Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - World War II Introduction

As Nazi Germany launched its heaviest air raid yet against London late in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation on December 29th with his "Arsenal of Democracy" fireside chat. He presented his argument to the American people that, as a matter of national defense, the United States must rise to Britain's aid by manufacturing and delivering the munitions and supplies Britain needed to defend itself against Hitler's aggression. Most of Europe had already fallen to the Germans, Germany and Italy were conquering much of Africa, and Japan was conquering parts of Asia. If the U.S. did not help stem the tide of that aggression, the Axis powers would not only control several continents but the high seas as well, putting the Axis in position to launch an attack on the U.S. and the western hemisphere. In January 1941, Roosevelt would ask Congress for authority to lend or lease munitions and supplies to Great Britain and other allies, and soon Congress authorized a formal Lend-Lease Program that helped to sustain the militaries of England, the Soviet Union, and China in the face of onslaughts mounted by German and Japanese forces. Thus began, after a slow start in the late 1930s, the rapid mobilization of America's industrial might. When the U. S. entered the war in December 1942, the expansion of the United States' capacity to produce munitions was therefore already well underway. According to historian Kent Roberts Greenfield, this use of America's industrial might was the cornerstone of Roosevelt's grand strategy to win the war through material superiority and thereby with the minimum loss of Americans' lives. Historian Alan Gropman says that Roosevelt's grand strategy is what won the war:
"It's an old story, but bears repeating. The United States used a logistic strategy (as opposed to Hitler's Blitzkrieg strategy) to build armaments in depth rather than in width. Hitler, who expected to win his wars quickly, did not invest in infrastructure-that is, he did not use his raw materials to build new munitions factories; he used materials to build new munitions. When he discovered that the war was to be a long one, he had to begin building factories after the United States had completed its factory construction. Germany mobilized more men for its army than did the United States (with a much smaller population), spent a greater part of its gross national product on the war than the United States, and had a higher percentage of its women producing in industry than the United States, but it did not produce sufficient armaments and was drowned in a sea of allied munitions. "

Ford's Richmond assembly plant was part of the gigantic American system of industrial production that helped to drown Hitler and the Axis powers in a sea of munitions.. The Richmond plant operated during the war under a contract the Ford Motor Company had with the U.S. Army's Ordnance Department to assemble jeeps and to process tanks for shipment overseas. Called the Richmond Tank Depot during the war, the Ford Motor Company still owned and operated the plant, but an Army officer in Ordnance Department officially commanded it.

To help understand the activities at the Richmond Tank Depot during the war, this chapter also provides some historical context for several features of the environment within which the Richmond plant operated. First, there was the overall set of programs the Roosevelt Administration put in place to try to insure that the nation's industrial infrastructure could meet the challenge of war without running short of raw materials, without exploiting workers, without profiteering by individuals or corporations who might try to take advantage of the wartime market, and without wreaking havoc on the economy through dramatic price increases. Then there was the specific set of programs that the Ordnance Department put in place to procure the necessary weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and other supplies needed by the U.S. Army's fighting forces and by America's allies. There was also mobilization of the Ford Motor Company generally to participate in the nation's war production effort. Finally, this chapter provides some historical background on the development of the jeep, the one kind of vehicle that was actually assembled at the Richmond plant. These bits of historical context are interwoven with descriptions of what actually took place at Richmond.

Another theme that is important to consider while examining the history of the Richmond plant is the growth of large-scale technological systems in the United States. Such systems came into public consciousness during the post-World War II period with the advent of America's Atlas and Polaris missile programs, the celebrated effort by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to put a man on the moon, the emergence of think-tanks like RAND that contracted to perform complex systems analyses, the use of computers in support of those projects and programs, and the widespread efforts by businesses and all levels of government to apply the systems approach to solve social problems. Since that time, several historians have explored the history of the development of systematic approaches to the design and management of large-scale technological systems within firms in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What set the giant post-World War II projects apart from the earlier examples of the systems approach is that the war-time projects went beyond the individual firm.

The post-World War II projects like Atlas and Polaris were giant government-sponsored projects that required the skills and manpower of several private firms working simultaneously on interdependent facets of the project. The scientists, engineers, and management specialists who devised the techniques for designing and managing such large and complex projects like Atlas and Polaris got their initial experience during World War II. The Manhattan Project was famous for developing and building the atom bomb in an amazingly short time, but the systems approach really began with the wartime necessity of coordinating the procurement, production, shipment, and distribution of an unprecedented volume of ordnance and other military supplies and of building the facilities to do so. Participants in the development and management of America's successful ordnance production programs credited their successful efforts to experiences gained on the large federal dam construction projects of the 1930s, which were also government sponsored and involved several firms working simultaneously toward the completion of the larger project.

The Richmond assembly plant has an interesting tangential connection to these developments because it was part of the Ford Motor Company's technological system. As described in the previously, the company had already developed its own complex system within the firm. During the war. Ford participated with many other firms in the much larger government-sponsored projects aimed at supplying the Allied armies, navies, and air forces with the supplies needed to emerge victorious. One young systems manager came out of that experience to take a job at Ford, developing a reputation sufficient to entice newly-elected President John F. Kennedy to name him Secretary of Defense in 1961. Kennedy chose Robert McNamara to be Secretary of Defense in order to apply systems analysis and systems management to the entire Department of Defense. From there, the methods spread to other federal bureaucracies and to state and local governments, fostering the short-lived belief that, if America could put a man on the moon, the nation could use the same methods to solve its pressing social problems.

McNamara graduated in the late 1930s from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in economics and minors in mathematics and philosophy. He then went to the Harvard Business School, finishing a graduate degree in 1939. McNamara was serving as a junior faculty member at Harvard when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter. President Roosevelt challenged the nation to build 50,000 airplanes per year to fight the war. To manage such a drastic increase in its forces, the Army Air Corps needed to train statistical control officers, and it asked Harvard to help. McNamara worked with Charles B. Thornton, a lieutenant and statistical whiz in charge of the Air Corps' statistical control program, which was intended to allow central command to know and respond to information about the status of airplanes, the conditions of the men, and the state of operations. An example of the influence Thornton and his young team of statisticians had on military decision-making came as the end of the European war approached and the American military was planning to move many of its B-17 bombers from Europe to the Pacific. Thornton's team examined the costs involved and made a convincing argument to their superiors that it would be more cost-effective to build new B-29s in the U.S. and fly them to the Pacific than it would be to try to fly the B-17s to the Pacific. Late in the war, McNamara used his statistical expertise to help Curtis LeMay's XXI Bomber Command plan the logistics of fuel supply necessary to fly B-29s from India to bases in China and then on to targets in Japan. McNamara's statistical methods were credited with increasing the flying time of planes in the XXI Bomber Command by 30 percent.

Immediately after the war, Thornton asked McNamara to join a team he was assembling from the statistical control unit to find work together with a large, private corporation. Thornton was able to get his team, including McNamara, hired by the Ford Motor Company. Because of their youth and their intellectual approach to decision-making, the team earned the name "Whiz Kids" shortly after they moved to Dearborn. Thornton left Ford after two years to work for Hughes Aircraft, and in 1953 he left Hughes to form Litton Industries. Meanwhile, McNamara emerged as the member of Thornton's team at Ford with the most talent and drive. The Whiz Kids' methods ruffled some feathers among the old-timers at Ford, who were steeped in the ethos of non-college-educated genius embodied in the company's founder. Nevertheless, the Whiz Kids, and especially McNamara, had the respect and support of Henry Ford II, president of the company since the war. To improve the performance of the company, McNamara's team had to effect major changes in the manufacturing division, headed by Max Wiesmyer. McNamara insisted that management decisions in manufacturing be based on statistical analysis, not on the personal relationships Wiesmyer had established with his branch plant managers. McNamara was so insistent on the new management approach, which went against Wiesmyer's personality, that Wiesmyer ended up suffering a psychological break-down in the mid-1950s. McNamara emerged victorious from the restructuring of Ford management, and the Ford Motor Company named him president in 1960.

Seven weeks after McNamara became president of Ford, on December 6th, Robert Kennedy called to ask him to meet with John F. Kennedy, the President-elect. In that meeting, JFK asked McNamara to become the Secretary of Defense. Once in office, McNamara brought like-minded systems analysts into top positions in the Department of Defense, including men like Charles Hitch and Alain Enthoven from RAND. McNamara, Hitch, and Enthoven were as disruptive of traditional ways of doing things at Defense as McNamara and the Whiz Kids had been at Ford. Based on their systems analyses, they halted many of the military's favorite new weapons projects, plowed additional resources into new weapons they believed were better suited to the needs of a modem military, and implemented new methods for managing the military services and their ever more complex weapons systems. One of the key tools of the new management methods was the computer, a technology that had been born at the end of World War II to perform the tremendous mathematical ballistics computations the army needed in support of its artillery. The computer seemed to give the systems analysts and systems engineers new powers. With these apparent new powers, many of the Defense Department's experts and contractors moved to apply their methods elsewhere in government to solve pressing social problems. They soon learned that problems in society are less easily solved by quantitative analysis than are the problems of designing and managing complex weapons systems, or of managing automobile manufacturing companies, for that matter.