• Tom Doorley

We've done it before, we can do it again - sharing a few words of encouragement

Updated: Sep 1

by Thomas L. Doorley, III

David Nierenberg chairs the Board Leadership Forum, a joint program of Deloitte and The Millstein Center at Columbia Law School. I am a member of the Forum. At our last video conference, David closed our session with the following remarks. I share them with his permission. His account is personal and fact-based -- a reflection on how far behind the US was in 1942 as WWII came, hard, on our country. As he notes we struggled early, losing dramatically in the Pacific and just barely helping out in Europe. Then...well, we all know the rest of the story. David is encouraging us to do it again.



Growing up a Yankees fan, I worshipped Yogi Berra. Later, I came to love his quirky, brilliant way of speaking:

  • “It’s déjà vu all over again”

  • “Ninety percent of this game is half mental”

  • “When there’s a fork in the road, take it”

  • “It gets late early there”

Speaking of déjà vu, the parallels between where our country is today with where we were in the first half of 1942 are striking—and inspirational as well. Yogi, my father, and Ira Millstein—all World War II veterans—were then only 15-16 years old. Japan had just attacked Pearl Harbor, which brought us into World War II. The US was in great peril. Germany had overrun most of Europe and North Africa, leaving England to fight alone, blitzing it with air raids and using U-Boats to sink the merchant ships which were England’s lifeline. The Japanese had destroyed much of our Pacific fleet, and then they overran Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, Burma, and the Dutch East Indies, providing Japan with access to oil and rubber. Around the world, the Axis lopsidedly won victory after another. Though we ultimately won the War, we should never forget how precarious things were for us back in 1942.

Things got late early there. In the late 1930s the US’ total troop strength was down to only 188,000, leaving us the 19th military power in the world, behind Switzerland and Portugal. We still used horses. Soldiers practiced with wooden guns. Those with rifles carried a model that dated back to 1903. The Axis’ weapons, by contrast, were new and modern. Their military was well-trained. The Luftwaffe had 25,000 planes versus only 2,665 in the Army Air Corps.

President Roosevelt demanded massive rearmament in his January 6, 1942 State of the Union speech. Though he had earlier tasked the US to become “the arsenal of democracy,” before Pearl Harbor our ability to ramp weapons production was constrained by strong isolationist sentiment. Pearl Harbor unified us; it was the fork in the road and FDR took it. But what he asked of the country was so bold that it was almost preposterous: By the end of 1942, he challenged us to produce 60,000 warplanes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 6 million tons of merchant ships to replace those sunk by U-boats. To make this happen he recruited industry leaders to organize and manage production: Donald Nelson from Sears Roebuck, William Knudsen from General Motors, and Henry Kaiser for example. Leading companies began weapons production: General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Bechtel, Brown & Root, and many others. Scientists here, in England, and Poland made extraordinary advances, creating radar, sonar, the jet engine, the atomic bomb, and breaking German and Japanese codes.

While the country missed FDR’s 1942 production goals, our ramp was enormous nonetheless, enough to sustain England and Russia in the war and enable us to fight back: with the help of business leaders and millions of production workers, our arsenal of democracy built almost 48,000 warplanes, 32,000 tanks, 17,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 8.2 million tons of merchant ships. Our production rate by the end of 1942 was so high that the US achieved even higher weapons production goals in 1943. Business, science, and labor collaboration found ways to dramatically speed production so that Ford’s Willow Run factory learned to build one bomber every hour and Kaiser’s shipyards learned to build one Liberty Ship every four days.

This began to translate into Allied military victories, beginning in June 1942. At the Battle of Midway, after we cracked the Japanese code, our Navy and our fliers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and the Japanese lost hundreds of their best pilots, putting Japan on naval defense for the rest of the War. We stopped their land progress later that year in Guadalcanal and then began island-hopping back towards Japan. We and the English made multiple sea-based invasions of North Africa in November 1942, at that time the largest such invasion in world history, teaching our military how to battle the Germans with growing confidence.

1942, like 2020, started in great peril. Bold political leadership; creative partnerships with business management, scientists, and labor; the courage of those in uniform; and valiant efforts to support the War on the Home Front, enabled the Greatest Generation to preserve and protect the freedoms which we cherish today. But for them we might not be here. We live in a terribly challenging time today, battling the worst pandemic in over a century, the fastest and deepest recession in our lifetimes, and the same kind of political and social division which plagued this nation until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor united us. The Greatest Generation showed us what to do and how to do it. They inspire us today. Ninety percent of this game is half mental. We have the ability to do what they did, as we learn to work from home, contain the pandemic, develop a vaccine, and provide a safety net for those who are sick, out of work, under-employed and frightened. We shall not let this crisis go to waste. Thank you for what you are doing. God bless you and God bless America.

David Nierenberg Chairman of the Ira Millstein Center at Columbia Law School

This Sage Advice is shared by Sage Partners Founder and Chairman, Thomas L. Doorley, III


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