Arsenal of Democracy

Springbrook Recreation Area

World War II began in 1939, and by 1940, the United States wished to support the Allied Powers by providing military aid. On December 29, 1940, during one of his Fireside Chat broadcasts, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged Americans to join the fight. Speaking to manufacturers across the country: “I appeal to the owners of plants – to the managers, to the workers – to our own Government employees – to put every ounce of effort into producing these munitions swiftly and without stint.”

Americans contributed what they could to wartime production during World War II. But it was Detroit that earned the nickname “arsenal of democracy,” and with good reason. But where did the term come from? In his national broadcast on December 29, 1940, President Roosevelt declared: “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.” 

Detroit was the headquarters of American wartime production. Detroiters answered the President’s call dutifully and swiftly, stopping the construction of cars for personal use for the production of weapons and “vehicles of war.” Factories, shops, and more in the metropolitan area dedicated time and space to create jeeps, artillery guns, helmets, electronics, and more. As Walter P. Reuther (of UAW notoriety) once said, “Like England’s battles were won on the playing fields of Eton, America’s were won on the assembly lines of Detroit.”

Wartime production also took place outside of Detroit in cities like Warren, Belleville, Ypsilanti, even the Hines Park area. Southeast Michigan eagerly took on the president’s charge. Newburgh Mill, Phoenix Mill, Northville Mill, and Waterford Mill (and many others) make up Henry Ford’s “Village Industries,” factories devoted to manufacturing automobile parts. Spread throughout and around Hines Park, several had a hand in providing military support. 

Nankin Mill turned to manufacturing tools, dies, fixtures, and badges while Northville Mill crafted valves for government vehicles and parts for Pratt and Whitney aircraft engines. Workers at Plymouth Mill built taps for government vehicles and parts for Pratt and Whitney engines as well. All of this for America’s arsenal of democracy, and President Roosevelt’s call to arms.

Photo of Nankin Mills
Nankin Mills, ca. 1900 (

Henry Ford purchased the former Phoenix Mill and Matthews Distillery site in 1920. Famed architect Albert Kahn designed the new building constructed in 1922, located beside the millpond of Phoenix Lake. Unlike most automobile and parts factories, Ford initially employed women to work at the Phoenix Mill site. He believed women were better suited to craft what were deemed “delicate” parts including voltage meters, light switches, and generator cutouts. During World War II, the factory changed gears and produced gun director parts.

In 1933, Henry Ford bought the Newburgh Mill property and built a factory in 1935. Ford hired local farmers and Rouge Plant workers to build his new manufacturing facility. The factory produced twist drills and drill bits. The factory also manufactured twist drills for President Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy” for World War II.