When Germany invaded its European neighbors in 1940, the United States was a long ways from being prepared. The country’s military resources had been all but drained by the Great Depression. The U.S. army was smaller than that of Belgium’s, a nation that could fit inside Maryland. Military war games were being carried out with 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 and Roebuck catalog because the military couldn’t provide the items itself.
Yet in May of 1940, after weeks of reports of Nazi warplanes sweeping over Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and parts of France, President Franklin Roosevelt stood before Congress with an ambitious proposal. He asked for more than a billion dollars for the military, including a program to produce 50,000 military and naval planes. This war, Roosevelt knew, had to be won in the skies and it could only be won by outbuilding and out-flying Adolf Hitler.
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, vowing to produce one bomber an hour, or 400 bombers a month, to help with the war effort.
A.J. Baime, tells the story of the Ford family at this pivotal moment in history in his book, “The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit and an Epic Quest to Arm an American at War.” Baime writes a weekly column in The Wall Street and contributes travel articles and profiles to a number of publications.