In opening his address at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, author Craig Nelson invoked the memory of Joseph Stalin. Despite being the personification of evil, he was our ally in the fight against Nazi tyranny. Nelson said Stalin once “gave a toast to the factories of Detroit, as being the secret weapon that won World War II.”

Nelson’s new book, V is for Victory, is a corrective to the usual take on the Second World War. “What are we historians on the military writing about except strategy: the Admiral said this and the General said that. That’s all we write about, so it’s an existential crisis.”  

His said this book differs from “the common historical thinking that the ‘miracle of American manufacturing’ won WW II. I wanted to do a book that was more than that. So I said to myself, I’ve done 150 hours of lectures and interviews on this one book, a book about a war that is 80 years ago. I tracked down that this miracle of production really started in 1938 – that the entire way we defeated Hitler was an outgrowth of Roosevelt’s New Deal. I realized this story had to start in 1933, when our nation was at its worst moment in the Great Depression.”

Nelson explained that we needed the basic infrastructure of new roads and the power of hydroelectric dams, built under the New Deal, to be able to fight Hitler (the story in his book about how Henry Kaiser built the Hoover Dam and Liberty ships is impressive). Beyond that, Nelson identified President Roosevelt’s “idea of management” as key. “What he liked to do was unite government and industry to work together. It all started in 1938 when France and England gave Czech territory to Hitler to appease him. Roosevelt was outraged by this, so he decided we needed a big, new program to dramatically expand air power. He got the Treasury Secretary to create a huge avalanche of planes for ourselves and our allies. That was the start of the Arsenal of Democracy that won WW II.”

To garner political support for his crusade to save America and defeat Hitler, the President employed a canny policy that Nelson used a sports analogy to illustrate. “Roosevelt hired two Republicans, Frank Knox to be head of the Navy, and Henry Stimson to be head of War. Knox had been the vice-president running on the ticket to defeat FDR 4 years earlier. It was generous and conniving at the same time. People couldn’t really argue with Stimson because he had served in every Republican Administration for years. It was like a sports strategy where you knock out all your defense on your way to making the touchdown.”

I found his book quite unlike most books on those years: Nelson’s does not sweep the dirt under the carpet to keep it from prying eyes. As the fall of 1941 approached, the enrollment of 70% of the US Army was about to expire. Roughly a million men had been drafted the previous year, but only for a 12-month term. Army morale, in this period before Pearl Harbour and the entry of America into the war, had collapsed. When Roosevelt and George Marshall (General of the Army) appeared in a newsreel at an army base in Mississippi, “recruits loudly booed.” A journalist for the New York Times was at Louisiana’s Camp Polk, “only to find America’s soldiers turning into a mob, running amok, and terrorizing the locals. ‘The boys here hate the army,’ a private said. ‘They have no fighting spirit except among themselves when they get stinking drunk.’” The NY Times correspondent said he could have “arrested five thousand men including many officers for flagrant violations of the articles of war.” His article was “so damning,” writes Nelson, “that Times editor Arthur Sulzberger decided not to print it, but he did send copies to Marchall and Roosevelt.” Imagine such suppression of a newsworthy event today!

A great read. I highly recommend Nelson’s book, especially for those who, in his words, “no longer believe that the American Dream exists.”

V is for Victory: Franklin Roosevelt’s American Revolution and the Triumph of World War II, is by Scribner. The hardcover is available on Amazon for $21.54.

Nelson appeared at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. This year, the TBF will be held Nov 16 and 17. It will present 250–300 authors, from Texas and beyond, whose books are published within the 12 months preceding the Festival. Submissions are open now until May 15, 2024. So if you want to see yourself there as a speaker, visit the website:

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.