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War Theory Defenses & The Historical Record

Meeting the contingencies of a modern, technological war waged on a global scale required the near-total mobilization of American society. While millions of the nation’s men and women served in the military, many millions more in the civilian sector rallied to the defense of their nation. Children collected scrap paper, adults collected scrap-metal, and households across the nation spaded up their backyards to plant victory gardens.

Industry, naturally, played a pivotal role in the nation’s war effort. On February 10, 1942, as the last new civilian automobile rolled off Detroit’s assembly line, private industry and the federal government entered into an unprecedented partnership to provide the military with the weapons and material needed for war. Halting the production of civilian automobiles was but one example of the switch from a peace-time economy to one focused upon military necessity. The government placed strict limits on the manufacture of consumer goods, implemented wage and price control measures, and regulated the hiring and firing of workers.

By offering low-interest loans, generous tax credits, and guaranteed purchase contracts the federal government both stimulated and controlled the course of private industry during the war-years. In some instances the government even constructed entire factories, handing them over to private interests to operate. The standard defense contract guaranteed payment on actual cost plus a fixed percentage profit. The government ensured that contractors received needed raw material, arranged transportation for the raw materials and finished goods, and ensured that an adequate labor force was available to meet the manufacturer's needs.

Many of the defense-related factories of the World War II era are listed as Superfund sites under the terms of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA targets four types of potentially responsible parties for Superfund liability:

  • owners of sites;
  • operators of sites;
  • transporters of hazardous substances; and
  • those who arrange for such transportation.

It is important to note that owners may be held liable even if they purchased land without knowledge of hazardous wastes contained on their property. CERCLA imposes strict liability and, therefore, does not require a specific finding of negligence before penalties may be imposed. Also, joint and several liability allows the EPA to force a party who may be responsible for only part of the damage to pay the entire cost of cleanup.

Defenses to liability are limited to:

  • acts of God;
  • acts of war;
  • actions of a third party;
  • innocent landowner defense; and
  • security interest exemption.

Several court rulings have determined that the federal government can be held liable for various levels of involvement at industrial sites during and after World War II. Also, private parties can chase the federal government and other responsible parties to recover costs of remediation at sites where voluntary cleanups have been undertaken. Previous conditions required the EPA to initiate legal actions before a property owner could seek recompense for cleanup actions. Beyond cost recovery, establishing federal liability can expedite settlement with the government, which becomes more receptive to such discussions once they are named as a responsible party.

  • Ownership of facilities or day-to-day control of operations by federal agencies is sufficient to establish liability, but not the only means. Others include:
  • Operations related only to products manufactured for wartime use or federal contracts;
  • Presence of government inspectors at a facility;
  • Knowledge of injurious waste disposal practices;
  • Imposition of specifications for processes and/or products; and
  • Contractual indemnification/insurance.

Among the many resources that can be utilized to gather historical information related to war theory defenses are the archival and published records of such federal agencies as the:

War Production Board (WPB)

The War Production Board (WPB) was established by executive order of January 16, 1942. The Board assumed the functions previously delegated to the Supply Priorities and Allocation Board and the Office of Production Management. The function of the Board was to exercise general direction over the war procurement and production programs of all federal departments and agencies. The Board was terminated November 3, 1945 and its remaining function transferred to the Civilian Production Administration.

Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC)

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) was created by an act of January 22, 1932 to extend aid during the Depression to agriculture, commerce and industry by direct loans to banks, credit agencies, and railroads. Subsequent legislation authorized the RFC to make loans directly to business and, with the advent of World War II, to acquire strategic and critical materials, provide financing for plant conversion and construction, and undertake many other activities involved in the war effort.

Defense Plant Corporation (DPC)

Defense Plant Corporation (DPC), National Archives - Washington, D. C. DPC was organized August 22, 1940 to finance and supervise construction and equipping of industrial facilities operated by private concerns sponsored by federal agencies administering defense and war programs. It was dissolved and merged with RFC July 1, 1945.

Related Readings

  • Cardozier, V.R. The Mobilization of the United States in World War II: How the Government, Military, and Industry Prepared for War (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, c1995).
  • Fairchild, Byron and Jonathan Grossman.  The Army and Industrial Manpower  (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 2002).
  • Gropman, Alan L. Mobilizing U.S. Industry in World War II: Myth and Reality (Washington, D.C.: Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 1996)
  • Hamby, Alonzo L. The Imperial Years, The U.S. Since 1939 (New York: Longman Inc., 1976).
  • Keegan, John. The Second World War (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989).
  • Lingeman, Richard R. Don’t you know there’s a war on?: The American home front, 1941-1945 (New York: Putnam, 1970).
  • Millis, Walter. Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1956).
  • Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Sixth edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985).
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).