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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Roger L. Simon poses a challenge to his readers: Put up or shut up. "Halliburtonophobes...Show the specific wrong doings that the NYT, the WaPo and the rest have so far not been able to demonstrate." Roger points to this latest Victor Davis Hanson piece in which he exposes various myths of the war, among them:

Myth #4: Profit-making led to this war...All U.S. construction is subject to open audit and assessment. A zealous media has not yet found any signs of endemic or secret corruption. There really is a giant scandal surrounding Iraq, but it involves (1) the United Nations Oil-for-Food program, in which U.N. officials and Saddam Hussein, hand-in-glove with European and Russian oil companies, robbed revenues from the Iraqi people; and (2) French petroleum interests that strong-armed a tottering dictator to sign over his country's national treasure to Parisian profiteers under conditions that no consensual government would ever agree to. The only legitimate accusation of Iraqi profiteering does not involve Dick Cheney or Halliburton, but rather Kofi Annan's negligence and his son Kojo's probable malfeasance.

Not surprisingly, 96 comments into Roger's thread and he's not had to eat any crow yet. It won't matter. That myth has legs.

Remarkable is the more general hatred aimed at the "War Profiteers, " as I noted while skimming some of the comments in this thread posted by a guest blogger at Dean Esmay's site. As though life is a Dylan song and the industries required for a major war effort descend from the heavens whole-cloth.

Now it's certainly right and sensible to be concerned and suspicious about the business of war. That's one of the reasons there are such stringent regulations and methods for military procurement and contracting. The stories of $500 hammers and $900 toilet seats show several things - that abuse is possible and it does happen, and there are systems for catching and correcting the abuses.

The concern over immoral profit is also understandable in view of the fact that most major religions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism (those are the ones I know off the top of my head - there are certainly others) have either constraints on the earning of "right livelihood," and/or outright prohibitions on making profit not earned by the sweat of the brow - the prohibition on the charging of interest as the most prominent example.

Yet our entire societal enterprise is built on a foundation of entrepreneurship and private enterprise. How do people imagine we got to be so great? By finding balances between the core functions of government and private enterprise, that's how. It seems absurd on its face to discard that system as we go forward and need to conduct ourselves in conflict with other nations. Our ability to harness the Capitalist system ought to be one of our great strengths. Not to do so would be like fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. Completely senseless. Providing a service for a fair profit ought to be nothing to be ashamed of. That's how the system works.

All this by way of introducing you to one of the greatest examples of the American Entrepreneurial Spirit in our history, that served us so well at one of our most pivotal moments. That picture* at the top of this entry is a "Higgins Boat." You've seen it a thousand times before. For many of you what follows will be old hat, but if you were like me until recently, you didn't really understand the significance. That boat was designed and manufactured by this man:

That's Andrew Higgins and he had a genius for building boats. Before the war he built boats for the oil industry in Louisiana - shallow-draft boats with protected propellers good for getting around the bayous and swamps.

He was a visionary and a risk taker in the true entrepreneurial sense. In 1939, so sure there would be a steel-shortage coupled with a need for small boats, he bought the entire supply of Philippine mahogany from that year and stored it away. That's not the government doing that. That's an individual American sensing an opportunity and a need and taking action. He didn't lobby the government. He did it himself. His own money. His own risk.

Stephen Ambrose:

When the Marines forced the Navy to begin experimenting with landing craft, Higgins entered the competition. The Navy Bureau of Ships wanted to the design itself and wanted no part of this hot-tempered, loud-mouthed Irishman who drank a bottle of whiskey a day, who built his boats out of wood instead of metal, whose firm (Higgins Industries) was a fly-by-night outfit on the Gulf Coast rather than an established firm on the East Coast, and who insisted that the 'Navy Doesn't know one damn thing about small boats."

The outsider eventually fought his way in and won the right to compete for the contract, and in the end, he designed a product that the Marines loved - the LCVP, or "Higgins Boat." Note: He was a private businessman. He took the risks. He had nothing to do with the Department of the Navy. He wasn't the government...any more than every American Citizen is...and yet he did his part.

According to The Higgins Boat Project:

In September, 1943, when the United States Fifth Army landed at Salerno, Italy, and General Douglas MacArthur's forces captured Salamaua in New Guinea, the American navy totaled 14,072 vessels. Of these boats, 12,964, or 92% of the entire U.S. Navy, were designed by Higgins Industries, Incorporated; 8,865 were built at the Higgins plants in New Orleans, La.

Amazing.

Ambrose:

Once he got the initial contract, Higgins showed that he was as much a genius at mass production as he was at design. He had assembly lines scattered throughout New Orleans (some under canvas). He employed, at the peak, 30,000 workers. It was an integrated work force of blacks, women, and men, the first ever in New Orleans. Higgins inspired his workers the way a general tries to inspire his troops. A huge sign hung over one of his assembly line: "The Man Who Relaxes Is Helping the Axis." He put pictures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito sitting on toilets in his factory bathrooms. "Come on in, brother," the caption read. "Take it easy. Every minute you loaf here helps us plenty." He paid top wages regardless of sex or race.

Higgins improved the design of the LCTs and produced hundreds of them; he helped design the patrol boats (PT boats) and built dozens of them; he had an important subcontractor role in the Manhattan Project; he made other contributions to the war effort as well.

In the old days, a navy would need to sit off the coast of an often fortified port. They'd sit out there and pound away at the defenses until the defenders were neutralized and then the transports could go in and use what was left of the port facility to take possession of the prize - a bloody, inefficient and predictable method.

The Higgins Boat changed the face of all that. Now the Navy could pick a section of flattish beach almost anywhere, and land troops, equipment and vehicles right along with the initial assault with Navy guns as support. The boats could even back up off the sand and go round for another load. It changed the nature of invasion tactics. It made the invasion of Normandy possible.

Ambrose:

"...Did you ever know Andrew Higgins?"

"No, sir," I replied. "He died before I moved to the city."

"That's too bad," Eisenhower said. "He is the man who won the war for us."

My face must have shown the astonishment I felt at hearing such a strong statement from such a source. Eisenhower went on to explain, "If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different."

Now, Andrew Higgins likely made a good living as the head of Higgins Industries. Can anyone begrudge it of him?

Sadly, with risk, success and failure go hand in hand. The story does not have the happiest of endings:

After the war, Higgins was beset by problems, some of his own making. He was not a good businessman. He could not bring himself to cut back because he hated to put his work force on unemployment. He fought the labor unions and lost. He was ahead of his time as he tried to move into helicopters and pleasure motor and sailing craft, pop-up tent trailers, and other leisure-time items that would eventually take off but not in 1946-47. He was brilliant at design but lousy at marketing, a master of production but a terrible bookkeeper. He went bust. Higgins Industries went under.

But he was the man who won the war for us, and it is a shame that he has been forgotten by the nation and by the City of New Orleans.

Andrew Higgins was a private citizen, not an employee of the government. He was motivated by patriotism and profit and was a part of the business of America - business - that was so effectively harnessed when the giant awoke in 1941. We should not be discouraging the Andrew Higginses of this world. We ought to be trying to find him amongst us today.

"Let us thank God for Higgins Industries, management, and labor which has given us the landing boats with which to conduct our campaign." -Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower, Thanksgiving Day, 1944.




*All quotes and photos in this entry are from the following sources: D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen E. Ambrose, The Higgins Boat Project, WhaleNotes on History, Omaha Beach Page, The USS War Hawk page, and the New Orleans Public Library.

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: "He won the war for us.".

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.solomonia.com/cgi-bin/mt4/mt-renamedtb.cgi/2182



5 Comments

Due to the press, most people don't know that defense industries as a whole make far lower percentage profits than non defense industries. You don't get rich in defense work.

Bravo, Sol! A truly inspiring post. This is the kind of stuff I would never in a million years learn anywhere else.

my name is joshua luke higgins

I was just doing some research and couldn't help but notice the picture at the beginning of the piece. The young man (21 at the time) piloting that particular boat to the beach is Jim Arner (my father). I grew up thinking that LCVPs were the best boats ever built. In a capitalistic society, failure to profit is wrong. Mr. Higgins had every right to profit - he is the one who took the risk. Capitalism and profiteering are two different things - my hat's always been off to Mr. Higgins.

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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