Donald Nelson

Given NameDonald
Died1 Sep 1959
CountryUnited States


ww2dbaseDonald Marr Nelson was born in Hannibal, Missouri, United States. He studied at the University of Missouri with a degree in chemical engineering, and was hired by Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1912 as a chemist. He became a buyer for Sears, Roebuck and steadily rose through the ranks, becoming an executive vice president and vice chairman of the executive committee by 1939. With humor, the overweight and balding man liked to tell journalists that he was the editor of the most widely circulated publication in the country - the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog.

ww2dbaseIn May 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought Nelson to Washington, DC to work in the Department of Treasury, placing in charge of managing raw materials to be sold to Allied nations that had already been engaged in WW2.

ww2dbaseIn Jul 1941, as Roosevelt geared up the United States for war, instead of fixing the existing but inefficient Office of Production Management (OPM), he established a new office, the Supply, Priorities, and Allocation Board (SPAB), and placed Nelson in charge. Nelson brought commercial buying experience to the otherwise bureaucratic practices of Washington, DC. When buying clothing for the military servicemen, he found all existing clothing were made of only one type of cotton which was manufactured by a single firm; he switched to another type of cotton, therefore dramatically cutting cost. He also brought with him the practice of sending orders to factories during slow seasons when the factory owners were more likely to accept lower prices. He left SPAB only a few months later, however, as the new office only became one of the many offices in Washington, powerless because the lines of authority were confusing. "Nobody knows who is really the boss. Nobody knows where authority begins and ends among the various defense agencies: SPAB, OPM, Treasury, Agriculture, Economic Defense Board."

ww2dbaseIn Jan 1942, Roosevelt abolished both OPM and SPAB and established the War Production Board (WPB). Once again, the president looked to Nelson to lead it. He immediately worked to convert the automotive industry to war production, and attempted to prioritize the allocation of steel and rubber, both critical for war. Working closely with top brass, however, his civilian style of thinking soon came into conflict with that of the military. The Army generals and Navy admirals thought Nelson was too nice, too indecisive, and too slow. After failing to change him, the military leaders sabotaged him. They recruited many of Nelson's key staffers away from WPB, and complained to the Congress that WPB was only to gear up 50% of the industrial capacity of the United States. On 14 Feb 1943, Nelson received a call noting that he was to be replaced the next day by Bernard Baruch, who had a better working relationship with the military. Exhibiting usual aggressiveness, he released a statement early the next morning noting that he had just accepted the resignation of his deputy Ferdinand Eberstadt, who had been too friendly to the military to properly do his job; the resignation was fabricated, and Eberstadt learned about it only after reading the newspaper. This move made Roosevelt think twice, who eventually decided to keep Nelson onboard. Nelson remained with WPB until his resignation in Aug 1944.

ww2dbaseNelson's final government posts was being Roosevelt's special representative to the Soviet Union and China. He returned to the private sector after leaving Washington, again holding executive positions at major firms.

ww2dbaseSources: SPAB, OPM & Chaos, Washington Goes to War.

Last Major Revision: Oct 2007


Song Ziwen, Donald Nelson, and Chiang Kaishek at a meeting, China, Aug 1944

Donald Nelson Timeline

1 Jan 1888 Donald Nelson was born.
1 Sep 1959 Donald Nelson passed away.

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Anonymous says:
19 Jan 2010 03:15:40 PM

what is the War Production Board?

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Song Ziwen, Donald Nelson, and Chiang Kaishek at a meeting, China, Aug 1944

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