The Arsenal of Democracy: A book review by Bob Morris

Arsenal of DemocracyThe Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War
A.J. Baime
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014)

A true tale “that rivals the weirdest fiction and wildest imaginings of the comic books.”

In his previously published book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, A.J. Baime carefully guides his reader through a narrative of increasing tension and apprehension until Chapters 21-23 during which the 24-hour “Grand Prix of Endurance” is run at La Mans on a racetrack described in the Detroit News as “a cornfield airstrip in the jet age. It was built 50 years ago for cars that went 65 mph. Tomorrow [June 18] 55 race cars – some of them capable of 225 mph on the straightaway and all of them over the 130 mph class – will get off at 10 A.M. (Detroit time) and it will be a miracle if no one gets killed. Nobody is fearless. Some of these drivers are scared stiff.” The climactic race in 1966 had an especially controversial conclusion, what was widely viewed as an “infamous photo finish” and won “by a technicality.” The details are best revealed within the narrative, in context.

All of Baima’s unique and abundant skills are again evident in The Arsenal of Democracy as he examines combat on several different fronts beyond those in the East and West during World War Two. First, we have the dysfunctional relationship between Henry Ford and his son, Edsel. There are also the bitter, sometimes violent conflicts between Ford and just about everyone else who did not share his views concerning the federal government, labor unions, and Jews. Meanwhile, Edsel Ford and other industry leaders scrambled to overcome all manner of barriers to producing the “guns, planes, ships, and many other things” that President Roosevelt called for to win the war.

According to Baime, “In 1941, Ford and his only child, Edsel, launched the most ambitious wartime industrial adventure ever up to that point in history. [Note: The advent of the Manhattan Project was still months in the future.] They attempted to turn their motorcar business into an aviation powerhouse, to build four-engine bombers, the weapon the Allied leaders thirsted for above all others. The older Ford (Henry was seventy-six when the war began) was one of the nation’s richest and most controversial men, an ardent anti-war activist and accused Nazi sympathizer. His only child, Edsel, was a tragic Gatsby-esque character who was dying of a disease all his riches couldn’t cure.”

These are among the dozens of subjects Baime discusses that were (and are) of greatest interest to me:

o The significance of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” speech on December 29, 1940
o Henry Ford’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a business executive and as a human being
o Harry Bennett’s relationship with Ford and the company
o The ups and (mostly) downs of Ford’s relationship with Edsel
o Charlie (“Cast Iron”) Sorensen’s relevance to various cries, conflicts, and events that occurred
o Ditto Charles Lindbergh’s
o President Roosevelt’s evolving relationship with the development of his nation’s “arsenal of Democracy”
o Baime’s evaluation of Edsel Ford’s contributions to the war effort
o Baime’s thoughts and feelings about him as a human being
o Henry Ford II’s significance during the 1940s, and especially after being named president of Ford Motor Company

I am grateful to A.J. Baime for all that I learned about several of the “back stories” to the United States’ creation of an Arsenal of Victory in collaboration with Great Britain and Canada. I did not full appreciate, until reading his book, the “meaning and special genius” of that concept as well as the sacrifice in terms of human lives made by those who flew the big bombers that eventually destroyed the arsenal that Germany so vigorously defended. Sorensen once characterized the bomber-an-hour challenge as a true tale “that rivals the weirdest fiction and wildest imaginings of the comic books.” Baime captures the life of that story in his book. Bravo!

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