DETROIT — Today, as Detroit struggles to save itself, it might be worth remembering that there was a time when Detroit saved America, perhaps even the world.
Many people know that the Motor City became the “Arsenal of Democracy,” pumping out weapons during World War II. Some remember that Ford’s legendary Willow Run plant produced thousands of the huge, B-24 bombers that helped win the war.
Yet when Nazi Germany started the war, Willow Run was a few hundred acres of orchards, with no plant in sight. The United States armed forces were weaker than Romania’s.
The planes were built in a building hastily thrown up by a company at war with itself, led by a cast of characters larger and more bizarre than life — a senile founder, a street-fighting thug, and a brilliant and tragically doomed son.
Ford raced to create the largest factory in the world. And vowed to meet a challenge the experts thought was impossible.
“This was a time when amazing things could happen. Absolutely amazing things. Miracles could happen, and did,” A.J. Baime told me last week. His book, “The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Ford Motor Company, and Their Epic Quest to Arm an America at War,” (Houghton Mifflin, 290 pages, $27) has just been published.
The author, a 42-year-old Chicagoan, stumbled onto this saga while researching an auto racing book, “Go Like Hell,” which itself is to be made into a movie.
“I wanted to tell this story and also restore the reputation of Edsel Ford,” he said. That, and also answer a long-simmering question: Henry Ford the founder was indisputably anti-Semitic. Adolf Hitler openly admired and praised him. Ford also had huge manufacturing operations in Germany.
Was the Ford Motor Company guilty of treason?
This may indeed be the best story in America that has never been made into a movie — or even a spellbinding book.