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 of the address.) 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, Roose­velt said, and in a large mea­sure they did just that. “For us,” FDR 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.”

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 non­inter­ven­tionist 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 (renown 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.

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