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



In The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War, A. J. Baime tells the story of Henry Ford’s humble beginnings as an inventor, his complicated life in the public eye, and Ford Motor Company’s crucial involvement in WWII. The pursuit to become the “first successful automaker”[1] in America “was a race of ambition, ideas, and audacity – a race that Henry Ford won.”[2]

A strategy of Ford Motor Company that took it one step ahead of everyone else was its use of mass production and assembly lines. “Mass production was still a new idea; it had been put into practice at Ford’s Detroit factory, the Singer sewing machine factor, and the Colt firearms works, among other examples. But Henry revolutionized the notion by imagining it on an exponentially larger canvas.”[3] That talent for thinking big and trusting his gut is, in part, what prompted his company to eventually take the lead in converting its automobile factory into an airplane factory on the premise of outbuilding Hitler and his growing army overseas.

Baime succeeds in weaving together the struggle of maintaining family loyalty, political allegiance and personal dignity during a time of war. Baime introduces the reader to the less-well known Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s only child. “Once he became a fully grown man, Edsel stood in a glare of spotlight – the Motor City’s princeling son.”[4] Edsel had been groomed to take over the company from a young age and was encouraged to spend time in his father’s factory to learn how Ford Motor Company worked. “By 1927, Henry and Edsel’s fortune together was estimated in the New York Times at $2.1 billion, putting them on the top of the list of the world’s richest men.”[5] Edsel saw growth opportunities in Ford Motor Company’s rising demand and influence.

He was inspired by the likes of the Wright brothers and after meeting and having the chance to fly with Charles Lindbergh, Edsel was convinced that “1928 will go down in history as the year in which American business accepted the airplane”[6], foreshadowing his own future. Edsel “sought to modernize everything he saw – from styling to corporate structure to engineering.”[7] His dreams of expanding Ford Motor Company were exactly that of a young entrepreneur growing up during the roaring twenties, a time when anything was possible. The only thing standing in his way was his father. When President Roosevelt came to them, when America needed their help the most, the Fords were a house divided. Henry and Edsel had been clashing for years ever since Henry had gone to great lengths to have Edsel exempted from WWI.

Edsel was adamant that, “there is one job in this war I do not want and will not take, and that is the job of a rich man’s son.”[8] Henry was supportive of Edsel engaging with the company and learning the ins and outs of the business, but any time Edsel would present his father with new ideas he almost always shot them down angrily. Their continuing bitter disputes were well-known throughout the company, as was Henry’s quick temper and obsessive personality which grew worse with age. Henry was especially outspoken about the potentiality of a second world war. “Anything pertaining to Europe would upset him. The likelihood of [America’s] involvement upset him almost to incoherence.”[9] His behavior put an increasingly heavy strain on Edsel, whose health had begun to decline drastically.

The United States needed planes to aide in the war and Ford’s company could build them, but Henry would not allow it. However, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor that taught America that “the airplane had successfully delivered a surprise and destructive attack. If anyone needed proof of the importance of air-power in the new global playing field, Pearl Harbor was it.”[10] When President Roosevelt approached Edsel about building “aircraft engines on his assembly lines”[11] he agreed. “Edsel said he would take on the job for ‘patriotic reasons.’”[12] Edsel had spent many years trying to regain his integrity and this was the perfect way to restore himself.

It was Edsel who finally convinced Henry that this was the direction the business had to take. Ford, along with Chrysler and General Motors, partnered up in the endeavor to mass produce weapons, airplanes and other machinery to be used overseas, but “according to a public poll in 1943, however, Americans believed that no single Detroit industrialist was contributing more to the war effort than Henry Ford”[13] and it was all due to Edsel’s persistence in maintaining a current and efficient company.

When Edsel passed away from illness in 1943 he died knowing that his own son, Henry II, would be the one to take over the company for him. Baime sheds new light on the industry production of WWII for readers unaware of Ford’s direct and controversial involvement. His historical overview showcases the radical life of the Ford family in a true testament to the great lengths people will go to support their families, their countries, and themselves.

Baime, A.J. The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014.

[1] Baime, A.J. The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014. Pg 7 [2] Baime, Arsenal, 8. [3] Baime, Arsenal, 11 [4] Baime, Arsenal, 18. [5] Baime, Arsenal, 25. [6] Baime, Arsenal, 30. [7] Baime, Arsenal, 32. [8] Baime, Arsenal, 22. [9] Baime, Arsenal, 75. [10] Baime, Arsenal, 124. [11] Baime, Arsenal, 79. [12] Baime, Arsenal, 79. [13] Baime, Arsenal, 209.

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