Ostfront has the deaths, but the war in the west is much more capital intensive. Germany / Italy have something like over a 2 million men tied down in the Kriegsmarine, Luftwaffe, air defence, and garrisons throughout occupied Europe. Without the western threat, a great majority of those assets would be freed for action in the East.

From the top of my head, I’d estimate the Germany offensive in the east would be (very approx) 25%-50% stronger if Britain makes peace immediately after Dunkirk. Most significant would be gains in air units. Again, from a personal perspective, I would not like to play Russia under those wargame conditions.

Also, as other posters have commentated, Allied aid to Russia was not trivial and contributed greatly to tactical mobility and logistics from late 1942 onwards. The Red Army was significantly fed and shod and driven by Allied aid.

58 michael February 11, 2013 at 10:30 am

Here’s one place the process broke down. In WWII ship builders got so efficent that they were turning out craft faster than the US Navy could train seamen to operate the ships. This included not just trasnports, but armed vessels like crusiers and destroyers. By the end of the war there was a whole buch of hardware sitting idle at anchor in various bays along the wwest coast

59 mulp February 11, 2013 at 3:48 pm

“My main regret — not really a criticism — is that the central role of economists was not given more attention.”

Before Reagan, economists were mostly people who believed in government, and never thought about the need to justify government, especially in the field of economics.

Since Reagan, political correctness dictates economists reject the role of government in virtually everything.

That means economists can not admit that the field of economics as it exists today is a consequence of FDR’s New Deal which employed ever increasing numbers of technocrats who were seen as scientists, doing research into aspects of the economy to quantify the problems, and then once they quantified the bad,were asked, or volunteered the solutions.

While corporations kept records of their businesses, those records were not public, but government records on the economy were open to the technocrats, records on trade via tariffs, records on income via tax reports, records on unemployment via the dole. But those records did not answer why, or what to do. As technocrats sought answers, the government sponsored data collection increased, and political-economics moved from liberal arts-philosophy into the applied sciences, moved from passive knowledge to active knowledge.

Adam Smith “merely thought” about the actions of people. For the New Deal, merely thinking about what should happen was pointless because the “should” was disconnected from what was happening. Those following in Adam Smith’s footsteps needed to do much more extensive research into how people acted in commerce than Adam Smith’s more passive observations.

And in science, the more data you collect, the more questions you have leading to collecting more data. But that costs money and to make laws it comes down to where the data comes from.

If GE collects data by hiring economists and then editing their report which they give to legislators, will the public interest be furthered by those reports. And how does GE create a report that provides it an advantage without giving its competitors an equal advantage? Why hire economist when simply making up a “theory” to justify laws that GE wants is cheaper.

So, from the 30s on, the government has funded lots of economic research, and funded most of the ongoing data collection behind statistics used in defining public policy. Private data collection has exploded in parallel with government data collection, but that is used to “fight” public policy.

If public policy is classical free market competition, then monopoly will not exist, but business seeks monopoly and most of its data collection is about creating monopolies – you drink only Coke products which means Coke gets all your liquids business. Which it then expands to all your snack solids, if it can, by figuring out how to tied your need for liquid to the solids that go with it. Coke wants to take your money by convincing you to stop buying products from others including generic, and to spend lots more with Coke.

If you see political economy as the explanation for no effective government influence, then the role of the New Deal in creating your profession, your job, is hardly something you want to acknowledge.

On the other hand, do you want to acknowledge the role of economics in the success of gun sales to individuals that exceed the per capita weapons sales to most nation’s military, the success of Disney or Comcast getting more than $100 a month out of you to feed your “boob tube” when you spend nothing on great literature, poetry, novels, the success getting your five year old to crave soda and chips and candy and to hate your great choice in fresh fish and veggies and fruit that you spent to much money and effort to obtain for him as you try to teach him what is best in life,… That is the real reason to consider economics to be the dismal science.

And by the way, the “Hoover Dam” took decades to start, and it became a “official government project” in late 1922 when Sec Hoover oversaw an interstate compact. Funding did not finally occur until Congress acted in 1928, but even then it took another year for it to go into effect. Then it took more than a year for the bid terms be written. Construction was ordered by Hoover to begin in summer 1931. So, it took 9 years of political debate, legal issues in courts, engineering debates, just to go from an agreement on a decades long dream to address a need for water, to the start of construction. And the project was accepted by the government in 1936.

Hoover is the classic government technocrat setting public policy to drive economic growth, using scientific management methods, based on economic principles.

Thus, “These days it can take that long to design, approve, and build a freeway interchange.” implies a myth that delays for big projects came only after WWII. Remember, the Hoover Dam was built after the people who had claimed the land were rounded up and put on reservations or killed. It was politically unacceptable to round up and expel the people of Boston and level it to do the Big Dig faster and cheaper.

60 John Henry February 16, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I just read the book and want to agree that it is excellent.

John Henry

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