By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: A.J. Baime
Narration by: Peter Berkrot
“The Arsenal of Democracy” takes a retrospective look at an epic quest by America to build an arsenal before entry to World War II. Some surprising names are shown to have Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitic beliefs. Those abhorrent sympathies and beliefs are cloaked in pacifist and capitalist credos. The abhorrent pacifist’ credo is–someone else’s tragedy is not my problem. The abhorrent capitalist credo is–unregulated self-interest is the most important determinant of capitalist’ success; consequently, another’s tragedy may be an economic opportunity. Some pre-WWII movers and shakers shown by A. J Baime are tainted by capitalist greed and prejudice. Baime shows there are two sides to the story of “The Arsenal of Democracy”.
Henry Ford, the “God” of America’s industrial revolution, is awarded the “Grand Cross of the German Eagle” by Nazi officials in 1938. He is 75 years old. The Grand Cross is the highest honor that can be given to a foreigner by the Nazi government. (The only other American recipient is Charles Lindbergh, another avowed anti-Semite.) Baime accusatorially notes that Ford is the only American named in Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, the most well-known anti-Semitic book ever written.
Ford vehemently objects to America’s entry to the war. He claims to be a pacifist. One may draw their own conclusion, but it stretches credulity to believe it is unrelated to Ford’s personal prejudice and presumed economic gain from Ford Corporation’s international business interests.
Ford is not the only self-made millionaire who believes America should not enter the war. Joseph Kennedy is equally opposed. Of course, before Pearl Harbor, the majority of the American’ population did not want to enter the war. However, Ford and Kennedy share a capitalist entrepreneur’s amoral belief that everything is negotiable, including peace with Hitler. This amoral belief is characteristic of an idealized business model that presumes the strong survive and the weak deserve their fate. Though Kennedy is not as clearly tainted by anti-Semitism as Henry Ford, both driven capitalists believe war is not a solution to Hitler’s aggression. Business men like Kennedy and Ford believe political leaders, like prudent business leaders, will fail if they do not benefit their citizens or employees by fairly serving their country or making a profit. They, like most Americans, could not believe holocaust rumors could be true. Baime redemptively suggests the stark evidence of Jewish slaughter after the war shakes Henry Ford’s conscience. (One is inclined to doubt Baime’s note considering Ford’s avowed anti-Semitism.)
Baime primarily focuses on how “The Arsenal of Democracy” came into being. Baime recounts“The Arsenal of Democracy”’ speech given by FDR on December 29, 1940.
Henry Ford reluctantly agrees to join the automobile industry mavens in re-tooling car manufacturing for the defense of America. Ford’s brilliant innovation in assembly line manufacturing is recognized as key to FDR’s vision of “The Arsenal of Democracy”.
Ironically, Ford despises FDR and explains that Ford Corporation’s contribution is based on defense of America and not intervention in a European’ war. The leader of the Corporation, on paper, is Edsel Ford but Henry, until Edsel’s death in 1943, retains veto power over any corporate decisions. Edsel and Ford Corporation’s managers finally convince Henry to build Willow Run, the largest assembly plant of its time, to produce American bombers. The goal is to produce a completed airplane bomber at a rate of one per hour. Baime argues that the goal is achieved through Edsel’s leadership; complemented by innovations created by Ford Corporation’s experienced managers; e. g. men like Charles Sorenson, the lead engineer and designer of the Willow Run manufacturing facility.
In a muddled side story, the role of Harry Bennett is explored by Baime. The story is muddled because it is shrouded in mystery involving rumors of Bennett’s mob-informant role for the FBI; his contacts with foreign interests, and his strong-arm tactics against union sympathizers. Henry Ford expresses great confidence in Bennett’s ability and is inclined to turn management of Ford Corporation over to Bennett after Edsel’s death. Baime suggests Henry Ford treats Bennett more like a son than Edsel. When Edsel dies, Baime reports–Edsel’s wife accuses Henry of being the proximate cause of Edsel’s death because of Henry’s constant criticism (Edsel dies in 1943 with a diagnosis of stomach cancer). Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, is appointed CEO and Bennett is eventually fired.
This is an interesting story but one has to remember the context of the time to have a fair perspective of those who may have been villains in sheep’s clothing. Henry Ford is an anti-Semite but he joins a vast number of Americans that were equally anti-Semitic, less visible, but as virulently destructive. German anti-Semitism did not suddenly spring from one demented leader. Henry Ford came from the same primordial swamp that all human beings come from. Baime notes that Edsel Ford had contact with Hitler’s French puppet government leaders. Edsel is accused of aiding Ford Corporations’ manufacturing capability in occupied France (never proven but often cited). Intertwining relationships often distort truth but there is a conflict-of-interest odor surrounding Ford Corporation’s international business practices before and during the war.
Historical facts suggest “The Arsenal of Democracy” would have been a pipe dream without Henry Ford, Edsel Ford, Charles Sorenson, the auto industry, and the American’ people. Moral conscience does not forgive antisemitism, manager’s exploitation of workers, human greed, illegal dealings with the underworld, or the nasty treatment of a son by a father. But, the truth is and always will be–human beings are good and bad. Baime’s story of “The Arsenal of Democracy” joins a pile of books to affirm that truth.