Although Henry Ford is known best for his founding of the Ford Motor Company, “welfare capitalism”, and the development of the Model T, a car affordable for the average American, he has a darker legacy…that is his political legacy.
Ford’s views on wider issues and his general lack of sophistication can be traced to his origins….he grew up on a farm and had limited formal education, attending a one-room school for a period of eight years when he wasn’t helping his family on the farm. Ford’s tremendous mechanical aptitude ultimately catapulted him into success, but he was an opinionated and stubborn man and this expanded into fields considerably outside of his knowledge and thanks to his wealth he was able to spread these views far and wide. His influence on politics begins in the 1910s.
Ford and the Peace Voyage
Henry Ford was a pacifist and he believed, tremendously naively, that he could end the war by sailing to Europe on a ship with a big white cross to try and reason with the belligerents. The voyage began on December 4, 1915 to divided reaction from the crowd witnessing the sendoff. Reactions included “the poor simp”, “the savior of peace”, and “a second Messiah” (Grossman, 2015). Accompanying him were 63 pacifists, 54 reporters, and four “Chicago babies”, three of whom were great-grandchildren of a co-founder of the Chicago Tribune. The voyage proved ill-fated, as the passengers started quarreling with one another when news reached them that President Wilson was increasing the size of the military, and pro and anti-Wilson factions developed as the anti-Wilson faction had drafted a resolution condemning the president and were demanding that others on the ship sign it. Ford was hoping for an endorsement of his peace voyage from President Wilson yet, according to reporter Carolyn Wilson, “In the first place, he couldn’t understand why anyone would refuse to sign the resolution…In the second place, he couldn’t understand the discussions” (Grossman, 2015). Ultimately, the ship arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark, but Ford, claiming illness, declined to go to Stockholm with the other pacifists and sailed home.
Ford and the First Libel Suit
In 1916, the Chicago Tribune released an incendiary article on Henry Ford that claimed he was “an anarchist”, “an ignorant idealist”, and “incapable of thought” for protesting military mobilization on the Mexican border (Admin). As previously noted, Ford was a pacifist and as part of this he opposed America’s involvement in World War I, a conflict he believed had origins in a conspiracy. He sued the Chicago Tribune for libel and the case dragged on until 1919, when he was called to the stand to testify. The questioning proved humiliating for Ford as it exposed his sheer ignorance of American history and government: he thought that the American Revolution occurred in 1812, that Benedict Arnold was a writer, and claimed that he had voted only once in his life: for James A. Garfield, even though Ford wasn’t old enough to vote in 1880. He also appeared to have trouble reading a document put before him and while he blamed his glasses, this gave people the impression that he was semi-literate if not illiterate. Ford was lampooned in the press for his testimony and a cartoon appeared with him wearing a dunce cap. Despite this, he won the libel suit but it was a Pyrrhic victory: he was awarded six cents (the equivalent of 83 cents today).
The perception of Henry Ford’s scope of knowledge isn’t helped by the fact that the quote “History is bunk” is often attributed to him, but the full quote is, “History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today. That’s the trouble with the world. We’re living in books and history and tradition. We want to get away from that and take care of today. We’ve done too much looking back. What we want to do and do it quick is to make just history right now” (Strohl). Although educated Americans had a laugh at Ford’s expense, working class Americans identified with him further as he wasn’t like other rich people they thought of.
Ford Runs for Senate and Destroys His Opponent’s Political Career
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson, knowing Ford’s pacifistic beliefs, urged him to run for the Senate. Wilson figured having the master automaker in his corner would greatly aid his bid for the League of Nations. However, there were a few problems. First, Ford only accepted on the grounds that he would not campaign personally. Second, his grasp of politics and the office he would hold was limited. Evidence for this included Ford’s testimony in the libel case as well as his pledge to as senator “serve the people of the United States, and the people of the world”, which demonstrated a misunderstanding of what his role would be as a senator (Felten). Third, another wealthy Michigander, Truman Newberry, also wanted the seat. Ford attempted to secure both the Democratic and Republican nomination, only succeeding in the former. Ford was bitter over his Republican primary defeat and after a close race in which Newberry was elected, he brought a legal case against him for spending too much money in the Republican primary. Ford also claimed that Jews were behind Newberry’s election. There was a cap on spending in the Corrupt Practices Act that applied to elections and primaries. He went before a judge and jury sympathetic to Ford and was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Newberry appealed his case to the Supreme Court, which struck down the conviction, holding 5-4 that the Corrupt Practices Act applied to state primaries was unconstitutional.
Newberry had his defenders, including the Republican statesman Charles Evans Hughes, who had represented him in the Supreme Court, and stated “as gross a miscarriage of justice as had ever come under my observation” (Felten). On January 12, 1922, the Senate voted to affirm that Newberry had been legally elected, but Ford would end up getting his way. The 1922 elections increased the number of Democrats and progressive Republicans in the Senate, who were opposed to Newberry and wanted to kick him out. Newberry shortly thereafter resigned, not wanting to continue fighting to keep his seat. In Newberry’s place, Michigan’s governor Alex Groesbeck appointed James J. Couzens, who was subsequently elected. He had been vice president and general manager of Ford.
Henry Ford and Jews
Henry Ford had a unique animus towards Jews that became clear in the 1910s. In 1915, he made it clear that he blamed a group of German-Jewish bankers for the start of World War I. Strangely enough, Ford had been influenced in his pacifism by Rosika Schwimmer, who was of Jewish descent.
In 1918, he purchased the newspaper The Dearborn Independent, but only two years later it badly needed to raise subscriptions, and Ford and his secretary Ernest G. Liebold came up with the idea of writing articles about Jewish conspiracies. Liebold conducted much of the research, but the writer for most of it was William J. Cameron, who wrote based on the opinions and ideas espoused by Ford. The most notable and attention-grabbing of these articles were formed into a four-volume series titled The International Jew. Henry Ford fully believed that the push for peace and spreading awareness of Jewish plots went hand in hand. He argued in The International Jew that “The Jew is a race that has no civilization to point to no aspiring religion… no great achievements in any realm… We meet the Jew everywhere where there is no power. And that is where the Jew so habitually… gravitate to the highest places? Who puts him there? What does he do there? In any country, where the Jewish question has come to the forefront as a vital issue, you will discover that the principal cause is the outworking of the Jewish genius to achieve the power of control. Here in the United States is the fact of this remarkable minority attaining in fifty years a degree of control that would be impossible to a ten times larger group of any other race… The finances of the world are in the control of Jews; their decisions and devices are themselves our economic laws” (Simkin). The series attributed the Russian Revolution, control of the press, control of motion pictures, the corruption of baseball, Jazz, Tammany Hall’s corruption, the Federal Reserve, bootlegging, and influencing Benedict Arnold’s treason among other things to Jews. Consistent with Ford’s pacifistic views, articles in The Dearborn Independent did condemn incidents of violence against Jews but also claimed that Jews had provoked them.
In 1922, the four-volume series was translated into German, which inspired and influenced numerous Nazis, including Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Hitler Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach, the latter who attributed his antisemitism to the work. He stated, “We saw in Henry Ford the representative of success, also the exponent of a progressive social policy. In the poverty-stricken and wretched Germany of the time, youth looked toward America, and apart from the great benefactor, Herbert Hoover, it was Henry Ford who to us represented America” (Simkin, 2020). Hitler himself gave Ford two positive mentions in Mein Kampf.
The Second Libel Suit
In his first libel suit, Henry Ford was the plaintiff, but this time he was the defendant. Attorney Aaron Sapiro sued Ford for libel for making false accusations about him and his collective farming movement in California in The Dearborn Independent. William J. Cameron, the writer, claimed in court that Henry Ford had no input in the editorials, but according to academic Michael Barkun, “That Cameron would have continued to publish such controversial material without Ford’s explicit instructions seemed unthinkable to those who knew both men. Mrs. Stanley Ruddiman, a Ford family intimate, remarked that ‘I don’t think Mr. Cameron ever wrote anything for publication without Mr. Ford’s approval” (Barkun, 35). The lawsuit ultimately shut down The Dearborn Independent and resulted in a settlement that included a public apology and renunciation of anti-Semitic writings from Henry Ford. The result was important: Henry Ford, the nation’s leading anti-Semite, had been held accountable and forced to publicly apologize.
Ford and Nazi Germany
In 1938, Henry Ford accepted the award of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from German diplomats for his 75th birthday in Dearborn, Michigan. Allegations of Ford himself or headquarters being responsible for the use of slave labor in German Ford plants are false, as according to Professor Simon Reich, “By the time that slave labor was introduced, Fordwerke was clearly under the direct control of the Nazi government, though administered through the company headquarters in Cologne (albeit by Robert Schmidt)” (Jewish Virtual Library). The Cologne plant was still technically under American ownership but the Nazis pulled the strings, and Schmidt was an appointee of the Nazis.
Ford’s two central beliefs revolved around Jews and pacifism so naturally he regarded the former as the opposite of the latter. It is an irony most bitter and terrible that Ford believed that, in his view, that by exposing Jewish conspiracies he would make the world a more peaceful place. He stated to the New York World in 1919 that “International financiers are behind all war. They are what is called the international Jew: German-Jews, French-Jews, English-Jews, American-Jews… a Jew is a threat” (Simkin, 2020). In truth, his pushing of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories was an indirect cause of one of the world’s most horrible wars as The International Jew was among the foremost works that influenced the Nazis. When I started writing about Ford, I didn’t quite realize the scope of how much damage he did with his influence. This work, or more accurately, piece of work, continues to influence anti-Semites around the world today.
The next post will be of an opposite figure in terms of education, shared Henry Ford’s goal of peace, and struggled with a different sort of prejudice: J. William Fulbright.
Admin, M. (2014, August 8). How to Prove Henry Ford is Dumb (In Court). Knowledge Nuts.
Barkun, R. (1996). Religion and the racist right: the origins of the Christian identity movement. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press.
Felten, E. (2018, November 27). History Lesson: Henry Ford Was the World’s Biggest Sore Loser. Washington Examiner. UNC Press.
Grossman, R. (2015, December 11). Henry Ford, the Peace Ship, and four Chicago babies. Chicago Tribune.
Reich, S. The Nazi Party: Ford Motor Company & the Third Reich. Jewish Virtual Library.
Simkin, J. Mein Kampf: Nazi Germany. Spartacus Educational.
Simkin, J. (January 2020). Dearborn Independent. Spartacus Educational.
Strohl, D. (2018, January 14). Fact Check: What Henry Ford meant when he said “History is bunk”. Hemmings.