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Detroit pulled off a miracle during WWII; can it do the same thing today?

Jack Lessenberry

For months, we’ve been embroiled in Detroit’s bankruptcy and attempts to save what there is worth saving.

It is hard to pick up any national publication without finding stories about Detroit, few of them good. There are a spate of new book titles too, which mostly chronicle the city’s decline and fall.

Yet I’ve just been reading an utterly fascinating and inspiring new book about a time when Detroit really did save, or at least help save, the world.

The book, just published by Houghton Mifflin, is The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Ford Motor Company, and Their Epic Quest to Arm an America at War.

This is a book with characters larger and more bizarre than life. It tells the story of a Detroit-based triumph that the experts said was impossible. And every word in it is true.

The author, A.J. Baime, is not a Detroiter, but a 42-year-old guy from New Jersey who now lives in Chicago. He got interested in the story of Henry and Edsel Ford while researching an auto racing book called “Go Like Hell,” which may soon be a movie.

Everyone knows, of course, that Detroit was the “Arsenal of Democracy during World War II.” Some even know that Ford turned out thousands of B-24 bombers at its immense plant at Willow Run.

But there was nothing preordained about any of this.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, America was anything but ready. Willow Run was still under construction.The Ford Motor Company was torn by a schism from an increasingly demented Henry Ford, who had given vast powers to a street-fighting thug, and his brilliant, sensitive and secretly dying son, Edsel.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that to survive, the nation had to produce 60,000 planes and 45,000 tanks a year.Virtually no one thought that was possible. Henry Ford himself was anti-Semitic, and had huge operations in Nazi Germany.

This book is the story of what happened, and why – of a Detroit that pulled off an industrial miracle greater than the auto industry itself.

There is great personal tragedy here, and heroism.

There is the stuff of melodrama, with a former FBI agent and the horrible Harry Bennett facing each other literally at gunpoint, in a struggle for control of Ford at the end of World War II.

This is, in other words, the story of a Detroit that did the impossible, and of a city and company that pulled together and won, in the midst of a world war and despite a terrible savage race riot.

It also examines the whole thorny question of Ford’s relationship to Hitler and the Nazis. The short answer is, as the author told me earlier this week that “Hitler adopted Fordism,” as his industrial model, but there’s no evidence of treason.

Baime told me he was drawn to write this book partly to redeem the reputation of a wonderful and deeply misunderstood man, Edsel Ford.

But he also wrote it, he told me, because “this was a time when absolutely amazing things could happen. Miracles could happen.”

This book is a spellbinding read, and it made me wonder if 70 years later, one more miracle could happen for us today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan. 

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