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How the Automotive Industry Helped Arm America for WWII

Playboy Editor at Large A.J. Baime is back with a new book, Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War, out June 3—just in time for Father's Day. We sat down with the author to chat about his latest labor of love.


PLAYBOY: Tell us about your new book.

BAIME: It's about how a speech made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 29, 1940—"The Arsenal of Democracy" fireside chat—sparked the American home front to become the weapons-creating monster that won World War II, and how Detroit's auto industry played the starring role. Inside this narrative, I weave the extraordinary stories of unsung American heroes, with all the love and death and violence that they saw during those wild war years.

The book took me four years, during which my blood pressure reached extreme levels due to the stress. And it was expensive! I researched at the National Archives in Maryland, the FDR library in upstate New York, the Ford archives in Michigan, some Charles Lindbergh papers at Yale.… The coolest document I found, I think, would have to be the warrant Treasury investigators presented when they turned up to search the Ford Motor Company offices in late 1942. It's all in the book, of course.

PLAYBOY: What impressed you most about Ford's WWII history?

BAIME: With zero experience building bombers, Ford Motor Company created from scratch an enormous plant outside Detroit, Willow Run, to produce B-24 Liberators—the biggest, fastest, most destructive heavy bomber in the American arsenal at the time—at a rate of one per hour. It was a miracle of production.


PLAYBOY: How did the heavy bomber alter the course of the war?

BAIME: It was a game changer. Never had a weapon dealt death and destruction with such economy. General Hap Arnold basically said at the beginning of the war that we had to fly big machines over Nazi Germany and tear the place down. And that's exactly what we did.


PLAYBOY: What were the technical specs of the B-24 that made it such a fearsome new weapon?

BAIME: The numbers say it all: 303 mph maximum speed; 2,850 mile range; 56,000 pounds fully loaded; 4,800 horsepower; 8,000 pounds of bomb armament. That was no joke in 1941.


PLAYBOY: How did Ford get into the bomber business?

BAIME: Henry Ford was a pacifist, but after the shock of Pearl Harbor he changed his mind. He understood the terrific responsibility his empire would shoulder during this new kind of war—which was really a contest of mass production. His son Edsel Ford is a tragic, misunderstood, unsung hero of WWII; Willow Run was his baby. During the war, Edsel was dying of a terrible disease, and his father was helpless. More than once while researching this book I actually cried because the pain these men felt was so real to me.


PLAYBOY: Did the automaker's production techniques win us the war?

BAIME: Jay Leno wrote a blurb for my book, and he said it best: "We didn't just win WWII because we had the best soldiers. We did it because we could build airplanes literally faster than the Germans could shoot them down."


PLAYBOY: Yet some accuse Henry Ford of Nazi sympathies.

BAIME: Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, both main characters in The Arsenal of Democracy, were accused Nazi-sympathizers at the time. But these men were completely misunderstood. Neither supported Nazism in any way. Their politics were extremely controversial, but I think they both loathed Nazism. And in the end, they did their part—working to destroy the Third Reich, building and testing Liberator bombers at the world's largest airplane factory, built by Ford Motor Company.


PLAYBOY: You write that Ford and General Motors made materiel that fed the Nazi war machine.

BAIME: It's shocking but true. Before WWII, Ford and General Motors had factories in Germany that were producing trucks for the Nazi military. Once the war started, Hitler commandeered the factories in Nazi-occupied territory to produce weaponry. When the Allies took Berlin in 1945, they were shocked to find so many Nazi military trucks built by the German and French divisions of Ford and GM. It's a hard fact to swallow even after all these years: The Detroit car companies helped build Hitler's arsenal.


PLAYBOY: Your grandfather-in-law trained as a mechanic at Willow Run, didn't he?

BAIME: He still has his workbooks, his studies of the Liberator. He helped me paint a vivid picture of Willow Run: the world's largest airplane factory, with Charles Lindbergh roaring overhead in a B-24 bomber. Simply incredible.


PLAYBOY: Edsel Ford described Willow Run as "eloquent of what can be accomplished by cooperation between government and industry, management and labor, army officers and production engineers, civilians and military men." Do you think this type of large-scale cooperation would be possible today?

BAIME: No way. What happened during WWII could never happen again. Can you imagine our entire population giving up their jobs, their comforts, even their homes, en masse, to serve their country? I don't think so. Everyone did their part. That's what it took to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese.


PLAYBOY: The city of Detroit is a major character in your book.

BAIME: During WWII, Detroit was responsible for the greatest accomplishment of any American city at any time. What has happened to that city since is a great American tragedy. That's the purpose of this book—to capture that accomplishment during the war, at a time when literally the future of the world was at stake. Detroit still today is known as the Arsenal of Democracy.


PLAYBOY: You've done cars and now planes. What's next?


BAIME: Nuclear bombs! My next book is under way; it's going to be explosive.

A version of this article appears in the June 2014 issue of Playboy.

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