In the lore of the auto industry, William Knudsen looms large for his role in turning American industry into the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II. The president of General Motors was Franklin Roosevelt's pick to head the Office of Production Management.
Now comes a colleague to call Knudsen an incompetent bumbler in government.
John Kenneth Galbraith, the 90-year-old liberal economist, recently published a memoir called Name-Dropping From F.D.R. On. Galbraith was a Roosevelt man who, among other wartime jobs, ran the government's price-control operation.
Galbraith writes that the Roose-velt government, generally loathed by business, needed to employ business leaders of high visibility and low competence.
Example: GM's Big Bill Knudsen.
'He brought an undoubted air of authority; here, one could be sure, was a corporate tycoon,' Galbraith writes. 'Unfortunately, he had no useful impression of what industrial mobilization and procurement required.'
On the night of the Pearl Harbor bombing, Galbraith writes, Knudsen was asked what was to be done. Knudsen remarked that the copper shortage would continue, but he didn't know how to fix it.
'Since he could not be sacked -that would have been a visible blow at business - he was eventually made a general,' Galbraith writes. 'To the all but certain military advantage of the Republic, he commanded no troops.'
Knudsen was the father of Semon 'Bunkie' Knudsen, who later headed Pontiac and Chevrolet before serving 19 months as president of Ford Motor Co. in 1968-69.
Galbraith accords better treatment to an automotive figure who also served briefly as president of Ford.
Galbraith credits 'the miracle of wartime arms production' to the purchasing operations of the Army and Navy, and a number of military men, 'including Robert McNamara, of later distinction and acute public controversy.'
Peter Brown can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]