I have been reading recently about US industrial production during World War 2, and keep finding passing references to legacies of the war production effort in World War 1. I would like to get a more holistic view.

For example, I see Herman refer in Freedom’s Forge to Bernard Baruch “pull[ing] that War production effort back from the brink of chaos in the summer of 1917”. Elsewhere (can’t readily re-find it at the moment), I read a short description of troubles at the northeastern shipyards. I also read a fascinating transcript of congressional testimony on battleship design by the navy admiral in charge of procurement.

I am especially interested in the technical and project management aspects of the war production effort, though I recognize that there may not be many books which cover that angle. I am most interested in how the production was achieved, less so in the labor history or technical details of the materiel produced (though they may be closely related).

I am also primarily interested in the US war production effort, but don’t need something exclusively dealing with the US.

  • US war production in WWI was not exceptional. WWI lasted for nearly 4 and a half years and the time between when the first US troops reached the front and armistice was about 18 months a year and a half. Mostly the US used European equipment. For example the US didn't produce one combat aircraft used in WWI... The US flew mostly french cast off aircraft, like the Nieuports, who's top wing would famously fly off in a steep dive.
    – user27618
    Nov 18, 2019 at 23:31
  • @JMS yeah, I get it. If there were an easy answer, I would have just asked amazon :)
    – fectin
    Nov 18, 2019 at 23:34
  • likewise the US also relied on the French for Tanks... "As the American army did not have tanks of its own, the French two-man Renault FT Light Tank was used by US in the later stages of World War I. It was cheap and well-suited for mass production," Tanks of the U.S. in the World Wars
    – user27618
    Nov 18, 2019 at 23:35
  • What I'm suggesting is you look at some of the statements from WWI vets about the lack of combat production from the United States like Eddie Rickenbacker's autobiography quote.. provided in this question.. How did the US fall behind in airplane technology from 1909-1917?
    – user27618
    Nov 18, 2019 at 23:38
  • Check out this article and its many references.
    – Brian Z
    Nov 19, 2019 at 2:42

1 Answer 1


Are there any good histories of industrial production during WW1?

Historically the The United States experience in WWI was that of a lack of production of war materials. From a production perspective WWI and WWII for the United States could not have been more different.

The US really didn't manufacture much equipment in WWI for it's own use much less the allies. The primary contribution by the US to WWI was men, not equipment. The US munition's industry was basically non existent prior to WWI, given America's long standing policy of isolation. The short duration of American involvement in the War, 19 months, meant it didn't have time to boot strap war production. Thus the United States didn't use any American equipment apart from perhaps some rifles and pistols. The United States was nearly entirely reliant on the the French and to a lesser extent the British for Machine Guns, Tanks, Artillery and Airplanes. Which meant the US soldiers had to be trained up on the equipment when they reached Europe. It also meant that the US fought with mostly cast off equipment as stated by Eddie Rickenbacker the top American fighter ace of WWI. (see quote below).

WWII was a different matter entirely. The US had more than 2 years to prepare for it's entry into WW2; by the time war on the United States was declared by Japan and Germany American industry was already mobilized.

American Munitions 1917-1918
The US declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917 with only a small munitions industry, very few medium and heavy artillery pieces, and few machine guns. By June 1917 the US had decided that their forces would primarily operate alongside the French, and would acquire their artillery and machine guns by purchasing mostly French weapons in theater, along with some British weapons in the case of heavy artillery. Shipments from the US to France would primarily be of soldiers and ammunition; artillery equipment in particular occupied too much space and weight to be economical. These priorities combined with the short 19-month US participation in the war meant that few US-made weapons arrived in France, and the need for extensive training of artillery units once in France meant that fewer still saw action before the Armistice. A comparison with World War II would be that the US started preparing for that war in earnest shortly after the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939; by the time the US entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 there had already been 27 months of mobilization.


From Eddie V. Rickenbacker's "Fighting the Flying Circus", End of Chapter 12. Discussing the Nieuport's (the French Fighter Airplane Americans flew during the war) issue where in dives the top wing would fly off ensuring in most cases the Plane could not fly and would drop out of the sky **

From the frequency of these accidents to our Nieuports it may be wondered why we continued to use them. The answer is simple—we had no others we could use! The American Air Forces were in dire need of machines of all kinds. We were thankful to get any kind that would fly.

The French had already discarded the Nieuport for the steadier, stronger Spad, and thus our Government was able to buy from the French a certain number of these out-of-date Nieuport machines for American pilots—or go without. Consequently, our American pilots in France were compelled to venture out in Nieuports against far more experienced pilots in more modern machines. None of us in France could understand what prevented our great country from furnishing machines equal to the best in the world. Many a gallant life was lost to American aviation during those early months of 1918, the responsibility for which must lie heavily upon some guilty conscience.

Now one compares that to WWII where the United States economy produced nearly as many tons of war materials for the Soviet Unions Army as it did for it's own army in Europe ( same order of magnitude for tonnage ); and additionally supplied The UK, and China.

  • This ignores the disruptions to industry, which led to a very different (and more successful) way of organizing production in WWII. As but one example, the railroads were nationalized (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Railroad_Administration) which had huge (and often quite negative) impacts on investment, operations, and maintenance. This experiment was not tried again in WWII.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 19, 2019 at 0:35
  • @JonCuster railroad would be a transportation issue. This question was specifically about WWI production lessons which seeded WW2. And given the US WW1 production was endemic given the extremely short duration of that war from an American perspective, there could be few such lessons. Given in WW2 war production consumed the entire US economy the two wars could not be more different in there preparation, execution and result from a production point of view.
    – user27618
    Nov 19, 2019 at 1:24
  • The approach to railroads, however, is indicative and instructive of how war production was handled. There is a reason there were issues.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 19, 2019 at 1:39
  • @JonCuster I don’t understand your point. In WWII the government took control of the entire economy. They nationalized the entire economies production capabilities, set price controls and issued ration cards while denying many products to the general population all together. Yet they largely left in tact the railroads which were not nationalized. Beyond that they created entire large industries which previously did not exist all in order to support the war effort.
    – user27618
    Nov 19, 2019 at 4:04

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