The turning point for the United States in the Pacific during World War Two was the battle of Midway. Aircraft from three American aircraft carriers, the Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet, successfully engaged a much larger Japanese fleet including six aircraft carriers, sinking four of them and forcing the Japanese to retreat. From this point forward the United States held the initiative, proceeding inexorably across the Pacific to victory.
While the story of the battle of Midway is well known what is not generally recognized is that essential to our success in that engagement was stimulus money. To combat the effects of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt started a number of programs to stimulate the economy. Two of them were the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the similarly named Works Project Administration (WPA). The PWA focused primarily on large infrastructure and construction projects, the equivalent of “shovel ready” programs in the 1930s. The WPA focused on light construction; it acted as both an employer of last resort and a social relief agency. Both the PWA and WPA sponsored road and highway projects, the construction of sewage, water and gas systems, and the building of schools, courthouses, hospitals, jails, dams, locks, bridges, tunnels and airports. The Lincoln Tunnel and La Guardia Airport in New York, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Boulder Dam were built with PWA funds.
Both organizations, but primarily the PWA, turned out to play major roles in the American victory in World War Two. It was the PWA that funded construction of the aircraft carriers Yorktown and Enterprise whose aircraft were responsible for sinking the four Japanese aircraft carriers. No stimulus money, no aircraft carriers and no victory at Midway. In addition, the PWA funded the construction of four cruisers, four heavy destroyers, many light destroyers, submarines, planes, engines, and instruments. The PWA built 32 Army posts and 50 military airports; it also provided money for the purchase of trucks and military aircraft. In 1934 and 1935 all Army purchases of motor vehicles were made with PWA funds. As Harold Ickes, Interior Secretary and director of the PWA, wrote (somewhat self servingly) during the darkest days of World War Two, “The PWA spent a billion dollars for defense. Thank God for the PWA.”
It is ironic that the Obama Administration, which continually reminds the American people that we are in the worst recession since the Great Depression, would fail to take an obvious page from President Roosevelt’s play book on fighting unemployment and provide stimulus funds for military construction and acquisition projects. For example, rather than closing the F-22 production line, the administration could have used stimulus money to buy the additional 60 aircraft the Air Force needed, thereby also saving some 75,000 jobs in the aerospace industry and contributing to national security. Instead of delaying the start of construction of the next nuclear-powered aircraft carrier by a year, stimulus funding could have been used to close the gap with obvious benefits to the economy and employment. Similarly, stimulus funds could be used to invest in the U.S. ammunition industrial base helping to preserve that industry and also leading to the production of a new generation of safer, more effective and greener munitions.
The PWA and the WPA helped mitigate the effects of the Great Depression while also making the world safer for democracy. It is not clear that the Obama Administration’s stimulus program will have done either.
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