Victories at Cost: War and Enterprise in World War II

Senator Harry Brewster of Maine: [What] if you had a son who was going overseas on one of these ships during the past month?
J. Lester Perry, President, Carnegie-Illinois Steel: Why, Senator, I don’t for a moment condone poor steel, defective steel in ships or anywhere else that has to do with the war effort. Don’t worry about how I feel about the sons going over there.
Senator Harry S. Truman: The Senator has a son over there.
J. Lester Perry: I feel for him.

Transcript, U.S. Senate Hearings, March 23, 1943

Arthur Miller’s 1947 drama All My Sons is known as a 20th century classic and regarded in the 21st perhaps as a lens into our past. When Miller began writing, though, nothing about the play said period piece. “I wrote All My Sons during the war, expecting much trouble,” the playwright recalled in 2000, “but the war ended just as I was completing the play, leaving some room for the unsayable, which everyone knew — that the war had made some people illicit, sometimes criminal fortunes.”

Truman's Special Committee All My Sons was based in part on a true crime that Miller’s mother-in-law read about in an Ohio newspaper, but headlines from throughout the era tell of the war effort’s conflicted relationship with business. From The New York Times, beginning in 1941, we read “Plane Worker Indicted,” “Poor Plane Parts Charged in Suit: Castings [...] Are Said to Bear Marks of Pre-Delivery Repairs,” and “Truman Committee Declares Army and Navy Got ‘Defective’ Items.”

The Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, casually called the Truman Committee, was formed in 1941 to examine the windfall profits earned by corporations with government ties. But, the close examination of the businessmen who supplied weapons, rubber, uniforms, and other necessities of war unveiled limits to the empathy of these men who thought of the war as “over there.” Truman, speaking in 1942, warned of a ghostly question that hung over “every businessman, every farmer, every American citizen: ‘What will happen to our jobs, to our businesses, to our farmers, after the war?’”

Truman’s committee’s investigations uncovered surprising motives from men who defrauded their country yet considered themselves deeply patriotic, caught in the impossible breakneck speed of a worldwide conflict that remapped the American economy. “I want to say unequivocally I am an American citizen, and like you fellows, I am just as patriotic, and our people are just as patriotic,” Carnegie-Illinois Steel President J. Lester Perry asserted in his 1943 testimony. The company was blamed for the U.S.S. Schenectady’s hull failure, and Perry spoke with passion, “We want to do a job; we will do a job, and I assure we will [...] do it promptly, but there has been a lot of heat on here these days.”

“Arthur Miller understood that there’s nothing more insidious or ultimately more destructive than when patriotism and profit become aligned and go along a common path,” All My Sons director David Esbjornson recalls. “He would go to Washington all the time to make speeches about this, trying to fight these forces and let people know that these issues were still very much alive.” In All My Sons, we see the first provocations of a life-long crusade from a man who trenchantly questioned how personal survival conflicts with societal good.

Charles Haugland

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