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The War Effort: WWII Quotas Cut Farm Machinery Supplies

Let's Talk Rusty Iron:By the time of Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, many farm equipment, automobile and other manufacturers were heavily involved in war production, and the War Production Board made it difficult for them to access materials for any other projects.

| August 2002

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    Cartoonist Herbert Johnson depicts an Allied soldier and a U.S. farmer.
  • FC_V5_I1_Aug_2002_05-2.jpg
    The cover story of the January 1943 Farm Journal addressed the constraints placed on farm machinery manufacturers during World War II.

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In December 1940, a year before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt sat down for one of his famous radio “fire side chats” with the American people.

He told them, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” and he called upon the country as a whole to not only supply its allies with planes, tanks, guns and ships, but to also build up its own defenses. To assist in accomplishing that goal, he created the Office of Production Management (OPM), an action that would have far-reaching effects on the country’s farmers.

Office of Production Management

William S. Knudsen, former head of General Motors, was named director of the new OPM, which had charge of deciding priorities, awarding contracts and allocating critical materials. The efforts took two approaches: denying scarce goods to producers of non-essential items, and encouraging producers to convert to the manufacture of goods essential to the war effort. This was done by holding out the prospect of hefty profits under what was called the “cost-plus” formula.

In mid-1941, the OPM limited farm equipment production to 80 percent of new machines and 15 percent of repair parts built in 1940. Farmers, dealers and manufacturers protested long and loud, and the government relaxed the restrictions a little, allowing most farmers’ needs to be taken care of through mid-1942.

By the time of Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, many farm equipment, automobile and other manufacturers were heavily involved in war production, although most still retained the bulk of their civilian manufacturing capacity. The farm implement and automobile publications of the day were filled with speculations about how much critical material would be allotted to the industries’ manufacturers for their regular product lines.

War Production Board

The demands associated with total war that came in the wake of Pearl Harbor called for strong measures to eliminate wasting essential plant capacity on nonessential goods and, in January 1942, Roosevelt formed a new War Production Board (WPB), appointing Donald M. Nelson to be its head. Nelson had been Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s executive vice-president of merchandising, and as war production “czar,” he wielded a level of authority over the nation’s economy that was second only to the president’s.

Nelson had the power to commandeer and reallocate critical materials, decide which products were nonessential and prohibit their manufacture, and to force plants to convert to war production and even to expand their facilities if he deemed it necessary.


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