Historian’s work focuses on World War II and the power of mobilization

destructive creation book cover and author

Historian Mark Wilson studies the business and politics of the American industrial mobilization for World War II in the new book “Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II.”

Wilson spent 10 years researching the archives of companies that made weapons for the war as well as military and government archives. His search led him to the records of Boeing Aircraft and Manufacturing, Ford Motor and DuPont U.S.

“The book offers an account of how the U.S. mobilized the economy to make supplies for the Allies to win World War II. It’s also a study of the political struggles on the home front over who should receive credit for success after mobilizing,” said Wilson, professor of history in the UNC Charlotte College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

In a call for “war” against climate change in a recent issue of New Republic, a journal of politics and culture, leading environmentalist Bill McKibben discusses Wilson’s mobilization model.

“I think what interested McKibben was that in World War II, the giant production regime wasn’t dominated by the private sector or financed by Wall Street. To a large extent it was done because of public entities that financed and regulated,” Wilson explained. “This relates to the central argument of the book, about the nature of business-government relations in World War II. We need to better understand the historical record of what happened. There’s two common accounts of what happened on the home front.  One of those is mainly the celebration of business entrepreneurs and their production accomplishments.”

In contrast to this celebration, a different interpretive tradition was highly critical of business leaders and suggested industrialists were profiteering and manipulating the government to benefit companies.

Wilson stated, “Neither (the celebration of entrepreneurship nor anti-business sentiments) is satisfactory; both fail to talk about the role of government and military.”

Public actors working for military and civilian agencies were key in financing and supervising war efforts, he added.

“We need to better appreciate the ways the public sector has shaped and regulated the economy in ways that sometimes have very successful outcomes, as they did in World War II,” said Wilson, whose research interests include military and political history and the development of the military-industrial complex in the United States, from the 1950s to the early 21st century.

“Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II” was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.  

Words: Leanna Pough