If you are part of the “Greatest Generation,” or were alive and old enough to know what was going on in the world in March of 1943, you might have opened a magazine and seen an ad with a picture featuring comical caricatures of three very uncomical figures, sitting atop a pile of food, gold coins, textiles–and a human skull. A sign identifies the pile as “stolen goods,” and the three thieves–Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Hideki Tojo–are looking rather bewildered and not a little disappointed. The title caption over the text of the ad informs us as to why these three militaristic, totalitarian dictators with the blood of millions on their hands are so disappointed: “WHAT! NO ASBESTOS?” The text: “Good reason for their consternation. Not a single ton of asbestos suitable for war purposes is produced in Germany, Italy or Japan.”
Beneath that are the words “Asbestos–Since Time Began–Until Time Ends.” One should keep in mind that knowledge of the health effects of asbestos was quite limited in the years leading up to World War II, and those who did possess that knowledge, heads of corporations controlled by men who valued profits above human life, kept this knowledge a closely guarded secret. Of course, it was impossible to hide the information altogether. Period documents suggest that President Franklin Roosevelt himself had become aware of some of the dangers of asbestos, but chose not to make it public out of concern that it might cause “disturbances in the labor force”–a labor force desperately needed for war manufacturing in the face of a national emergency. By 1943, the U.S. government finally did issue safety guidelines, but the propaganda machines of Johns-Manville, W.R. Grace and others had done their job well–such guidelines were taken seriously by neither workers nor management. The great irony is that ultimately, asbestos killed almost as many Americans as lost their lives in combat.