A new UAW T-shirt rightly touts the working class as the “arsenal of democracy” — but it includes a B-24 bomber. Here’s labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein on what he thinks is wrong with the appeal.

A formation of six B-24 bombers in May, 1942. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The United Automobile Workers (UAW) has begun to sell a new set of tee shirts and hoodies, easily purchased by heading to the union website. On the back of the T-shirt is the classic UAW wheel logo with the phrase “The Working Class is the Arsenal of Democracy” curving around top and bottom. On some shirts, on the front, there is also a small drawing of a B-24 bomber a few inches below the right shoulder. The word “Liberator” is just below the plane.

A lot of politics and history is embodied in these shirts — much of it radically progressive, but some quite ambiguous.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) made the phrase “arsenal of democracy” world-famous in a speech delivered on December 29, 1940, nearly a year before the United States formally declared war on Germany and Japan. FDR had already called for ramping up military output, including the production of an astounding fifty thousand airplanes a year. Now, he put the United States squarely behind the United Kingdom and other nations — soon including the Soviet Union — fighting the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Once Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act late in the winter of 1941, a huge flow of military weapons and other supplies helped sustain both the UK and the USSR on the battlefront.

In World War II, fully half of all military production in the world came out of the United States.  That made Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Mobile, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle boom. Studs Terkel labeled it the “good war,” because of the enemies we fought and the domestic politics that put women in the workforce, food on the table, African Americans in new war plants, and mass unionism in almost every factory and shipyard. By the end of the war, the UAW was the biggest and most lively union in the country.

When President Joe Biden visited a UAW picket line in late September 2023, he joined unionists in front of a General Motors parts depot, once Ford’s Willow Run mega factory that produced thousands of B-24 bombers during World War II. With the president by his side, UAW president Shawn Fain evoked the war and its still-vivid memory: “Today eighty years later, we find ourselves here again. It’s a different kind of war we’re fighting. Today the enemy isn’t some foreign country miles away, it’s right here in our own area. It’s corporate greed.” Fain didn’t mention Donald Trump because the UAW president didn’t want to sound partisan in the midst of a strike, but no one had to be reminded that Fain had already called Trump a scab and a threat to democracy.

At the April 2024 Labor Notes conference held near Chicago, Fain was even more pointed in his linkage of past and present: “In the 1940s, during World War II, UAW members were building B-24 ‘Liberator’ bombers at the Willow Run plant. Those bombers were a big piece in the arsenal of democracy that helped defeat the fascists, who were seeking to divide and conquer the working class. The UAW was responsible for creating the arsenal of democracy, that led to the United States winning the war.”

That’s a powerful and resonant evocation, but not quite so luminous upon closer analysis.

Alongside a defeat of the Nazis, Winston Churchill fought World War II to preserve the British Empire, Joseph Stalin to expand Communist domination in Eastern Europe, and the United States to open the markets and create the allies that made America a capitalist hegemon. Controversy over such issues convulsed the UAW during the war. In 1940, when Walter Reuther was advocating that his union take an active part in ramping up military production, he said he favored US aid to Britain to defend “not the Chamberlains, not the paid imperialists, but the British working class who are struggling today to protect their homes, their institutions, and their rights.”

Later, when in the midst of the war, the union debated how aggressively it should fight the corporations, conservative politicians, and the Roosevelt administration; some Communists asserted, “Regardless of what reactionary legislation is passed . . . this war . . . still remains a just progressive war against Fascism.” To which Reuther’s brother, Victor Reuther, replied, “This is a war against . . . all brands of fascists, foreign and domestic.” That is certainly the spirit evoked by the contemporary UAW T-shirt slogan, “The working class is the arsenal of democracy.”

But what about those B-24 bombers? Were they truly “liberators,” the moniker given them during the war? Willow Run built more than eight thousand of them, with other factories churning out thousands more. By 1944, they were the dominant four-engine bomber in the European theater, flying higher, longer, and with more payload than the famed B-17 “flying fortress.”

Tragically, and perhaps criminally, they were dropping bombs largely on working-class housing. The United States even built a mock German set of tenements in the Utah desert to determine what combination of TNT and firebombs would do the most damage. Strategic bombing in World War II, bombing munition factories, railyards, and other war production facilities, was very inaccurate and largely a failure until very late in the war. The British bombed at night and made little pretense that they were doing anything other than “de-housing” war workers.

The US Air Force claimed daylight bombing runs were more likely to hit actual armament facilities, and they were. But overall, the bombs rained down on the sprawling industrial districts where workers both lived and worked. That’s not a legacy we want to memorialize.

So go ahead, buy the UAW T-shirt — the one with the stirring assertion, “The working class is the arsenal of democracy” on the back. Skip the bomber.

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