The U.S. Government Has Mobilized Private Companies to Face Crises Before. Here’s What to Know

Historians in the News
tags: national emergency, defense production act, war mobilization

Olivia B. Waxman is a Staff Writer for Time. An honors graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Hamilton College, she grew up in New York City.

About a week after President Trump announced on March 18 that he was invoking the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic, the chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the Trump Administration would actually use the law “for the first time” on Tuesday to get 60,000 test kits and 500 million masks. The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that the national stockpile of emergency medical supplies only contains 1% of the 3.5 billion N95 respirators and masks that will be needed if the pandemic continues for a year.

The Defense Production Act allows the President to enlist American business in addressing a national emergency, by empowering him to take such steps as incentivizing production and requiring companies to accept and prioritize certain contracts. Though Trump has sought to position himself as a wartime president, he has so far seemed reluctant to use the Korean War-era law to make demands of industry. But as the U.S. has steeled itself for the impact of COVID-19, the comparisons between today’s need for mobilization and past examples of wartime mobilization have been hard to avoid — and those past examples can perhaps offer insight into today’s situation.

One aspect of the history is clear: when business has successfully stepped up for national-security purposes, the federal government and the military have played a key role in coordinating the effort.

Mark Wilson, a historian and expert on businesses during Civil War and World War II, says the Trump Administration telling governors asking for ventilators to “try getting it yourselves” was a “throwback to the mid-19th century” when, at the outbreak of the Civil War, states had to find their own blankets and weapons before national authorities took over the acquisition of these items for the Union side. Likewise, individuals volunteering to sew masks for healthcare workers and personal use today resembles the home-spun efforts of those who volunteered to sew clothing and prepare food packages for men going off to the war. However, as the Civil War went on, those more local efforts were eclipsed by mass-produced clothing operations.

Read entire article at TIME

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