“We must be the great arsenal of democracy … For us 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. We have furnished the British great material support and we will furnish far more in the future … Their strength is growing. It is the strength of men and women who value their freedom more highly than they value their lives.”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, December 29, 1940
Spoken a year before Pearl Harbor, president Roosevelt’s words echo down through the decades as the US and the West confront another egregious episode of brutal aggression, this time in the shape not of Adolf Hitler and the Axis but of Vladimir Putin and the Russian empire in its savage war on Ukraine.
For more than a few Americans, indeed for the citizens of democracies everywhere, Roosevelt’s words have the impact of American scripture.
The truth of his radio broadcast is as powerful in its significance now as it was then.
Certainly, President Joe Biden refers approvingly to both the concept and the reality of an American arsenal of democracy. This arsenal, along with those of America’s allies around the world, including Australia, now sustains the courageous fight of Ukraine for sovereignty and liberty.
Ukraine may be a fledgling democracy, but it exhibits all the strength of character which Britain, its dominions and the empire, together with its allies, exhibited in those dark times of 1940.
Nothing illustrates this better than President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent visit to Washington and his address to the US congress after meeting with Biden in the White House.
It was an extraordinary echo of Winston Churchill’s appeal to America during World War II. Addressing the congress in December 1941, Churchill conceded: “I have not come to ask for money” – to the apparent relief of his audience.
Churchill then followed with the disarming admission: “For myself.” Much laughter, and the money, followed.
Neither did Zelensky seek personal enrichment, but rather the continuance of American sustainment of his army in the field and his besieged citizenry at home in their battered cities.
As 1940 opened, Willow Run, Michigan was a quiet, rural area adjacent to an airport and a watercourse about an hour outside Detroit. By the end of 1941, it was turning out B-24 Liberator Bombers for the US Army, US Air Force, and the air forces of its allies.
Over the objections of Henry Ford, who was anti-Semitic, anti-union and anti-FDR in that approximate order, Ford’s son Edsel had built the largest manufacturing plant in the world. Nothing illustrates the response of American industry to FDR’s determination to create an arsenal of democracy than the plant at Willow Run.
Unfortunately, Edsel Ford is usually associated with the fiasco of the automobile named after him. Actually, he should be associated most with his dynamism in creating an aircraft manufacturing facility that changed the course of military production.
Existing American plane-makers ridiculed Ford’s notion that aircraft could be turned out from an assembly line like cars. Edsel Ford proved them wrong.
Indeed, such was the impact of Willow Run that Americans, for a time, believed the arsenal of democracy was to be found in Detroit.
The core strength of FDR’s address in 1940 was its penetrating honesty and its identification of what the alternative of the dictators meant in practice:
“The history of recent years proves that the shootings and the chains and the concentration camps are not simply the transient tools but the very altars of modern dictatorships.
“They may talk of a ‘new order’ in the world, but what they have in mind is only a revival of the oldest and the worst tyranny. In that there is no liberty, no religion, no hope …
“It is not a government based upon the consent of the governed. It is not a union of ordinary, self-respecting men and women to protect themselves and their freedom and their dignity from oppression. It is an unholy alliance of power and pelf to dominate and to enslave the human race.”
Some still worship at the altars of modern dictatorships. Virtually the same assessment could be made today of the unbridled ambitions of the dictators who have chosen to confront the West.
However, we must note the arsenals of autocracy are unable to match their grandiose boasts with realities.
This is why the Russians are forced to call on assistance from the dumpster-despotisms of Iran and North Korea. Military capability is far more than kit on parade.
In an extraordinary historical twist, the expression “arsenal of democracy” was not coined by FDR. However, Roosevelt recognised its value immediately when he heard French diplomat and economist Jean Monnet utter the phrase.
He held on to it until it was opportune, and Monnet was asked never to use it again.
Monnet, of course, in the post-war era, emerged as one of the architects of the EU, earning the nickname the “Father of Europe”.
The arsenal of democracy was a truly inspiring phrase, especially for those suffering under Axis occupation and oppression.
The phrase came to mean far more than military hardware. In 2023, the arsenal of democracy must encompass far more than weaponry again.
For the US and the West, including Australia, it needs to represent a touchstone of democracy in practice.
This applies not only in the defence of Ukraine but in opposition to aggression and intimidation everywhere. It means respect for international institutions, and particularly international law.
This is perhaps best reflected in the challenge to the US to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, along with support for reform of the World Trade Organisation. Free trade is the bloodstream of economic progress, as has been demonstrated globally over recent decades. International instruments should govern trading arrangements, not the dictates of the autocrats.
FDR’s address rallied opinion well before the US officially entered World War II. The Lend-Lease program sfollowed in early 1941 and the American arsenal sustained not only the British but also the Soviets in the gravest of times.
Ukraine faces a difficult immediate future. But its courage, backed by the West, sees it stronger than when the Russian invasion stumbled across its borders. FDR would applaud this result.