It Doesn’t Have to Be a WarRoundup
tags: World War II, Cold War, war, coronavirus, defense production act
Tim Barker is writing a dissertation on the history of American defense spending. He is an editor-at-large at Dissent.
Suddenly everyone is talking about the Defense Production Act (DPA), a Korean War–era law allowing the federal government to expand and regulate strategically important industries. And for good reason: the Trump administration has announced it will invoke the DPA to speed the manufacture of masks and other protective gear needed for the response to the coronavirus emergency. The military frame of understanding has been welcomed by some on the left: Bernie Sanders was one of the first to call for the use of DPA powers, and a recent piece in Jacobin embraces the analog of war, calling for us to support Bernie as “our general.”
In the New York Times, historian Margaret O’Mara makes an eloquent case for the revival of government intervention on the scale typically associated with defense production. Despite the news tie-in to the DPA, which passed in 1950, O’Mara’s focus is nearly entirely on the Second World War. She implies there was little difference between military production during the Second World War and the Cold War—and specifically that in both cases “factories remained profit-making enterprises in private-sector hands.” Similarly, Vox’s Alex Ward introduces the 1950 bill as “inspired by laws from 1941 and 1942.”
But as historian Mark Wilson has emphasized, the Second World War mobilization involved a huge level of public ownership (both government-owned/government-operated and government-owned/contractor-operated plants). The Cold War, by contrast, saw a much more comprehensive privatization. In fact, the DPA itself was a crucial step in this process, since it outlined a way of expanding the industrial base without government operation or ownership. Ninety percent of new war industry was privately financed during the Korean War, compared to 40 percent during the Second World War. Loosely linking today’s DPA to the heroic popular efforts of the 1940s obscures the extent to which the level of Second World War–era public power was curtailed by the time of the early Cold War.