This is part one of a six-part series looking at the history of the National Defense Industrial Association as it celebrates its centennial year.
"Warfare since 1914 has undergone a tremendous evolution--the change from the mail and harquebuses of the Spanish conquest of the Americas to the ordnance known in the Civil War was not greater. The labor-saving machine has come into warfare, to the immense multiplication of the power of the individual soldier. Soldiers have become machine operatives." --Brig. Gen. Benedict Crowell, How America Went to War (1921) On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later, America joined other allies in what revealed itself to be one of the bloodiest wars in its history.
America went to war with a great sense of mission to save Europe from tyranny, but it was unprepared for the task ahead. The Army was small and lacking in the essentials needed for the battlefields of France--recruits, armaments, munitions, equipment of all kinds.
This shortcoming reflected the nation's industrial base: strong, but unprepared for wartime production. It fell to America's allies to produce the necessary equipment. About 2.1 million American soldiers eventually served on the Western Front, but they fought using equipment produced overseas.
While the Central Powers were defeated in November 1918, many American military and business leaders remained troubled by the performance of the nation's industrial sector. What emerged was a growing resolve to rectify the situation permanently. The brightest light in this movement was Brig. Gen. Benedict Crowell, President Woodrow Wilson's assistant secretary of war and director of munitions.
In October 1919, Crowell and Gen. Samuel McRoberts led a meeting of Army officers and manufacturing leaders at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to address America's lack of military preparedness. That same year, Crowell and his associates formed the Army Ordnance Association (AOA) to assist in "effecting industrial preparedness for war as being one of the nation's strongest guarantees of peace" and "stimulating interest in the design and production of ordnance material."
In his capacity as the AOA's first president, Crowell helped craft the National Defense Act of 1920. The shared goal: "To establish in statute the premise that in peacetime the Army had to maintain a close relationship with industry [which would] allow the...