Milestones Of Innovation 7: FDR Phones Knudsen At General Motors


One of the sharpest controversies about our nation’s history is who gets top credit for the titanic American public-private partnership that won World War II with an avalanche of production. Some call it a rescue by private business, others view it as an example of Franklin Roosevelt’s multi-layered and often-mysterious leadership. How we see this episode surely is of immense relevance to how the coming revolution in energy will be handled.

America’s World War II production miracle, an epoch in the history of innovation, effectively began 75 years ago today, on May 28, 1940, with a phone call from President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House to William Knudsen, the production wizard who had risen to the presidency of General Motors, in Detroit.

Knudsen later recalled FDR’s words: “Knudsen? I want to see you in Washington. I want you to work on some production matters. When can you come down?” The call was not a total surprise. Bernard Baruch, the financier who had been U.S. production “czar” in World War I and who was lobbying furiously to do the job again in World War II, had suggested Knudsen’s name and warned him. Not hesitating, Knudsen told FDR he could get there in two days – he had to swing by New York and alert GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan.

May 28, 1940, was a black day. In little more than two weeks after striking westward, Hitler’s blitzkrieg had cut through the forces of Britain and France and smashed to the English Channel. That day, Belgium’s king was surrendering unconditionally to the Germans. That day, defeated allied soldiers, stripped of their weapons, began embarking for England in whatever could float. Civilization itself seemed to be collapsing. For the leader of the world’s biggest democracy, there was now one overriding task: defeat Hitler. And how could it be done? To FDR it was obvious: by a crushing mobilization of America’s productive power that began right now, when America formally was at peace.

Along with the irritable Charles E. Sorensen, another immigrant from Denmark, Knudsen took the lead in making a reality of Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line at Highland Park in 1913. But Ford and Knudsen eventually parted ways. Knudsen kept urging Ford to listen to customer demands, suggesting new models to follow the Model T. But Ford—did he feel a little crowded?—wouldn’t budge. So Knudsen resigned and went over to Sloan’s General Motors, and as head of the Chevrolet division, raced past his former employer and made Chevy the top-selling car in the world. Sloan promoted Knudsen to president of GM in 1937. Becoming a god of production and an automotive industry leader, Knudsen kept a mental map of all the leading players—and their factories.

With Roosevelt’s summons, the unpolitical Knudsen abruptly entered a new world driven by fear and resolve. Sloan was so angry that Knudsen was signing on with the architect of the New Deal to help prepare for World War II that he fired him on his way to Washington. So the man who lunched with FDR on May 30th was out of his $300,000 a year job.

But Knudsen thought he owed it to his adoptive country, and spent most of his remaining days maximizing America’s output of planes, guns, bullets, and the rest of what it took for complete victory. Working at first at a top policy level in FDR’s loosely structured White House, Knudsen bulled ahead with billions in emergency contracts, cutting deals like the one with Packard to make Rolls Royce Merlin aircraft engines for England’s Spitfires and another with Edsel Ford to build engines for U.S. warplanes.

This was just the start of long years of maximum entrepreneurial tension in wartime Washington. Right after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and his closest advisor, Harry Hopkins, concluded that Knudsen wasn’t the man for the essentially political task of serving as wartime “czar” for an ultimate boss who was determined to be the focus of major decisions. Knudsen learned of the change from a teletypewriter and sadly prepared to go home.

But Hopkins, War Secretary Henry Stimson, and his deputy Robert Patterson had other ideas. They persuaded Knudsen to put on the three stars of a lieutenant general and serve as the War Department’s chief expediter of production. Back in the trenches, but outranking just about everybody he met, Knudsen visited an average of a war plant a day. He also carried out crucial missions like the one to New Guinea in 1943, where George C. Kenney, Douglas MacArthur’s air boss in the Southwest Pacific, pleaded for continued manufacture of the twin-tailed, long-legged P-38 Lightning fighter that was highly suited for getting pilots safely back to base over wild jungles full of Japanese soldiers. Knudsen calmly told Kenney, “George, I gather you like P-38s. Okay, we’ll build them for you.”

Knudsen had spent decades learning the classical, almost overwhelmingly mundane lessons of the innovator in maximizing output. It required an appetite for the simple, not only in design of components as well as the finished system, but also in the smooth sequence of productive steps. Knudsen sought these in every factory visit. Typically stopping at work stations to converse with the workers, Knudsen would at the end of the day make suggestions for how to do it faster and better. He did this more than a thousand times over three exhausting years.

For both FDR and Knudsen, the operative word was the one Robert Lee said was the most beautiful in the English language: duty.

[Editor’s Note: This is the seventh of a series of posts about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for in the Xconomy Forum. Example: This year will mark the 75th anniversary of Vannevar Bush obtaining President Franklin Roosevelt’s OK for mobilizing U.S. scientists in World War II.]

Further reading:

Arthur Herman, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, New York, Random House, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4000-6964-4

Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, An Intimate History, New York, Harper, 1948

Maury Klein, A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II, New York, Bloomsbury Press, 2013

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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