Long lost agencies: War Production Board

(Photo: National Archives)
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Brooks Hays

Just weeks after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the United States declared war against the Axis powers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the War Production Board to oversee the manufacture of goods necessary to support the war effort.

“We must out-produce [the enemy] overwhelmingly, so that there can be no question of our ability to provide a crushing superiority of equipment in any theater of the world war,” Roosevelt told Congress and the American people in January, 1942, as the United States, now at war with Germany, Japan, and Italy, prepared to engage the enemy in Europe and in the Pacific.

Roosevelt called for American factories to produce 60,000 warplanes by the end of 1942, and 125,000 the following year, as well as 120,000 tanks and 55,000 anti-aircraft guns by the end of 1943. The central task of the War Production Board (WPB) was to make sure that domestic factories, which had been manufacturing cars, appliances and other household items, could meet these production goals.

To facilitate wartime production, the WPB allocated and rationed steel, aluminum, and other materials needed to make arms and other military equipment. It prohibited industrial manufacturing that was considered nonessential. It also imposed controls on wages and prices, and spearheaded propaganda campaigns to encourage civilians to donate scrap metal.

Defense companies tapped federal and private funds to build new factories, while other industries overhauled their production lines to make them suitable for producing military goods. The auto industry, for example, switched from manufacturing family sedans to making airplane engines, guns, trucks, tanks, torpedoes and more. Under the guidance of the WPB, American industry turned out more than $185 billion worth of armaments and war supplies between 1942 and 1945.

In the fall of 1944, with the end of the war in sight, the War Production Board informed Ford Motor Company, Chrysler Corporation, Nash Motors Company, and the Fisher Body division of General Motors Company that they could begin preliminary design work on new models of civilian passenger cars. The government dissolved the WPB in November 1945, shortly after the end of the war, and replaced it with the Civilian Production Administration, to facilitate industry’s return to peacetime production.

While some feared that a drop in federal spending and military purchases would lead to an economic slowdown after World War II ended, the opposite proved true. Consumer demand for goods such as cars, refrigerators and other household appliances surged in the U.S. And American factories, whose output capabilities had been bolstered with the help of the War Production Board, quickly transitioned back to producing the goods that consumers wanted to buy, helping to promote a healthy economy in the wake of the war.