Book Review: The Arsenal of Democracy

The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War – By A.J. Baime

364 pages, published by Mariner Press September 2015; softcover $14.95; E-read edition $9.95

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: The background story of the U.S. auto industry’s role in World War II

Who’s it for? Although it has components of a business book, “The Arsenal of Democracy” is relevant for anyone curious about the role of Detroit’s manufacturers in World War II.

Author’s quote: “The whole industrial strength of the United States, should it be directed toward war-making, would constitute power never dreamed of before in the history of Armageddon . . .  .”

The “arsenal of democracy” is a term first used by President Franklin Roosevelt to drum up support for sending military aid to nations fighting against the Axis forces (Germany, Italy, Japan) during World War II. Author A.J. Baime appropriately utilized the phrase for the title of his recent book, which is part history lesson, part business book and part real life drama.

Many have forgotten or are unaware of the immense efforts made during World War II, in lives lost but also the way Americans were galvanized to fight a common enemy. “The Arsenal of Democracy” chronicles the rapid transformation of Ford Motor Company, from a car manufacturer to a major supplier of fighter planes for the United States during the war.

The story begins in Detroit in the late 1890s as Henry Ford lurches ahead of the emerging auto industry with the introduction of the Ford Model T, mass assembly line production and creating a standard $5 an hour wage for his workers. Along Henry’s side is Edsel Ford, the prodigal son destined to someday succeed his father with his burgeoning company.

The strained relationship between Henry and Edsel Ford becomes the main focus of the book. Henry is controlling of his son and becomes more senile as time passes. Edsel’s attempts to do what is best for the company is constantly derailed by both his father’s volatility and his domineering henchmen.

As the world turns its attention to the war in Europe, the United States maintains an isolationist position at first. Still recovering from the Great Depression, the U.S. military is woefully small in manpower, arms and equipment. While Nazi forces take over parts of Europe, President Roosevelt realizes even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that the United States’ involvement in the growing war is imminent.

As the conflict builds, Ford’s plants in Europe are being taken over by Nazi Germany and an emasculated Edsel Ford is at the helm of Ford Motor Company. When the United States government asks the Fords to build plane engines for Great Britain, Edsel makes the commitment but is vetoed by his father’s inconsistent temperament and anti-war sentiment. This ongoing melodrama with Henry and Edsel Ford serves as a cautionary tale for anyone involved in a family business.

When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrusts the United States into the war, Edsel Ford realizes that it is his destiny to build a new type of bomber plane, the B-24 Liberator. This huge aircraft required an unprecedented facility, which became the Ford plant at Willow Run in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

With the U.S. now fully entrenched in war, Edsel Ford predicts a production rate of one B-24 built per hour, a moon-shot type of aspiration that overcomes overly ambitious deadlines, internal infighting and endless challenges to succeed. The completion of the plant and the B-24’s ramped up production become a turning point for both the Fords and the U.S. war effort.

While the Ford family story is highly emphasized, Baime provides minimal insight into other Michigan companies that contributed significantly to the war effort. Still, his book does an admirable job of highlighting the heroic collaboration of business and government to rebuild America’s military might.

Chris Wendel is a business services consultant with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

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