How “The Arsenal of Democracy” shocked the world and helped to win WW2

For several months now, we have witnessed a massive humanitarian, financial and military aid operation granted to Ukraine, which is waging a fierce war with Russia. The scope and volume of military aid provided by the so-called Western states and the US may give the impression that we are dealing with a unique case that will be noted by history. But is this a precedent? No. We've seen something similar before and on an even larger scale - "The Arsenal of Democracy".

Ukraine asks for 300 rocket launchers? That's half the US arsenal. Mykhailo Podolak, adviser to the head of the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted on Monday that Ukraine needs 300 multi-rocket launchers, 500 tanks, 1,000 howitzers and 1,000 drones to bring heavy equipment into balance in combat with Russia. Podolak wrote about it on the eve of the meeting of the heads of NATO defense ministries, in during which further military aid to Ukraine was to be discussed.

Not yet "The Arsenal of Democracy"

Today, as in the past, the common point is the fear of crossing the “red line” that separates the provision of military aid from direct involvement in an armed conflict. Today, crossing this line would mean a formal war between Russia and NATO countries. Before it was a fear of provoking a war between the US and the Axis countries (Germany, Italy, Japan).

In the early 1940s, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that then European powers – Great Britain and France – had no chance in a war with Germany unless they received significant aid in military equipment and material. The US officially turned its back on the war in Europe, but in practice, legislation was drafted in a hurry to lift the arms embargo. In the Act of Neutrality of 1939, European countries were offered to purchase weapons on a cash and carry basis. Transactions carried out in this system were to preserve America’s neutrality, and at the same time did not endanger the American fleet. The system was painfully honest with potential customers. Whoever had the cash could buy the gun in the US but had to travel across the Atlantic themselves to pick it up.

Charles A. Lindbergh leaving the White House after conference with President Roosevelt
Charles A. Lindbergh leaving the White House after conference with President Roosevelt

Prepare for war as you have been unable to endure peace.

Lend-Lease Act of 1941

Lend-Lease Act passed by Congress in March 1941 was a prequel to “The Arsenal of Democracy”. The US was restrained in giving significant aid even to Great Britain, with which it had special historical ties. The defense of the official doctrine of neutrality began to take strange forms. These include the idea of delivering 50 old destroyers to Britain in exchange for a military base in the British Isles. The project of loaning war materials and equipment was also considered a smart way to bypass the embargo and remain neutral. After the end of the war, the British would return the borrowed equipment to the US. According to the authors of this law, on the one hand, they would not be asked to pay for supplies that Britain could not afford anyway, and on the other hand, the all-powerful Germany would not be annoyed.

Senator Robert Traft was among the loudest critics of this Lend-Lease Act. To cut himself off from this idea, he stated: “Lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum. You don’t want it back.” Robert Traft was both wrong and right in his criticism

Lend-Lease Act of 1941 was carried out throughout the war, until September 1945. During this time, 38 countries received $ 49 billion in war materials and raw materials. Most of the assistance was in the form of a free gift, but sometimes transactions were made for cash or gold. The Soviet Union showed that Senator Traft was not quite right. After the end of the war, the USSR demobilized thousands of borrowed trucks and sent them back to the US from the port of Vladivostok.

America knew what its role was and what the Allies needed

America hesitated for a long time and did not know what to do with its neutrality at that time. Both Congress was against participation in the war and a society that remembered the atrocities of World War I. Many prominent politicians did not hide that a possible change in the doctrine of neutrality could result in the removal from office of the president who would support such a change. In September 1939, President Roosevelt hurriedly issued a declaration of US neutrality and suspended arms sales to all states at war. As late as June 1940, Henry Ford refused to accept Rolls-Royce’s order to build aircraft engines for Great Britain at his plant.

The US, under the pressure of public opinion demanding an increase in aid to the fighting Europe, and as a result of Germany’s increasing military successes, decided to take the side of the Allies. In the summer of 1941, on board the HMS Prince of Wales, anchored off the coast of Newfoundland, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter. It defined the policy goals of Great Britain and the US during and after World War II.

America knew what its role was and what the Allies needed – money, resources, technology, and organization. The largest workshop in the world was in a hurry to prepare for the launch of war production. The US was still formally neutral, but it was clear that this would change soon.

Final assembly of B-25 bombers at North American Aviation Inc.
Los Angeles, along with Detroit, was the largest American arsenal during World War II. Final assembly of B-25 bombers at North American Aviation Inc. © Palmer, Alfred T., Library of Congress

Attack on Pearl Harbour

However, neither Germany nor Great Britain decided to formally declare war on the Axis. The key decision was made by Japan, which has been aggressively increasing its influence in Asia and the South Pacific for several years. The dispute over future influence in the Pacific has turned into a bitter conflict in which the US has drawn a powerful weapon: economic sanctions and embargoes. In particular, the oil embargo, which Japan did not own or had not yet acquired in previously conquered territories, proved to be painful. In order to break the embargo that blocked more than 90 percent of the oil needed by Japan in 1941, it was decided to take radical measures. The problem was that the territories that were planned to be conquered were in the sphere of US interests. It was obvious that the US Pacific Fleet would not allow it to go into its sphere of influence with impunity.

Japan has no choice but to neutralize, even temporarily, the American navy in the Pacific.

On December 6, 1941, a hail of Japanese missiles and torpedoes fell on the base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Within a dozen or so hours, the US was at war with Japan, and a few days later – with Italy and Germany.

US Newspaper Headlines December 8, 1941
US Newspaper Headlines December 8, 1941 © Stalmar Publication

Operation "The Arsenal of Democracy" started

Now without any restrictions, the United States could start the operation “The Arsenal of Democracy”. The center of this colossal operation was in Detroit, Michigan. Almost a third of American war production was made in the vicinity of this city. 185 factories working for the needs of the front were located in Detroit and its vicinity alone. All human reserves were used. In 1943, 91 percent of the newly hired workers were women, replacing the men sent to the war. In 1944, the US produced 89 million tons of steel, or half of the world’s production. American workers produced 80,000 amphibians, 100,000 tanks, 300,000 aircraft, 15 million guns and 41 billion rounds.

What happened in Detroit and other US cities in the 1940s had no counterpart in the world’s military history. Weapons and equipment made in the US during operation “The Arsenal of Democracy” found their way to every front of World War II. Detroit and the US armed not only the Americans, but also the British, Canadians, Russians, Poles, and basically everyone who wanted to contribute in any way to the defeat of the Axis powers.

Joseph Stalin admired Detroit

This great mobilization was possible only thanks to the already existing infrastructure. Since the 1920s, Detroit has amazed the world with what was created on its territory. These were extraordinary things. The city in terms of industry was ahead of other corners of the US, as well as other countries. Detroit has become a legend, a role model even for that part of the world that was programmatically striving for the collapse of hated capitalism. Joseph Stalin admired Detroit not only for the scale of production, but also for the way in which the problems of labor productivity, logistics and quality were solved. His infatuation and fascination with industrial projects developed in Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s were so great that, regardless of ideological differences, attempts were made to use the Detroit experience in the homeland of “historical justice”. At the cost of a great financial effort, the Soviet Union commissioned Ford’s tractor and car factory, which was located in Nizhny Novgorod and Stalingrad.

Operation "The Arsenal of Democracy". Production of the 28-ton M3 tanks at the Chrysler plant.
Operation "The Arsenal of Democracy" Production of the 28-ton M3 tanks at the Chrysler plant. For the production of tanks, the technology and assembly organization previously used in the serial production of cars were used. © Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

Industrial complex instead of birds sanctuary

The commencement of production of passenger cars, trucks and tractors in the USSR probably pleased Stalin, but he was not entirely satisfied. The Russians couldn’t get over that their industrial centers were no match for what was built a few kilometers from downtown Detroit – the Rouge factory complex. The area where the Rouge plants were built, located on the banks of the Detroit and Rouge rivers, was originally intended to serve quite different purposes. In this wetland area, Ford wanted to create a private birds sanctuary. World War I verified his plans and in 1917, instead of wild birds, shipyards were set up here, which built chasers intended to fight German submarines. Ten years later, both wild birds and ships were just ancient history. Rouge has become the largest industrial complex ever built by man.

"Big tech" from the beginning of the 20th century

In Rouge there was everything that was needed to mass-produce cars: blast furnaces, steel mills, a coking plant, a glass factory, a power plant and, of course, factories producing car parts, which were assembled in the adjacent halls. This production complex consisted of 93 buildings and 157,677 sq m halls with 195 km of production lines. To supply this voracious organism with raw materials, quays were built to which ships moored, as well as 160 km of railway lines served by 16 locomotives and 25 km of internal roads. Henry Ford not only had his own communications network. He also had his own resources: 283,280 ha of forest, ore mines in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, 16 coal mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, rubber plantations in Brazil.

In the 1930s, more than 75,000 workers and engineers worked at the Rouge complex. Workers processed 1,500 tons of steel and 500 tons of glass every day, and a new car left the factory every 49 seconds. Henry Ford also employed 6,000 smaller companies. To service such an army of people, special units of the health service, fire brigade and their own police were organized.

Another industrial sensation

When the operation “The Arsenal of Democracy” started after the US entered World War II, Henry Ford again shocked everyone with a project the size of which no one could have imagined before. Another industrial sensation took place at a farm outside the city of Ypsilanti, about 50 km west of Detroit. The farms – privately owned by Henry Ford – were used for one of many “social engineering” projects. In the summer, boys from poorer families living in overcrowded city centers stayed on the farm. Here, young people learned about nature, farming and life in the countryside. By farming the land, the boys learned self-discipline and the value of hard work. Willow Run Farm was a combination of a scout camp, summer camp, and reformatory. At the end of the 1930s, no one imagined that it would soon become a part of “The Arsenal of Democracy”, a production site for weapons that would be used against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the near future.

Operation "The Arsenal of Democracy". The Ford factory in Willow Run
Operation "The Arsenal of Democracy". The Henry Ford factory in Willow Run was such a spectacular undertaking that aviation legend Charles Lindbergh called it "the Grand Canyon of the mechanical world." © Office of War Information. Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

Rouge was going to be overshadowed by Willow Run plant

The Rouge factory complex, part of “The Arsenal of Democracy” operation, considered an industrial wonder of the world, was to be overshadowed by something even more impressive. Henry Ford undertook to build a second Rouge, only under a roof. The latest generation of planes – the legendary B-24 Liberator bombers – were to leave this gigantic production hall. There was one fundamental difference between the planned plant in Michigan and the existing plant in California, which until then had been the center of aircraft production. California boasted about producing one bomber a day. One bomber per hour was planned to be assembled at Willow Run plant.

The Ford plant was such a spectacular venture that aviation legend Charles Lindbergh called it “the Grand Canyon of the mechanical world” In order to pick up the planes assembled at the factory, the air force had to mobilize an entire army of pilots. In one of the hangars on the factory premises there were bedrooms especially for them. 1,300 beds have been set up in this largest dormitory in the world.

Another cog in "The Arsenal of Democracy" machine - one bomber every hour?

Famous architect Albert Kahn designed the construction of a production hall with a surface area of 1.07 million square meters. An almost two-kilometer production line was placed there. Construction costs soared from the planned $ 11 million to $ 47 million. The construction of this largest roofed structure in the world, another cog in “The Arsenal of Democracy” machine, began in April 1941. In October of the same year the first bomber rolled off the factory line.

Henry Ford was convinced that the implementation of the plan, i.e. the production of one bomber per hour, was only a matter of time and proper training of personnel. The Willow Run plant was expected to achieve its fantastic performance thanks to the mass production technique that worked so well in the automotive plant. Henry Ford, however, underestimated the scale of the problems. He did not take into account the fundamental difference between the production of airplanes and cars. One B-24 consisted of 100,000 parts, and the car of only 15,000. The production of the aircraft required a completely different production regime.

The American government, seeing the technical and logistical problems of the factory, offered Henry Ford to transfer part of the production to other plants. Airplanes were a much more complex structure that could not be assembled in one place. As a result, Willow Run plant has lost all the independence and self-sufficiency that had characterized its former resort, the Rouge complex. At the end of December 1942, 107 bombers were produced, of which only 53 were accepted and sent to the front.

Will it run?

According to preliminary plans, as many as 100,000 employees were to work in “Bomber City”. However, this optimism was brutally verified. There were unexpected difficulties for Henry Ford all the time. The biggest problems included poor work discipline, too high rotation of employees and problems with accommodating such a large army of workers. The factory was nearly an hour’s drive from Detroit. The current rationing of gasoline and tires made commuting to work very difficult. Despite the construction of new estates of simple single-family houses and large night shelters for 14,000 workers from other parts of the United States, the problem of decent accommodation was among the most pressing. Those who did not get a place in dormitories lived in primitive conditions – in garages, car trailers, tents. From early 1942 to mid-1943, 350,000 people came to factories in and around Detroit from other parts of the country, often from rural southern states.

However, the US Congress Senate was so concerned about the constant problems with achieving the planned production volume that a special commission was established in 1943. The twisted name of the factory was spread. Instead of Willow Run they called it “Will It Run?”.

Women's contribution

As the war continued and it was not possible to employ men, it was decided to employ women on a large scale. This did not arouse great enthusiasm for Henry Ford, who believed that the women would not be able to cope with the hard physical work in the factory. He wasn’t the only one who thought so. At the end of 1941, only 80,000 women worked in the arms industry. A year later, the main activity of 3 million American women, who decided to contribute to “The Arsenal of Democracy”, was not cooking dinner and babysitting, but producing trucks, tanks, amphibians and ammunition.

The fantastic effects of women’s work have made their work an important part of Willow Run plant’s production over time. After an initial period of errors, many changes to the production system, and aid from other factories, production at Willow Run plant began to gain momentum. Although in 1943 the factory employed “only” 42,331 workers and engineers, the result of their work was impressive. At the peak of production, a new plane rolled out onto the apron every 59 minutes. Work was performed continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Rose Will Monroe, a young employee of Ford's aviation plant
Rose Will Monroe, a young employee of Ford's aviation plant (The Willow Run Assembly Plant), became the inspiration for a propaganda campaign celebrating Rosie the Riveter. Rosie became a true icon, the images of her illustrated the possibilities of women replacing men in arms production. In later years, the figure of Rosie was a symbol of feminism and women's economic power. Pictured: One of many "war" Rosies in the process of producing aircraft engines at North American Aviation. © Palmer, Alfred T., Library of Congress

A dream "made in Detroit"

After the victory in 1945, Detroit and its surroundings turned out to be a perfect production site. Large industrial complexes were ready to quickly switch to civilian production. After the war, factories inherited not only new halls. The production for the army so far has brought a great number of inventions, innovations and new tools. For example, with automation, it was possible to produce 154 engine blocks per hour. In the past, it took 117 workers to achieve this result, and after automated production, only 41. Massive demand for new goods, huge factories, the latest technology, unlimited access to a willing labor force, and massive federal orders all spoke in favor of Detroit, foreseeing a bright future. A new car  „made in Detroit” has become the most desirable commodity, apart from one’s own home.


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