The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War.

Author:Romito, Joseph
Position:Book review

The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War. By A. J. Baime. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Photographs. Notes. Index. Pp. xviii, 364. $27.00 ISBN: 978-0-547-71928-3

In its broadest meaning, the "Arsenal of Democracy" refers to the totality of U.S. industry that mobilized to produce the military hardware America (and, to a significant extent, its allies) used to defeat the Axis powers in World War II. Within this broad context, A. J. Baime has a more narrow focus: Detroit and its automotive industry, specifically the Ford Motor Company. The Arsenal of Democracy tells the story of how Ford transformed itself from a peacetime manufacturer of cars and trucks into a business that by war's end had achieved its remarkable goal of producing one B-24 Liberator bomber every hour.

The Ford story centered on the difficult relationship between company founder Henry Ford, the man credited with creating mass production, and son Edsel, whose convictions about what was best for the company and the country led him to struggle against his father's antiwar sentiments and strong antipathy toward President Franklin Roosevelt.

Even though Henry appointed Edsel company president at the young age of twenty-five, the elder Ford still controlled 55 percent of the stock in the family-owned business. Thus, while Edsel was the titular head of the company, Henry was able to effectively overturn any of his son's decisions with which he disagreed, and did so on numerous occasions, even before the issue of ramping up for military production took center stage.

Father-son contention regarding military production peaked in 1940. On behalf of the Roosevelt Administration, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau asked Edsel whether Ford's mass production and assembly line techniques could be applied to airplanes and related equipment. Edsel said yes and, somewhat to his surprise, got his father to agree that Ford would produce more than 10,000 Merlin engines for U.S. and British aircraft. Edsel was tremendously embarrassed when, just two days later, Henry reversed the decision and angrily cancelled the deal. It is difficult to say exactly why he did this. Was he (as some charged) a Nazi sympathizer? Was he sincere in his belief that the U.S. should not engage in or actively support foreign wars? Or did he simply refuse to cooperate because of the anti-business actions Roosevelt had taken to deal with the Great Depression? Baime...

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