In response to the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the nation and world, catching many nations, including the United States, totally unprepared, President Trump recently invoked the Defense Production Act. It allows the government to make contracts with industries that essentially force them to manufacture supplies as dictated by the government. To give an example, Trump has used the act to order General Motors and other manufactures to produce face masks, germ-destroying soaps and ventilators. (Thankfully, in our “We’re all in this together” moment, most manufacturers are willingly complying with this act.)
The Defense Production Act was an offshoot of the Second War Powers Act of 1942. Having entered WWII in December 1941, but having been heavily isolationist before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. lacked the capability to produce war materials on a massive scale. Thus, the act allowed President Roosevelt to force industries to manufacture those materials. Soon we were producing planes, ships, tanks, military vehicles, weapons, and other defense-related products in record numbers.
When the war ended, America switched back to peacetime production, but as the Cold War ushered in increased antagonism between America and the Soviet Union, so did it usher in increased belligerence, and when, in 1950, North Korea, a Soviet proxy, invaded South Korea, President Truman sent troops to Korea as a way to stem the tide of Communist expansionism.
But, again, America was not prepared for war, as the G.I.s who had fought in WWII returned home, started families and bought homes, so industries focused on consumer goods, not war materials. Thus, President Truman saw no choice but to ask Congress for the authority to oversee a massive industrial transformation similar to the one resulting from the Second War Powers Act. Congress complied by passing the Defense Production Act.
The act did not give Truman quite the expanded powers Roosevelt received, but despite the fact that Truman called the Korean War a “police action,” meaning Congress never declared war so we weren’t officially at war, he nevertheless had the same power to force industries to make production of war materials a priority.
Which brings up an obvious question. Because both WWII and Korea were military conflicts, both the Second War Powers Act and the Defense Production Act specifically authorized forcing industries to produce war materials. Yet the coronavirus is a health crisis.
The answer is that both acts gave the president the power to control the production of materials “essential to the national defense,” and over the years the definition of “national defense” has expanded and includes “national interest.”
Suffice to say, it is in our national interest to produce equipment that will save the lives of millions of Americans.