Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Manufacturing Victory

These days people generally think of Detroit—with its vast expanses of abandoned real estate that have given rise to the photographic genre known as ruins porn—as the place where modernity went to die. But for a good chunk of the twentieth century, Detroit was the boomingest of boom towns. In the ten years after the introduction in 1913 of the modern moving assembly line in the automobile industry, Detroit's population doubled to nearly 1 million. In the 30 years following that, it doubled again to become the nation's fourth-largest city and one of its most affluent, especially for the working class. An important chapter in that story was the turning of the Motor City's manufacturing might to arms production during the Second World War when Detroit came to embody the slogan "Arsenal of Democracy." The new book of the same title by journalist A.J. Baime, Wall Street Journal contributor and editor at large for Playboy, tells the tale from the point of view of the Ford Motor Company and its involvement foremost in turning out B-24 Liberator heavy bombers at a faster rate than the Germans could shoot them down, helping turn the tide of the air war in Europe.

The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War is told through portrait sketches of a few key individuals—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued the call to arms in a 1940 radio broadcast during which the phrase Arsenal of Democracy was introduced, and auto pioneer Henry Ford and his only son Edsel, who for nearly three decades fought their own battle with one another over the company's direction. Along the way there are appearances by other historical figures, including the nefarious Harry Bennett, Henry's personal henchman and head of Ford's so-called Service Department (which was in fact a kind of corporate Gestapo); "Cast Iron" Charlie Sorensen, head of production at Ford, developer of modern mass-manufacturing techniques, and Edsel's confidant; and Harry S. Truman, who at the time was an ambitious senator from Missouri intent on making a name for himself by exposing waste and profiteering in the defense industry.

The book begins with an overview of Henry Ford's world-changing methods of production, and its accompanying social, economic, and political effects, that came to be termed "Fordism," the high wage/high output system that gave birth to the American middle class. The vast productive capacity of Ford's system of mass manufacturing enabled him to double the wages of his workers and dramatically reduce the price of his Model T, all the while becoming one of the richest men in world history. (One story has it that the enormous wealth Ford accumulated came so quickly that his wife Clara once found an uncashed check for $75,000, the equivalent of $1.5 million in today's money, in one of his pants pockets while doing laundry.) This largesse allowed Ford to indulge in all sorts of wackiness, including a well-documented practice of virulent antisemitism and decades of thwarting rational efficiencies and new business opportunities proposed by his son Edsel, which would have added even greater profit to the enterprise.

Edsel Bryant Ford (1893-1943)
Photo: Frank Moore Studio, 1920. Public Domain.
The tussle between Henry and Edsel over the company's destiny, and in particular its involvement in war production, is one of the book's main narrative threads. In the 1920s, Edsel, an aviation enthusiast, wanted to branch out into airplane production. He also wanted to adopt modern accounting techniques and rational management principles. During the First World War, he chomped at the opportunity to serve his country by enlisting in the military. He wanted to get rid of Harry Bennett, whose thuggish operating methods were barely a step above criminal, if that. (My grandfather, who worked on the line at "Mr. Ford's" for 30 years, used to tell of having to pay a Service Department goon a "reinstatement fee" to get his job back after being laid off.) Each of these was overturned by Henry and reluctantly accepted by Edsel who had a strong sense of filial duty. Edsel died of stomach cancer in 1943 at age 49, brought on many say by the maltreatment he suffered at the hands of his father. But before checking out, Edsel was able to position Ford Motor Company as a major defense contractor and bring Fordist production methods to bear on the war effort even over his father's objections, a story that is the book's other major narrative element.

Roosevelt recognized very early on that US involvement in the war was inevitable and also that the nation's armed forces were completely inadequate to the task. With the Luftwaffe controlling the skies over Europe and central to the Nazi military strategy of blitzkrieg, Roosevelt was especially concerned about American air capability, or more accurately the lack of it. He set a goal of building 50,000 airplanes and asked Congress for $1.2 billion (approximately $20 billion in today's dollars) to pay for it. Airplane manufacturing at the time was a craft industry with each unit individually built by hand often with unique configurations. Standardized mass manufacturing was the answer to ramping up production to achieve the numbers needed in short order. Roosevelt called upon William Knudsen, at the time president of General Motors, to assume control of American war materiel production.
B-24 Liberator bombers in production at Willow Run during WWII (Photo: Howard R. Hollem. Library of Congress. Public Domain.)
Illustration: J. Howard Miller, 1941.
Public Domain.
Edsel Ford's pioneering efforts in aviation as well as his hands-on knowledge of mass manufacturing made him the obvious go-to person in the quest to expand airplane production. Edsel and Sorensen worked often under cover to meet with government officials and others in the defense industry, not the least of which reason being because Henry was both a leading antiwar advocate and a hater of Roosevelt. On more than one occasion, Henry countermanded agreements Edsel had made to provide the military with various hardware. Edsel persevered, even as death was overtaking him, and in the end won out, with Ford Motor Company contributing significantly to the war effort and being handsomely rewarded for it. At its peak, the massive Ford Willow Run plant, which had been constructed on Ford family farmland specifically to mass produce the B-24 Liberator, turned out 650 aircraft per month and employed some 40,000 workers in two nine-hour shifts, including Rose Will Monroe, the real life role model for cultural icon Rosie the Riveter.

Following the war, the substantial pool of accumulated capital on the one hand and pent-up consumer demand on the other fueled an economic boom in America and in particular the suburban expansion led foremost by the automobile, ultimately precipitating the abandonment of Detroit. (A good account of the roots of Detroit's fall from grace can be found in Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.Baime doesn't get into any of that, ending his tale with the D-Day invasion and the assumption of Edsel's eldest son Henry Ford II (AKA "Hank the Deuce") to the CEO's suite at the company bearing his grandfather's name. He also glosses over several knottier questions, including whether Ford-owned operations in Germany and occupied France enabled the company to profit from both sides during the war. Instead, he accepts at face value an internal company report claiming that Ford didn't gain from enemy war production, a journalistic decision begging to be fact-checked. And as the book is essentially a celebratory account of American "can do" from back in the day, the so-called strategic bombing of enemy cities as a conscious plan to demoralize civilian populations and turn them against their leaders in which the B-24 Liberator played a such central part—and which some might call state-sponsored terrorism—is only briefly acknowledged and then summarily moved beyond.

The two main narrative threads, and various subplots, of The Arsenal of Democracy could easily and in fact have been the subjects of separate books. But through a combination of primary and secondary research and facile storytelling, Baime weaves together an interesting-enough narrative that retrieves an important piece of history for Detroit and for the nation at a time when all that both seemed to have stood for appears to be in retreat. It also brings attention back to Henry's doomed and now nearly forgotten son, Edsel, one of the Motor City's more solid citizens.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hall Rant, Take 3

In this third and final installment on his thoughts regarding the Detroit bankruptcy's "Grand Bargain," artist, curator, and critic Michael Hall reflects on the 1964 film The Train, starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, and Jeanne Moreau, and its relevance to the "Art vs. Pensions" question. 

There is no doubt that preserving the Detroit Institute of Arts as a cultural asset serves the greater good. And yet, the way in which the process has evolved is dispiriting to say the least. As Hall notes, there is something bigger at play, namely, the role of art within what we might call "the civic ideal," what Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (still the best book on democracy and also the best book on America) terms the "habits of the heart," which in America have historically sought to strike a balance between liberty and equality, the rights of the individual and the responsibility to the community. 

In democratic theory, it is the role of civil society, of which cultural institutions are integral part, to mediate between the private sphere of the market and the public sphere of the state. This is not to say that privatizing the DIA will result in its walking away from its community mandate. Settling the issue will enable the staff to get back to business and not be distracted by the machinations of those for whom truly nothing is sacred outside of the grim and relentless pursuit of profit. But it is to note that the change in status is another, in my opinion significant, splintering of the city's collective consciousness. For a penetrating analysis of the "Pension" side of the debate, see this article on "Detroit's Grand Bargain" by Aaron Petkov published recently in Jacobin.  

* * *
The Train Theatrical Trailer (1964)

MOVIES IMITATING LIFE: Cultural Patrimony and Train Wrecks

This time it was Detroit public television jumping into the debate swirling around the ongoing Detroit art museum mess.  How curious it was! You have to go back to a time before Nixon to find public broadcasting substantially supported by public dollars. Long suspicious of culture as a civic good, American lawmakers have incrementally (but steadily) pushed public broadcasting down the road to “privatization” (read mendicancy) for decades. So was it an intentional irony or an inadvertency when Detroit Public TV broadcast The Train (1964) from the DIA film archive on its Friday night Film Festival?  Knowingly or not, by airing this film, the station offered Detroiters what I view as one of the best critiques to date of the inevitable privatization of Michigan’s preeminent “public” art museum.

The Train is set in WWII France—during the last days of the German occupation. The plot of the film involves a willful, effete German colonel (Paul Scofield) hell bent to ship a trainload of stolen Parisian art treasures to Berlin in the face of the oncoming Allied liberation. To achieve his aim, however, the Colonel must thwart a series of plots and subversions initiated by French Resistance fighters determined to keep the train in France without damaging its precious cargo.  In the ensuing gauntlet, the imperious Nazi officer matches wits with a wily French railway dispatcher (Burt Lancaster) who reluctantly takes charge of the effort to “save” the train.

Let’s review: a heartless connoisseur of fine paintings is pitted against a gaggle of heroic, oppressed burghers in a desperate struggle to control a load of wooden crates stuffed with priceless cultural patrimony. The haughty Colonel asserts his personal, cultivated “taste” as his claim to the trove; the colorful but boorish resistance fighters unite to thwart his theft as a patriotic duty. With no orientation to “the finer things,” they, nonetheless, periodically muse among themselves about how when the war is over, it would be nice to see some of the pictures—in some museum, somewhere…sometime.  The Germans strap a gaggle of French peasants to the front of the locomotive to ensure safe passage for their loot. The Allied Supreme Command (speaking through a furtive intermediary who directs the Resistance) benevolently—but tentatively—puts the train on a “no kill list” and deploys its bombers to attack other targets of higher strategic value. 

Fast forward to Detroit today. The train has left the station. The elites have made their claim to the treasures in the boxcars and an array of unwitting city workers have been strapped to the engine as hostages—the politicians and lawyers erratically jam and reset the switches on the tracks as the train lumbers along its juggernaut. Judges restrain the bombs they could rain down from their benches, but claim to be keeping “all options on the table.”  For its part, the press breathlessly reports every new development in the saga and fatuously cheers on all the protagonists. The journey (thus far) has seen lots of twists and turns, offense and defense—and more feints and deceptions than you could count. 

In the final four minutes of The Train, Lancaster finally stops the locomotive—cold. Enraged by this latest setback, the Colonel mows down the train’s fleeing hostages with a machine gun and then attempts to commandeer a passing convoy of German trucks to carry “his” precious trophies on to Berlin. The convoy commander ignores his directive and waves his troops and vehicles onward in their frantic evacuation.  Art, after all, is a luxury—certainly not something to deem a priority (or a necessity) in the midst of a frantic retreat.

Alone with his crated treasure, the Colonel confronts Lancaster for the last time.  Arrogant to the end, he chides and berates the dispatcher for his ignorance and lack of cultural refinement. Lancaster dispassionately eliminates him with a quick blast of automatic weapon fire and then, wounded and exhausted, limps off into the forested countryside.  He has completed “the people’s work.”  As the credits prepare to roll, the camera pulls back.  Its pitiless eye surveys the martyred hostages, the lifeless body of the Colonel and a few dozen plain wooden crates (each stenciled with the name of some great, modern, French master) all scattered about in the tall grass beside the derailed train.  Fade to silence.

Like this movie, the Detroit bankruptcy story will most likely never have a triumphal conclusion.  Yes, the paintings did stay in France (so goodness did win out).  Still, nobody in The Train ever uttered a line to suggest that there was any sort of public stake in the purloined paintings. The Nazis stole trophies worth lots of money. The resistance saboteurs fought to keep them in the name of the motherland.  And the Allied Command simply passed out strategic directives from afar, confident, perhaps, that fifty years down the road George Clooney and a team of Ivy League art historians would give voice to the idea of art as a public good—in another movie.

To my eye, the state of Michigan could learn a lot about its escalating political and intellectual decrepitude from this oddly cynical film.  While approving $195 million to “save” the Museum’s collection, the Michigan House of Representatives also passed a bill (no. 5571) barring the DIA from ever renewing the annual multi-million dollar support millage recently awarded to it by voters in the three counties comprising the city of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. Subsequently, the Senate defeated bill 5571 and several regional corporations (including, most recently, the auto makers) rallied to save “our” art—ours, presumably because corporations are people, too.  The lawyers, bankers, and bondholders continue to argue about appraisals and about how to best monetize the museum as a financial asset. Meanwhile, nobody is really talking about the real train wreck in American education and the stenciled crates along the tracks running to and from Detroit that loom as eerie tombstones for the idea of art in the public interest.

From the perspective of someone with a belief in civic culture, I view the privatization of the DIA as a crisis as dire as the city’s bankruptcy, itself.  In Michigan’s ongoing Art vs. Pensions debate, the idea of culture as a civic good has no advocacy and no voice.  Just ask Detroit public television. 

Michael D. Hall                                                                                              
Hamtramck, MI
June 12, 2014