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

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.  Hardcover, 384 pages.  Now also available in paperback.Cover Arsenal of Democracy

To begin with, be forewarned that the title is deceptive. The Arsenal of Democracy focuses in on just one producer and one product; all others mentioned are minimal. That producer is the Ford Motor Company and the product the B-24 Liberators.
The book opens to a history of Henry Ford, the foundation of his company, and its pre-war history. Also discussed in-depth is his son, Edsel, and Edsel’s desire to create an aviation division within the company. This segment also shows the first divisions between father and son, as their relationship was tumultuous. For example, even after Henry stepped down as president in favor of Edsel, he kept undermining his son and trying to run the company. And this just one issue they clashed on.

In 1940 when President Franklin Roosevelt was gearing up for the expected war, plans were enacted to increase the nation’s manufacturing capabilities, especially for aircraft. Baime then goes into the goals Roosevelt set and how they were met, including discussing the oversight boards and committees. As part of this, Edsel proposed creating the B-24, which his company was asked to help create, on an assembly line and built a new manufacturing plant especially for this cause. Henry, in his old age and also a staunch pacifist, did not like the idea of producing war goods and tried to stop it but was convinced to help.

However, not all goes well. At first the Willow Run plant was not producing at its boasted “one plane every hour” rate. Constant changes to the aircraft and labor shortages prevented this. Thus ways to combat these problems were discussed and led to changes, including a new town built near the plant specifically for workers. At first, the plant was operating so badly the Truman Committee investigated it and newspapers treated the plant as a joke. Additionally, the book also showed what the other Ford plants across both Detroit and elsewhere created for the war effort, such as Wasp II fighter engines in its Rouge Plant or trucks. Also discussed was how the Ford holdings in Europe operated leading up to and during the war. Needless to say, Ford’s European plants also produced goods for the Nazi war effort.

Once World War II began, Baime worked in information about the war to support the story and/or let readers know what events were paralleling those in the book. Often, this meant showing how the B-24s were used, with a focus on knocking out the oil refineries in Romania. He did the same with incorporating the political situation, including the major political conference between the Allied powers. He also continued to provide the biographies of the Fords and their most important colleagues, including Charlie Sorensen and Harry Bennett, as the war progressed.

When all is said and done, I feel this book was written less to show the manufacturing might of America than to extol the war work of the Fords and to glorify the B-24. After reading the book, one would think the war was won solely by the B-24 and the manufacturing behind it, mainly at the Ford Willow Run plant. Still, I felt the book was well researched, even if there was a clear bias, and it did at least mention the work done by other vehicle manufactures for the war effort.

I mentioned this title about a month back in my review for Big Science:  Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex as a comparisons on manufacturing methods.

My review of this work came about due to borrowing my uncle’s copy.

Have you read anything else that discussed the manufacturing might of America during World War II (other than Big Science)? If so please share. I know I’d like to see a more balanced picture. And based on this review, do you think The Arsenal of Democracy is a book you might read?

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