“It had been the work not of war, but of justice.”
That’s how A.J. Baime described the pacifist Henry Ford’s realization, upon seeing footage from within the concentration camps of defeated Nazi Germany, that retooling his company for war was the right move.
The Ford Motor Company had spent the past several years building weapons for the U.S. Military’s efforts during World War II, putting a years-long pause on the production of consumer automobiles. Instead, Ford restructured its entire operation and chiefly built airplanes. Baime’s 2014 book, The Arsenal of Democracy, is a behind-the-scenes account of this period for the company, the country, and the Ford family.
The driving force behind Ford’s shift to producing airplanes and weapons wasn’t the aging Henry, who was an extreme pacifist, hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and at least early on shared sympathies with Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitism. He was hardly the man to lead his company in pursuing Roosevelt’s goal of building 50,000 airplanes a year, an objective the head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, scoffed at. “No one can build 50,000 airplanes a year. That’s pure propaganda,” he said, dismissing America’s ability to rise to the challenge. A big mistake.
In fact, it was Ford’s son Edsel—a sharply different man from his father—who led the charge and proved Göring wrong. Edsel built the massive Willow Run production facility near Ypsilanti, set ambitious production goals for the building of planes, and eventually achieved them. Ford was producing one plane per hour by mid-1944. In total, the United States produced 324,750 airplanes for the war, more than Great Britain and the Soviet Union combined.
Because of the work of Ford and other American manufacturing titans, the U.S. was able to produce so many planes, trucks, tanks, bullets, guns and ships that Hitler’s forces and those of Imperial Japan were simply overwhelmed.
The Arsenal of Democracy is an outstanding and enthralling book that provides a great reminder of the importance of industrial capacity and how this is a national attribute that is often overlooked as a key component of national defense, but it shouldn’t be. America’s strength during the war wasn’t how many troops we had, it wasn’t necessarily superior military strategy, and we were certainly well-matched against the technological advancement of the Third Reich and Japanese Empire. Our great strength that allowed the U.S. and the Allies to put an end to Hitler’s evil regime was our unmatched capacity to build.
The book is rich with smaller stories that make it read more like an intrigue-packed novel that a historical narrative. In particular, the internal politics of the Ford company and family are fascinating, complete with a thuggish and meddling head of Ford’s huge private police force and long-standing power struggles over control of the company, including between an increasingly senile Henry, Edsel, and Edsel’s son Henry II, who returned from the front lines to take over the company when his father died at the age of 49. The book also offers fascinating tidbits about (arguably) the most interesting man of the 20th Century, Charles Lindberg, who worked for Ford as a test pilot and aviation expert during the war.
While American industry did the hard work, the remarkable national effort was not a triumph of free market principles. The national mobilization of the war and quasi-socialist economic policies intertwining government and private business—fortunately, temporary policies—are quite the opposite. However, a global existential struggle with a genocidal tyrant certainly qualifies as an exception to the rule that free markets are always preferable to government control. We hope we’ll never have to do it again, but we shouldn’t take decades of relative peace for granted.
This was in part why I came to see the importance of Foxconn’s effort to establish a presence in the U.S. here in Wisconsin. Locating critical technology production capacity in America remains an important national goal. It’s also why the recent National Defense Authorization Act provides incentives to manufacture semiconductors domestically. Far too many of our essential technologies, which enable our national defense and are the airplanes, bullets and bombs of the 21st Century, are manufactured in or have entrenched supply chains that run through countries that don’t share our values like Communist China.
About America’s industrial achievements during World War II, perhaps the scope of it was best described by Donald Nelson, head of the War Production Board. “The American war production job was probably the greatest collective achievement of all time. It makes the ‘seven wonders’ of the ancient world look like the doodling of a small boy,” he said.
It’s no overstatement, and Baime’s The Arsenal of Democracy is a good reminder of that often-overlooked aspect of the war and also that the capacity to build things here at home is still critical to national security.
RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.