Abstract: Launching a Thousand Ships: Entrepreneurs, War Workers, and the State in American Shipbuilding, 1940-1945
My dissertation uses World War II shipbuilding to examine the origins of America's postwar political economy. The collaboration between two companies, Kaiser and Bechtel, and government agencies demonstrates how the federal government cultivated private "supercontractors" who effectively mobilized the economy for war and extended state power at home and abroad. Working together, war agencies and firms like Kaiser and Bechtel revitalized American shipbuilding by developing new ship-assembly methods, including process techniques and wide employment of women and African Americans. To capitalize on patriotic fervor for production, the companies invited workers to join labor-management boards, sponsored ship-production competitions, and offered extensive social welfare benefits. The companies' wartime success and prestige bore fruit after 1945, when both companies undertook more state-oriented endeavors and meshed their activities with the American government's domestic and foreign interests. For instance, Bechtel helped shape America's new state-sponsored nuclear power industry and built oil infrastructure all over the Middle East. In sum, Kaiser's and Bechtel's work during and after World War II constitutes an important ongoing episode in the history of collaboration between the U.S. state and private enterprise. This symbiotic arrangement has furthered American economic and political interests over the six decades since 1945.