“Are YOU doing all you can?” “We can do it!” During World War II, Americans at home were reminded to do their part by splashy propaganda posters that emphasized pulling together for the national good. Industry did its part, too, thanks to wartime laws that prioritized military production. Seemingly overnight, car factories produced warplanes. Lipstick manufacturers made bomb cases instead. Even nylon, the new synthetic fabric that covered women’s legs at the beginning of the war, was recruited to military applications.

Thanks to the Defense Production Act of 1950, a law with roots in the all-society mobilization of World War II, the United States still has the authority to spur industry in times of national emergency.

Defense Production Act Has Roots in World War II 

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Workers at a Chrysler plant assembling tanks during World War II.

The country was anything but ready for a major conflict in 1941. Due to the Great Depression and a national unwillingness to get involved in conflict overseas, the United States had been unprepared. But with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war, the nation had to come to grips with its unreadiness.

The country’s industrial sector was still reeling from the Depression, and owners weren’t thrilled about the thought of investing in defense production. “Many American producers of primary materials were reluctant to expand facilities, and many manufacturers reluctantly converted assembly lines from peacetime goods to vitally needed armaments,” writes historian Barton J. Bernstein.

To break through that reluctance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pursued sweeping war powers. The Second War Powers Act gave him the power to requisition supplies and property and force entire industries to produce wartime products. Instead of producing products for civilians, the nation’s factories became powerhouses pumping out planes, tanks, military vehicles, weapons, ships and other defense-related products. U.S. manufacturing output grew by 300 percent during the war, and despite wartime scarcity, consumer spending increased, too, thanks to higher employment and wages.

Truman Warns of Communist Aggression

The War Powers Acts represented unprecedented presidential power, but most of those powers contracted with the end of World War II. As the Cold War heated up, President Harry Truman and his advisors saw Korea as a pivotal front. When Soviet-backed North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, catching the United States unawares, western powers worried that it was the first foray of a larger communist world takeover and braced for military intervention.

Once again, the United States was unprepared for war. Defense production had dropped off and industries were once again catering to civilian needs. Even the kinds of tools that would be needed to produce more military materials were in short supply, and experts agreed the nation was not ready for another war. If Communists attempted to fight their Western opponents on another front, too, the United States would be unable to respond.

In July 1950, Truman warned Congress that the seemingly inevitable war in Korea would cause supply shortages and inflation at home and asked them—and the nation—to ramp up defense spending at home. 

“The things we need to do to build up our military defense will require considerable adjustment in our domestic economy,” he said in an address. “Our job now is to divert to defense purposes more of [our economy’s] tremendous productive capacity–more steel, more aluminum, more of a good many things.”

Truman had been involved in defense production during the previous war, chairing a special committee that exposed abuses and waste in war production. Now, faced with the prospect of a massive, well-organized enemy, he requested the authority to oversee another economic mobilization. In September 1950, Congress passed the Defense Production Act.

“While not as sweeping as the executive powers granted during World War II,” writes historian Paul G. Pierpaoli, “the Defense Production Act was nonetheless an unprecedented foray into government planning and control during a time when no formal war had been declared.”

The law let the president force manufacturers to prioritize defense production, set price ceilings, expand private and public production capacity and more. (After 1953, Congress jettisoned provisions that allow the president to requisition materials and property, fix prices and wages, institute credit controls, and force settlement of some labor disputes.) It has since been reauthorized 53 times.

Defense Production Act Expands in Scope

Over the years, the law’s definition of “national defense” has broadened, and now includes homeland security and infrastructure assistance to foreign nations. Broadly speaking, the law lets the president force industries to make government contracts a priority. 

It’s been invoked to do everything from fund biofuel research to prioritize government contracts in the wakes of hurricanes. It’s also been used to increase the production of things like batteries for military use and specialized circuits and materials deemed important for national security.