Organizational Lessons From World War Two

David Wiles, Eaps 760


The United States did not want to enter into an active military role in World War II. Between 1939 and 1942 the US tried to provide an indirect support to France, Britain and other European nations fighting Nazi and Fascist aggression. Yet, on ce committed the war effort, the United States mobilized in ways that would provide the legacy of modern organization and management thinking. The country was able to see a clear "good guy-bad guy" relationship between the overt aggression of the attacki ng Nazis and Japanese and the defense of democracy on a global scale. Unlike the uncertain ending of World War I, the second world war was a clear choice between winning or losing all. With the urgency of total commitment there was no social issue or controversy over the mobilization of armed forces on conscription (all drafted) or the use of women in industrial employment. G.I. Joe and Rosey the Riviter were symbols of the American citizen in action.

Organizing to fight World War II was a commitment to large scale and highly centralized activities. Although warfare had evolved from the massed attacks of the Civil War and first World War the basic unit of organizational analysis was the division of 15,000 people. The hierarchy of the bureaucracy fit the military needs for span of control and chain of command. The need to plan strategically with "costs" calculated in human lives and resources was also an outgrowth of wartime exper ience.

The Second World War was also a time when technical expertise and specialization played a large part in organizational thinking. Certainly, the machine gun, tank and dive bomber had rewritten "classic" rules of how warfare was conducted. One of the most interesting features of American investment in the war effort was the development of the atomic bomb. Although the predominant investment was in the conventions of large scale organization, the Americans ran a parallel "mystery meat" inv estment in nuclear development. The results of investing in speculation and theory were spectacular. Modern organizations (especially corporations) began to assume that resource investment was a "both-and" proposition; the main line of traditional assump tions and the R&D "petri dish" of discovery and surprise.

Americans returned from the Second World War with a strong sense of pragmatism and behaviorism. Herbert Simon's rebuttal of Luther Gulick's "proverbs" was based upon a method of scientific inquiry called logical positivism. To descr ibe a complex organization action, the research must specify the "conditions when organizational behavior would be exhibited." Although the mid 1940's to mid 1950's behaviorism looks quaint and stilted in terms of today's organizational description the i dea of "triangulating" data sources and evidence is still relevant.

Another lesson learned had to do with the adaptation and reabsorbing of people displaced by the special condition of war. There were great fears that the 2.7 million military veterans returning to peacetime America would not be able to divorce themselves from the battleground. There was concern whether women who had done years of critical industry tasks could return to more traditional home and family roles. What was learned was how quickly the episodic features of emergency were replaced by the desires and tendencies of the more evolutionary aspects of "normalcy."

Another lesson was the global responsibility of the United States as "leader of the free world" at the war's end. There could be no retreat to isolationism this time around. Further, the emerging "cold war" reinforced that politics ma de strange bedfellows- former allies Russia and China the enemy while former antagonists Germany and Japan the ally. With the preoccupation over political events, the fact that the United States had emerged from the war as a virtual monopoly over many in dustries was underplayed. Forty years later, the country would be bemoaning its "at risk" status because of economic inferiority and the public schools would be charged as the enemy that allowed the United States to sink toward ruin. From a long term per spective, the truth was that the edge of the World War II winners advantage was returning to a "level playing field." The irony was that the loudly touted defeat of the cold war enemy Russia had little to do with the tidal wave of economic rebalancing ca lled the global market.

The final lesson learned in the four decade aftermath of World War II was that there will never be that form of "global war" again. Stockpiling conventional and nuclear weapons for an OK Corral showdown only resulted in evidence of mutua lly assured destruction. Even the age old strategy of "first strike" was confounded by the organizational realities of complexity and redundancy. As in other sociological problems, there is no "final solution" to waging large scale war successfully. The outgrowth of world war was the realities of "police actions" and "limited confrontation."

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