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Combined Operations - Afterwards

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

Vigorous resistance could be anticipated from the occupants of the rooms along certain corridors of the Social Security Building in Washington if anyone stuck his head in the door and remarked that here is a working model for future world government. Yet if future world government is to be set up to do a quiet day-to-day job rather than to operate under the Klieg lights of the old-fashioned international conference, complete with green table, gilt chairs, potted palms, and the flags of the nations in glorious technicolor as background, what goes on in those rooms bears inspection. For what goes on is something new.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff make war. They have made a concerted fighting force of the British and American armed services. Yet while the scale of their effort, and the sheer Great-Circle mileage over which it extends, is indeed new, combination of military forces is not new-today’s Grand Alliance has its parallels.

The Combined Boards, however, make war potential. They combine the fighting features of the economies of two of the major allies, the United States and Britain, with Canada sitting on two of the four Boards in her own right, and with the requirements of the third great ally, Russia, related through a series of special agreements. And combined economic operations are a new development in warfare.

Why has this new development taken place? Why are three men—William Batt, Vice-chairman and deputy of the chairman of the American War Production Board, Sir Henry Self, deputy of Britain’s Minister of Production, and William Bateman, deputy for Canada’s Minister of Munitions and supply—acting under authorization of the President of the United States and the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Canada, to combine the production and resources of those countries? Why are the first two of these also heading a Combined Raw Materials Board? In 1942, why were Admiral Land, United States War Shipping Administrator, and Lord Leathers, British Minister of War Transport, appointed to pool shipping? Or United States Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wick-ard, United States Food Administrator Marvin Jones, R. H. Brand, head of the British Food Mission, and J. G. Gardiner, Canadian Minister of Agriculture, to work on food?

Because, in this war, a country’s war effort has been directly dependent on its economic capacity. Considering the fat cushion of amenities that has softened life for the American consumer, the words “total war” should be used with some caution. But in 1944 some 45 per cent of the gross product of the United States economy was billed to the government for war purposes, whereas in 1917 the amount was only around 10 per cent, and had not risen much over 25 per cent by the time of the 1918 armistice. The 45 per cent figure, moreover, does not count the private services and facilities that feed and transport war workers and generally make it possible for them to stay on the job, though any overall picture of the war effort clearly should do so. And the other allies have done a considerably stricter job of economic conversion than has been done here.

The machine has added the job of economic direction to the job of military direction of modern war.

To convert something like half of this nation’s productive capacities to war was one major undertaking; to pool the results of the conversion with similar results in other nations was another. WPB, the American agency for the domestic features of this task, has impinged on the lives of the average American enough to make him know what those letters mean. But the Combined Boards, the agencies through which the pooling of resources on a world scale has been effected, are hardly even a name to the public outside Washington. Yet their story is more than a war record, and more than a story of the efficient use of resources on a larger than national scale.

The story of the Boards is a case history of how the common purposes of certain sovereign nations have been successfully meshed in the face of certain conditions. The Boards’ negotiations have been conducted on a day-after-day basis for a period of three years: Board members have never assumed that problems could be neatly packaged and stored for consideration at occasional reunions of world personalities. Their experience is therefore pertinent to those who do not think that peace can be a hit-and-run affair.


The decision to establish the Combined Boards, all of which were set up in 1942, was taken by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. The Boards’ specific job has been to channel the use of short supplies—whether materials, industrial capacities, food, or shipping space—during a period when it was a rare supply indeed that was not short.

On the side of raw materials, this has meant a concern with products all over the world, including smuggling from Axis-held territory. The United States has a long list of strategic materials of which there is either no domestic supply, or a supply inadequate even to the demands of prewar production; the Canadian list is still longer. For island Britain, with the exception of a few domestic resources like coal, almost all materials are critical as far as their transportation goes, and in 1942 transportation went rather uncertainly.

Given these stringencies, in the absence of controls there might have appeared, as between ally and ally, the pattern of pre-emptive buying which the Allies simultaneously developed as an arm of economic warfare to keep the Axis from getting goods from such neutrals as Spain. The Boards became the means of unifying the programs for procurement from third countries developed in Britain by the Ministry of Supply and in the United States by the FEA.

Take tin, for example. Close to three-quarters of the normal tin supplies of the world fell into Axis hands with Malaya. Part of the normal smelting facilities disappeared from Allied view when Holland was overrun. Britain’s smelting capacity was reduced by bombing, and the ore that it used had to find its way past the Nazi submarines. Through the Boards, additional sources of supply were exploited in Bolivia. A smelter was built in Texas. Ore supplies were allocated to smelting capacities, and the war program was not held up for lack of tin.

Tin is an example of the commodities whose sources of supply in countries not actually at war with the Axis have been concertedly tapped to further allied war production. Coal is another type of story. There are major domestic coal deposits in both Britain and the United States. But getting enough coal has been a persistent headache in both places: with textiles and trucks, it tops the list of difficult products today. The coal fields have been blighted areas in Britain for a generation; in the United States the industry has been ill-organized, hard-pressed by oil and hydroelectric power, slow to think its way onto a new basis. Low-paid labor, acutely aware of old grievances, accustomed to under-employment, and aging as youth slips away from mine villages to more modern occupations, has struck its way to concessions in the United States and has had to be replenished under the National Service Act in Britain.

In 1944, military operations on the Continent stepped up requirements all over again. It very quickly became clear that resumption of any kind of normal existence in the liberated areas depends to a major extent on obtaining fuel. In Italy, the sources of supply of the hydroelectric grid remained under German control in the northern mountains ; without power, people could not be put to work. In France, factories that could otherwise reduce the current one and one-fourth billion yard shortage of textiles are currently producing at a fraction of capacity because of lack of fuel. Transportation problems and lack of pit props further complicate the manpower situation at the mines the Nazis have now relinquished.

The full-dress Board meeting held this April had the coal situation as its most critical problem. Meeting anything like the very minimum of coal requirements for 1945-46 will demand as much imagination as was shown last year when a new development in British coal production was arranged through the Combined Production and Resources Board. Partly in order to protect the surface interests of the owners, partly because of the shallowness of the seams, British mining has not normally included the strip process by which some coal and much iron ore is scooped out of the ground in the United States. But strip mining is now going on in Britain. The necessary machinery was found in the United States. Much of it was old—some of the bulldozers sent over were historic figures on the Mississippi levees. But equipment capable of moving twenty million tons of dirt in a year—more than was taken out of the Panama canal—was ferried across the Atlantic and put into operation in 1944.

A third type of influence of the Combined Board on American-British production is noticeable in the exchange of techniques and, to some extent, of models. One of the better stories that circulated around Washington last year concerned the success of a long series of business explorations of the possibility of reconciling the British and the American idea of a screw.

Searchers for sociological profundities might find material in the fact that British screw threads have always had contours like the old mountains of Britain, with curved heights and sloping valleys, whereas American screw threads have followed the sharp-edged peak-and-canyon pattern of the Rockies. There were also differences in the pitch of the trail by which the ascent from valley to peak was effected.

As a result, combined operations didn’t combine. In very fact, replacements hung on a thread: two pieces of war machinery, two machine guns, for instance, might be built for the same job, but if one of them came from the United States and the other from Britain, the front-line repair truck would have to carry duplicate lots of every part that a screw entered if more than one of these was to be fixed. Stretched back over thousands of miles of supply line, that fact added up to tons, cubic feet, man hours.

In an industrial society the making of screws is a permeating habit; change meant the surmounting of successive obstacles by a process that could only be gradual. But in 1944, after a series of transatlantic committee meetings, a compromise screw was evolved for manufacture on both sides, and use everywhere. Its peaks are rounded, its valleys are pointed.

Mostly, the Boards’ work is more routine than suggested by any of these examples. The Boards operate at three levels: the top level of final negotiation, the operating level where the administrative work is carried on, and the special committees where experts in commodities—copper, hides, machine tools, textiles—collect the all-important basic information, make the technical judgments, and initiate the proposals with which the negotiators are subsequently briefed. The great bulk of the day-to-day initiative occurs at these subordinate levels; if the technical experts who know the subject best can agree on a proposal, the top negotiators need meet only for formal acceptance. Only where their advisers persistently fail to get together do the Board members themselves have to work—or compromise —a way out. Their main function is as transmitters to their staff of incoming matters to be dealt with, and as transmitters of outgoing proposals to the national agencies that undertake procurement abroad or expedite production at home.

The process by which the Boards relate their findings to the American and British economies differs largely—and interestingly—from what was foreseen when the Boards were set up. The Statement of the President and the Prime Ministers, establishing the Combined Production and Resources Board, directed that the Board should “combine the production programmes of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, into a single integrated programme, adjusted to the strategic requirements of the war, as indicated to the Board by the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and to all relevant production factors. In this connection, the Board shall take account of the need for maximum utilization of the productive resources available to the United States, the British Commonwealth of Nations, and the United Nations, the need to reduce demands on shipping to a minimum, and the essential needs of the civilian population. In close collaboration with the Combined Chiefs of Staff, assure the continuous adjustment of the combined production programme to meet changing military requirements.”

On paper, therefore, the Board had jurisdiction to exercise power on its own as a supra-national agency over a wide segment of the world’s production capacity. But the Board accomplished its ends in a less exalted manner. Believing, with an international civil servant of long standing, that an international organization functions best through advice and cajolery, the Board members, whether American, British, or Canadian, have been middlemen rather than enterprisers in the laying of requirements. They have not fixed their findings on the various national economies in any form remotely like an order. The United States member has consulted with WPB, the British member with the Ministry of Production; the allocations committees of these organizations have taken the actual responsibility for putting the suggested schedules into the works.

(Sometimes this way of doing it has meant accepting a slow-down, as in the occasional case of WPB commodity specialists who disliked regulations so much as to be reluctant to propose them for their industry. Even so, the long-term results have probably been better.)

The Combined Boards staff has thus operated as a group of national contingents, not as an international civil service. v Its members are located in adjacent offices; they exhibit the degree of common approach to problems that common sources of information and day-after-day contact make probable. But they still report to their respective chiefs. (A series of executive secretaries of the CPRB discovered that, this being so, they didn’t have a job; since the last resignation in 1944 the post has not been filled.)


The national contingent basis of the Boards has served to bring out some contrasts in national ways of doing things.

One is the relation, in Britain and in the United States, between the military and the civilian arms of the war effort. The American military services, until this war, lived a rather small-scale life, more or less apart from the main stream of American affairs. They were correspondingly self-contained. There is some evidence that their self-containment has been only modified, rather than abandoned, since 1940. The services have not, on the whole, expected civilians to enter into their scheme of things much beyond the point at which the securing of deliveries becomes important. Take the process of procurement, the letting of contracts, and the writing of specifications, for example. WPB has been a conditioner of the circumstances under which producers could fulfill contracts whose terms were written by men in uniform. A number of the internal feuds of WPB, OEM, et cetera, have been explained by designating one or another of the contestants as the army’s man, and there is a general impression in Washington that the army is undefeated so far in this aspect of the war.

This situation has caused members of the American civilian contingent to look at times on the comparable British set-up, under which procurement is a civilian function, as the greener grass on the other side of the fence. While conceding that reorganization of procurement procedure would probably have been too big a job to undertake at the same time as a war-production program of the present size, civilian admin-istrators-for-the-duration whose abilities lie in the industrial field are inclined to wonder if, had the United States army been more willing to recognize industrial production as a specialty other than its own, a good many rigidities might not have been avoided. Army channeling of mass orders to a few firms that had previously established army connections, and army attitudes toward changes in specification in the interest of enlarged supply, are charged against army un-familiarity with how things can be made.

A more far-reaching difference between British and American public procedure which the contingent basis of the Boards has served to emphasize has been satirized by an American veteran of such committee meetings. He says that the British arrive on time in the office of the American chairman. Before coming, they have had a delegation meeting at which they have established an agreed position for presentation at the session, and allocated responsibility as to who shall take the lead, who shall call the turns, et cetera. The various Americans arrive varyingly late, including the affably apologetic chairman, whose first act is to excuse himself while making a somewhat protracted telephone call. That out of the way, he turns to the group and asks someone to bring him up to date on just what is the purpose of the meeting. When a member suggests why the group was called together, another member remarks that no one had told him what was afoot, and he personally would be opposed to discussion of the matter at this time. Out of the tail of his eye, the chairman can see two of his other colleagues, whose diametically opposed views on the question were well known at the time of their appointment to co-ordinate positions, gathering their forces. As the discussion progresses, it becomes clear that no decision can be reached that afternoon. The chairman suggests that progress has been made, that we now know what we are driving at, and that the matter can doubtless be finished promptly at the next meeting. His assumption is false to this extent—by the time of the next meeting, the American personnel will have changed so much that the previous difficulties will appear all over again!

This caricature bears about the usual relation to life. As a matter of fact, the Combined Boards have probably done more than any other single body to tighten the administrative looseness of Washington’s executive agencies, to get the administrators of the various programs bearing on international economics together on a single story. (For instance, after some trials and errors in the Combined Food Board, the United States Requirement Committee provided for formal preliminary heats, at which representatives of the Army and the’Navy, the State Department, the Foreign Economic Administration, the Food Distribution Administration, and the War Production Board—and the various competing subdivisions of some of these agencies—were assembled to make up their minds in international privacy before meeting the British and Canadian delegates.)

For the American members of the Combined Boards have to keep on meeting with the British and Canadians and with the representatives of other countries—France, Brazil—that are consulted at the committee level. It is they who have to make the explanations when what has been announced as a firm United States policy is revised, when one United States agency makes a pre-emptive move with regard to what have been the functions of another, when a United States administrator cheerfully calls in the press to release what has not been cleared with the American members of the Boards, and hence has not been transmitted by them to their British or Canadian colleagues, and hence will occasion diplomatic surprise when read in the papers.

The United States has by no means lost its shirt as a resuit of its carelessness in these transactions; as the economic senior partners in the war, when the United States representatives have seriously wanted supplies from outside sources, they have got them. But equally, the unnecessary use of the showdown as an instrument of national policy has been a real United States war cost in terms of international irritations for which the administrative sloppiness of Washington is directly responsible.

Indulgence in this sloppiness, moreover, has been very general. In the 1930’s, the looseness of executive structure, the internal feuds, the last-minute determination of policy at a higher level than would otherwise have been necessary, were readily characterized by those outside the government as weaknesses of the New Deal. But then the war put the industrialists who had done the characterizing behind top administrative desks,—and the internal feuds continued as flamboyantly as before. For this reason, development of a flair for—or at least a grasp of—the technique of integrated agreement should quite possibly be given top priority in American preparation for postwar decisions.

The objectives of peace are less easily defined than those of war. Where administrators on the United States side of the Boards have rationalized their dislike of paper work into a dislike of forward-looking policy, where, in reaction against the theoretic character of long-term planning, they have made a bits-and-pieces program out of their job and refused to deal with tomorrow until after noon today, the simple result has been to lose the initiative to their opposite numbers. During the war, this may not have been particularly costly. But there is no reason to suppose that the same result will not occur—is not occurring—in international structures directed to the postwar period, and there the price of American indiscipline may be high.

But if the British capacity for orderly administrative procedure has attracted the envy of American Combined Board personnel, the Americans have on the whole been inclined to feel that they have the edge when it comes to an attitude toward production. Rightly or wrongly, they have felt that the British approach to economic problems has been how to divide up a given quantity of materials or facilities so as to make it go furthest, whereas the American approach has been how to find a new supply, a new technique, a new way of packaging, so as to get from the raw material, the finished product, or the shipping space in question a bigger overall yield.

The well-stifled British impulse to diagnose American administration as adolescent, with the implication for backing and filling in the postwar world that the diagnosis implies, is therefore paralleled by a not-too-closely-held American impression that whereas actually the British postwar economic way out is to increase man-hour-productivity, it is in fact rather more likely to take the form of negotiation of cartels.


What of the Boards’ future? That some use of them will be made in the transition period is clear; they have been specifically designated as the agencies from which both UNRRA and the paying governments are to secure hunting licenses for supplies for relief and rehabilitation, and for at least those aspects of reconstruction which are undertaken in order to increase the sources of Allied military supply.

But for the longer term? What use, specifically, will be made of this fund of international economic proficiency in connection with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations Organization?

There are difficulties of various sorts. There is the question of structure. To date, there have been two nations on two 6? the Boards, and three nations on the two others. Within this circle, little by little, an amazing degree of frankness has been developed with regard to the interchange of information. The Boards’ fund of up-to-the-minute facts on world-wide economic processes is without previous parallel, and the use to which they have put these facts has improved the mechanics of world economic action.

For the war period, the restricted membership of the Boards has had two justifications: security, and the fact that the United States-United Kingdom-Canadian economies covered, after all, the major industrial resources outside Axis hands that were geographically located where they could be interrelated. But with the liberation of successive areas and the decline of enemy power, these justifications can no longer be supported. Exclusive membership will shortly begin to make the Combined Boards look like a combine; it is the occasion of some resentment even now.

Yet suppose membership were generalized. Suppose the Boards became the nucleus of the Economic and Social Council. They would then have eighteen actual members and the interests of forty to fifty nations to reconcile. Under such circumstances, would they cease to be operating agencies and lose their wartime streamlining? Would they become international conferences where talk is plentiful, legislation scarce, and executive action practically non-existent?

Beyond the difficulties of expediting action among the representatives of many nations, there is the additional problem of what to expedite. The transition activities of the Boards, like their wartime activies, are operations to handle shortages. But the productive capacities that have been developed during the war make it plain that after reconversion the problem will be reversed. Will the mutuality that has been clear in the face of scarcity be equally available in the face of abundance? (Certain difficulties that have arisen under lend-lease underscore this question.) The confusion evident among the nations now members of the Boards on what to do about their postwar domestic production is some measure of the international difficulties of the same job; the technique of handling abundance has hardly begun to be explored. Under the circumstances, how could the Boards get a clear mandate, or carry it out if it came?

Yet the Boards are going concerns which ought not to be declared surplus and scrapped at war’s end. In discussions of the Dumbarton Oaks Plan, the assumption has been too frequently made that the proposed United Nations Organization would start from scratch. Since the death of the League, this argument infers, there has been an unorganized interval, punctuated only by occasional brief meetings of heads of states. More realistic interpretation points to the Combined Chiefs of Staff as a currently functioning intergovernmental unit from which the military committee of the Security Council might develop, and to the Combined Boards as the basis for the Economic and Social Council.

The functions of this Council were hardly sketched at Dumbarton Oaks. But an emerging view seems to be that it should serve as an agency for reviewing the overall situation, acting much as the top Board members have acted on the Combined Boards. The special ad hoc agencies now in process of formation, the proposed International Bank and Monetary Fund, the International Aviation Council, the Food and Agriculture Organization, would then take on somewhat the same functions as have been performed by the technical committees of the Boards, preparing agenda on their respective specialties. So used, the experience in the collection and interpretation of overall figures and the expediting of co-operative intent which has developed in the Boards during the war period could be conserved as an international asset.


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