There’s One Way We Really Are “at War” With the Coronavirus

Confronting it requires state-corporate intervention on a scale not seen since World War II.

A photo of an automotive production plant seen side by side with a bottle of hand sanitizer on top of face masks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

In the midst of a drastically worsening global crisis, the president of the United States addressed the nation and laid out a plan for private industry that it was nowhere near capable of achieving. When the crisis finally hit the United States, he addressed the nation again and presented targets that his own advisers thought were unreasonable.

On May 16, 1940, as Hitler’s armies were sweeping through the Low Countries on their way to conquering France, but over a year before the United States’ formal entry into the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation and put forward a goal for the country to produce 50,000 airplanes a year, far beyond the previous goal of 10,000 a year, or 1939’s actual production of fewer than 6,000.

“Roosevelt picked this number out of thin air and it was unclear how it would be put into practice,” the historian Adam Tooze writes in The Wages of Destruction, his economic history of Nazi Germany. Roosevelt had a fondness for round numbers and, more importantly, large ones that would not be entirely unfamiliar to the next New Yorker to occupy the White House.

A month after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt laid out what was materially necessary to win a war of unprecedented scope. It would require “production … far above present levels,” for which the country would have to “strain every existing armament-producing facility to the utmost.”

His targets for aircraft, tanks, and shipping exceeded the estimates he’d been provided by the industries themselves. He got the numbers by first “[asking] the production people to provide their most exact estimates of raw materials, facilities, and production potential,” Maury Klein writes in A Call to Arms, his history of America’s economic mobilization. Roosevelt then applied a “rule of thumb method” and just made the numbers bigger. One of his closest advisers “questioned the figures,” to which Roosevelt issued his famous reply: “Oh, the production people can do it if they really try.”

While some crises require the mobilization of fiscal and monetary resources, war requires the movement of stuff and people against an enemy, and world leaders are reaching to martial metaphors to describe the massive response required to stem the coronavirus epidemic. “We are at war,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address. “We have an invisible enemy,” President Donald Trump said Monday. It is true, as Lili Loofbourow argues in Slate, that using the language of war when confronting a public health emergency can be counterproductive and even dangerous. The metaphor is useful, however, when the lessons one derives are not about the battle but about the need for government-coordinated management of the economy to meet a crisis. Our inadequate response up until now has been due to poor planning, inadequate resource allocation, and production shortfalls that have led to a shamefully low rate of testing of suspected coronavirus cases and an anticipated crunch in hospitals as intensive care units get overloaded in the coming days and weeks. Where there are encouraging signs, the victories have been logistical, evincing a model of state-industrial cooperation that may be our only hope.

Instead of munitions, ships, planes, and trucks, the “war” against COVID-19 requires hospital beds, ventilators, masks, gloves, reagents, sanitizing gel, and swabs, all worn, operated, applied, and overseen by a workforce of doctors and nurses that can’t expand quickly and is at risk of being at least temporarily debilitated by the very disease it’s fighting.

Where Roosevelt was far ahead of the American political system and the public in recognizing the Nazi threat and mobilizing against it—the draft started more than a year before Pearl Harbor—the U.S. and much of the world are starting from behind. But that doesn’t mean there are not lessons to be learned, even if they’re arrived at by accident.

Trump has already had a run-in with Rooseveltian overstating, although a more ambiguous effect.

On Friday he announced that “1,700” Google engineers were working on a website to help guide people as to whether and where they should get a coronavirus test.

When asked by reporters to verify this, Verily, the health sciences arm of Google’s parent company, clarified that it was working on a website for the Bay Area, and by the weekend “executives have scrambled to coordinate with the White House in an effort to do as much as possible to make the president’s vision for the website a reality,” the New York Times reported, before launching in limited form on Sunday night. “Trump’s BS about the Google website may oddly have done some good. It seems to have forced the company to try to match the thing the President spun up,” Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson tweeted.

More direly, the administration drastically overstated the availability of testing as regulatory snafus, and now, material shortcomings limit who can get tested when. Even as the testing capacity has increased nationally, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted that, going forward, the major limitation on conducting tests will be “reagents, swabs, sites, etc,” not testing platforms.

But if testing is to get to its appropriate levels, it will be thanks to heroic and massive production by companies like Roche and Thermo Fischer, just as it was private corporations that were directly responsible for wartime production in World War II.

Other U.S. political figures have got onto a rhetorical war footing and mindset more quickly and more explicitly.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has looked into the mirror and seen FDR, his predecessor by almost a century in the job; before the coronavirus crisis he even went so far as to drive Roosevelt’s Packard onto a newly opened span over the Hudson River. Now, more so than any other leader, Cuomo has been attuned to the material nature of the coronavirus fight. Even his dystopian plan for using prison labor to produce hand sanitizer has a precedent in World War II.

A 1943 report by the War Production Board unearthed by Maury Klein boasted of how, thanks to “liberalizing rulings and executive orders,” state prisons were able to produce $11.5 million worth of “industrial products for war,” make $4 million worth of “garments for war purposes,” and ratchet up $20 million more in agricultural production.

On Sunday, Cuomo called for the Army Corps of Engineers to “leverage its expertise, equipment and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities—like military bases or college dormitories—to serve as temporary medical centers,” in order to relieve existing hospitals and opening up space “for the acutely ill.”

Cuomo is not the only politician, here or abroad, harkening back to the golden era of state economic planning. A group of congressmen earlier this week called on Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, a Korean War–era law, that would let him “use his authority … for the production of vital medical supplies to meet the extreme demand during the coronavirus pandemic,” like masks. Trump said on Wednesday he would invoke it. The United Kingdom’s health secretary implored private industry to start pumping out ventilators and called for doctors within the National Health Service to be reassigned to work with coronavirus patients and get back recently retired staff.

The World War II economy entailed huge and dramatic shifts among workers and companies in what they could and could not produce. Production of consumer goods like vacuum cleaners was either halted or curtailed for the duration of the war, gasoline was rationed, and prices were controlled by the government. Even the speed limit was knocked down to 35 miles per hour to conserve gasoline and rubber.

While no official rationing mandate has been issued by today’s government, some retailers have been coming up with ad hoc schemes to limit purchases of hand sanitizer and other necessities; technology companies have banded together to essentially put in place a form of wartime censorship, while shelter-in-place orders in parts of California are a form of civilian control. (Meanwhile, Trump’s casting of the illness as a “Chinese virus” and the administration’s plans to further crack down on undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers evoke Roosevelt’s greatest shame, Japanese American internment.)

In our own, very 2020 way, some of the productive shifts may already be happening. Amazon, the Wall Street Journal reported, plans to hire 100,000 employees to help with the spike in demand from its warehouses and delivery network due to much of the U.S. population staying at home. The company has also prioritized warehouse space for medical and essential goods. Vice President Mike Pence has implored construction companies to turn over masks to health care workers—a faint echo of, say, Chrysler making tanks—while Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, asked hospitals to delay nonessential procedures, essentially requesting a form of wartime rationing in the medical sector.

The luxury goods conglomerate LVMH announced over the weekend that it would be converting its perfume and cosmetics manufacturing into alcoholic gel plants for the French government, while several Chinese companies started producing medical equipment like masks.

But at least so far, these changes in production have been largely ad hoc—while China has a state-owned oil company that can pivot to producing masks, Pence has been reduced to just asking American firms for them.

The differences between the Second World War’s total mobilization and today’s response are considerable. Roosevelt started ramping up wartime production and mobilization well before Pearl Harbor: Roosevelt signed a draft bill in September 1940, a few months after his speech calling for 50,000 planes a year.

While China was able to stand up some hospitals to deal with the inflow of patients in Wuhan, the anticipated crunch in the United States may be coming sooner than the time it will take to put more ICU beds into action, let alone highly regulated and complex medical equipment.

And while American manufacturing capacity was unmolested by the war itself, there’s no guarantee that factories that are able to shift production to needed goods will be able to stay open in the midst of a viral outbreak.

Finally, at the center of the World War II production effort was Roosevelt himself—he set the goals, hired and removed the New Dealers and businessmen brought on to run the production effort, and was tasked with explaining it all to the American public. Trump theoretically has the same job, but his team has been hampered by infighting, inexperience, and his own, until recently, insistence that the virus was not that big of a deal.

But some things are all too similar: It is a conflict, as Roosevelt said, “that day and night now pervades our lives,” where “speed will save lives,” and where “our task is hard—our task is unprecedented—and the time is short.”