David Von Drehle: American decline narrative far from reality

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 6, 2019

By David Von Drehle

Given the pace of change in the world today, it boggles the mind to think that we still live in the shadow of an event 75 years in the past. But when the sun set over the English Channel on June 6, 1944, with tens of thousands of Allied troops firmly lodged on the Normandy coast of France, a new chapter of history began — one that is still being written, with an ending yet unknown.

D-Day was an economic triumph as well as a military one. The skies were filled with aircraft built in the United States. The seas were crowded with warships built in the United States. The moment the beaches were secured, they were covered with tanks, trucks, Jeeps and artillery pieces made in the United States. The industrial capacity of the United States — sheltered from attack by two oceans and by friendly neighbors — had simply overwhelmed the capacity of the Axis powers.

A single American factory, the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, produced more tanks than the entire Third Reich. The Willow Run Bomber Plant at peak capacity produced a B-24 Liberator every hour, around the clock. Liberty shipyards built transport ships, more than 400 feet long, in as little as five days each. And so on.

In his memoirs, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower recalled his thoughts as he surveyed the wreckage of American armaments lost in the liberation of those beaches. “There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches,” he wrote. “To any other nation the disaster would have been almost decisive. But so great was America’s productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our build-up.”

World War II decimated Europe and much of Asia, while it supercharged American productivity. The result was unprecedented economic dominance by a single nation. In 1945, the United States, home to roughly 7% of the world’s population, produced more than one-third of the global economy. By comparison, the British Empire at its economic peak accounted for less than one-tenth of global output.

This was not an inherently stable situation. President Harry Truman and his advisers accurately perceived that a strong America allied with other strong economies would produce greater prosperity over the long run than a dominant America would enjoy in a world of economic pipsqueaks. With prosperity would come peace and stability.

Therefore, Truman concluded, the best use of America’s extraordinary advantage was to rebuild European and Asian economies as quickly as possible, even though that would mean shrinking the U.S. share of global output. The Marshall Plan, the World Bank and the framework of free trade all pointed in this direction.

It is astonishing, yet true, that the vanquished powers, Germany and Japan, both grew to greater economic heights after their defeat than they had occupied at the peak of their imperialist expansions. This was a new, and altogether enlightened, view of the spoils of victory. American leadership since D-Day has been a great vindication of the rising tide that lifts all boats. Today, the United States has a smaller slice (about one-quarter) – but of a much larger pie. U.S. gross domestic product was about $250 billion per year at the end of World War II; today, it is over $21 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a sevenfold increase.

And yet, for many Americans this economic miracle feels like a tale of decline. Only the aged remember D-Day. But most of us have some sense, whether directly or from popular culture, of America’s place in the post-D-Day world, when everything worth making (so it seemed) was “Made in the USA.” Nostalgia for that lost era has suffused our politics since the 1970s. The growth of German steel and toolmakers, of Japanese and South Korean automobile- and electronics-makers, of Chinese makers of low-cost goods have all been touted as evidence that the United States has lost its economic edge.

After 75 years, the gap between the muscular economic reality and America’s wan self-image is enormous. The United States continues to be the world’s biggest economy by far-larger than China and Japan (No. 2 and No. 3 on the list) combined.

Since 2003, the United States has added some $3 trillion more to its economy than the European Union has managed.

Yet, from the White House to the corner bar, we hear that America is losing ground. In truth, the United States has raised the world closer to its own heights, to the benefit of billions. And it started on D-Day.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post.