Washington, D.C. · December 20, 1940

On this date in 1940 President Franklin D. Roos­evelt appointed William Knud­sen to head a four-member board (Office of Pro­duc­tion Manage­ment, or OPM) to plan for national defense and coor­di­nate aid to Great Britain following Ger­many’s total block­ade of that island nation in mid-August (Battle of the Atlantic). A Danish im­mi­grant at the age of 20, Knud­sen had worked for Ford (1911–1921) and General Motors, moving from heading the Chev­ro­let divi­sion to heading GM in 1937. In his long auto­mo­tive career Knud­sen had emerged as a skilled man­ager of resources and a leading ex­pert in mass pro­duc­tion, cham­pioning the criti­cal role of inter­change­able parts, con­tin­u­ous work­flow and a moving assem­bly line for enhanced effi­ciency and pro­duc­tivity, and sim­pli­fied design, among the many manu­fac­turing prac­tices he put into place. Roose­velt now in­vited Knud­sen to apply his skills to help with war pro­duc­tion. In a fire­side chat broad­cast by more than 500 stations nine days later, on Decem­ber 29, Roose­velt warned Amer­i­cans of im­pending dangers at home and abroad and appealed to citi­zens to sup­port U.S. rear­ma­ment. At a time when mil­lions of Ger­man mili­tary per­son­nel occupied much of Europe and the Luft­waffe daily rained destruc­tion on Brit­ish cities and harbors (Blitz), we must, the presi­dent stressed, be “the great arse­nal of demo­cracy” for those fighting totali­tarian dicta­tor­ships—espe­cially for the British, who at the mo­ment were “the spear­head of resis­tance to world con­quest.” Roose­velt’s ad­dress was “a call to arm and support” our Euro­pean and Chi­nese allies in their all-out war against Nazi Ger­many and Impe­rial Japan. (Knudsen was asked to review and com­ment on an early draft.) Such assis­tance, the presi­dent said, would spare Amer­i­cans the agony and suf­fering of war that others have had to en­dure. “The great arse­nal of demo­cracy” came to spe­cif­ically refer to Amer­i­can indus­try and labor as the chief mili­tary sup­plier for the Allied war effort. Indus­try and labor had the power to turn the tide of the war, he said, and in a large mea­sure they did just that. “For us,” he in­toned, “this is an emer­gency as serious as war itself. We must apply our­selves to our task with the same reso­lu­tion, the same sense of ur­gency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.”

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Steps on Becoming the “Arsenal of Democracy”

Roosevelt fireside chat, May 7, 1933Roosevelt radio address, January 11, 1944

Left: At 9:20 Sunday evening, December 29, 1940, in a room filled with Wash­ing­ton digni­taries and two Holly­wood stars (Clark Gable and his wife, Carole Lom­bard), Roose­velt began the six­teenth fire­side chat of his pres­i­dency. The talk would center on national secu­rity, he fore­warned his lis­teners. The peril to the nation repre­sented by Nazi Ger­many, Fascist Italy, and Impe­rial Japan—the princi­pal Axis powers—was clear, he said. Standing between Axis world domi­na­tion and Western demo­cracy stood Great Brit­ain. “If Great Brit­ain goes down, the Axis powers will . . . be in a posi­tion to bring enor­mous mili­tary and naval resources against this hem­i­sphere. . . . All the Americas would be living at the point of a gun.” Hours earlier a Luft­waffe raid on London demon­strated the pointed gun, severely damaging famous buildings and churches in the city’s center and threatening St. Paul’s Cathedral in the conflagration.

Right: President Roosevelt gave over 30 fireside chats during his presi­dency (1933–1945). By the end of the 1930s, events in Europe and Asia moved the focus of these radio addresses from econo­mics to foreign affairs as FDR weighed in on the sub­ject of Amer­i­can neu­trality and mili­tary pre­pared­ness in the face of opposi­tion by non-interventionist pres­sure groups like the 800,000-mem­ber-strong “Ame­rica First Com­mittee.” After the Japa­nese attack on Pearl Harbor and the over­night retreat of the iso­la­tionists (aviator Charles Lind­bergh was their unoffi­cial leader and spokes­person), Roose­velt’s fire­side chats shifted to fighting a glo­bal war as he led the nation in “the defense of our civili­zation [and in] the building of a better civili­zation in the future”—fore­shadowing his war­time role in words from his December 1940 address.

Audio of President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat on the “Arsenal of Democracy”