The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington


CONGRESS returns to find a renewed crisis in manpower. The crisis had been brewing all summer. Schedules of the production of war goods were not being met. That does not mean, as has sometimes been reported, that output was declining. On the contrary, the industrial curve has never sagged. August production showed the fastest pace since April, with an increase of 4 per cent over July output. The disturbance in Washington was caused by the lag behind schedule. Schedules are set by the WPB in concert with the military authorities, and they rise month by month. If they are not met, then strategical calculations are put out of gear. This summer there was an ominous portent in the fact that our industrial manpower hit ceiling. Between mid-July and mid-August the Labor Department recorded the first decline since Pearl Harbor in the number of workers. The total fell off as much as 400,000.

The weakest spot happened to be in the most vital sector of our war effort. That is the aircraft industry. The feeling has grown in the Capital that air power can beat Nazi Germany to a pulp. There are those who think that Japan can be reduced by the same treatment. Aircraft now has number one strategic priority. It follows that the making of aircraft must have the same rating in our industrial strategy. Yet in July the Boeing plant in Seattle, where the Flying Fortresses come from, started to fall behind schedule. The trouble was labor shortage. The same lack of sufficient manpower to maintain aircraft schedules was reported in Los Angeles.

As a country we have hitherto proceeded on the comfortable assumption that our resources — men and materials — are unlimited. To be sure, economic America has done and can do wonders. But the demands for a mass army, for an arsenal of democracy, and for a granary of the United Nations have not yet been balanced. We just can’t supply everything. And certainly there can’t be even an approach to meeting all these demands without organization.

A national service act

The ideal mechanism for organizing our manpower is, of course, a national service act. Workers would be either frozen in their jobs or shifted to other jobs according to essentiality. Such authority for the Executive is provided in a national service bill bearing the names of Senator Austin and Representative Wadsworth. It was introduced on February 8 of this year. If the Administration were to get behind this measure, there would be a chance of its passage. But the President has blown hot and cold over it.

This is surprising in view of the President’s sentiments about total war. He says there is no distinction between the home and fighting fronts. There is only one front, and we are all manning it. That, of course, is the theory of total war. But when only the fighters are subject to serve by selection, the reality is that there are two separate and distinct, though interrelated, fronts. Only a national service act can obliterate the difference.

Senator Austin says that his proposal will get Administration support only as “a last resort.” Why is the President so lukewarm? Doubtless the opposition of labor leaders against what they call slavery is influential with the White House. However, labor leaders were similarly aligned against the Selective Service Act of September, 1940. And the President did not heed labor’s opposition then.

Perhaps the President’s tepid attitude toward a measure which even Mr. McNutt said last September was inevitable is accounted for only by an unwillingness to lock horns with Congress till alternative methods have been tried and found wanting.

In a similar situation the British turned without fear to a labor leader, Mr. Bevin, for the administration of national service. But with America the war is not so absorbing an issue. A Gallup inquiry recently found that 69 per cent of the American people questioned felt they had not had to make any real sacrifice for the war. This after nearly two years of it. Shall we ever go all-out?

Thus far the manpower policy has been to rely on measures which are hit-or-miss, makeshift, local, and semi-voluntary. Perhaps a national policy might have been evolved with proper leadership from the War Manpower Commission. That is what the WMC is for. It was set up in April, 1942, specifically for the purpose of bringing forth programs and recommendations for getting the most out of our manpower. Instead there have been a succession of mice.

That the President has been dissatisfied with WMC’s lack of accomplishment has been noted frequently. Once he tried in vain to get Secretary Ickes to take over from Mr. McNutt. Six months ago he asked Messrs. Byrnes and Baruch to make a report on remedies for WMC inaction. The report was not made public.

Again, in August, Mr. Baruch was asked to report on manpower, and again he found his report in danger of being pigeonholed. He sought to circumvent the maneuver this time by giving out the gist of it in background interviews with selected journalists who are in the habit of waiting upon him on the Washington park bench which he is pleased to call his office. But even this was not sufficient to extract the report. Only when a call came out of Congress on the first day of its new session was the report made public.

Mr. Baruch recommends

This report, which is the first comprehensive survey on manpower, contains a withering indictment of the lack of any manpower policy. No one has been more critical than Mr. Baruch of the “failure of government agencies to work as a team with a clearly defined program.” Ironically, the report was issued on the very day of the President’s welcome to Congress in which he said that the war program was marred only by “occasional disputes” and “errors of honest judgment.”

Mr. Baruch did not ask for a national service act. He based his recommendations on the particular need of getting more planes on the West Coast.

How many of the Baruch recommendations will be tried out is problematical. Justice Byrnes says that beginning September 15 the main ideas were put into effect on the West Coast. Local pools of labor will be portioned out on priorities, with the aircraft industry having first call. Allocation will be done by a single West Coast committee under the chairmanship of the regional WPB representative.

The old division of function in each locality through separate committees of WPB and WMC is fundamentally the cause of the disequilibrium that Mr. Baruch sought to correct. It still obtains outside the West Coast. This weakness has been responsible for the creation of what Mr. Baruch calls competitive “empires of power.”

The Baruch report demands the permanent deferment of aircraft workers. It goes further and calls for the furloughing of skilled men already in uniform. What it says under this head constitutes a biting criticism of “Selective” Service. (Selective Service is formally under WMC but is still run by the military authorities.) It appears that the aircraft industry has been hit particularly hard by the loss to the draft of engineering and supervisory personnel. The report argues that any further drafting of skilled engineering personnel will force a halt in developing new airplane designs!

The lack of policy toward eligibles for the draft in the aircraft industry appears incomprehensible. Only short stays of induction are granted. The latest expires on December 1. The result, naturally, is a disturbed state of mind among employees which is responsible for inefficiency, absenteeism, and even quitting. In some cases reported in Washington, wives of aircraft workers have left their jobs in aircraft plants in the belief that their absence would strengthen the case for deferment of their husbands. Frequently workers who quit their jobs go back to the farms whence they came, where they are assured of deferment.


Charles E. Wilson, head of the aircraft branch of the WPB, suggests incentive payments, and Justice Byrnes agrees. Inquiry, however, has shown that neither labor leaders nor managements favor such payments. Labor leaders would be robbed of the prestige of getting more wages for their members; managements say incentive payments would put a crimp on the resiliency of labor, since the workers would be unwilling to take up new processes and work on new designs when they were profiting from their proficiency at the old methods.

On past record it is doubtful that the Army will coöperate in extending deferments or in furloughing skilled workers. Still, the War Department has backtracked on the size of the Army. And that is some comfort for the reorganizers of manpower on the basis of essentiality. Instead of the projected 8,200,000 officers and men under arms by December 31, the figure has been cut to 7,700,000. This reduction has been hailed with reason as proof that the armchair strategists were not so dumb and unpatriotic as they were accused of being when they protested the higher figure. These amateurs still think the lower figure is too high.