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War Alarm: Waking Up from Reagan's Nightmare

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The War Alarm: Waking Up from Reagan's Nightmare
by Michael Gillespie
The American people want to trust their leaders.  Most Americans want desperately to believe in the American Dream, in the principles and values at the heart of that dream, in the essential goodness and decency of their nation.  The problem is that their leaders have so routinely deceived them, so flagrantly betrayed their trust, manipulated their hopes, desires, and fears so frequently and for such ignoble purposes, that the very concept of truth has lost its purchase in American life.  Big Media, Big Business, and Big Politics have turned professional journalism and American public discourse into a theater of the absurd, a house of mirrors, an echo-chamber designed to perpetuate corruption that serves special interests and the ruling class.  The goal seems to be the creation of a public so crass it will accept any crime, any atrocity, even penury and enslavement. 
Let's look at the evidence.  Let's examine one iconic lie in the ever-lengthening litany of lies that so regularly come rolling off the tongues of America's political leaders.      
"Wage and price controls have failed since the time of Diocletian.  I ought to know.  I'm the only one here old enough to remember that," Ronald Reagan famously quipped during a Republican debate in 1980 while he was running for president. 
The remark ranks among the grossest misrepresentations of historical fact in modern American political discourse.  It flies in the face of America's greatest economic and military accomplishments.  Yet today Big Media commentators across the political spectrum still recall the quotation to burnish the widely popular president's reputation as "the Great Communicator," and, more specifically, to illustrate the then-69-year-old former actor's deft use of humor to deflect questions and concern about his age.
Reagan's joke was carefully calculated to deceive as well as to disarm.  In addition to neutralizing fears that he was too old to be president, his comment promoted the political agenda of the Big Business interests he served so well.  Less than a month from his 70th birthday when he was inaugurated, Reagan was America's oldest president.  Though he wasn't old enough to remember Diocletian's reign, Reagan was in his 30s during World War II when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America's 32nd President, instituted remarkably successful wage and price controls, essential elements of a larger economic plan that was astonishingly successful.
Make no mistake:  It was the vast agricultural, manufacturing, and industrial capacity of the United States of America, efficiently and effectively organized, regulated, and expanded by the Roosevelt administration, that made possible the crushing defeat of the Axis powers in 45 months, less than four years from the day America entered the war.
FDR had resurrected the Advisory Commission to the World War I Council on National Defense in May of 1940 and added price stabilization and consumer protection divisions.  He merged them, creating the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply (OPACS) within the Office for Emergency Management, by Executive Order (E.O.) 8734 on April 11, 1941.  With E.O. 8875 he established the Office of Price Administration (OPA) within the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) on August 28, 1941.  The Emergency Price Control Act of January 30, 1942 made OPA an independent agency with the power to place ceilings on all prices except agricultural commodities and to ration scarce supplies of other items, including tires, automobiles, shoes, nylon, sugar, gasoline, fuel oil, coffee, meats and processed foods.  Eventually the OPA froze almost 90 percent of retail food prices.  OPA also established rent controls and set maximum rents for most homes, apartments, rooming house and hotel rooms.
Roosevelt established the War Production Board (WPB) by E.O. 9024 on January 16, 1942, on January 24, with E.O. 9040 gave it supreme authority over procurement of materials and industrial production.
"The WPB's chair, Donald Nelson, received sweeping powers over the economic life of the nation --" now on an official war footing --" to convert and expand the peacetime economy to maximum wartime production." (S. Shimizu in The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. 1)
"The national WPB's primary task was converting civilian industry to war production. The board assigned priorities and allocated scarce materials such as steel, aluminum, and rubber, prohibited nonessential industrial activities such as producing nylons and refrigerators, controlled wages and prices, and mobilized the people," encouraging scrap drives and more than 20 million victory gardens that produced 9 to 10 million tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, an amount equal to commercial fresh vegetable production figures.
"The WPB and the nation's factories effected a great turnaround to war production. The construction of military aircraft that totaled six thousand in 1940 jumped to eighty-five thousand in 1943. Factories that had manufactured silk ribbons produced parachutes, automobile factories built tanks, typewriter companies converted to machine guns, undergarment manufacturers sewed mosquito netting, and a roller coaster manufacturer converted to the production of bomber repair platforms. Factories were expanded and new ones built. " The WPB ensured that each factory received materials it needed to operate, in order to produce the most war goods in the shortest time."  (Oklahoma Historical Society, Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture)
Rationing, wage and price controls, the expansion of the nation's manufacturing base, and full employment quickly became defining features of American life during World War II.  To wake millions of workers so they could get to their jobs in the nation's bustling offices, factories, and shipyards on time, the WPB authorized the production of alarm clocks.  No other wartime product illustrates the level of the Roosevelt administration's well-nigh total regulation and control of the nation's economic activity as effectively as does the War Alarm. 


No.1 War Alarm
(Image by Michael Gillespie)
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Several well-established clock manufacturers produced War Alarm clocks, and some companies produced more than one model.  Some were spring-driven wind-up clocks, while other more expensive models were electrically powered, more reliable, more accurate, and quieter in operation, but War Alarms all share some unusual and distinctive characteristics.  All War Alarm clocks have the identifying words "War Alarm" on the dial in lieu of a manufacturer's brand name or trademark.  WPB policy prevented manufacturers from putting a company brand name or trademark on War Alarm clocks but allowed the city, state, and country of origin, in small print.  Every War Alarm carries on its back a permanent OPA mark stamped or molded into the fiber, metal, or plastic case.  The OPA mark indicates the maximum allowed retail price for the model, "EX. TAX" (excluding tax), as set by order of the federal government. 
WPB officials strictly regulated the production of War Alarms.  The WPB determined the number of units each manufacturer was permitted to produce as well as the number of pounds of brass allowed per 1000 clocks.  The WPB decided what companies and corporations would produce, how much they would produce, when and how they would produce it, and at what prices they might sell their product.  The end result of all this government regulation and control of the nation's business and manufacturing sector --" this massive government interference in the free market --" was the greatest economic and military victory in the history of our world.  War Alarm clocks, now prized historical artifacts, provide physical evidence --" proof --" that Reagan's assertion that wage and price controls never worked was patently false, hyperbolic partisan political propaganda delivered with seeming-sincere charm and wit.
One might wonder, Did Reagan sleep through WWII?  He did not, but he might as well have.
"By the time Kings Row was released in 1942, Reagan was in the Army.  He had joined the cavalry reserve in 1937 because he liked to ride horses and was called to duty in April 1942.  But Reagan's nearsightedness disqualified him from combat duty.  He was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps, which had taken over the Hal Roach studios in Culver City a few miles from Reagan's home.  Reagan spent the war at Fort Roach, as its inhabitants called it, making training films and appearing in a 1943 Irving Berlin musical, This Is the Army.  He was discharged on Dec. 9, 1945, with the rank of captain," wrote Washington Post staff writer Lou Cannon in a June 6, 2004 article titled "Actor, Governor, President, Icon".           
The 40th president and the 33rd governor of California, Reagan was the quintessential company man.  America's biggest defense contractor employed the former radio sportscaster and actor, trained him to promote and defend its political agenda, groomed him for leadership, and put him before his largest audiences.  During the 1950s, Reagan hosted one of television's most popular programs, General Electric Theater.  According to Cannon, the relationship with the defense contractor shaped the corporate spokesman's political perspective and later career in politics.
"Reagan's contract with General Electric, initially for $125,000 a year and soon raised to $150,000, introduced him to a new generation of young people, many of whom would  later vote for him.  It also provided an unusual political apprenticeship.  The contract required Reagan to spend 10 weeks a year touring GE plants, giving as many as 14 speeches a day.  "We drove him to the limit,' said Edward Langley, then a GE public relations man. "We saturated him in Middle America.'  Out of this saturation came the polished and patriotic speech that Reagan delivered for Goldwater in 1964, two years after his GE contract ended," wrote Cannon.
In many ways, Reagan was perfect for the part GE had in mind for him.  His most memorable role in movies was as "the Gipper" in Knute Rockne, All American, a 1940 biographical film about the Notre Dame football coach.  Reagan was cast as George "the Gipper' Gipp, an outstanding player who died prematurely from a strep infection.  Lines attributed to coach Rockne, a trusted figure, immortalized Gipp: "The last thing George said to me, "Rock,' he said, "sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper.'"  Reagan later used the phrase "Win one for the Gipper" as a political slogan and was often referred to as "the Gipper".  In 1988 at the Republican National Convention Reagan publicly told his Vice President George H. W. Bush, who was running for president, "George, go out there and win one for the Gipper."  At the 2004 convention shortly after Reagan's death, then-President George W. Bush appealed to Regan's memory during his acceptance speech with the remark, "We can now truly win one for the Gipper."  Such references to the Gipper illustrate the power of entertainment media to create cultural iconography that can be put to partisan political use. 
GE, the second-largest company in the world, "is a multinational conglomerate headquartered in Fairfield, Connecticut.  Its New York main offices are located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Rockefeller Center, known as the GE Building for the prominent GE logo on the roof.  NBC's headquarters and main studios are also located in the building. Through its RCA subsidiary, it has been associated with the Center since its construction in the 1930s." (Wikipedia)  GE, which has long understood the political utility and value of Big Media in terms of what is euphemistically referred to as "perception management," purchased the NBC television network in 1986 and 80 percent of Universal Pictures in 2004.
WWII, a multi-theater global conflict that U.S. military and allied forces fought and won decisively in just 45 months, less than four years from the day America entered the war, established our nation as a superpower and created the conditions for an American economic renaissance unlike any the world had ever seen.  The U.S. military has not decisively won a major military conflict since 1945.  Why then does Big Business so desperately seek to misinform Americans about Roosevelt's successful wartime economic policies?  Our corporate overlords, America's ruling class, believe with John Jay that "Those who own the country ought to govern it.'  They fear and loathe nothing so much as a government of, by, and for the people willing and able to regulate Big Business and interfere with the unbridled and ruthless pursuit of profit.  That is why Ronald Reagan, a spokesman for American Big Business, attempted to erase from history the central role that massive and systematic government regulation of economic activity played in the Roosevelt administration's successful effort to mobilize the nation in support of the U.S. military's greatest triumphs.  That is why Big Business has spared no expense in its ceaseless campaign to make a civic religion of "the free market."  That is why Big Media product tends to glorify commercialism and greed while demonizing, denigrating, or simply disappearing Roosevelt and the wartime economic policies that were instrumental in America's greatest economic and military accomplishments, while lionizing Reagan and presenting "Reaganomics" as a political panacea and an economic gospel to be venerated, worshiped.
Following the near collapse of a systematically mismanaged, severely weakened, structurally unsound, and still teetering economy --" a painful and costly economic debacle the bill for which their leaders sent to taxpayers and future generations --" Americans are looking for and deserve truthful answers from responsible and capable leaders.  They understand that America is in decline, and they are worried about the future as never before.  They are disappointed, frustrated, angry, and very unlikely to be satisfied by another dose of Big Business Brand snake oil.
End of Part 1

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This article also appears in The Independent Monitor - The National Newspaper of Arab Americans, December Issue
Next month, The Road to Recovery: Heeding Eisenhower's Warning


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Michael Gillespie writes regularly for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. A 1999 graduate of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Iowa State University, he was inducted a member of Kappa Tau Alpha, the national (more...)

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