The Battle of Time


By CHARLES E. WILSON, President, General Electric Company

Given before the members of the Legislature of the State of New York, on the occasion of their inspection of Schenectady's war work, February 17, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 374-376.

IT has been a real pleasure for us, the citizens and neighbors of upstate New York, and particularly for all the workers of American Locomotive and General Electric, to welcome today to Schenectady the members of our state legislature. It seems to me to have produced a double opportunity—one for us and one for you. You visitors from Albany have had an opportunity to implement your thinking and your planning with certain stern realities, and we trust that you have been encouraged by what you have seen.

Our opportunity, on the other hand, finds itself in this contact with the representatives of a government branch to which we are so closely bound. A legislator in the flesh—and I have no intention of being flippant—can do much to correct and bring into focus the rather hazy picture of such an individual held by many of his fellow citizens. Strength and understanding flow in both directions from such a meeting, and we would all be better off to avail ourselves of these opportunities more often.

On such a day, at such an hour, and in the presence of such a company as this, we must wonder what there is to say. Perhaps it would be better not to speak at all, except through our works and our machines. So very much is spoken and written today concerning what we have done and what we have neglected, and yet it is a remarkable thing that men everywhere are still hungry for words. Particularly on the very dark days which we have been passing through does the sound of the human voice seem to act as a counter-irritant. From human contacts we get warmth, comfort, new strength, and at the very least, diversion.

There were two things in the news yesterday which I noted, because each of them seemed to supply a key to this meeting.

First, there was the release from Colonel Ohira, the spokesman of the Japanese War Office, who declared on Saturday that Japan is resolved to crush Britain and the United States completely. If it cannot be done with this generation, he said, we shall do it with the next. Japan's war aims, it seems, have not been met by Singapore and arenot confined to the Far East. To me, and to you, that statement spells out our challenge and defines our task.

The second bit of news concerns the new battleship Alabama, which yesterday left its ways at one of our Navy Yards, to be succeeded by the keel of the 45,000-ton Kentucky. The keel of the Alabama was laid only in February, 1940, and it required in its production, 12,225,421 man-hours of labor. To me, and to you, that statement spells out our progress. These are the tangible words and deeds by which we must now plot our lives—enemies and ships.

The very fact that you lawmakers journeyed to Schenectady and have seen two really important war-industry efforts today forces us to think of the war not only in terms of the battles of Europe and Asia, but also, if you please, in terras of the battle of New York State. Our State Defense Council, and our various local councils and organized emergency groups, have appropriately concentrated a great deal of their attention on the defense of our homes and the places in which we work. In two months this picture has changed completely. We have left defense and we are attacking, all along the line. In Schenectady, I can assure you, we are actively waging war. One part of this effort may be defensive in character, because a city such as this, with its concentrations of factories, communications, and people, becomes in wartime an immediate and natural object, or target, for sabotage, delay, and destruction. It may in all likelihood become a target for more direct attack. From these efforts of the enemy we cannot run away, and we shall not. We must live with them, roll with their impact perhaps, and never relax our vigilance.

Another phase of this battle of Schenectady you have seen for yourself—the vast and vital importance of time. Every weapon that we can produce in 1942 is worth at least two weapons that we may turn out in 1943. There may have been a time, a year ago, when the efforts of industry partook of an air once-removed from the battlefield; when we had the feeling that we were doing important work, perhaps, but that nevertheless we were doing it behind the lines, to help someone else. Today we are crouching behindmachines and desks and actually exchanging shots. This has so far ceased to be just a figure of speech that it is not even discussed any more. There is not time.

We are currently suffering from a great confusion that is arithmetical in origin. There have been just too many astronomical figures hurled at our heads—legislators and public alike. Vast appropriations have been marshalled and trained in the halls of Congress and then marched off to do battle for us. Believe me—they are but slim protection and I should hate to shelter my family behind them. We must remember that every dollar that has been appropriated is worthless, mere paper money without value, until it has been worked out in realistic terms of material, time, and sweat-as you saw today.

Certainly this has been one of the darkest days in our history, on which you have chosen to visit us. I don't mean any particular collection of hours designated Tuesday, but these hours of wartime which have followed the fall of Singapore and other defeats. We believe, because we must, that our day is coming but the dawn indeed seems to be most reluctant. On one other occasion, recently, I said that as we worked, behind us a clock was ticking and men were dying. Certainly this is the ultimate in time clocks, with a terrible efficiency which—for once—was not invented by Americans. We are forced to consider realities with every fresh batch of news —and we have been so slow in our realization.

It is inevitable that in any gathering such as this, the word "complacency" is hauled out and thrown—usually at someone else. I have noted among various people during the past week a growing resentment at this charge. The resentment probably has nothing to do with the truth of the term, but there are finer distinctions. Frankly, I don't believe our people are complacent, and I know for a fact that they are weary of being told they are, usually by those who helped to contribute to our present situation. We are all doing our best, and tomorrow we shall do better, and the day after that we shall make the word "impossible" begin to curl up around the edges. Perhaps we do need to realize that we may not win the war at all. We may lose it. But we are not complacent, not with that cold wind blowing down our backs.

"Sacrifices" are another drug on the market today. We have been hearing altogether too much about our individual and collective sacrifices—our tires, pay increases, taxes, clothes, pleasures, opportunities to make money, and time. These things which we are called upon to give up are not sacrifices at all. They are simply little pieces of peacetime selfishness which are scaling off. The only real sacrifice I can think of tonight is being thrown into battle—on the Bataan peninsula, perhaps—with one hand tied behind, no weapon in the other, and no shield overhead. No matter how much is written, now or later, about the supreme, sacred sacrifice of giving one's life—it is not grand, or fine, or pretty, or sacred to have a life crippled or blasted away. It is stark tragedy and the highest form of waste. Each of these men of ours loses the whole world, because for him it exists only while he lives.

Most of the so-called collective sacrifices aren't that at all—and I include labor's giving up its right to strike and industry's giving up the right to shape its independent destiny. We aren't giving up anything—we have no choice about it—we want none. Our only compulsion is necessity, and we are all fighting for the right to live, and nothing more.

We might say that during the past week the General Electric Company has sacrificed two of its most prosperous businesses to the national welfare, and I refer to domestic radio receivers and household refrigerators—both of which we have now been ordered to stop producing and selling. But we haven't sacrificed anything. Certainly we are gratified that we were able to build those businesses through the years, that from them we were able to derive a fair and attractive profit, that with them we were able to raise decisively the standards of American living. We are thankful to America to have had that opportunity, and now we freely throw that added strength in manpower and manufacturing capacity into the common effort. When, some years in the future, a woman is privileged to turn on her new radio and enjoy the world's music, or to open her new refrigerator as she prepares her evening meal, let her remember, if she will, that men fought to give her that privilege, that many of them died, and that the same engineering skill which makes her home a better place to live, threw around her country a mantle of protection and mounted on its beaches a scientifically superior armed force.

Having mentioned this matter of stopping radio and refrigerator production, may I just tell you that we are proceeding with all speed to convert these resources to war needs, and to train and adjust the workers involved to new tasks. We need these men and women, at Schenectady and Erie and Bridgeport and Fort Wayne. We need them all.

Then there is that other much-abused word—Washington—whence comes the wind, the wave, and also the will. It is hardly necessary to say that there are still, in the burrows and hives of our national capital, all too many evidences of duplication and criminal waste—and these are just the things we see. In certain quarters there seems to be a tremendous lack of realism, with thousands on the burgeoning public payroll pursuing the sideroads of bureaucratic repetition, of justifying publicity, of anti-trust investigation, of protecting minority groups, of pork barrels and petty electioneering—in a word, diddling and fiddling not while Rome burns, or Berlin, or Tokyo, but while our own world burns and starves and dies.

We have lost face. The United Nations have lost face, despite the efforts of gallant men in Singapore and the Philippines and the Netherlands Indies and Europe. We can take no special pride, it seems to me, in knowing how to die. Most people know how to do that. But we did take special pride in knowing how to live, and we have now lost face because our armies have lacked material and transport and aircraft. The correction of this lamentable condition is surely industry's job. We can only say, somewhat ashamed, "Hang on because we are on the way with what you need!"

Industry, I firmly believe, does not have its eye on war profits. It must be admitted that the scene tends to confuse even the conscientious and the well-informed. Big figures have a way of doing that. They unfortunately carry with them a seemingly robust air of profits, just because they are big. For example, some figures relating to General Electric may help to make the point.

A year ago we reported to our stockholders that during 1940 there had been an 81 per cent increase in orders received, and that of this amount defense orders accounted for about 35 per cent. This year we report that for 1941, orders received are 73 per cent greater than in 1940—amounting to $1,132,837,000. Many of our separate businesses, or lines, are today engaged a hundred per cent in war work.

A year ago we reported that annual earnings for the average individual employee were the highest in the company's history; today they are substantially higher. A yearago the total payroll dollars had increased some 28 per cent, and we had started the year with 70,000 employees and were finishing it with 88,600 employees. Today we are employing almost 125,000.

A year ago we said that in 1940 our productive facilities were approaching full utilization for the first time in a decade. What shall we say today? We must have passed that "full utilization" point sometime during the night when nobody was looking.

In 1940 our capital expenditures for plant and equipment were about 20 millions of dollars, a quarter of which were for defense purposes, and we then estimated the cost of our expansion program to be in the neighborhood of 50 millions of dollars. I can tell you that present estimates approximately treble that figure.

We increased our war effort by 65 per cent in 1941, and today—in 1942—we are running at a rate of nearly 100 per cent greater production in the heavy apparatus lines— and we are making many products, furthermore, which havebeen entirely foreign to our previous experience. Fortunately they are not today foreign to our understanding and ability In the American Locomotive and General Electric factories which you inspected today were thousands of very busy people, and here is an angle that to me is interesting. Perhaps it is also interesting to legislators. Many of these workers are paying income taxes for the first time. Almost all of them have bought defense bonds. Ali of them, in some way, are putting their money into the war effort. I would like to call your attention, moreover, to the fact that they, having given their dollars, are now laboring to turn them into something, laboring to forge a weapon that will restore whatever face we have lost. This is labor, and this is industry, purified by fire, working together in unity on the one job we all have to do. Just as these Schenectady workers were pleased to show themselves to you as concrete, dynamic evidence of the will to win, so I hope you were impressed by what you saw, and have become one with us in our determination to conquer.