Book Review: “The Arsenal of Democracy

Review by Robert Letovsky, PhD. 

The Arsenal of Democracy:th-7
FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War.”
By A.J. Baime

 

A.J. Baime, an automotive writer for The Wall Street Journal, sets several ambitious goals for his 2014 book “The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War.” Fortunately for readers of this superbly written yet concise work, he meets them.

Baime’ main objective is to remind readers that America’s business community was as responsible for the country’s victory in WW II as its military personnel. Baime wisely avoids burying the reader with endless reams of data to describe the amazing metamorphosis of America’s industrial base during WW II (for a more data-based analysis of WW II aircraft production, I’d recommend Richard Overy’s 1980 classic, “The Air War 1939-1945”). To make this central point, Baime focuses on one firm – the Ford Motor Company under the leadership of Edsel Ford, founder Henry’s only son. He narrows the story further, skimming over the staggering array of military equipment which Ford ultimately produced during WW II, and concentrates instead on its output of the legendary B-24 Liberator, a four-engine long-range bomber which became a pillar of America’s air war against the Axis powers.

To help the reader understand the magnitude of what American business accomplished in the short years between 1940 and 1943, when American war production hit its stride, Baime outlines how unprepared for war the country was. Well before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt correctly foresaw that America would ultimately be involved in a two front war, but he was a distinct minority in Washington. FDR also knew that he needed the cooperation of the American business community to produce armaments at the level the U.S. and its allies would need. Getting this cooperation was no easy task, given the President’s tense relationship with the business community. Yet, Roosevelt was shrewd enough to understand that American companies had to be incentivized by the prospect of reasonable profits to make the kind of investments which war production would require. As Baime effectively – and at times movingly – describes, the American business community rose to FDR’s challenge, in the process creating unprecedented workplace opportunities for elements of the population – notably women and African Americans – who had until then been shut out of the modern economy, while providing the armaments not only for America’s warriors but those of Britain and the Soviet Union as well.

Baime’s secondary objective is to rehabilitate the image of Edsel Ford. To anyone from my generation, the name Edsel has been synonymous with spectacular product failure, stemming from the disastrous 1957 launch of the Ford sedan bearing that name. In fact, as Baime lays out in extensive detail, Edsel was one of the unsung heroes of the war. It was at the Ford Motor Company that the perils – and promise – of FDR’s tumultuous history with the business community were most vividly on display. While Edsel eagerly embraced the role of supplier to America’s war effort – singlehandedly promoting construction of the massive Willow Run factory outside Detroit, devoted to B-24 production – his father Henry, driven by a deep rooted hatred of FDR, tried to stymie his son’s efforts at every turn.   Edsel had the foresight to recognize that only by adopting the mass production techniques of the automobile industry could America have any chance of producing bombers at the levels FDR was demanding. In this, he was opposed not only by his father, but also by America’s airplane manufacturers. Almost without exception, this group of myopic and at times clueless prima donnas insisted that their products were too complex to be mass produced by what they deigned to be the simpletons churning out Ford’s sedans. In fact, though the B-24 did have significantly more parts and wiring than anything Ford Motor Co. had ever produced, Edsel’s epiphany was crucial in helping American industry rise to the challenge of WW II.

Finally and perhaps more controversially, Baime devotes several pages in Arsenal to changing readers’ perception of Charles Lindbergh. By the time America entered WW II, Lindbergh had squandered his status as the hero of flight, and was widely reviled as an open admirer, if not sympathizer, of Adolph Hitler. The Roosevelt administration saw to it that Lindbergh would not have any chance to rehabilitate his image by joining the U.S. military. However, unlike other high-profile appeasers who sat out the war (think Joseph Kennedy Sr.), Lindbergh leveraged his friendship with Edsel to find his way to Detroit and ultimately became chief test pilot at Willow Run. Here, besides testing planes being churned out by a workforce that had barely been trained in basic airplane assembly, Lindbergh conducted several top-secret high altitude experiments which were invariably dangerous and at times almost suicidal.  While Baime’s description of Lindbergh’s work at Ford probably won’t suffice to rebrand him in the eyes of history, it does give readers an alternate viewpoint when thinking about one of America’s earliest aerospace giants.

During the 1930’s, as Hitler and Stalin consolidated their power, many citizens of America and the European democracies expressed a yearning for “the dictator who could get the trains to run on time.” As A.J. Baime eloquently describes, when free people are allowed to decide how to best organize their affairs, they can out-innovate and out-produce even the most ruthless of tyrannies.

Dr. Robert Letovsky is Professor of Business Administration & Accounting at Saint Michael’s College

 

 

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