A WEAPON OF DESTRUCTION AND A TOOL OF PEACE
By CHESTER H. LANG, Vice-President, General Electric Company
Delivered before the Annual Meeting of the Edison Electric Institute, Biltmore Hotel, New York City, Thursday, June 11, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 605-608.
FOURTEEN months ago someone assigned me the job of reporting to the Edison Electric Institute at Chicago, what the electrical manufacturing industry was going to do for them, at a time when we were just beginning to fumble actively with what we termed a defense program. To the best of my ability, employing knowledge and facts that obviously had only a day-to-day legitimacy, I tried to carry out that assignment. In less than nine months we were at war. Something new had been added; a great many old things had been taken away.
Quoting from one speech to help out another is a questionable practice at best. But perhaps you will let me use against myself a trick employed by congressional investigating committees in Washington, namely, to quote away from its context, something I said then:
"The electric kitchen may prove to be more important to our continued existence than a flying fortress. . . . I see no reason why we, who make the tools of electrical living, or you, whose job it is to see that they are applied on a wide scale, should abate our efforts just because an emergency exists, or because, for a limited time, we have to wrestle with such difficulties as curtailed production, substitute materials, and the temporary intoxication of increased payrolls."
The rest of it was nowhere near that bad. But what strikes me now, about the things we were saying then, was the presumptuousness and the blindness with which we concentrated on our own little patch of garden. It was several months before we could pull ourselves out of the backyard and let go with all our strength in the front lines. I think we have done that now, as a nation, rather than as individuals. Our domestic isolationism sank under the waters of the far Pacific, and as we tasted the brine and blood and angrily surveyed our wounds, we became once more a democracy at war—thus recreating that miracle which Europe always thinks it has seen for the last time.
In my heart, I did not believe, fourteen months ago, any more than you believed, that we could continue business as usual. We were simply reluctant to give up the ghost. Now that we have put all that behind us, perhaps we have the right to draw certain conclusions about the electrical industry without being accused of forgetting the job in hand. Nightand day, every day, we of the electrical industry have to wear the blinders of war and have no business concerning ourselves with much else than men, tools, plants, and a production schedule that can never produce enough, nor produce it fast enough, until the war is won. I, for one, want nothing better than that. But notwithstanding all that, notwithstanding the fact that in my present assignment I have my nose, and my heart, very close to the desperate issues of this war, I am nevertheless impressed each day anew with the ultimate destinies of this business of ours.
Conflict which needs everything we can give, simultaneously points up our common future. And that is because electricity is not only a terrible weapon of destruction—it is also a magnificent tool of peace. It will not be denied, unless we ourselves deny it with foolish conservatism and utter lack of courage. Every ton of metal that comes crashing to earth as the direct result of our efforts can only rise again and become useful with the help of kilowatt-hours. Every house that lies bomb-shattered rubble because of the cunning devices we have engineered can only become a home of comfort and safety and pride and efficiency through the efforts of this industry. No man-made business can raise the dead, but the tragedy of their wasted lives can be balanced somewhat if we exert ourselves to produce the glorious future that is within our power.
It is a great temptation to take that talk of fourteen months ago, point by point, and bring it up to date. We noted then that every product of the electrical industry embodies the discoveries of the scientist, the creative genius of the engineer, and the skilled work of the master craftsman. Our electrical manufacturing industry was then scheduled to build a billion dollars worth of war material, and it looked like a mighty burden. That was a billion on order, from the entire industry, and no man knew how soon we would be able to convert and design and train and get out the goods. What happened? I can't tell you—and wouldn't be allowed to, probably—what the electrical manufacturing industry as a whole has done to date, but in 1942 alone my own company will produce something like a billion in war goods. You can do your own multiplication to obtain the industry figure.
Every one of you, in a way, has ridden a convoy orwrestled a destroyer through the cold waters of the Atlantic, and has Mown with Doolittle over Tokyo. Propulsion turbines, supercharges, auxiliary motors and generators, radio— all of the ingenious combinations of power and light and control which are finally being thrown against the enemy—are the children of this industry, derived from its ingenuity, tested by its toil and patience, improved by its restless appetite for a better way, sent out to battle with its advice and blessing. Like all parents, we send our pride and confidence with them into battle. Like good children, they will return from the wars to show us a few new tricks. We will have better turbines and motors, better communication equipment, and priceless new knowledge as a result.
There has been one curious and perhaps unexpected result from cutting-off of consumer electrical goods. Several months ago some of us timidly suggested that perhaps we were not just fighting this war to protect and extend the old freedoms and beliefs. We said maybe we are fighting also for our way of living, with its greater comforts and efficiency, for the shorter hours and higher wages, for the sheer pleasure of living well. To be honest, we meant, in a narrow sense, that we were fighting for ranges and refrigerators and better light and well-planned homes and washing machines and radios. We were timid, as I say, because this didn't sound quite decent, to be spoken of in the same breath with the agony and sacrifice of war—a truly solemn business. And yet I am convinced that concept was all right. As the accepted conveniences of our civilization were frozen and rationed, people suddenly became conscious of the shining, useful things that they had taken for granted. At first they were annoyed —and then they became mad—at Hitler and the rest of the bandits who were reaching out across the oceans to pinch and harass their private lives.
Now you may say that this is a small and unworthy kind of war aim to advance when such elemental issues as freedom or slavery are at stake. But I am not so sure. None of us would actually go out and storm a pillbox to save his electric refrigerator, but all of us would fight for our right to enjoy the fruits of progress, for the right to eat well and wear good clothes, for the right to educate our children and turn them loose with an even chance to convert their talents and ambition into worldly rewards—and right there I think we have something. I subscribe to the thought advanced by the president of my company the other day—that millions of young Americans in the armed forces are not content to risk their lives just for the old freedoms guaranteed by the the Constitution. They are not fighting for the past alone, but for the future. They want to come back to unrestricted opportunity, to an enjoyment of all the wonderful things that scientific research and enlightened free enterprise can give them. And they don't want it on a "gimmie" basis. Our peacetime products, on both sides of the watt-hour meter, are practical symbols of this war objective. For that reason they are important.
Again, more than a year ago, we spoke of some of the specific jobs that had been entrusted to the electrical industry—equipment for land, sea, and air, involving power, control, and light. These were things we knew we could build because they were part of our experience, and the only real obstacles were the pressure of time and the rapid expansion called for. The end of that expansion seems to be in sight. Now the job is to use that new industrial capacity for all it is worth. We have already beaten time, again and again, in many lines. Often just as we were well on the way to solving one schedule it would be doubled or tripled and the heat was on all over again. This has been no easy job, but I don't think there was ever any real doubt that it could be done.
We talked about the secret developments in research and engineering laboratories, and I am sure that you who are a part of this industry were reasonably impressed to hear that several hundred scientists were hard at work trying to win the war with physics and chemistry and electronics. But being part of this industry, you were probably a little uneasy also, and silently hoped that these mysterious developments would manage to get out of the laboratories before the war was over. In bringing this report up-to-date, I would like to tell you—and this you must take on faith—that a good share of these developments are now production realities and some of them are already helping to destroy our enemies. We can take a searchlight beam and tie the end of it in a knot about an enemy plane. We can take an automatic pilot of a bombing plane and endow him with skill and cunning that a human pilot can never have, the flesh and blood being what it is. We can increase by many times the margin by which a projectile can miss its mark and still be destructive. The presently untellable stories of scientific achievements bearing on this war will one day be the material for a fascinating record of mass ingenuity and inventive skills.
So much for time that is past, and the use we have made of it. What about June, 1942? On the credit side of the ledger are the recent military successes by our side. The chief of the War Production Board has stated that we are over the production hump. In fact, as we look around, many seem to feel that the only real problems left are rubber tires and gasoline.
But, gentlemen, I say to you that only one really destructive "bomb" has been dropped by us into the camp of the enemy. It exploded when the United States entered the war, and when this fact was made known to the peoples of the Axis countries, according to our recently returned newsmen and diplomats. It didn't knock over any troops or tanks. It didn't cause anybody to throw up the sponge. But it made them think—because their leaders had said that this would never happen. This bomb brought down a little plaster in the neat, tight compartment of the Axis mind. But by itself it will produce no victory for us.
Furthermore our enemies have a secret weapon which haunts me, and that is poison gas—not mustard or phosgene or any of the other pleasant little concoctions—but the poison of our own complacent overconfidence, fed by misinformation and an over-eagerness to march in a victory parade. This is poison because it can knock us out for good. It is to be feared because it is so pleasant to take, and every one of us is guilty of inhaling it at every opportunity. Too many of our leaders, right now, are manning the ejectors of this dangerous gas.
What makes us so light-hearted? Didn't we suffer terrible damage in the air, on land, and on the sea at Pearl Harbor? Haven't we lost the Philippines? Haven't American soldiers, sailors and marines on Bataan and Corregidor been humiliated and disappointed and crushed? All the fine words and rosy forecasts in the morning paper can't hide the fact that we have been beaten back all the way to Australia and India and the Arctic Ocean, that we need a convoy to get to England, and that more than 250 ships have been torpedoed on our own Atlantic doorstep. And we talk about the Axis crumbling. Up to this very moment we have been thoroughly licked.
What is meant by 'we're over the hump'? Only that now we have the mold in which to cast the bullet. We still have to make it, load it, take aim, and fire. This feeling that we have labored mightily and can coast a little is the most dangerous doctrine in the world. It doesn't have very much to do with making or selling electric power but Ihave no apology for laboring the point here because there is nothing more important in the world today.
In Europe and in Asia we have exhausted, discouraged peoples; they can be either our best friends or our worst enemies in the days ahead. Whichever it is, will depend on our performance. Some of them will die in either event, and they know it. Perhaps we Americans have gone too long without a Valley Forge. I hope we can win without too much dying, without any starving, and with as few tears as possible—but these tragedies on our own soil and in our own family are the elemental fires that burn away the rich fat of the years.
The Russians, as a result of a lot of thick, gloomy volumes of literature, came to be known early in this century as a nation of talkers. Over tea and vodka they poured out their miseries in endless conversations that ran into hundreds of pages, while their children starved and their brothers were driven to Siberia and their natural wealth was wasted. I wonder if they will ever talk like that again, after Leningrad and Karkhov and the blood-drenched Don River? There is a haunting similarity today in the streets and hotel corridors of Washington—the city that has ceased being a city and become a situation, obsessed with gasoline ration cards, the continuation of the National Youth Administration or who held back what patent ten years ago.
I want to make a correction. These matters do have a lot to do with the conduct of our business, because our business is winning this war, and nothing else. We are piling up tanks and guns and shells in our plants and on our wharves. We are lining up young men in our camps and teaching them how to fight. These are the things we have always known how to do, and we are doing them again. We must keep on doing them until this ghastly mess is finished.
As of today we are losing the battle of transportation. We need ships—transports and submarines and escort vessels. Until we swing the tide of that battle over onto our side, all the war material we can produce with our vaunted production machine is so much scrap metal, no better than the tons of supplies that were blown sky-high in Burma because we didn't have the right things in the right places.
And what makes a ship? Many things. Wood and steel and welding electrodes and guns and man-hours and electric power-—to name just a few. Men make ships and all that goes into them. America makes men. Each of us has at least two responsibilities—doing our job and living up to that job. For eight or ten or twelve hours a day we must draw largely from within ourselves the power to concentrate on turning our own little crank. For twenty-four hours a day we need to concentrate also on the other thing, which means so living that we not only deserve the traditions that lie behind, but the opportunities that lie ahead. We're not doing that if we chisel and backbite, if we waste hours and squander money, or if we delude ourselves with visions of our past glories arid our indestructibility.
Despite everything that has been said of our progress of the last several months, we had better not even pause to pat ourselves on the back. Of course we built new factories. Of course we trained men. Of course we subscribed tons of money to fight our war. Of course we are building in an incredibly short space of time some of the best weapons the world has ever seen. We should be ashamed and chagrined if we had done anything else. There was never anything but conviction among Americans generally that we would do what was expected of us production-wise. In fact, it was the ordinary man who first became uneasy at our seeming slowness and demanded that we hold something more terrible than a blueprint or an appropriation at the head of the aggressor.
Now that we have gotten over the hump—and I think Mr. Nelson means only that we had emerged from the welter of make-ready and pilot models—we have the real job yet to do. We've been training. Now let's fight, each with the weapons or tools he knows best. Let's blast and pound and slash, day after day, month after month, year after year, if need be, always bearing in mind that it is not the single blow that counts, no matter how mighty, but the cruel and tireless rhythm of sustained effort, a rhythm that persists until the piece is finally played out.
There has been some criticism, of the grim and uncompromising manner in which the war effort has been put before business and the public. One answer is that there is a terrible efficiency in death and destruction. We had to be hurt, and hurt badly, before we could rouse ourselves. In war there is little time to consider what lies beyond the range of our guns. But certainly this audience can have no doubt of the positive rewards of victory, for there are rewards over and above the mere fact of our continued existence. In the concluding phase of this report I would like to sketch hurriedly a few things that concern you.
When Hitler decreed that this would be a mechanized war dependent upon mass production and then proceeded to make it impossible for us to stay out of it, he asked us, in effect, with the usual Teutonic lack of psychological foresight, to choose our favorite weapon.
It takes a specialist like Lieut. General Knudsen who has toured our war plants to appreciate the miracle of mass production that is taking place. As Knudsen would put it, "We didn't know our own strength." It took cold, clammy fear, striking at the heart of a nation, to teach it that it was a mere tyro in the practice of the skill for which it has seemed to have a God-given aptitude—mass production. You simply have to get out and visit the General Electrics, theWestinghouses, the Boeings, the Willow Runs, the Warner & Swaseys, the shipyards to see the miracle of mass production that is going on.
Most other nations, even before the war, envied our ability to mass produce at low cost (despite high wages) canned soups, automobiles, electric kitchens, and kiddie cars, but now, in our desperate plight, we have learned that we can extend our mass production methods to tanks, locomotives, flying fortresses, ships, and finally to that Great Individualist of the machine age—the steam turbine.
One factor that has made mass production of heavy, heretofore tailor-made, apparatus possible has been concentration on a few standard ratings—standardization unwillingly accepted under the stinging lash of time.
Naively almost, we have been astounded at the savings in time and cost that have resulted. We built a shiny new plant somewhere west of the Alleghenies with a capacity to produce nine 30,000 h.p. ship-propulsion turbines a month. We whistled bravely, knocked on wood, and kept our fingers crossed because at Schenectady where we've always built large turbines—practically no two of them alike—we have never averaged more than 3 or 4 units of comparable size per month.
Are we going to meet that seemingly blue-sky schedule of nine units per month? No, we're going to exceed it by producing at least 15—thanks to duplicate manufacture of a standardized design. This may seem like the last place to divulge costs, but inevitably such a program yields appreciably lower costs, despite high starting expenses and the inefficiencies that must be accepted under rapid acceleration. As tax payers you will benefit by lower prices to the Navy. The same experience is being encountered in our production of other highly technical war materials and I haven't the slightest doubt but that this is true throughout the electricalmanufacturing industry. Again as General Knudsen said, "We didn't know our own strength."
Another thing we have learned—and this is most significant—standardization puts no ceiling on development. Conversely, richer dividends in higher standards of quality, and performance can be expected because of the ability to concentrate engineering talent on designs that offer the greatest potentialities for progress.
Bearing this in mind, may I ask a question: If we can make such savings in time and cost for war production, can we not do it for you for peacetime production?
As an industry, you make the most standardized product in the world—the kilowatt hour. And as an industry, you have alertly furthered the advancement of standards—meters, distribution transformers, lamps, etc. But shouldn't you, and we, in the light of what we are now learning, vigorously explore the possibilities of extending this standardization to heavy apparatus?
All wars teach lessons and advance technology—at great cost, to be sure. We shall have failed in our duty if we do not make the most of the helpful lessons this one is teaching us. To us in this industry one lesson can be this: That there is no obstacle other than habit or tradition that stands in either your way or ours to block the extension of standardized manufacture, with all of its resulting advantages, to the substation, the transmission system—yes, even to the generating station, and in the broader sense to the cost of supplying electricity.
And so, having come at last through a somewhat unorganized report of the various activities, tendencies, and possibilities making up the scene of the electrical industry at war, I would like to leave just this with you:
Yesterday men and women of our flesh and blood built a nation, and as part of that greater job, built an industry, They gave it their hopes, their talents, and their strength. Today we must give it no less. Because of the nature of that industry, we have seen it weave itself into the fabric of growth, so that today it touches every man who lives and works. In the punctuation of electrical progress, there may be commas, there have been exclamation points, there will always be—for a time—question marks, but there is no period. That emblem of finality cannot exist for the electric light and power industry or its partner in progress, the electrical manufacturing industry.
Its trials and tribulations within the American scene are as nothing compared to the terrible danger that confronts it from without—now, today, in this very hour. The real stake is America and its way of life—not our puny part as individuals or companies.
Therefore, as a final word I cannot refrain from pleading that we tear into the grim job in hand, slashing, fighting, working, with selfless devotion; that we spend ourselves in toil and sweat—yes, blood and tears—letting these lines remind us of the utter urgency:
Time that is past thou never canst recall
Of time to come thou art not sure at all,
The present only is within thy power
And, therefore, now, improve the present hour.
Cold-blooded, hard-boiled realism you say—I agree. So lacking in spiritual values, they clash with all our best instincts. Yet this is war. But let me come back to a more hopeful note, a simple formula, embracing some promise for the future, yet emphasizing our present goal—
A task without a vision is drudgery
A vision without a task is a dream
A task with a vision is Victory.