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The reckoning.

The Reckoning.

David Halberstam.William Morrow & Co., $19.95. David Halberstam has produced the best and most important book ever written on the auto industry, but making cars is not its subject. Rather it is about the decline of American wealth and productive capability, the apparent inability of the richest nation the world has ever seen to maintain the ethic and attitudes that created its strength, and about the unexpected rise of a totaly defeated and starving near-feudal Japan to a position of supreme economic power in the same 40 years.

There is a distressing inverse symmetryto Halberstam's history: the American standard of living declined as financially-oriented bureaucrats took over power in Detroit, while the growth of Japanese industrial superiority was fueled by a single-minded desire to do a better job and a religious following of American teachings.

In choosing the paradigmaticauto industry to tell his story, Halberstam singles out the force-- sheer productive capacity--that allowed the U.S. and its allies to win WWII, and that now has led Japan to world economic mastery. His indepth studies of the number-two companies in each country, Ford and Nissan, allow us to see exactly how, and above all why, the balance of productive power shifted so sharply.

The auto industry isn't aboutcars; it's about money and men, and Halberstam gives us the men so clearly and truthfully that it is difficult to believe that he has not been a Detroit--or Tokyo--insider all his life.

Some of his characters are largerthan life: Henry Ford, the cramped and mean-spirited puritan who put the world on wheels, changed society for all time, destroyed his only son, Edsel, and had the war not intervened, in his senility would have destroyed his own company; Henry Ford II, savior of his grandfather's company, and finally very nearly as destructive as the old man; Yukata Katayama, architect of Nissan's success in America, punished and ignored because he failed to play company politics the right way; William Gorham, the American inventor who created the first Nissan car almost single-handedly in 1933.

Others amaze by having acted inways seemingly inconsistent with their characters: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the generous victor reforming Japanese society to make it liberal and prosperous; Joseph Dodge, the parsimonious Detroit banker who in three months established the tenor of the Japanese economy for the next 40 years; timorous, fumbling Philip Caldwell, who rose through the Ford bureaucracy to become chairman by not making decisions, yet who decided to allow Ford to build the radical Taurus and Sable.

There are the Whiz Kids, the bestand brightest of whom was the inhumanly perfect Robert McNamara, who knew all the numbers and none of the essence of whatever he undertook, who demanded false reports to fit his view of the world and got them. Bodycount Bob of Vietnam destroyed Ford's productive capacity--the strength that had made the company--before he switched to Washington and the business of war.

And there is Lee Iaccoca, ambitious,driven, able, and filled with rancor over real and fancied slights to his ethnic background. Halberstam has performed the amazing feat of making Iaccoca a far more appealing character than he is in his autobiography, yet his outbursts of temper, his bullying, and his rule by fear are carefully chronicled.

We see the industry chew upsome of the best men in the business, the ones who knew and loved cars, not money and power. Don Frey of Ford, the man who really invented the Mustang, was forced out of Ford, as was Harold Sperlich, the current president of Chrysler, who was solid, highly competent and, here at least, a little naive. He tried desperately to do his job as well as he could at Ford, only to be tossed aside because he annoyed autocratic Henry Ford II with his championing of the sort of product Ford needed but did not want.

The Reckoning is as easy to readas a summer novel, but it is far better. Halberstam is a meticulous interviewer, and obviously has a knack for drawing out the most reticent participants. I asked a number of people involved in American parts of the drama whether they found his version plausible; they exclaimed they were surprised he could be so right without having been there.
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Author:Cumberford, Robert
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1987
Words:709
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