The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington


WE BEGIN the New Year with the realization that the home front must be mobilized more effectively. That is no reflection on what has been accomplished. We have attained a rate of munitions production in excess of 64 billion dollars a year while maintaining a living standard higher than the standard we enjoyed in the prosperity of 1929. In the light of the figures, it is absurd to criticize either labor or management for shortages. It is likewise dangerous.

What we may justifiably deplore is the failure of the Administration to organize the home front as the fighting front has been organized. It is evident that a national service act, for which the President has now come out specifically, should have paralleled the Selective Service Act. But that is by no means the root cause of present-day shortages and difficulties. Manpower control has been hit-or-miss. There have been administrative deficiencies in both civilian and military agencies. Nothing was done to tighten up the administrative machinery till the notion was borne in on the planners that the war in Europe would continue into 1945.

Now Justice Byrnes — the Assistant President — has really established control on the home front. Three months ago he went to France. There, in the words of one of his close friends, “Jimmie got religion.” We can trace the reaction of that visit in the reference, in his first report as Director of War Mobilization and Reconversion, to the “millions of American boys living day in and day out under enemy fire, sleeping in rain and mud, eating out of tin cans, and never enjoying the comforts of home.”

Mr. Byrnes has a small “Cabinet” of his own, which is in effect a War Cabinet in supervisory control of all the war agencies, and it has already made itself felt. Here is an example of the holes on the home front that the Byrnes appointees have been plugging. In an Illinois town there was a shortage of 600 workers in an essential battery plant. In the same town is a patent medicine concern with 3000 employees. The Byrnes people flew out to ask the patent medicine concern to furnish the needed 600 employees.

This is a typical situation. What, one may ask, has the War Manpower Commission been doing? Nobody who is not on the ground seems to know. Justice Byrnes intends to have action, or else.

How to enforce coöperation

The “or else” smacks of sanctions or crackdown. Well, there are many sanctions available in the Byrnes arsenal which flow from the Administration’s vast powers over the allocation of materials. For instance, a patent medicine concern would need alcohol for its product, and this could be curtailed if the firm failed to coöperate. Similar sanctions could be applied elsewhere. Justice Byrnes will not hesitate to apply them.

It may be recalled that this kind of coercion was suggested in the Baruch Report of eighteen months ago on ways and means of overcoming the West Coast shortage of labor in airplane plants. The trouble was that the sanction power and the administrative power were divided. For instance, the War Production Board holds the power over raw material allocation, while the War Manpower Commission has no power at all. The two were not dovetailed. Accordingly, as Mr. Baruch warned, “the proper handling of manpower has been made impossible by the failure of government agencies to work as a team with a clear, uniform program.”

In this country of government by law, the Byrnes program needs to be underpinned with more legislation. Justice Byrnes has now asked for it, though in somewhat tentative fashion. He thinks (1) that the new Congress should strengthen the authority of the War Manpower Commission; (2) that work-or-fight should be compulsorily applied to the militarily unfit; and (3) that the War Labor Board should be empowered to enforce its decisions. That program is considered, in the light of the task ahead of the fighting forces, as an alternative to a national service act. It is taken up as an interim program in the President’s vigorous call to action.

Give the WMC its head

Why no statutory authority has hitherto been asked for the WMC is one of Washington’s minor mysteries. Observers are confident the Seventy-eighth Congress would have granted it. Several times Mr. McNutt has been on the point of requesting powers, and has even had a bill prepared for a long time. But he has always shied away from the prospect of a Congressional debate. The result has been that WMC orders have been steadily losing force.

When the WMC introduced its priority referral system last July, it was hoped that the movement of workers out of war industries would be arrested. Instead, monthly labor turnover in factories has continued to run at the same high level. Furthermore, the monthly accession rate for new workers declined from July to January.

The turnover has stemmed from a feeling of insecurity. Whenever the news looks good, war workers move to jobs that will provide a more secure haven for the future. Their timorousness may be deplorable, but it is understandable in view of the dreadful experience of long years of mass unemployment — which they remember all too well.

If the WMC can no longer stop the seepage of war workers, how can it attract to war industries the 300,000 or more additional workers that General Somervell is calling for? It cannot unless it is armed with power to penalize employers and employees who disregard its orders.

Work-or-fight means national service of a sort for the 18—26 age bracket. The work, of course, would be in essential industries. The rule may seem discriminatory, but so is the obligation to fight contained in the Selective Service Act. However, there are objections to letting the Army put the IV-F’s in uniform for service in the factories. It looks as if the labor unions will not stand for it. It is impossible to prejudge the temper of the new Congress on this and related questions, though there should he no question of enactment if the WMC will undertake to administer a work-or-fight rule.

How much waste in the Army?

The shortcomings of administration on the home front are matched in the military arm. Let us remember that. The other side of work-or-fight is, as a Washington newspaper put it, fight-or-work. Wastage of manpower is as prevalent in the armed services as in civilian life. The military shortly intend to call up hundreds of thousands of men under Selective Service.

The question is being asked whether the War Department has screened its uniformed personnel efficiently. The posts, from the Pentagon outward, seem to be alive with surplus workers. And a good many men who are confined to these shores by reason of age feel that their time and skill are being wasted in the Army. The Army, it is true, has already released some specially skilled technicians, but skepticism exists in Washington as to whether the combing has been thorough.

The questioning has been insistent concerning the prudence of the armed forces in the use of material as well as of men. In war there is bound to be waste. Our soldiers on the fronts throw away much equipment when they move, because, as they say, “it is very easy to get new equipment.” They are amazed at the way the Germans conserve their equipment. Inefficiency is still rampant with us, and this inefficiency aggravates the shortages which are now complained of. The last report of the Mead Committee itemizes the inefficiency.

Of overbuying, the committee says it does not object to having too much, but it has seen “too many examples of where provision has been made for too much too much.” Also noted for condemnation is the lack of standardization of many materials. There is no reason known to the committee or to anybody else why there should be different sizes and specifications for towels, blankets, sheets, and hundreds of other items.

The Mead Committee also cites acceleration of delivery dates, carelessness in negotiating prices, indirect buying, and decentralized control of procurement. The armed services might attend to their own deficiencies while calling attention to civilian shortcomings.


The mood of the Capital is querulous, and is due to hope deferred as to the end of the war and to the outbreak of disunity among the Allies. Positions are being re-examined along with forecasts. It is felt that if there is not an end to inter-Allied discord, the Dumbarton Oaks plan will not pass even the forwardlooking Seventy-ninth Congress.

A good deal of bitterness toward the Allies is to be encountered. The Hill feels there is too much that it does not know; and what little it knows, it does not like. Some of this reaction, which is turned against Russia as well as England, might have been prevented by releasing an adequate amount of information about the decisions at the various international get-togethers.