On May 28, 1940, the phone rang in Bill Knudsen’s office in the General Motors Building. Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who had made parts for Henry Ford’s Model T in a bicycle factory in Buffalo before working his way up to become president of GM, heard a voice familiar from newsreels and radio broadcasts on the other end.
It was President Franklin Roosevelt. “Knudsen?” the voice said. “I want to see you in Washington.”
France was collapsing under the Nazi blitzkrieg. Great Britain was slated to be next. Imperial Japan’s sun was rising in the Pacific.
America had the eighteenth largest army in the world, not much bigger than Holland’s, and no defense industry — it had been dismantled after World War I, “the war to end all wars.”
What FDR needed from Bill Knudsen, one of the fathers of mass production, was to tell him how to convert America’s economy from making cars, refrigerators, radios and farm machinery into making tanks, artillery shells, and even airplanes.
Arthur Herman, “The Arsenal of Democracy : How Detroit turned industrial might into military power during World War II“, Detroit News, January 3, 2013.
Arthur Herman is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II” (Random House)