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Make America the Medicine Chest of the World

America’s “arsenal of democracy” saved Europe and the world from fascism during World War II. Today the U.S. can win a similar victory over the novel coronavirus by sticking to the same principles that made the war effort so successful. President Trump took a vital step in that direction Wednesday by invoking the Defense Production Act, which gives him the authority to expedite and expand industrial production of key medical resources necessary to fight the pandemic.

A Pratt & Whitney engine at the Vought-Sikorsky aircraft factory, March 1943..

Photo: Getty Images

America’s productivity in World War II wasn’t the result of bureaucrats in Washington exercising command and control over the U.S. economy, as some seem to think the Covid-19 pandemic requires. On the contrary, the federal government harnessed the energy and innovation of America’s finest companies to produce what government could not: materials and supplies in sufficient quantities to prevail in two theaters of war on opposite sides of the globe.

By May 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized the tide of fascism and Nazism would overwhelm the forces of freedom unless the U.S. helped to rescue the world’s democracies, starting with beleaguered Britain. Many in his administration believed then, as many Americans believe now, that the only way to deal with an extreme crisis was to adopt the same measures authoritarian governments were using to build their war machines—even to the point of nationalizing key industries like steel and automobiles.

But FDR understood that a wartime buildup wouldn’t succeed unless it harnessed America’s private resources and design expertise. He turned to the productive power of capitalism to arm the world against the fascist threat, leaving the federal government with the job of coordinating and overseeing the private companies best suited to accomplish the mission, and making sure resources went where private industry needed them. American factories produced a third of all war material used by the Allies in World War II, and they did it by applying a simple principle: Let the federal government point the way, and let private industry do the rest.

By invoking the Defense Production Act, the administration can clear away bureaucratic impediments to an effective pandemic response. Just as FDR’s administration temporarily set aside antitrust standards so companies could band together to produce everything from aircraft parts to tanks and synthetic fuels, the Trump administration can encourage companies to pool their patents and intellectual property to increase production of key drugs and technologies.

Bringing together companies like Walgreens, Walmart and Google to streamline the Covid-19 testing process was a good first step toward making America safer and more secure against the growing pandemic. But there is much more the U.S. can do to mobilize its health-industrial and manufacturing base. It’s absurd that Italy must rely on China for emergency supplies of ventilators. One of the world’s largest manufacturers of ventilators is Becton, Dickinson of Franklin Lakes, N.J. The Trump administration should work out a timeline with BD and other medical-device manufacturers to produce all the ventilators the world needs right here in the U.S. The same is true for respirators, swabs and other types of protective gear crucial to preventing a global health-care catastrophe.

Washington should also clear the way for the American pharmaceutical industry to develop and deploy therapies for Covid-19 until antiviral drugs, and ultimately a vaccine, are in place. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals of Tarrytown, N.Y., which developed a drug last year to combat Ebola, announced Tuesday it has made progress in the hunt for a Covid-19 treatment. Swift action by the Food and Drug Administration has already streamlined the approval process so that what might normally take two to three years will now happen in a matter of weeks.

The government’s first missions must be to keep Americans safe and to secure the U.S. economy as the mainspring of the global order. A Washington-led mobilization of the health-industrial and manufacturing base can also boost economic growth, just as the mobilization of the defense-industrial base did during World War II. “We won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen, nor dreamed possible,” said Lt. Gen. William “Big Bill” Knudsen of the American war effort. Knudsen had been president of General Motors before Roosevelt asked him to direct the War Department’s production and procurement efforts.

A similar spirit of cooperation and determination will be necessary to defeat the novel coronavirus. All we have to do is strike the right balance between what the private sector can and must do, and what the federal government shouldn’t and can’t do.

Mr. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II” (2012) and the forthcoming “The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World and Transformed the American Dream.”

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