The British Home Front Compared with Ours


By MRS. EUGENE MEYER, Journalist

Delivered before The Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, Cal., March 19, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 459-464.

THE Commonwealth Club of California has done me a great honor in asking me to discuss the British home front and compare it with ours. It is for many reasons quite a responsibility. For the past six weeks I have been traveling through this great country of ours. I have been in our largest industrial centers, in small towns that have been overwhelmed by new war industries, in remote rural areas like Crab Orchard, formerly known as "Bloody Herrin," about 100 miles south of St. Louis, where Army Ordnance has put a shell filling plant that gives work to people who have been on relief for 15 years. I have interviewedevery sort of person from Edsel Ford to the inhabitants of the trailer camps at Willow Run, from C. E. Wilson, President of General Motors, to C.I.O. foremen and pretty Polish girls on the Cadillac assembly line. But, oddly enough, instead of wiping out the memory of my British trip, these crowded weeks of studying our own home front have only made that other home front stand out more clearly. Not because their production can compare with ours. It can't. Not because their difficulties are less numerous than ours. They are not. But what makes the memory of my British experience an invaluable guide is the orderliness, coordination and the unity of that country and the tremendous impetus which those three supreme qualities give to their war effort.

They derive this order and unity from an emphasis wholly different from ours. In Britain the whole weight of the war rests upon the people. Here it is carried by the Government. There the Government is used as a mere tool to make the people effective, to conserve every ounce of material and food and human energy. Here the Government is entranced with its own powers and thinks of the people as a helpless lot of sheep that need constant watching, with the result that our resources and human energies are restricted by one group of bureaucrats, and wasted by the others.

I know the hazards of pointing out to my fellow Americans that any foreign country, let alone Britain, does things better than we do. For we suffer from a sense of superiority and indifference, from an unconscious arrogance toward all foreign countries, characteristic of a young and fortunate people that has never known defeat.

Let me tell you of an actual story that happened in Washington only recently. An English women, a friend of mine, was taking her little boy to school. They met an American child who was in his class. She stopped and said to the mother: "I like Benjamin, even though my father is anti-British." Naturally the English woman was somewhat dumbfounded, thought a moment and said to the child: "What would you think if I said I was anti-American?" Little Jane thought that one over for a moment very seriously, looked up at the English mother naively, and replied: "Why, there's no such word."

If we are to appreciate Great Britain as the invaluable ally which it is, not only in the present struggle for victory, but in the coming struggle to establish a democratic world, we must overcome our hostility, our feeling of superiority, and our indifference to other countries and approach the study of this embattled Britain as if we were hearing of a newly discovered land.

The greatest shock to anyone returning from what is practically the battle-front to this country is the difference in the tempo in life of the people as a whole. For of what total war means, we have not as yet learned even the first lessons. It means that the home front is not merely an aid and encouragement to the army in the field, but the foundation upon which the whole weight of the war rests. It means that every man, woman and child is as much of a soldier as the men in the front line trenches. It means that human life and human effort are directed toward a single aim—victory.

Above all things, it means incessant work. Work never ceases over there, grinding, steady, unremitting toil by day and by night, not only for those in the prime of life but for the old as well, down to the children only fourteen years of age. In the factories the wheels of production do not stop even when the alert sounds, but only when the klaxon gives warning that an enemy plane is but three minutes away.

The burden of total war falls particularly upon the women of the country with ruthless impact. As I look back on my trip, the most vivid memory of the heavy work the British women are doing is, oddly enough, not of the iron foundries, shipyards, boiler shops, munitions factories or of the farms, where I saw them carrying a man's load, but of individual housewives who taught me what it means to run a family under war conditions. I began to see even the woman factory worker from the domestic angle, because her hardest job begins after she gets home.

"We military men," said an officer, "lead comparatively sheltered and comfortable lives, but my wife works around the clock."

Six and one-half million women have full-time war jobs. Another half million do part-time work. All women between 21 and 45 are registered and subject to call, except married women with small children. Single women between the ages of 21 and 31, are mobile and can be conscripted for duty anywhere. Married women with children cannot be conscripted, but they volunteer in great numbers.

Every public official will tell you that the influence of the women has been a great stimulus to war production. In one shipyard I saw an old man wiping the sweat off his face, completely exhausted as he came off his shift. "What's the matter, Jim?" asked the foreman who was showing me around. "It's them women," replied Jim. He had been re-lining a furnace with bricks which three pairs of women in relays were tossing up to his scaffold. They had passed the bricks to him so rapidly that he had to work furiously to keep up with them. "I wasn't going to let them beat me," he panted, "but they nearly killed me."

Never until I saw the British women, young and old, rich or poor, at work did I realize to what extent this is a woman's war. "What keeps England going," said one housewife with whom I had one of my most invaluable train conversations, "is a profound sense of duty. We are passing through days so important and so vital that we are equal to anything."

One of the important differences between this war and all previous wars is that women of all intellectual and economic levels are being thrown together not only in industry, but also in the military services. Men have undergone this experience in many previous wars, but the effect was always nullified when peace was restored, because the women who were left at home preserved the old social structure in any country. This war is different and the free association in Great Britain of the women in every walk of life is unquestionably one of the most democratizing influences that has ever taken place in any nation.

But there are other very fundamental changes in Great Britain that have contributed to this democratic process. Great Britain needs every ounce of energy and production that it can wring from its limited supply of manpower. It has, therefore, given the most serious consideration to the welfare of the human beings who must create their war production. It has surrounded the workers with elaborate social provisions to conserve their energies. One of the best examples of these provisions is the just and efficient distribution of Britain's very limited food supply. Health is indispensable to the successful prosecution of a war, whether in the battle line, the production line or among the population as a whole. So Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food, began his work, not with the negative idea of "tightening belts," but with the positive aim of making the British people "fighting fit." All the resources of science were put to work on nutrition, distribution and the extension of home production. "The poor get more food, the rich get less," said Lord Woolton, "so I am doing a service to both." As a result of efficient distribution Britain's health is better than it ever has been. Especially has the well-being of British children been raised as never before. The food program, moreover, is intimately connected with production, for every factory employing more than 250 workers is obliged to have a canteen. In addition, the British restaurants, as the communal feeding stations are called, where workers get an excellent meal for 12 cents, are a supplement to the workers' rations while they free the women for war work.

Every transferred worker is considered the responsibility of his Government and of the community to which he is transferred. The war ministries and the local officials work together to furnish these transferred men and women withclubhouses and with recreational facilities of every sort. As a result of this broad social program, the worker has gained a new vision of what democracy can do for the protection of the individual when it sets out not to repress, but to liberate the capacities of human nature. That this release of human energies would sweep the country's social thinking forward with unprecedented acceleration, may or may not have been foreseen. In any case, it has happened, and has created a veritable passion for the realization of social change and genuine equality.

In other words, the maximum war effort in Great Britain has set a movement of social reform in motion. The British worker on the whole is not politically minded, but in the social field he knows exactly what he wants. Groups of workers said to me over and over again: "We want better housing, better education for our children, and no more unemployment." This is a very comprehensive program and it is already embodied in three major reports which have been published within the last year in Great Britain. The first, the Uthwatt Report, presents plans for reconstruction of blitzed areas and the betterment of land use. The second is the Trades Union Congress memorandum on education after the war. It breaks down the last remnants of feudal tradition in the British educational system. This educational report emphasizes "the need for a single code in British education that will give older children a fair chance and fit them to be worthy citizens of a democratic system." It regards adequate educational preparation for life as an inalienable right of all the children of a democracy, a declaration that we should take to heart.

In some ways the most important of all the reports is the comprehensive scheme for the prevention of unemployment and poverty published by Sir William Beveridge, of which you have heard much in our press of late. This significant and far-reaching plan foresees a civilization in which the state assumes the responsibility for banishing want without destroying individual responsibility and initiative. The program is typical of the democratic processes by which social engineering has developed in Great Britain. It is based on the technique of study and analysis, report to the people, public discussion and legislation. Sir William Beveridge said to me concerning this report: "It is of little practical value to you because your conditions are so different." Then he concluded, "But it is up to the United States and Great Britain to show the world that security can be combined with freedom and individual responsibility. The methods that suit us won't suit you, but the task is common to both of us." Together these reports answer Britain's most acute problems and constitute a challenge to us to equal the vitality of British thinking in the field of social reform.

Why is it that Great Britain has been able to make such progress in democratic thinking during a period of state regimentation that is much more advanced and much more extended than ours? It will some day be recognized as part of that nation's everlasting glory that in spite of its severe regimentation it waged a total war on democratic lines. "We use persuasion and voluntary cooperation to attain our ends," said one British Minister to me, "and keep sanctions in the background as a last resort." In spite of the inevitable increase of central authority, the British government has decentralized the administration of the war measures through twelve regional jurisdictions. Every one of these twelve regions is practically an independent entity, fully staffed to carry on the war by itself even if London were bombed out of existence tomorrow. Each one has a regional director who works in partnership with local officials. Together they have encouraged the full participation in the war effort of all practical experience and talents, of individual initiativeand of all voluntary welfare groups. As I studied the British administrative set-up, one very important point was brought home to me. Administration is the most important function of government in total war for there is no choice as to policies. Central controls identical with those of the enemy are forced upon the democracies in this conflict and the only difference that can exist from the Nazi regime is confined to the means by which they are put into effect.

The greatest inspiration in my journey through Great Britain was this discovery that a genuinely democratic people, even under the most unfavorable circumstances, can work out a new balance between state regulation, local government and voluntary action. The whole British war effort, in spite of the powers which the government possesses, is managed on this same persuasive and reasonable basis. Obviously, a wholly different and essentially democratic psychology is produced when the authority of the government is not exercised but kept in reserve, and cooperation in behalf of a single all-absorbing purpose is emphasized. In that country men, women, material, mind and will are all mobilized against the enemy, and the very institutions upon which the state is founded are used as the strongest weapons of attack. As a result their war effort is much more integrated than ours and has an impetus that comes only when a whole people is voluntarily united in behalf of a common cause.

Great Britain is convinced that if democracy is worth fighting for, it is worth fighting with.

In my travels through the United States, I have found that our Government through over-centralization is depriving the people of the opportunity to make their full contribution to the war effort.

Whether it be management or labor or businessman or farmer, everyone has told me the same story of distress concerning their relations with Washington. The entire country is not only loyal to the President, but I firmly believe, as devoted to him as it always has been. But they are confused and deeply dissatisfied with the administrative leadership they are getting. I often wondered during my trip whether the Washington war lords realize what the daily reports in the newspapers concerning their quarrels and indecision, their numerous complicated directives and contradictory statements are doing to the country?

Let me give you practical and definite comparisons to illustrate the difference in attitude between the British administration of the war effort and ours. I shall select the Manpower Act to show the importance of their democratic cooperation between government, industry and the people in total war, because that is now one of our major problems. Its basis in Great Britain is a system of industrial relations as cooperative and rational as ours are combative and emotional. Let me quote Mr. Bevin's report on the work of the Ministry of Labor so that you may compare its tone with the atmosphere of our labor relations. He says: "It was decided to use the existing machinery of Industrial Relations, and rely on collective bargaining, but supplemented by arbitration in place of strikes. Now, if you had imposed an Arbitration Act on the people, it might have been resisted. Therefore, we carried all these things through virtually by consent. In other words, the Arbitration Orderreally was legalized by a collective agreement entered into by the Trades Unions, the Federation of Employers, and the State. A good many people advocated a rigid state system of regulation. I am convinced that it would break down if you tried." Mr. Bevin's persuasive methods and his refusal to use force were justified by an almost complete absence of strikes.

Yet this Minister has absolute control of all manpower. How is such an extreme control of industry and laborachieved without friction? First, because the people feel that the Act is equitable both to the employer and the employee. Secondly, because it is so efficiently administered that the working man or woman is convinced that he or she is making her maximum contribution to national safety.

Now let us consider our own manpower shortage. I wish to say that the local representatives of the Manpower Commission are doing their best to cope with the situation. But they have lost before they start. The competition between the armed forces, industry and agriculture has put everybody in a false position that results in waste. Men with irreplaceable skills, such as tool and die cutters, are taken from industry by the draft, farmer boys won't be called slackers and go into the service of their own volition, while the old folks hear about the high wages in industrial centers and leave the farm because they can't get help to run it anyway. If these migrants don't like the wages in the first job, they go to another, dissipating the national resources through a high turnover.

What happens in Britain? Mr. Bevin, Minister of Labor, has charge of all the three branches of service and decides whether a man or woman can do the most good in the army, in the factory or on the farm. And they stay where they are put until further orders. What is more, they work around the clock, all of them, for at night they have air raid practice and once every two weeks they stay up all night as fire watchers, but report the next day at the factory. The average work week is 56 hours for men and women. Of course, they have a manpower shortage too. But they get the most out of what they have and they manage it through coordination of demand and the efficient mobilization of every man, woman and child. Such complete regimentation is possible in a democracy only when the government has the confidence of its people.

I saw in this morning's paper that the Under Secretary for War Patterson has come out for conscription of manpower for factory and farm work. He is right. As a matter of fact, this should have been done long ago. But it can never be successful unless the whole manpower problem is unified and administered with greater skill than our Government has as yet revealed.

But let us make another specific comparison. I told you how brilliantly food was administered over there, with the specific purpose of conserving the health of the nation. You on the West Coast have had more hard experience with our food rationing than I, but even my short visit in Oregon and Washington caused me to say in my last article for The Washington Post—"Unless the O.P.A. gets its tangle of food directives straightened out, we are facing something amounting to a national catastrophe." In the Puget Sound area there is such an acute shortage of meat that I took pains to interview everyone from a local butcher who supplies 365 Navy Yard workers, to the largest meat packers in Seattle. For 100 families the local meat shop at Bremerton had $14.75 worth of meat for the whole week. The Navy Yard cafeteria, which is one of three that serve 12,000 meals per day to workers, had one pound per person per week. There was no lunch meat for the workers' noon day sandwiches. At the Vancouver shipyards where they served 160,000 meals in February, around the clock, no meat was obtainable until April. Why can't you get meat on the West Coast? There are many fantastic reasons for this, but one of the most absurd is that the O.P.A. allows the packer a freight rate out of Chicago of $1.75, whereas the charge to Seattle and Portland is $2.68, leaving the packer with a loss of $1.00 on every 100 lbs.

Moreover, there is a waste on meat every day because Washington has issued amateurish regulations on the cuttingof meat that puts the practical butchers in a frame of mind where they would like to carve up the O.P.A. and be doneHere are some of the results of partial regimentation. There is no ceiling on livestock, which varies according to supply and demand, but the finished product is controlled, with the result that the packer never knows where he stands. The farmers in the State of Washington refuse to fatten cattle because the O.P.A. will not tell them whether they can slaughter when the summer grass goes. They are not accustomed to feeding hard grain up there and most farmers have no facilities for doing it. Nor can they afford to take the risk of going on hard feed because they don't know what the price will be. As a consequence, the local supply of cattle is threatened.

On the other hand, in the corn belt, the ceiling price on corn is so low compared to beef and hogs that the farmers are holding back their cattle and hogs to add more weight. They get much higher prices for corn and feed grains on the hoof than in the market for grain. The cereal manufacturers are therefore short of grain supplies and point to the fact that cereals furnish much more nutrition than the same grain fed to livestock. All this points up what the O.P.A. should have known from the outset, that partial regimentation is doomed to failure.

The O.P.A. rulings are arbitrary and make no allowance for local conditions. Regulations are sent to the packers from Washington which even their lawyers don't understand, and usually they are supposed to begin the very next day. When the packer calls the local O.P.A. office for explanations, these officials confess they don't understand them either, and more time is lost while they consult Washington. Incidentally, the man who controls meat for the O.P.A. up there is a lumberman.

As one dealer said to me: "The O.P.A. has a bull by the tail and doesn't know how to let go. The only real answer is that this whole tangle has to be washed up and a fresh start made if we are not going to have serious trouble."

So far the people are patient, because they think a ration book will be as good as a check on the bank. But ration books won't breed calves, and workers cannot produce munitions, planes and ships unless they get an adequate amount of meat. Salads may do for the average civilian, but men and women can't work in shipyards all day and night, in rain, in cold and wind on that kind of a diet. When Secretary Wickard points to the British ration of 1 1/2 pounds per week he forgets that Lord Woolton allows extra ration cards for workers in heavy industry and sees to it that every shipyard and factory supplies meals around the clock. These meals are extra and do not come out of rations. That's the way they take care of their workers in Britain. In Britain the diet of the worker is as important as that of the soldier.

Now what is the administrative picture when we look at the industrial scene?

The criticisms of management and labor alike were expressed not in anger, but in patient despair. Here is the statement by Mr. Edsel Ford on the Controlled Materials Plan:

"Our critical controlled materials have to be specified for the W.P.B., but instead of letting it go at that, we have to get the same specifications from our suppliers who have to get them from theirs and so on, right back almost to the mine. We have two hundred people who do nothing but prepare these specifications, and by the time they come through they may not fulfill the production requirements which we have received in the meantime."

"The amount of statistical information required from all the different departments, from W.P.B., from the Department of Commerce, the Manpower Commission, etc., are too numerous; and each one thinks that his request is the only one we have to fill. We don't mind getting out this information once, but we don't like to waste precious time on duplications. We know that at the Washington end much of this information is simply filed for reference, and nobody so much as looks at it."

It may interest you to know that the Controlled Materials Plan is known everywhere as "Confusion Made Permanent." Oh, there are many jokes at the Government's expense, but when people begin to laugh at their Government, things are getting serious.

Characteristic of labor's opinion on Washington are the views expressed by a group of U.A.W.-C.I.O. men, Local 174, in the Cadillac Plant: Charles Trout, foreman, speaking:

"We wish Washington would stop complicating things. The confusion of the directive orders of the War Labor Board and the interpretation of them have increased problems that are already numerous. Our negotiations go to the local W.L.B., who give their opinions and send them on to Washington. When the decisions come back, the college professors in Washington have added to the original problem. They issue a lot of orders that clutter up our original agreements and fix them so nobody can understand anything. What they send is just a bunch of words."

But the best summary of what is fundamentally wrong in Washington was given me by Mr. C. E. Wilson, President of General Motors:

"Instead of setting up policies first and then administering efficiently on a local basis, Washington tries to administer an ill-defined policy centrally. As a result everything is being thrown into confusion and everybody on both ends is disappointed with the results. Whenever you pile up too much administration in one place, you need a Moses to untangle the mess. As far as policy is concerned, I don't think that anybody in Washington knows what it means or how to spell it."

The most desperate man of all, however, is the farmer, who reads the contradictory directives in the paper as to which department is going to manage his manpower problem, and this at a time when planting has already begun. The Oregon farmers have a very detailed plan of their own for the recruitment of labor, which they have used for two years without losing a crop. Recently they were told by Washington that the whole thing had to be changed. Anticipating this, their State Agricultural Advisory Committee calmly sent Washington a Declaration of Independence, stating that: "No further directives shall be issued in Washington interfering with the Oregon plan of recruitment and placement of farm workers. The Oregon Plan will be carried out in 1943 as in 1942 in order to avoid confusion, waste of public moneys by duplication of effort and expansion of unnecessary personnel."

That sort of action is a good example of the democratic strength of local independence and home rule.

If Washington will not see the need for greater decentralization, it is the people like these Oregon farmers, who must take the initiative, for a war conducted entirely from Washington will never enlist the whole might of the nation. There is no use just sitting back and crying aloud that none of the central decrees are a success. When our government fails us, when it is inefficient and arbitrary, tell our elected representatives what to do about it, and we must put ourselves to work to supplement central authority by practical people who know local conditions. The central decrees, whether it be food rationing, control of raw materials, industrial coordination, or any of our other major problems,never will be a success until we civilians speak up and tell Washington in no uncertain terms what we want done to clean up their administrative puzzles.

What is encouraging about the national scene is that in spite of all handicaps, capital and labor are going right ahead and getting out a war production such as has never existed on the face of the earth.

But I was certainly glad when I came to the West Coast, to see the shipyards with their impressive size and production figures. And I have seen secret weapons that thrill you with admiration for American ingenuity, and enough war materials to blast North Africa off the map, let alone Rommel and Hitler, if only we could get them over there. The problem is ships, ships and yet more ships.

There are, moreover, some notable exceptions to the administrative chaos which exists in Washington. I refer to the production programs of the Army. For all I know, the Navy may be doing just as good a job, but I happen to have seen more of the Army's production program than any other. Throughout the country I have heard private industry praise the magnificent cooperation that the Army has given them. When I asked why it was so successful, the explanation was always the same—decentralization. For example, the Army's Ordnance headquarters are in St. Louis, the focal point of the old and new powder plants. The small arms office is in Philadelphia, which has always been the center of that industry, and their tank and bomber office in Detroit, the center of the motor industry. Why Washington has not been able to learn something from the success that the Army has made of its decentralized administration is a mystery to me.

It is equally mysterious that Vice President Wallace, in that noble speech in which he sums up the aspirations of our country for a democratic peace, says that international democracy must rest "upon a minimum of central control and a maximum of home rule." I agree, but if that applies to the future international world, it should also apply now to our own domestic situation and our own democratic world. This is a moral, not a political plea, that I am making, for it is crystal clear that we must either learn to work democratically during the war or lose the right to stand before the world as protagonists of a democratic peace.

Our leaders, both before and since our entrance into the war, have proclaimed the nation's faith in democracy with moving eloquence and deep conviction. We all stand firm in that belief. What our administration lacks is an equally firm conviction that democratic procedures and a decentralized organization must be utilized if, in the United States, we are ever going to learn to wage a people's war. What the Administration needs, when all is said and done, is more faith in the American people. It is so autocratic and tries to tie everybody up with paper work and senseless regulations, because it underestimates the good will, the superb capacities, and the patriotism of this nation.

Take the problem of morale. It is a wonder that morale is as good as it is. But it would be improved at once, if people were not tied hand and foot, but could really become an integrated part of the war effort. The whole nation is straining at its bonds and anxious to go. The trouble with our morale is we haven't had a chance to learn what the democratic slogan means "a people's war." To be sure, the British have one great advantage over us. They are in constant danger and they know it through bitter experience. What we have to realize is that our danger is no less great We are not fighting to save the world, my friends, nor that concoction called the Atlantic Charter. We are fighting to save our own country.

We are fighting primarily for a new America, more democratic than it ever was. We are fighting to beat theenemy, but we are also fighting to put an end to unemployment, the W.P.A. and the usurpation of power by the central government, and a top-heavy bureaucracy.

If you had seen, as I have, day after day, the energy, the skill and the brains of our people forging our vast resources into weapons, you would know that nothing on earth can beat us unless we defeat ourselves. If we learn to improve the coordination of our active and potential war effort, we shall become not only the most powerful nation in the world, but the nation that can promise the best kind of life to the common man.

Our main problem is not outside our boundaries, however difficult and long the war may be. It is right here at home. Either we become more democratic by equalling the heroism of our allies in making this war a people's war, or we shall become the helpless victims of pressure groups, and sink backeventually into that narrow-hearted and narrow-minded policy called isolationism.

This war may be won by our armies on the field of battle and yet lost on the home front. Great social changes, national and international, are already under way; great ones are impending. If we are to find a solution of the international problem, the only sound foundation is the solution of our administration problems here at home. It is all very well to dream dreams about a quart of milk for everybody, but I am convinced that what happens on our social front and Britain's social front during the war, will determine the nature of the peace and the future of the world.

And, therefore, in closing, I should like to leave with you words I have already spoken, which sum up everything I have said: "If democracy is worth fighting for, it is worth fighting with."