Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Arsenal of Democracy - A.J. Baine

The Arsenal of Democracy is broadly about the United States trying to get its vast industrial capacity into a wartime gear. It's easy for FDR to say, "We're going to produce 60,000 warplanes this year," but actually getting that done is another matter entirely. What companies are building them? Do they have the facilities? Do they have the workers? Are the workers trained? What's the incentive for these companies to stop making cars or dishwashers and make guns and planes instead?

Baine explores this mostly through Ford, the automobile manufacturer. By the 1930s, Edsel Ford, Henry's son, was running things. Edsel had been kept out of the draft for World War because Henry used his influence (without consulting Edsel) which meant Edsel took a beating publicly as being a coward and draft-dodger. So as another war approached, Edsel wanted a chance to prove he was willing to do his part. As we've discussed here previously, a big part of the U.S. strategy was a belief in the ability of heavy bombing to break the enemy's will to fight (which didn't really work out, but that's what they thought would happen). One of the bombers was the B-24, initially produced by Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. But their production approach was a mess, and there was no chance they'd be able to produce enough bombers to meet demand. Edsel and Henry Sorenson basically decided to take the assembly line approach used for cars, and apply it to airplanes, and they vowed that they would be able to produce one of these 60,000 pound (fully loaded), four-engine planes every hour, at a plant they were going to build specifically for that purpose.

So Baine goes through the many difficulties they face in making that a reality. All the problems I mentioned in the first paragraph, and more besides. Labor shortage led to hiring lot of black workers (male and female), which didn't go over well with certain segments of the workforce. The U.S. Air Force keeps changing what it wants out of the B-24, without realizing the problems that creates. Henry Ford had long ago hired a morally questionable guy named Harry Bennett to be his security guy, and Bennett is causing all sorts of problems. Henry himself is a pacifist, and not really on board with making munitions (Baine mentions Ford was also against the U.S. being involved in the First World War, and charted a vessel to travel to Europe and try to work for peace. Only to get over there and realize he was wrong. Yet he seemed to learn nothing from the experience. I'm curious what exactly he saw that made him change his mind that first time, though). And Edsel is dying, while trying to make all this work, protect the people he trusts at the company from Bennett.

It's an interesting story, especially for what it told me about Edsel, someone I knew nothing about, and also Henry Ford II, his son who takes over after Edsel's passing. Henry the Younger has a surprising arc because all through the book, Baine gives us these snippets of what's going on with him - flunking engineering, trying to be a commander in a naval training exercise and failing miserably - and he just sounds like someone who will be in over his head. But when the time comes, he shows he has a strength to him his dad didn't necessarily has, along with the sense to try learn whenever the chance arises.

'As Knudsen had said, what was a bomber but a large machine made of small pieces? Pieces that could be crafted just like automobile parts? Like a car, an airplane was a frame built with seats for humans, housing an engine that provided propulsion. The leap from a car to an airplane required the added theory of aerodynamics to supply liftoff and control of the skies, and heaps of horsepower to put that theory into practice. A car could conquer time and space. The airplane increased the distance exponentially and added an all-important dimension: altitude.'

1 comment:

SallyP said...

Poor Edsel really doesn't get a lot of credit, but he was a damned good engineer and helped design the insanely beautiful Lincoln. And yes, Henry the younger was a lot smarter than he ever got credit for as well.