The Factory Front

EDSEL FORD FIRST saw the B-24 Liberator in January 1941. The supervisors of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation’s plant invited him to climb aboard. So he clambered into the claustrophobic cockpit, through the extended belly of the plane, past the massive bomb bay, and back into the San Diego sunlight. Then he took his hosts aside and told them what they were doing wrong.

It wasn’t the plane itself that Ford objected to. At the time the B-24 could fly farther and carry a larger payload than any other bomber in existence. But Consolidated made each plane individually, carefully crafting it from the ground up. Far better to follow the Ford way: Standardize every piece that went into the plane, break the production process into minute steps, set those steps along an assembly line, and run it as fast as you possibly could. Give his company the job, Ford said, and he’d hand the American military a new B-24 every hour, sixteen hours a day, six days a week, for a total of four hundred bombers a month.

There was more than bravado behind Ford’s promise, as A. J. Baime explains in his lively new book. For more than two decades, Edsel had lived under the domination of his father, Henry, the erratic genius who had created the modern automobile industry via the power of mass production. The humiliation had begun soon after the old man named twenty-five-year-old Edsel president of the Ford Motor Company in 1919. The 1920s were torturous, marked by Henry’s dogged refusal to listen to Edsel’s pleas that he move beyond the Model T even as its sales plummeted; his constant criticism of his son’s sophistication, which he seemed to take as a personal affront; and his shocking embrace of anti-Semitism.

The 1930s were worse. First Henry fell under the sway of Harry Bennett, the company’s thuggish chief of security, whose brutal handling of labor relations blackened Ford’s already tattered reputation. Then he flirted with fascism; the Hitler government awarded him its highest civilian honor in the summer of 1938, to commemorate the old man’s seventy-fifth birthday. When war broke out in Europe the following year, the elder Ford told the press that he hoped each side would bleed the other white. Edsel tried to repair the damage by agreeing to build airplane engines the British desperately needed. But his father summarily canceled the deal. Henry had visited many humiliations on his son, says Baime, but “this one hurt the most.”

So Edsel’s pledge to churn out four hundred B-24s a month hinged less on the Ford Motor Company’s devotion to the power of mass production or the promise of profit than on the neglected son’s pursuit of personal and professional redemption. Here was a project he would guide for himself, for the good of the nation, and for the company that bore his name, if not his influence. This time he’d make good.

Workers at the Willow Run manufacturing plant assemble a plane engine, ca. 1942.
Workers at the Willow Run manufacturing plant assemble a plane engine, ca. 1942.

Washington was happy to give him the chance. All through 1940, Franklin Roosevelt had tracked the terrible power of mechanized warfare. In the spring, Germany had launched its blitzkrieg across Western Europe, seizing control of Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in less than three months. That summer, the Luftwaffe began its savage air campaign against Britain. At first German bomber planes had targeted industrial sites. They had moved on to terror bombing by September, setting entire neighborhoods of London ablaze night after night. In the fall of 1940, Germany’s Axis ally Japan had occupied Indochina, the latest move in the country’s decade-long campaign of technologically advanced imperial conquest. As the catastrophes mounted, Roosevelt called on America’s leading industrialists to turn their vast plants over to military production in order to lend the nation’s industrial might to beleaguered American allies who were then being outfought and outproduced by the Axis powers. The United States must become “the great arsenal of democracy,” he told a national radio audience on December 29, 1940, just a week or so before Edsel headed off to San Diego. Two months later, the administration issued Ford a contract for $480 million, with the understanding that the planes would soon be rolling in.

Baime devotes most of The Arsenal of Democracy to Edsel’s herculean effort to fulfill his promise. It’s not an inherently dramatic story. But Baime gives it a powerful narrative drive. Rather than retool an existing Ford factory, Edsel had an entirely new facility built: the mammoth Willow Run plant, twenty-seven miles west of Detroit. Inside he installed complex new machinery, a new production process, and forty thousand new workers, many of them with no experience in industrial labor. Because gas rationing made it impossible for those workers to commute from Detroit, he had to build a massive company town as well, complete with barracks, schools, and community centers. Along the way he had to battle Washington’s sniping, Harry Bennett’s criminality, his father’s mounting dementia, rising racial tensions, and the stomach cancer that was slowly killing him. Willow Run finally reached the four-hundred-plane plateau in February 1944. By then, Edsel was nearly a year dead.

Baime insists, rightly, that Edsel had won his vindication within the terms of the Ford family’s peculiar psychodrama. Occasionally, though, Baime hints at a more complex dynamic. In October 1942, he tells us, Charles Lindbergh took a test flight of one of the first B-24s Willow Run produced. It was “the worst piece of metal aircraft construction I have ever seen,” Lindbergh reported: poorly designed, shoddily built, and dangerously difficult to fly.

Baime implies that as production intensified the company worked out the kinks. It didn’t. In the third quarter of 1944, two years after Lindbergh’s test run, 796 American airmen died in accidents aboard the B-24, double the rate of the military’s other major bomber, the B-17. A classified report from the Army Air Forces’ Office of Flying Safety minced no words in assessing the plane’s performance. “The extensive use of the B-24,” the report read, “is inconsistent with the blunt fact that it is the most extravagant killer of any airplane in the AAF.”

A variety of factors led to that abysmal record. By the army’s count, though, 90 percent of the B-24’s fatal accidents were traceable to material or structural failures, most of them involving either its landing gear or its power plant. These weren’t the random malfunctions of a plane flown under incredibly difficult conditions; they were systemic problems. No doubt Ford’s dysfunctional management caused a share of them. So did the fabled Ford way, which had always been more concerned with making cars quickly than with making cars well. When Edsel promised Washington that his company could deliver four hundred planes a month, he brought that fatal flaw to the B-24 as well.

Stressing the bomber’s problems doesn’t undermine Baime’s story; if anything, doing so would deepen it. Yes, Edsel saw in the B-24 a way to free himself from his father’s grip. But his liberation rested on a profoundly troubling bargain. America’s great industrialists would create the mechanized military the United States urgently needed. They’d do so, though, on their own terms. They’d decide how thoroughly their workers would be trained, how quickly the production lines would move, how many mistakes would be tolerated, how many corners could be cut, and how many systems that weren’t quite right could be ignored. In the process, the nation’s great manufacturers gave the military enormous power: By the final days of World War II, the air force could literally burn entire Axis cities to the ground.

At the same time, the Fordist model of industrial speedup also made the modern military more dangerous, more deadly, than it needed to be. That’s a far darker version of the story Baime tells. And it’s hard not to wish that he’d pushed his engaging book into that darkness, if only to show that the price of production—and redemption—was paid in American lives.

Kevin Boyle teaches history at Northwestern University. He is the author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (Henry Holt, 2004).