Producing for peace

November 13, 1991

On the business page of The Sun yesterday, writer Ted Shelsby reported extensively on the effort of defense contractors to convert swiftly to new product lines now that the market for weapons has suddenly collapsed along with the Soviet Union. There is no reason why Maryland companies like Westinghouse and AAI cannot put their highly skilled labor forces to work in ways which will serve the nation in peace as they did in war.

With the 50th anniversary of the start of World War II rapidly approaching, it might be useful to recall a lesson in that history. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, there was virtually no defense industry in America. But once the war started, President Roosevelt created a government agency called the Defense Plant Corporation, and staffed it with the nation's top industrialists to oversee the swift conversion of American factories from peacetime to wartime production. In no time at all the assembly lines of Detroit were producing tanks instead of trucks, jeeps instead of cars.

We know now that the defense industry took on a life of its own in World War II and survived the war in the form of what President Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex." In the ensuing years an immense amount of the nation's energy and resources went into the production of weapons which were either misused (as in Vietnam) or never used (as in the case of nuclear bombs). It is an arsenal which must now be destroyed.

No doubt the instinct for survival will lead the defense contractors to find new roles as rapidly as possible. But that process could be greatly facilitated by the same kind of strong governmental role that was brought into play 50 years ago with the creation of the Defense Plant Corporation. We could even call it the Peace Plant Corporation.

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