One of the most delicious aspects of reading nonfiction history is learning how much you didn't know. All of us grew up with a narrative about World War II, and as residents in a nation that was definitively victorious during that conflict (an experience we haven't replicated since), and deeply militarized, we have had that narrative is seared deeply into our national sense of self.
Along comes A.J. Baime, a very talented writer with whom I have a passing professional connection, who takes it upon himself to tell a small slice of that story—not differently, exactly, but deeply, insightfully, freshly. I closed this book and thought, "Man, I had no idea."
Baime made his name as a journeyman writer who has specialized in the auto industry—it's easy to see how his magazine work, and his earlier book about Ford, led him to tell this story. The Ford family, in particular Henry and his only son Edsel, stand at the center of The Arsenal of Democracy, which unfolds how Detroit, desperately urged by Roosevelt, retooled to create the machines that would win the war. This was no small thing—indeed, it was the reason the Allies won. World War II was a titanic battle rooted not simply in numbers of troops or the charisma of leadership, but essentially in the industrial strength of the contending nations. Those who led the Allies understood that once the United States was fully committed to the cause, her massive population, resources, and industrial capability, protected from attack by two vast oceans, meant that victory was a foregone conclusion.
Getting that machine built and running is the story Baime tells.
It was not an easy thing by any stretch. It took not only know-how, but extraordinary imagination. In retrospect, the audacity of the enterprise is breathtaking. Edsel Ford, who comes across in this book as the consummate nice guy, appreciated by his peers and deeply misunderstood by history, was committed to the cause. Early on he promised to create a factory that would produce one B-24 heavy bomber every hour. No one thought he could do anything close to that.
His father, a deeply anti-Semitic man who undercut his son at every turn, hated Roosevelt and hated the idea of getting involved in the war. He, too, appears to have been misunderstood by history: he was a consummate jerk, a jackass to everyone but to no one so much as his son.
Baime tells a page-turning story of sweeping vision, deep conflict, violence, racial struggle, and social upheaval, all of it swirling around the Fords. It is the sort of story that, if told as fiction, likely never would find a publisher, it was so outlandish.
This was not the American history I learned in high school.
Who knew, right?