When Nazi Germany invaded its western European neighbors in 1940, the United States was far from militarily prepared.
America’s defensive resources had been all but drained by the Great Depression. The U.S. Army was smaller than that of Belgium. Military war games were at times being carried out using broomsticks and eggs in place of guns and grenades, and in at least one instance, a U.S. general was forced to order tank replacement parts from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog because the military couldn’t provide the items itself.
In “The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War,” author A.J. Baime provides a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked to rebuild America’s anemic military at a time when many Americans, still reeling from World War I, opposed entering the fray at all costs.
The book offers a humane portrayal of the complex personalities that shaped U.S. politics during that era, including those within the Henry Ford family, who would ultimately play a pivotal role in helping prepare America for war.
In May 1940, after reports of Nazi warplanes sweeping over Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and parts of France as part of an all-out German attack, President Roosevelt stood before Congress and asked for $1.28 billion to support the U.S. military and equip them with, among other weapons, 50,000 military and naval planes.
Although America wasn’t yet at war, Roosevelt knew it was inevitable, Baime writes. He also knew it had to be fought in the skies and it could only be won by out-building and out-flying Adolf Hitler and his well-trained fleet of Nazi pilots.
One city took up Roosevelt’s democratic call to arms with gusto. Detroit became known as the arsenal of democracy as the nation’s leading car manufacturers turned their talents to realizing Roosevelt’s dream.
And one family-owned company in particular, the Ford Motor Company, saw Roosevelt’s high-flying stakes and raised them: Edsel Ford, son of the founder of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, vowed to produce one bomber an hour, or 400 bombers a month, to help with the war effort.
But the younger Ford wasn’t without his critics, most notably his father, an avowed pacifist who disliked President Roosevelt and was suspected of holding Nazi sympathies.
Through meticulous research, “The Arsenal of Democracy” beautifully captures the Ford family, their visionary thinking and the familial and political dramas that transpired during World War II. At the same time, the book sheds light on the complex social and economic changes — including the rise of collective bargaining, female workers and a black labor force — that a war fought thousands of miles overseas wrought right here in the United States.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Baime, are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.