Mark Wilson is a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and author of several books on American business and the winning of World War Two, the business of Civil War, military mobilization, and the state and the military and the market. Mark talks about his journey since Harvard which includes teaching English in Japan, his PhD in history in Chicago and meeting his wife, the last two decades in Charlotte with his wife and two teenage boys, and writing his books.
Mark Wilson was finishing up his senior thesis and his last season on the Ultimate Frisbee team when he was nominated for a Harvard-run fellowship which allowed him to teach in the UK but the position didn’t come through, and, with the poor job market, he was unable to find suitable employment and didn’t know what to do, until he and his friend Ernie Chung decided to go on a cross-country road trip in the US in his parents Honda Accord.
They visited some friends, and explored national parks like Glacier and the Grand Canyon, and while on the trip, he received news that a potential job opportunity had opened up. Mark was offered a job to teach English in Japan and he decided to take the opportunity. During his time in Japan, he taught a variety of people from children to factory workers, doctors and fighter pilots and he traveled throughout the country. He also took a trip to Beijing in 1993, which was just before China shifted to fiber optics and leaped forward as a global economy. It was much different to China now. He also saw a different side of Japan, which included some of the grittier parts of the country, as well as the typically polite and quiet people. Mark’s fondest memories include being invited to join his students on weekend outings.
Stories about the Business of Civil War
While in Japan, he applied to several grad schools and was accepted into the University of Chicago where they had a Phd. History program where he specialized in the History of the United States and completed his Phd dissertation project, The Business of Civil War. He wrote about how the North supplied its armies during the Civil War and focused on the business/political history of that economic mobilization project. During his research, he found records from correspondence records and court martial case files, which proved an interesting source of information.
Mark pointed out that there is a big debate among historians about the long-term economic impact of the Civil War on industrialization. His 300-page book on the subject offers insights into how the Civil War affected American business.
The consensus among economic historians is that the US Civil War had very limited or even a negative impact on the country’s industrialization. This is contrary to the popular notion that it stimulated industrial growth. Evidence for the limited impact of the war can be seen in the decisions of the North’s top contractor, John Martin, who invested his wartime fortune in high-end European paintings rather than advancing technology. However, the author of a book on the war economy argues that the army’s quartermasters should be recognized as among the greatest business leaders of the 19th century because of their massive acquisition efforts and logistics networks such as supply chain management difficulties. He talks about how the military set up army-run factories rather than going through the private sector but to meet demand they had to turn to the private sector. However, he believes that the public sector was as influential in the rise of big business as the private sector. They left Chicago when his wife was offered a post at Cornell, and Mark started teaching part-time while he finished his dissertation.
They moved to Charlotte in North Carolina where Mark was offered a position as an assistant professor.
In 2004, he went back to Harvard for a year where he got a postdoctoral. He finished his manuscript and started his second book on World War Two while teaching history. He teaches thematically organized courses, including the History of Democracy in the US or the Military Industrial Complex, or the History of Charlotte.
Mark Wilson discusses his book, Destructive Creation, which focuses on the business side of the story of the military industrial mobilization in World War II. He used archives from companies like Ford Motor Company, Boeing, and Du Pont, as well as records from civilian mobilization agencies and the military acquisition people in the services. Mark’s book offers the best book-length account of the big military industrial mobilization of WW2, but also about business’s political and PR efforts during the war.
The Business Community and Industrial Military Complex
During the war, the business community worked hard to produce the necessary munitions and also waged a battle to win the public relations battle over who deserved the credit for the successful output of war supplies. This was an anti-New Deal political effort, as the business leaders were suspicious of the growth of government that occurred during the New Deal and World War II. He wrote not only about the machinations of production, but also the cultural and political interpretations.
He talks about how the US government had to pay for the plants and tools needed as the private sector didn’t have the incentive to build them. He also mentioned how the military was involved in the supply chain, and how the government set up new factories and plants to supply the military and then brought in private companies to manage them.
He mentions how surprised he is that some of his book’s readers have been the Green New Deal crowd and those interested in the COVID-19 pandemic, as they look for ways to mobilize industrial production. He believes the US defense sector has become more privatized and driven by short-term financial goals, which may lead to shortages and fragility.
Mark shares his thoughts on the industrial military complex which he explores in his new book. He mentions how he’s not surprised that there are shortages of munitions or other problems because of the ways the Defense sector has changed in the last few decades, mainly, the fact that the U.S. Defense sector has become more privatized and driven by short-term financial concerns.
Mark mentions influences from courses and professors at Harvard, including the course Human Physiology, and the instructors in the History and Literature program Dan Terrace and Steve Biel.
06:09 Reflections on Teaching English in Japan
13:50 Reflections on Living and Working in Japan and Applying to Graduate School
20:21 The Impact of the Civil War on American Economy and Business
24:11 Exploring Army Acquisition Strategies During World War II
29:11 Early American History and Defense Acquisition History
35:39 “Exploring the Business Side of World War II
39:33 The Military Industrial Complex and US Industrial Mobilization +
51:39 Ukraine’s Military Production and Harvard Influences +
Mark Wilson, Will Bachman
Will Bachman 00:02
Hello, and welcome to the 92 report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman. I’m excited to be here today with Mark Wilson, who is a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Mark, welcome to the show. Thanks. Well, and thanks for all your work on this series. That’s very kind of you to say, let’s jump into this. Tell me about your journey since Harvard.
Mark Wilson 00:32
Well, I hope we can maybe discuss three different phases of my journey, each one longer than the next one. The first couple of years after I graduated, I was mostly in Japan, teaching English. And then, from the mid 90s, to the beginning of the 2000s, I was in Chicago, where I got my PhD in history. And I also met my wife, Christine. And then the last two decades already, I’ve been here in Charlotte, as you said, working as a history professor at UNC Charlotte. And here, Christina and I have raised two boys are now teenagers. And, actually, we’ve had one year in Europe in the middle of that 20 years, which is a lot of fun as well. So anyway, I hope we can kind of jump from from each of those phases to the next. But I’m happy to start off by talking about those kind of busy first two years after graduation, when I ended up in Japan.
Will Bachman 01:31
Let’s do that. And also to give listeners a heads up of what’s coming. I also want to make sure we get in talk about your books. So destructive creation of American business and the winning of World War Two, the business of civil war, military mobilization, and the state and the military and the market. So military industrial relations will help we can get into that as sort of towards the end when we get into your time as a professor, but let’s start with Japan.
Mark Wilson 01:59
Great. Well, in the spring of 92, as we were finishing, I was wrapping up a senior thesis for my history and literature major. And my last season on the My beloved Ultimate Frisbee club team. I was a finalist nominated by courier house for a Harvard run fellowship. That would have allowed me to teach at a school in the UK, like a, you know, a secondary school, I think it might have been called the Shrewsbury School as I remember. And I was kind of optimistic, I might be able to do that and go over to the UK and do some teaching and maybe coaching and have a little adventure. But I didn’t get it. So as a little bit of loosens, kind of in that spring. And as you and your listeners remember, you know, wasn’t the greatest economy. As a historian, I can tell you the unemployment rate was close to 8%. And, you know, I was a history literature major. And believe it or not, not a lot of people are eager to hire such a person at that time, I don’t think I did manage to get interviews for a marketing job at BusinessWeek magazine in New York, and a one with a really small business in my hometown of Washington, DC, where there was a guy who was trying to have a business bundling insurance for independent computer retailers, I think. And so I kind of, you know, I did those interviews, and I was kind of at loose ends, didn’t know quite what to do. But then my dear friend and roommate from Harvard, Ernie Chung, and I hatched a scheme to do a cross country road trip. And this was in we did this in around June, July of that year. And we kind of borrowed my parents Honda Accord, and took three or four weeks to drive all the way from New York out to Seattle, and then down to San Diego, and then all the way back East. And along the way, we actually got to visit a couple of classmates, including our roommate, Andy Lindhome, who was in San Diego and Robin Johnston, who’s outside Denver. Went to lots of national parks like glacier and Grand Canyon, did some camping, and had a great adventure. I got to see some family across the country as well. But on that trip I I got I kind of I guess I was checking in at home with my parents and I got news that somebody in Japan wanted to have a call with me about a possible job opportunity there. And so before we graduated, I’d sent out resumes to a handful of English language schools across the world, I think, maybe, you know, several in Japan, some in South Korea, maybe a couple in Eastern Europe. And so this one I actually got back to me. And this was from the shoot on English School, which is in Yamaguchi prefecture in Japan. And the the leader of that school is a woman named Epico Tajima, who is a kind of dynamic entrepreneur, young business or middle aged businesswoman at the time. And it turned out she had already hired the previous year to a couple of Harvard grads, including from the class ahead of us, Jim McCarthy, and Rob Plunkett. And I guess she had just hired our our classmate, Margaret O’Neill as well. So anyway, I got this notice that I should call that’s a good attachment in Japan, and I think I just somehow got a bucket of change. And, and, you know, pulled off to the side of the road and Utah, and I had this call, and just, she said, you know, do you want to come over later this summer and teach English here for at least a year? And I, I just said, Yeah, you know, let’s do it.
Will Bachman 06:09
After extensive due diligence on the opportunity.
Mark Wilson 06:13
And so I, I, that was, that was my choice. In the end, I did get I did get those other job offers that marketing job at Businessweek and the, and the computer insurance thing. But, you know, I was trying to push myself and have a little bit more of an adventure. I hadn’t done study abroad in in, in college, you know, I, I’ve been abroad a little bit on vacations and such but so I was ready for kind of my, my global adventure. And I kind of had a harrowing trip over there because it’s so long, and I was exhausted, kind of the plane was late, missed my connecting train, had to spend the night into some motel, you know, several 100 miles from my final destination didn’t get there till the next day. So it was a it was a tough entry into the world, kind of the real world,
Will Bachman 07:08
you are looking for adventure that is part of adventure. Right, of course,
Mark Wilson 07:14
you know, I’ve done a fairly a fairly coddled, you know, introvert students, so it was a it was a kind of a shock. But over the next, you know, year and a half, two years, when I was there, teaching English, you know, I kind of slowly grew a little bit into adulthood and learn to cook for myself and survive a tiny bit. And it was a privilege to be able to teach over there, the people were so kind. And one of the benefits of working for this small, kind of dynamic English school led by Mrs. Tajima was, she was in a small, you know, series of small cities in this in this fairly remote prefecture. And so she had all kinds of work going on. So I got to teach English to doctors and nurses and to school kids, and to factory workers and engineers, and even to like fighter pilots, who were in the Self Defense Forces. So it really, it was a wonderful opportunity to see kind of Japan from all different sides. And also from outside the biggest cities like I was really far from Tokyo, or Osaka. And I had a little company car. And so I would kind of kind of that was another another shock was I had to learn to drive stick within 24 hours on the wrong side of the road, and I went and I was presented with this company car and say, oh, yeah, tomorrow, you know, go drive 30 miles up to the next city and, and start with your first class or whatever. So that was a, you know, a good challenge for me. I did get some vacations, I got to travel around Japan a little bit. And I also did my one big summer break, I went to Beijing. And that was in 93. And Beijing was then competing for the 2000 Olympics, which I think went to Sydney. But they were they had all these banners everywhere saying choose Beijing for the 2000 Olympics. At the time, you know, Beijing, I haven’t been able to go back there. But at the time, you know, there was a lot of bicycles there. And I think the city is very different and 93 from what it looks like now. So that was really interesting experience as well.
Will Bachman 09:35
So tell us insights that you got on Japan that you would not have that just an ordinary tourists going to Tokyo and some of the major sites would not get tell us what you take from
Mark Wilson 09:53
Yeah, that’s a good point, you know, so I did do the tourist thing a little bit. So for example, my first winter break, I went to Kyoto and went to the beautiful temples and so forth. But I lived in a more gritty industrial city. So I kind of saw that side of Japan, you know, that we were there was a fair amount of pollution. In fact, I ended up developing some problems with asthma there, which was a bit of a struggle for me, in my kind of last nine months there. So it was kind of a little bit of a rough city in that sense. The, of course, you know, compared to the US, the stereotypically, of course, it’s true, people were very polite, you know, quiet, considerate. So that was true. But I did see a couple of different sides of that, at one time, I saw a guy on the street being totally dressed down by a gangster, and you get yelled at. And I was stunned that that existed in Japan, because I had only seen the spirit kind of quiet, polite side of it. But in general, you know, I feel like I really did, I got to see some kind of very traditional festivals where people put together these elaborate floats and you know, things to, to celebrate the New Year or other holidays. And I’ve, you know, I was I was lucky, I think, not to be in a kind of gleaming metropolis. But in a kind of grittier part of the it was kind of a rust belt almost type of part of Japan. So I appreciated that.
Will Bachman 11:29
So any other adventures that you had in that, in that experience that that stand out?
Mark Wilson 11:36
Well, I’m trying to think that, you know, the Beijing trip was my was my biggest trip. One of the most fun things I one of the fondest memories I have is, these, these wonderful engineers from one of the local chemical companies who I taught, and they were kind of one of my first classes, they kind of took pity on me as a kind of a lonely, you know, foreigner and, and early on a nice day, they allowed me to join them on a, what they call it an ecchi den, if I remember correctly, my Japanese fading fast, whatever I did have at one time, but you know, kind of like a group race where you’d be in a van, and somebody would have to do the running. And then after a few miles, they would jump in the van and somebody else would jump out. And so it was like a team marathon type effort. But anyway, we were able to do that from this town, on the kind of inland sea side all the way across to the other side of the island. And then we stayed in a traditional in that night. So I had really nice experiences like that, where my students sometimes on the weekends, would invite me on these outings. And again, I felt like I was kind of very generously being invited to, to enter these these folks lives. So that was a lot of fun.
Will Bachman 12:57
It’s amazing. And has anything from that period of your life stuck with you either. Just foods that you’ve learned to cook or you know, interested in Japanese film or people you’ve stayed connect with? Or?
Mark Wilson 13:14
Well, that’s a good question. I’ve never had the chance to go back. Which is pretty amazing after all these years. So the last time I was there was was when I left in the spring of 94. But I have stayed in touch with my boss who actually came to our wedding in Chicago and 99. And we exchanged we still exchanged kind of holiday cards and occasional emails. So that’s been really great. And yeah, of course, I retain an interest in kind of, you know, Japanese film and literature to some extent.
Will Bachman 13:50
Let’s talk about grad school. So, yeah. Which is cool, cultural, you know, get out of your zone. And let’s talk about grad school.
Mark Wilson 14:00
Yeah, so one thing, which was a another one of my challenges in Japan was I try I applied from Japan, you know, so, which at the time, you know, we had no, I had no email over there, whether there, let alone internet. So it was kind of a difficult, painstaking process, trying to get the applications and line up letters of recommendation, and so on and so forth from overseas, but I did manage to do and I applied to several schools from there. So this would have been, what the winter of 9394 that I was doing that. And then I was very fortunate to get accepted by University of Chicago. I think a couple other schools accepted me but Chicago was the only one that actually offered me any kind of decent financial aid package which included a tiny stipend in addition to tuition, so and that was fantastic. You know, I I thought one of the one of the great schools in the country and great history program, and I was just so so lucky to, to be admitted there. And so I’ve wrapped up work, you know, the school year in Japan is kind of on this cycle where they end in the spring, you know, it’s kind of earlier than us, like, like in March or so. And so, my boss, and I decided to kind of made sense for me to finish out the school year. So that had me leaving there in March of 94. So that I had a few months to prepare for grad school. And one of the great things I was able to do is, later that spring, I was able to go over to Europe and join my brother, who’s three years younger, who had been over in Barcelona studying and we were able to travel in Europe for a few weeks. And so I blew some of my savings from my, from my work as an English teacher in Japan on that, and the rest of the savings, I would end up spending to kind of supplement my my grad school stipend, but all that was well worth. Anyway, Chicago University, Chicago, at that time, had a giant PhD history program. There were, I think, more than 50 students just in my class, my cohort of new PhD students. And today, that is pretty much unheard of. But at the time, they were training huge numbers of PhDs. And so I joined this big group, and I started, we did, you know, typically you do two years of coursework, and then you do comprehensive exams, oral exams, and then you start into a PhD dissertation project. So I kind of did all that it was fantastic, you know, to be able to just work in one of the best libraries in the country and just have have these challenging courses. And it really great large, I mean, one of the good things about it being a big program is you got to really stimulating big group of fellow students to, to play around with them to, to kind of go to workshops with and so forth. And one of those students who I didn’t meet until my second year, our you know, our cohort was so big was my, my now wife, Christine. So we started dating at the end of our second year. And she saw I was specializing the history of the United States, as you said, you know, I ended up doing Military Industrial stuff for my career. But she was a student of French history. And so I was able to visit her in Paris, in 98 and early 98, when she was over there doing dissertation research, kind of a tough life. Meanwhile, I was doing my research in places like Indianapolis, and Springfield, Illinois, and so forth. But so we, we were able to spend time to get there. And then we got married in Chicago while we were still grad students in 99, which is the next year. And that’s been for me, you know, the most important relationship in my life since we graduated. And it’s been a great journey with her. But anyway, as you mentioned before, you know, my first book was called the business’s Civil War, and that was my PhD dissertation project. And so in that, you know, my, I guess, what would you say after the first two or three years of my coursework and orals, that was what I did for the next three or four years in grad schools, I focused on this big project, where I was trying to figure out how the North supplied its armies during the Civil War. And I was trying to write a kind of a grand, you know, business slash political history of that Economic mobilization project. And I found the some fantastic records in the form of, you know, Army correspondence. You know, I know you’re a former Navy guy will you can appreciate the main characters in this book, or army quartermasters. The kind of supply and acquisition and logistics officers who made the Northern war machine run. But anyway, they’re the National Archives, that’s fantastic records of their correspondence and their contracts that they signed with suppliers all over the country. And we also have these incredible sets of court martial case files from the Civil War. And most of those involve, you know, privates who did the wrong thing got drunk or whatever, but some of them were court martial case files involving military acquisition officers or even contractors. Were court martialed in some cases and And so those sources and using those sources and tons of other sources, I was able to kind of put together the story about how the Northern war machine worked. So that that was my PhD dissertation, which I defended and kind of wrapped up in 2002, I guess, and then tell us, tell us some stories
Will Bachman 20:21
about that. And I sure I have recently read oceans of grain, which I think has a chapter about civil war. And I think it was like about, you know, one of these court martials around someone buying hay for the horses, and how somebody would like, claim that some of it was was actually decayed and rotten and had to be thrown away, but they actually hadn’t actually sold the hay and so forth. They were recycling it and selling it multiple times. There’s some crazy thing. Tell us about some stories around the Civil War. Some other stuff, I’ve read talks about how so much so many things in American business really changed based on it with mass production in the rifles and so forth. But tell us some things, some insights that you had about, about the Civil War, how it affected American economy, and business?
Mark Wilson 21:13
Yeah. So, you know, of course, I wrote a, you know, 300 page book on it. So I’ll try to be selective and just
Will Bachman 21:23
say, you should point out and boil it down.
Mark Wilson 21:27
A few different things. I mean, one thing about the question of long term impact, there’s actually a big debate among historians about that, you know, long term economic impact on industrialization, and so forth. And the consensus among economic historians is that it’s actually today is more along the lines of very limited impact, or even a negative impact, right. So we’re, and that’s kind of overturning this notion that, you know, the US industrialized, you know, as a as a kind of way that the war stimulated that. But anyway, and, as one example, that I’ll give you the number one contractor, so far as I could tell what the North was a guy who supplied clothing, right uniforms, named John Martin, who was from Brooklyn, based in Brooklyn. And as far as I could tell, with his Civil War fortune, he spent a lot of it on high end European paintings, for example, and so did not exactly kind of invest in what, you know, Edison’s light bulbs or whatever, something like that. So there’s a little bit of a danger, I think of overstating the, the, the extent of that. On the other hand, what I tried to do in my book, one thing I tried to do is, is emphasize the kind of what the scale and sophistication and and just impact of the military management of the war economy. And that essentially argued the army, these army quartermasters were among the greatest business leaders of the 19th century, in a sense, you know, because they just had this massive acquisition effort and logistics network, and supply chain management problems, right. And so in a way, I was trying to call attention to this public side of the rise of big business in America. And, you know, not a lot of people really read the book necessarily, I don’t know how much impact that’s had over the long run. But I kind of stand by that story. You know, we often think of the private sector, of course, like the railroads, or Rockefeller or whatever, as being the, the originators of big business practices and procedures, but, but really, you know, the these army acquisition guys, we’re, we’re pretty impressive, you know, large scale business managers. And in my second book, in my world war two book, I made some related claims as well, we can you know, we’ll talk about that later.
Will Bachman 24:11
Yeah. So tell us a story to illustrate that. So, I mean, I’m a management consultant. So I’m always fascinated to hear about developments and kind of the technology of how you manage a business, what was what were some of the things they came up with, or illustrate that, you know, all of a sudden, they’re managing this massive scale of logistics and supply chain, did they come up with some new techniques or give us a story?
Mark Wilson 24:38
Well, I have to admit that I was my work is a little bit more on the acquisition side than the logistics side. So I don’t I’m not gonna I’m gonna stick to that. One thing that one thing that really interested me and has continued to interest me all the way down to the present day and my current work is the way that these The Army acquisition guys dealt with the acquisition problem and kind of the, the make or buy decision if you will. And they, to my surprise, and I think, you know, my book tried to break new ground in this way. These guys were not particularly deferential to the genius of the private sector, or you know, capitalist markets, they often chose to set up their own enterprises. And so these kind of mid level acquisition guys, and I still remember a lot of their names like John Dickerson, or Thomas swords, or William Allen, or whatever, Thomas Thomas sorts,
Will Bachman 25:47
what a great name for
Mark Wilson 25:50
Will Bachman 27:21
in some cases, they rather than just buying it with an RFP or something, they actually said, No, we can get a better price. We’re gonna just set up our own, like army run Factory.
Mark Wilson 27:32
Absolutely. So that was a story there. That’s so cool. Well, yeah, so they had an existing one in Philadelphia, where they made a lot of uniforms and other equipment, and that that, you know, kind of dated from the early 19th century. And by the way, as you may know, that the Navy had its own navy yards, right shipyards as well, so comparably, so that was actually kind of baked in to early American history. But then when the Civil War hit, you know, they needed what they needed 1000 times more uniforms, and they had they needed before. And they bought some of them from contractors, including from a company we still know today, Brooks Brothers was one contractor for clothing, but they also these guys would be like, Oh, well, I have this big army depo in Cincinnati, I’m going to set up my own uniform manufactury and I’m going to employ, you know, hundreds of seamstresses there to make our any army uniforms there. In addition to you know, contracting out for for some of the uniforms I need. So, that was their kind of mentality was was not like, oh, well, obviously, the contractors are gonna give me a better product at a better price than I could ever do myself. Instead, they were like, yeah, probably I could do just as well as they could. And anyway, I found the whole thing to be super fascinating. And again, you know, there’s there’s actually similar issues in 20th century and even 21st century defense acquisition history that, that I have continued to study.
Will Bachman 29:11
Amazing. So keep going with the story. So you did this for the Civil War, and then like, Okay, what’s next war? Okay, World War Two.
Mark Wilson 29:23
Yeah, so, so here, let me let’s transition from Chicago to Charlotte. So, let’s see. Christina. I actually left Chicago in 2001 because she had a kind of a postdoc at Cornell. teaching and writing and I got kind of adjunct jobs in other words, teaching as a part time or individual classes as a part timer. at SUNY Cortland and at Wells college up there. I was I was finishing the dissertation. And then we um 2002 Whoo. We of course we were looking for, for tenure track jobs for permanent jobs. And in 2002, at the beginning of the year, we each managed to get a couple good job offers, but they, but all four of these job offers are in different places. And so we, you know, had a, you know, some kind of heart to hearts and struggling, you know, to figure out what to do and agonizing for a while. But we ended up coming to Charlotte, which was actually heard one of her job offers, in part because it was kind of a growing dynamic University. Today, it’s a 30,000 students campus of, of University of North Carolina. At the time, it was maybe 20,000 or so, as I recall. So it’s, it’s grown a lot even since we’ve gotten here. So anyway, we came to Charlotte for her job, I again, I got some more work working as an adjunct teaching individual courses at the University and also at the local community college. I also had a few weeks out in California on a research fellowship. But we were I and we were incredibly fortunate when there was a job opening in US history. And they did a national search in 2003 2004. And I got at the end of that I got hired as an assistant professor. So that’s why we’re in Charlotte, you know, we but we kind of we did the amazing thing of finding jobs in the same place for academics, not that it’s not that easy to do that. And so we had that, going in 2004. And then, in 2004, we actually left for a year and I got to go back to Harvard for a year. I got a postdoc at a Security Studies Institute at Harvard. And mostly the people in that postdoc program were political scientists. But there were also a couple historians and a couple of military officers. And so I got to go back to Cambridge lived in a little apartment off of the yard. And but this time, it was a very different experience to be at Harvard because we had a newborn. So we, we made the terrible mistake of driving all the way from Charlotte to Boston with a newborn in the backseat. So he cried, he cried literally the entire journey. And so we showed up there with this newborn and, and so that year, and meanwhile, Christine had a postdoc at Princeton, which she mostly took on the second semester in the spring semester. So I was commuting a little bit in the spring semester, back and forth. And so that year, as you can imagine, it’s kind of a haze. But I did finish my civil war book manuscript, I got it. I got Johns Hopkins to publish it and finished it there. And then I got a little bit of a start on the second book, which ended up being about World War Two. For the postdoc, I had proposed to study inter war, mobilization planning between the between the World Wars, which I thought was an interesting subject, you know, how did us planners and military officers think about mobilizing for the next war, after World War One. And so I did a little bit of work on a little bit of research into that during my Harvard postdoc. But then I kind of realized, we actually knew a fair bit about that. But the bigger story, if you will, of the actual world war two mobilization was not quite as well covered. I didn’t think of course, there’s a lot of a lot of work on that. But I thought there was room for more. And so kind of during and then after that postdoc, I started to work on that second project. Meanwhile, my main job, of course, is teaching history at UNC Charlotte, mainly mainly to undergraduates but also to some masters students. And at Charlotte, over the years, I’ve taught you know, I’m a US specialist. So I teach the US history survey. And I teach kind of thematically organized courses, like I have one on the history of democracy in the US or the military industrial complex, or the history of Charlotte, I worked up a course on doing kind of more, more local history. And so kind of my bread and butter, you know, existence is is teaching those courses and really serving our students. But we are a research university. So I did get the chance to kind of gradually work on this. The second book. Oh, by the way, I wanted to interject I know one of your guests has been our classmate Zach Schrag, who is also a history professor and I I’ve been able to use in recent years this Princeton guide to historical research that he compiled him I own courses. And that’s been, that’s been fun. And I’ve been in touch with Zach a little bit about the
Will Bachman 35:05
Zack will be so happy to hear that. listeners get the Princeton historical guide or research. It’s a great episode. Zach was my was my roommate. So I’m glad to hear that you’re using his book. Tell us some stories about World War Two that you yeah, pretty interesting that you presented in your book. I mean, and that’s amazing that you found like new stuff to tell, because there’s obviously so much written about World War Two, including about the arsenal of democracy kind of books. But But tell us what are some stories that you were excited to present?
Mark Wilson 35:39
Sure. So yeah, and this book, which, if if listeners are really interested, they can check it out this book, as you said, beginning, it’s called destructive creation. I tried to do more than others had done in the past to dig into the business side of the story. So I went to the archives of places like Ford Motor Company. And I went out to Seattle and used I was able to use Boeing’s internal archive, which is not that easy to get into these days, I don’t think but. And so I did it. And I use du Pont’s archives, and so forth. So I was able to, I think I was able to do more research on the kind of business history side than a lot of people have done before. Whereas a lot of people before it looked at the records of civilian mobilization agencies on the government side. And I also, you know, coming out of my civil war project, I knew or I suspected that the military acquisition folks in the services were important, as well. And so I looked a lot at, you know, the Navy and Army Ordnance districts and, and the Army Air Forces, you know, Materiel Command side of the story, I think, again, a little bit more than than others had. And then, you know, I have a huge amount of evidence, if you will, I, I claim to offer, you know, the best book length account of this big military industrial mobilization for World War Two. But I also have kind of a narrative story in there, which I thought which which kind of came out of the evidence, which I think is important about business’s political efforts during the war, and their PR efforts, if you will. And the story that I tell in parts of the book are that, you know, the business community was very actively working throughout the war, even as they were working overtime to deliver all these munitions. They were working very actively throughout the war, to kind of win the battle for PR, if you will, over who deserve credit, for the miracle of American war production, which, as we know, you know, allowed the allies to win World War Two with just this overwhelming output of tanks and aircraft and so forth. And so the story is the kind of political history story I tell in the book is one where the the business community wages, this fairly successful battle to claim credit, you know, for the this kind of successful output. And it’s a kind of an anti New Deal. political effort in which these, most of these business leaders were suspicious of the growth of government that had occurred during the New Deal, and then continued to occur during World War Two, under President Roosevelt, and they were really trying to, you know, dial that back or push back the rise of, you know, the big, bureaucratic New Deal state. And they kind of used this, this PR effort during the war to, to kind of promote that idea. So I found it really fascinating not just to get into the records of the kind of what nuts and bolts story of how the bombers were produced, and so forth. But also the kind of, I don’t know, cultural and political story of how people were trying to, to kind of win the the interpretive battle of, of how we should understand what happened and who deserve credit for it.
Will Bachman 39:33
Tell us a bit about how, like the inside story of how the acquisition folks in the military maybe different than you might just sort of think from outside and not being you know, super aware Yeah, I think like okay, you know, they, they need some bombers, so they go and, you know, put out an RFP for some bomb or something, but with a much more directive or hands on are involved and kind of managing the whole process or coordinating supply chains, like tell us tell us a bit about the inside story there.
Mark Wilson 40:05
Yeah, I what you just said I think is quite right. And that’s one thing I try to argue in the book. So my story of the mobilization is one that really emphasizes government ownership of plant, you know, meaning the, the buildings and the tools where all this stuff was made. And also to some extent that the military coordination of these supply chains, and I’ll just give you, you know, a few more specific examples of what I mean. So there was, you know, an idea when the worst started that may be to get, let’s say, you need, you need, let’s say, you have a tent, you know, there exists a few airplane factories that the private companies have, right. But from story companies like Douglas, or Martin or whatever, and there exist, you know, aluminum plants that Alcoa is running. So the private sector has a bunch of plants. But the problem with the World War Two shock is you need all of a sudden you need like, 10 times as much stuff. And so how do you get the new plant that is going to be able to produce that. So the story I tell in the book is one where there was kind of an effort to maybe incentivize the private sector to build a new plant with tax breaks and so forth. But that didn’t really do the job. And it just, you know, there wasn’t enough, you know, incentive to do that. And so the government really just ended up paying for everything. And so, and then they enlisted private companies to manage government on plants. Right, and that occurred, you know, in, in kind of low tech factories, but it also went all the way to the Manhattan Project, where you have like, DuPont, is managing the plutonium plants in Hanford, Washington, right, that are entirely government owned, but they bring in these private companies to, to actually manage the facilities and hire the workers. So that kind of government owned contractor operated model, I think, was really the most important part of this massive US industrial mobilization for World War Two. And some people, I think, forget that, because I think as you’re suggesting, maybe there’s this conventional wisdom that oh, well, what all you do is you get General Motors to convert their car factories to tank factories, right? Or you get, you know, Ford to build your you Obama factory or something. But in fact, you know, the real, a lot of a lot of what the core of what was going on was more, you know, the government built all this new plant, they brought in the private companies to manage it. And, and that’s how this stuff got. And then in terms of supply chains, you know, the, I again, as I had in the World War in the Civil War book, I looked really carefully at 1000s, of records of individual contracts, and I kind of crunched some of that stuff. And one thing you realize, as you do that, is that, you know, the Army and the Navy, were contracting for all these components, right? So they would, they would have these big contracts just for like, the starters for the aircraft engines, right? Or the bomb sites or whatever. And so they they didn’t just tell Boeing, oh, you know, give us a B 29. You know, turnkey complete, thank you. We’ll pay you whatever you want. But it rather, you know, the these military acquisition, folks were actually contracting for all these components. In some cases, they were kind of just delivering it to Boeing on on its doorstep and saying, Okay, now you put it together, right. So again, I think sometimes people might not appreciate the extent to which these military managers were presiding over these vast supply chains. Especially in a day where we often celebrate, you know, what the private sector of entrepreneurism, there were plenty of kind of cool entrepreneurs in World War Two, like Higgins, who made the you know, the landing craft, and so forth. They get, you know, they get a lot of credit. But what I found equally interesting is the role of these public managers of the war. And before before we leave the topic of this book, because I know we’re probably short on time, I will say that the book has gotten some interest from folks that I didn’t imagine it we get interest from when I wrote it. And that includes the green New Deal crowd. So people are trying to think about ways to mobilize to combat climate change, you know, perhaps by building out tons of solar or whatever, some of those folks have been in touch with me. And I’ve gotten a little bit of attention just from that crowd about well, you know, so what do you do if you need all of a sudden, 10 times as much of a thing that you that you want? So that’s been interesting. And then during COVID, to some extent, during the early phase of COVID, I had some press inquiries and some other things and published a couple op eds. Because if you remember, you know, three years ago, there was a lot of interest in well, how do you get enough ventilators? Or how do you get enough vaccines? You know, within six months, like, what does that look like? And so I was able to, to talk to a few people about that and think about the ways in which the World War Two model might or might not apply. So that’s been that’s been kind of gratifying.
Will Bachman 45:57
As in someone who studies the military industrial complex, I’m curious about your reaction to the theories of a writer Richard henmania, who recently published this book, public choice theory and the illusion of grand strategy, where he talks about how we often think about countries as having a strategy, and he challenges that idea that there’s no like, strategy for the United States. It’s not a unified actor. And that, in fact, there’s just lots of individual people who are responding to incentives. And one of the big sets of stakeholders is the military industrial complex that has enough focus and care and attention to really lobby, you know, the Congress in public opinion, on, you know, investing in more weapons systems and so forth. Curious your take on that, in particular, maybe any reactions you have, or thoughts or observations about how we are current, you know, just how it’s working right now, with the US supplying Ukraine, where you read, I don’t pay super close attention, but your talk, you hear about how we’re almost like using up a lot of our supplies, so the military is pressing, you know, companies to produce more, you know, missiles and ammunition and so forth. And, and just curious, your perspective on how all that’s playing out with, with being able to produce enough weapons for Ukraine and for the, and how that’s playing out today?
Mark Wilson 47:35
Yeah, well, well, I haven’t read the book you mentioned, but I’ll try to look at it later. But as for kind of military industrial complex theory, so I’m actually working on a new book now, which I hope will be out in, you know, within three years, or whatever. And I’m working on I’m actually kind of working on the first chapter this week about President Eisenhower. And it was President Eisenhower, famously in his farewell address in January 1961. Use the term military industrial complex. And indeed, he I mean, he had in mind, the same kind of lobby that your, um, that the book you refer to maybe is talking about, in other words, that among the kind of organized, powerful lobbies in the US, since World War Two, has been the arms industry, and its allies, in Congress and in local communities, and, and so forth. And I think there, of course, there’s a lot to that. I my own view of the, of the ways in which people talk about the military industrial complex is off, you know, some, some discussions kind of go overboard in the kind of conspiracy theory direction and attribute to it power, you know, greater than it actually has. But on the other hand, you know, let’s not be naive and think that that doesn’t exist, either. So part of the whole point of my current book is to kind of think about that and figure out what’s actually going on and how that’s changing over time. And, you know, one of the things I’m thinking about for this current book, as I kind of drive, you know, through the Cold War and into the post Cold War period, as I think this speaks a little bit to your question about Ukraine is, you know, it’s not all that surprising that there’s, you know, shortages of munitions or other problems that are kind of coming to light all of a sudden, because of the ways in which the defense sector has changed over the last few decades and and this goes back to my It observations earlier about my my civil war quartermasters. And their their interest in in house capacities and kind of their lack of deference to the business sector. I think over time, you know, the, in general, the US defense sector has become kind of more privatized and, and more, you know, driven by, you know, short run financial concerns and so forth. And if that’s how you if that’s how Congress and the Pentagon allow their industrial base to be structured, right, and incentivized, it’s not all that surprising that, you know, you run into shortages and so forth, right? Because the private sector isn’t designed to what create, you know, big stockpiles of stuff or do things that are going to other than maximizing profit really, right? So I would part part of what I’m exploring in this current project, and I, if any listeners are interested in SFP, happy to, or if they know stuff about it, as you may, I’d be, I’d be delighted to talk to them, is the ways in which the defense sector has changed even since Eisenhower’s day in in ways that perhaps has made it more fragile, you know, less capable. And I think we’re part of what you’re seeing today is kind of related to that is my that’s my historians reading of it.
Will Bachman 51:39
Well, it’s just been Yeah, it’s been a little surprising to me. And just to be clear, I’m like, fully in supportive support Ukraine, definitely, I mean, as much right as much as we possibly can. I’m all for it. But I just find it bizarre, that, you know, you read about, oh, we’re kind of out of missiles, or it’s gonna take us to 2026 to catch up on production. Like, what this is kind of a small war comparatively for what we might have to face and I mean, uh, we’re, we’re do we expanded production, as you’re talking about by 1,000x, or something. So how is it that we just, you know, running out of, you know, whatever how it’s or can’t how it’s or, you know, shelves, you’re just, you know, with only supplying one country, it doesn’t seem prepared for what we need to be. So, I want to get to the section where we talk about, you know, any influences from college? So, were there any influences from either courses or professors at Harvard that have particularly continue to resonate with you? And it doesn’t necessarily have to be, you know, professionally in your major, but it could be, but in any courses or professors that have resonated?
Mark Wilson 52:52
Absolutely, I will, I’ll just start by saying, you know, I was kind of a, I was a diligent student in college, not a not a brilliant one. But, you know, I did take my courses seriously. And I studied and, and besides that, I just kind of hung out with roommates. And I played ultimate. So that was, I was a, I did, I did go to My Courses and take them, I’ll just, I’ll open with just a little quick shout out to a course that I don’t know if anybody else remembers, but I think it was in the biological sciences core area. And it was a course in human physiology. And so I was, as I said, I was a history and literature major, I was not a STEM major, not a pre med by any means. But I thought that was such a great course, because it was it was not dumbed down. It was kind of, you know, doing some serious work in terms of learning, you know, the, the appropriate chemistry or whatever, in terms of how human bodies function. But nor was it a pre med course that we take, you know, 80 hours a week to complete. So I thought they just the way that they think it was a medical school team taught course. And I thought the way that they pitched that and they ran, it was really good. And I really enjoyed that. And even today, you know, if I think about my body, my aging, middle aged body and the extent to which it’s kind of, you know, maintaining equilibrium, I still think about that, that course. But I would say, you know, really, my main answer to your question is, I’ll name a couple instructors I had in history and literature, whose names maybe nobody else listening to podcasts knows, but Dan terrace and Steve Beal, so these were not, you know, tenured Harvard professors, but rather they were like instructors or tutors and the history and literature program. They were people who were just just finished or just finishing their own PhDs. So they were probably 10 years older than me at the time. And they weren’t on the regular faculty, but they kind of Staff these courses. And in history and literature, we had the privilege of having some one on one tutorials. And so Dan terrace and Steve Beale were the guys who did my one on one tutorials and directed my thesis. And they taught me things like how to use bibliographic databases, and they would read my writing from week to week, and, you know, suggest I needed to think a little bit harder. And, and they were so kind and generous in that role. And I, you know, I want to make a large to some extent, as someone who’s ended up working in academia, I want to make the larger point that for some of us anyway, and certainly for me, it was these folks who didn’t get, you know, high pay or high status. But were kind of toiling at that level at the University, who really made a big difference in my education. And that, you know, I know that that’s true. And universities today, across the country, that non tenure track people do a lot of that work. But I think it was even true back in our day as well. And Steve is still at Harvard, and he directs the humanities center there. And Dan is now a, he’s a dean at a college in Palestine and think, Wow,
Will Bachman 56:21
you mentioned Ultimate Frisbee a couple of times, what role did that play in your life?
Mark Wilson 56:26
Well, I it was, it was my obsession during my college years. And since then, it’s been, I haven’t been able to play as much in part because my body just want to hold up. But yeah, when I played some in high school, and so I, when I got to Harvard, I was really excited to play and I was able to find some, you know, other students who were a great group of people who I played with on this club team, and our weekends in the fall in the spring, we would drive around, you know, to places like UMass Amherst, or Dartmouth or, or even closer to home, like bu or whatever, and we’d play other college club teams. So one of your other guests, Henry bile was one of my colleagues on the ultimate team, and some of our other classmates, like John fist, and Andrew Tripp, and others played with me. And that was just a great group of friends. And I played a little bit in grad school off and on, but I tried to play in my 30s. And I was able to play like two or three times before my hamstrings just started tearing up, and would not support the sprinting anymore. Now I try settle for playing tennis, which is something I try to get out and do a couple times a week.
Will Bachman 57:48
Mark, for listeners who would like to follow up with you, we can include that link to your bio at the UNC Charlotte page. Are there any other links that we should include in the shownotes?
Mark Wilson 58:02
Oh, I think that will be sufficient will but people can always find me. You know, I’m a history professor at UNC Charlotte, North Carolina. And I’d be delighted to hear from anybody whether I knew them or not in college, to talk history of the military industrial complex or anything else.
Will Bachman 58:19
All right. Green New Deal proponents reach out to mark he’s absolutely taking calls and how the government can be the entrepreneurial state and support what you want to build, Mark. It’s been so fun having you on the show. I’m super actually psyched now to go buy your books and read about the business of Civil War and World War Two, which is sounds fascinating. Given a little bit of military background and interest in business, so this has been amazing. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Mark Wilson 58:49
Well, thank you. It was a pleasure and I look forward to all your coming broadcasts.
Will Bachman 58:56
Thank you very much.