Public Opinion and the War


By PAUL GARRETT, Chairman, Public Relations Committee, Automotive Council for War Production

Delivered at the Annual Meeting, Automotive Council for War Production, Detroit, Mich., July 10, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 692-693.

THE Automotive Council for War Production came into being shortly after Pearl Harbor as a new instrument to speed mass production of war materials. Creation of the Council reflected a momentous shift to war work by our industry. We went out of the automobile business in which we had been highly competitive. We undertook more or less jointly the largest public assignment ever given any industry.

This industry had been conscious of its responsibilities from the beginning of the defense program, long before the Axis attack. It had many Army and Navy projects already in mass production. True, the industry was still making automobiles—though under a progressive curtailment program—yet the volume of war work under way was fully up to the pre-Pearl Harbor psychology of national defense. It had long been ready to undertake more projects desired by the Army and Navy but which they could not clear. They did not have the appropriations. For Congress, in turn, was not yet sure of its own backing by a still skeptical public.

But the early December cloudburst of Nipponese over Hawaii threw people here into a war fever. Indifference turned to anger. Overnight, people wanted war production on the mass scale to which the automobile industry had accustomed their thinking. Even at that time the industry had $4,800,000,000 of war orders under way. Then fresh Army and Navy orders began pouring in that very night to sweep the total up by January to $10,000,000,000. Our "know how" of mass production techniques made it inevitable that the automobile industry would be given tremendous responsibilities. However, to complicate matters still more, the public collaterally began assigning us responsibility even faster than could the armed services.

A Case of Changed Psychology

Suddenly everyone became impatient. Not in recent memory has this industry been so criticized as then for its allegedslow rate of conversion to war. Actually it was not a case of slow conversion. It was a case of changed psychology. That created an acute public relations problem. Unfortunately, the public generally did not understand how much time was required to get into mass production on anything new, particularly on intricate war products with which the industry was not familiar.

Your Committee feels, however, that the industry, through its Council and through its individual members, in 1942 so far has handled itself very well from a public relations standpoint. A Gallup poll on this industry that was in the doghouse only last January would show an amazing reversal in public opinion, for:

First: Our industry has been able to accelerate war production day by day until it is right now delivering, for use by the armed forces, $12,000,000 worth of military equip-ment a day. That is a new feat in military history. It is the nation's evidence of what it can expect through mass war production to back up our armed forces for their ultimate victory.

Second: Our industry, through careful planning and an exchange of tools, procedures, and ideas, managed its shift to an all-out war effort with a maximum "change-over" drop in employment of only 12 1/2, per cent below December.

Third: Our industry, long experienced in subcontracting, has done an outstanding job in utilizing to productive advantage the skills, facilities, and production capacities of its suppliers, parts makers, and all its large group of auxiliary concerns included in the current term "subcontractors." Outstanding too has been the contribution of these automotive suppliers through their efficient procedures, long established, which the industry has continued to utilize in tackling this new and highly technical job.

Fourth: Our industry went through its critical period of change-over as a unit of private enterprise without need of Government control, through voluntary cooperation of alarge group of manufacturers and suppliers—bent not on making an immediate showing so much as on laying the ground-work for a continuing long-range war production effort.

Fifth: Our industry, in accomplishing all of these things, has been able in this short time to achieve a complete subordination of all normal industrial interests to the needs of a nation at war.

We can be proud of these accomplishments. We can be proud that we have won our way to a strong public position. But let us take only such satisfaction in that position as will encourage us to go on. We can be sure that the public will continue to expect more and more of us. So we must keep our sights high both as regards production itself and as regards a public understanding of production.

Public Opinion Is Never Static

Good public relations for this industry starts with what people think. Back of that it starts with what we ourselves do. Opinion, deeply rooted in people's minds, is just as much of a fact so far as public relations is concerned, and just as important a fact to be dealt with, as a scientific finding from a research laboratory. The good relations our industry now enjoys came chiefly from its success in doing its job on war production but partly from the better understanding people were given of how this feat was accomplished.

But public opinion is never static. Certainly, we can look forward to rapid and dramatic changes in the aspects of war, changes in the technical requirements of war equipment on the firing line, and hence changes in the responsibility and demands that will be placed upon industry. So we must ever expect future problems to arise that may become our responsibility in the public mind unless we exercise imagination now. What can we do to anticipate and help meet these potential problems?

First: We can continue to keep in mind in our engineering efforts that industry responsibility in this war will not be satisfied by success in meeting production schedules alone. We have a responsibility, under guidance of the Army and Navy technicians, to contribute our best thought as well as to help maintain the technical superiority of military products.

Military tactics have shifted several times already in World War II, involving important changes in the characteristics of weapons required to back up our armed forces at the front. Industry is not responsible for the planning of Army and Navy projects. But, from a broad standpoint, is it not industry's duty to exercise all the ingenuity and imagination it can in still further making available the experience of industry to assist technicians of the Army, Navy and Air commands in their responsibility of meeting these changing military requirements? May not this added contribution come to equal in importance the duty of meeting production schedules?

Second: We can do more planning in support of a new phase of war that depends not on production but on the ability of supply staffs to follow production into the fighting areas with parts and men trained to service machines on the field of battle. Experience on the fighting fronts is emphasizing the fact that it is not the amount of equipment an army possesses but the amount kept in fighting trim that helps win battles.

Third: We will need to give the public a clearer understanding of the financial position of the industry in war. This means a better understanding of the industry's profit policy on war production, of the system of renegotiation of contracts through which constantly improved productionmethods are reflected in lowered costs to the Government, and of the industry's contribution to the war by way of its own investment in plants, equipment, and inventory.

Must Anticipate Future Criticism

Your Committee feels that if we would hold our hard-won public position we should continually take a fresh view of the problems ahead. If we wait for new criticism it will be too late. We must anticipate future criticism and in that anticipation apply sound public relations principles. This means that, supplementing our all out war effort, so far as military censorship permits:

(a) We should continue to tell the production story.

(b) We should continue to identify technical management and management planning with this production.

(c) We should not cease to emphasize quality and precision manufacture put into the implements our armed forces are using.

(d) We should call attention to the help being given to military technicians in their task of developing superior designs in military products and maintaining technological superiority in the field.

(e) We should point out our work with the army in helping organize repair facilities and parts depots and trained men in the field to keep mechanical equipment in fighting condition.

(f) We should continue to tell the story of our training programs.

(g) We should explain again and again the operation—an old story in the automobile industry—of subcontracting.

(h) We should guard against generating over-optimism on war production since there are such potential bottlenecks to be reckoned with as limitations upon the supply of critical materials and transport facilities.

(i) Above all, we should never in our pride over a production job well done take any credit from the armed forces, for the victory will be their victory and everything we build is to back them up at their fighting fronts.

How Attitude Toward Industry Has Changed

In some respects it is an anomalous position in which we now find ourselves. The formula of industry relied upon to save democracy stems from the very elements recently suspect:

Do you recall the charge that mechanization of industry had gone too far?

Do you recall the charge that mass production as developed by industry in this country was a dehumanizing influence not in the public interest?

Do you recall the charge that industry was spending too much of the stockholders' money on scientific research?

Do you recall the charge that bigness in industry was destroying the democratic way of life so much cherished in this country?

Where, I ask, would the world have been in this war to make individuals free if it had not been for these "suspect" ingredients of American industry?

It is for those who believe in America to speed production in this war with all their might and at the same time to speed understanding—an understanding of what industry in America can mean to the armed forces now and what it can mean later on to the world to which these men will return.

The way to acquire a reputation for constructive thought and action for the peace is to think and act and speak constructively now in the emergency of war.