These days people generally think of Detroit — with its vast expanses of abandoned real estate that have given rise to the photographic genre known as ruins porn — as the place where modernity went to die. But for a good chunk of the twentieth century, Detroit was the boomingest of boom towns. In the ten years after the introduction in 1913 of the modern moving assembly line in the automobile industry, Detroit’s population doubled to nearly 1 million. In the 30 years following that, it doubled again to become the nation’s fourth-largest city and one of its most affluent, especially for the working class. An important chapter in that story was the turning of the Motor City’s manufacturing might to arms production during the Second World War when Detroit came to embody the slogan “Arsenal of Democracy.” The new book of the same title by journalist A.J. Baime, Wall Street Journal contributor and editor at large for Playboy, tells the tale from the point of view of the Ford Motor Company and its involvement foremost in turning out B-24 Liberator heavy bombers at a faster rate than the Germans could shoot them down, helping turn the tide of the air war in Europe.

The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War is told through portrait sketches of a few key individuals — President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued the call to arms in a 1940 radio broadcast during which the phrase Arsenal of Democracy was introduced, and auto pioneer Henry Ford and his only son Edsel, who for nearly three decades fought their own battle with one another over the company’s direction. Along the way there are appearances by other historical figures, including the nefarious Harry Bennett, Henry’s personal henchman and head of Ford’s so-called Service Department (which was in fact a kind of corporate Gestapo); “Cast Iron” Charlie Sorensen, head of production at Ford, developer of modern mass-manufacturing techniques, and Edsel’s confidant; and Harry S. Truman, who at the time was an ambitious senator from Missouri intent on making a name for himself by exposing waste and profiteering in the defense industry.

The book begins with an overview of Henry Ford’s world-changing methods of production, and its accompanying social, economic, and political effects, that came to be termed “Fordism,” the high wage/high output system that that gave birth to the American middle class. The vast productive capacity of Ford’s system of mass manufacturing enabled him to double the wages of his workers and dramatically reduce the price of his Model T, all the while becoming one of the richest men in world history. (One story has it that the enormous wealth Ford accumulated came so quickly that his wife Clara once found an uncashed check for $75,000, the equivalent of $1.5 million in today’s money, in one of his pants pockets while doing laundry.) This largesse allowed Ford to indulge in all sorts of wackiness, including a well-documented practice of virulent antisemitism and decades of thwarting rational efficiencies and new business opportunities proposed by his son Edsel, which would have added even greater profit to the enterprise.

Edsel Bryant Ford (1893-1943) © Frank Moore Studio | Public Domain
Edsel Bryant Ford (1893-1943) © Frank Moore Studio | Library of Congress

The tussle between Henry and Edsel over the company’s destiny, and in particular its involvement in war production, is one of the book’s main narrative threads. In the 1920s, Edsel, an aviation enthusiast, wanted to branch out into airplane production. He also wanted to adopt modern accounting techniques and rational management principles. During the First World War, he chomped at the opportunity to serve his country by enlisting in the military. He wanted to get rid of Harry Bennett, whose thuggish operating methods were barely a step above criminal, if that. (My grandfather, who worked on the line at “Mr. Ford’s” for 30 years, used to tell of having to pay a Service Department goon a “reinstatement fee” to get his job back after being laid off.) Each of these was overturned by Henry and reluctantly accepted by Edsel who had a strong sense of filial duty. Edsel died of stomach cancer in 1943 at age 49, brought on many say by the maltreatment he suffered at the hands of his father. But before checking out, Edsel was able to position Ford Motor Company as a major defense contractor and bring Fordist production methods to bear on the war effort even over his father’s objections, a story that is the book’s other major narrative element.

Roosevelt recognized very early on that US involvement in the war was inevitable and also that the nation’s armed forces were completely inadequate to the task. With the Luftwaffe controlling the skies over Europe and central to the Nazi military strategy of blitzkrieg, Roosevelt was especially concerned about American air capability, or more accurately the lack of it. He set a goal of building 50,000 airplanes and asked Congress for $1.2 billion (approximately $20 billion in today’s dollars) to pay for it. Airplane manufacturing at the time was a craft industry with each unit individually built by hand often with unique configurations. Standardized mass manufacturing was the answer to ramping up production to achieve the numbers needed in short order. Roosevelt called upon William Knudsen, at the time president of General Motors, to assume control of American war materiel production.

B-24 Liberator bombers in production at Willow Run during WWII © Howard R. Hollem | Library of Congress
B-24 Liberator bombers in production at Willow Run during WWII © Howard R. Hollem | Library of Congress

Edsel Ford’s pioneering efforts in aviation as well as his hands-on knowledge of mass manufacturing made him the obvious go-to person in the quest to expand airplane production. Edsel and Sorensen worked often under cover to meet with government officials and others in the defense industry, not the least of which reason being because Henry was both a leading antiwar advocate and a hater of Roosevelt. On more than one occasion, Henry countermanded agreements Edsel had made to provide the military with various hardware. Edsel persevered, even as death was overtaking him, and in the end won out, with Ford Motor Company contributing significantly to the war effort and being handsomely rewarded for it. At its peak, the massive Ford Willow Run plant, which had been constructed on Ford family farmland specifically to mass produce the B-24 Liberator, turned out 650 aircraft per month and employed some 40,000 workers in two nine-hour shifts, including Rose Will Monroe, the real life role model for cultural icon Rosie the Riveter.

Illustration © J. Howard Miller | Public Domain
“We Can Do It!” poster from 1942. In later years the image became known as “Rosie the Riveter.” © J. Howard Miller | Virginia Historical Society

Following the war, the substantial pool of accumulated capital on the one hand and pent-up consumer demand on the other fueled an economic boom in America and in particular the suburban expansion led foremost by the automobile, ultimately precipitating the abandonment of Detroit. (A good account of the roots of Detroit’s fall from grace can be found in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. ) Baime doesn’t get into any of that, ending his tale with the D-Day invasion and the assumption of Edsel’s eldest son Henry Ford II (AKA “Hank the Deuce”) to the CEO’s suite at the company bearing his grandfather’s name. He also glosses over several knottier questions, including whether Ford-owned operations in Germany and occupied France enabled the company to profit from both sides during the war. Instead, he accepts at face value an internal company report claiming that Ford didn’t gain from enemy war production, a journalistic decision begging to be fact-checked. And as the book is essentially a celebratory account of American “can do” from back in the day, the so-called strategic bombing of enemy cities as a conscious plan to demoralize civilian populations and turn them against their leaders in which the B-24 Liberator played a such central part — and which some might call state-sponsored terrorism — is only briefly acknowledged and then summarily moved beyond.

The two main narrative threads, and various subplots, of The Arsenal of Democracy could easily and in fact have been the subjects of separate books. But through a combination of primary and secondary research and facile storytelling, Baime weaves together an interesting-enough narrative that retrieves an important piece of history for Detroit and for the nation at a time when all that both seemed to have stood for appears to be in retreat. It also brings attention back to Henry’s doomed and now nearly forgotten son, Edsel, one of the Motor City’s more solid citizens.

This article originally appeared in Motown Review of Arts.