“Henry Ford: an iconic self-made man, a self-taught mechanical genius, a man of vision, a fearless innovator. And a virulent anti-Semite.” The man whose use of the assembly line made the car affordable for the average American, endorsed equal pay for equal work for women, and promoted many blacks to middle-management positions, also held some disturbing views. Luc Carrier examines his mixed legacy.
The early years of Henry Ford, born in 1863, were informed by the tradition of Bible-thumpin’ middle-American Protestantism. Becoming an intense devotee of the American Dream, Ford believed that any man who used his God-given brain and worked hard from dawn to dusk would reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Ford achieved this, and more. By refining the assembly line system and adapting it to the mass production of a car, he enabled the average American family to afford an automobile that would outsell its rivals for decades, the legendary Model-T.
Henry Ford: an iconic self-made man, a self-taught mechanical genius, a man of vision, a fearless innovator.
And a virulent anti-Semite.
Henry Ford: an iconic self-made man, a self-taught mechanical genius, a man of vision, a fearless innovator. And a virulent anti-Semite.
What was the source of Ford’s hatred of the Jews? Some biographers point to toxic anti-Semitic pamphlets he read in his formative years, and these further bolstered by a pervasive current of xenophobia. J. Milton Yinger’s Antisemitism: A Case Study in Prejudice and Discrimination (Freedom Books, New York, 1964) provides a concise portrait of 20th century America’s early decades: “Christian identity was under siege in this rapidly changing modern Promised Land. The Jew was conveniently at hand, enabling the character of early-modern racism in America to be formed on the notion that people who were ‘different’ could be actual instruments of change and therefore could be held accountable for otherwise inexplicable trends in the culture of modernity. Once that blame was affixed, anti-Semites had latched upon a real reason to criticize, contain, or even control the Jews.”
Ford’s hatred of the Jews came to a boil on the eve of the Great War. He did not hesitate to tell friends, acquaintances, and business associates that he knew who fomented hostilities: Jewish bankers. He raised the racist shibboleth of evil, greedy hook-nosed Jewish bankers, lurking in the shadows and rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of the profits the war would bring. Ford proffered this accusation without providing a shred of evidence. In a 1919 interview in the New York World, he offered this opinion, unencumbered by facts: “International financiers are behind all war. They are what is called the international Jew: German Jews, French Jews, English Jews, American Jews. I believe that in all those countries except our own the Jewish financier is supreme … here the Jew is a threat.”
Henry Ford also took on the mantle of a pacifist. He chartered a ship in 1915—it came to be known as the “Peace Ship”—and filled it with a heteroclite group of people. He resolved to sail the vessel to Europe in order to persuade the belligerent nations to put down their arms and negotiate a lasting peace. The men and women on this exploit were referred to as Peace Ambassadors, and included university students, a university dean, professors, clergymen and an assorted variety of other peaceniks. Their mission may have been peace, but no sooner had the ship slipped its moorings from the Hoboken, New Jersey, dock than the participants began to argue. This ironic internecine war among peacemakers was fought for control of the agenda and lasted for the duration of the ill-fated journey. Meanwhile, struck down with a severe case of influenza, Ford seldom ventured from his cabin until he jumped ship at the first port of call, abandoning his disciples to their incessant squabbling.
A journalist aboard the Peace Ship re-dubbed it the “ship of fools,” and Henry Ford soon became an object of ridicule in the domestic and international press. Ford’s public image took a serious blow. His irrepressible ego was further cut to size by two political escapades that ended in defeat. He loved making the headlines but neither the Peace Ship nor his ill-fated electoral adventures resulted in positive coverage. It was obvious that the shine had worn off Henry Ford’s personal trademark. So, he confided to an associate, why chase after good press when he could buy his own newspaper? It would serve as the ideal soapbox from which he could warn average American that their lifestyle was at risk of erosion from nefarious foreign influence. In 1918, Ford purchased a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent (Dearborn was and remains the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company).
He was ostensibly referring to Jews, but he seldom mentioned them by name…until May 22, 1920, when the current issue carried a long piece entitled The International Jew: The World’s Problem, carrying Henry Ford’s byline.
The re-energized Dearborn Independent continued to cover all the local issues relevant to a provincial newspaper, but with Ford’s greatly augmented budget it expanded coverage to the whole country and beyond, with correspondents all over America and Europe. Ford imposed a quota of newspaper sales for every automobile dealership in the US, thus boosting the circulation to astronomical numbers. At one point, every Ford vehicle came with a free one-year subscription to the Dearborn Independent, like it or not. Ford invoked the owner’s privilege to reserve a full page in each edition to disseminate his ideas. Initially called Mr. Ford’s Own Page, it soon morphed into simply My Own Page. He used this forum to warn fellow Americans about “dark forces” poised to destroy their way of life. He was ostensibly referring to Jews, but he seldom mentioned them by name…until May 22, 1920, when the current issue carried a long piece entitled The International Jew: The World’s Problem, carrying Henry Ford’s byline.
The anti-Semitic tirade masquerading as an editorial carried such venomous nuggets of hatred as: “The Jew is the world’s enigma. Poor in his masses, he yet controls the world’s finances. Scattered abroad without country or government, he yet presents a unity of race continuity which no other people have achieved. Living under legal disabilities in almost every land, he has become the power behind many a throne. There are ancient prophecies to the effect that the Jew will return to his own land and from that center rule the world, though not until he has undergone an assault by the united nations of mankind.”
Consider this second excerpt that clearly reveals Ford’s sympathy with the Nazi regime (from which he will profit, as we shall see): “The main source of the sickness of the German national body is charged to be the influence of the Jews, and although this was apparent to acute minds years ago, it is now said to have gone so far as to be apparent to the least observing. The eruption has broken out on the surface of the body politic, and no further concealment of this fact is possible. It is the belief of all classes of the German people that the collapse which has come since the armistice, and the revolution from which they are being prevented a recovery, are the result of Jewish intrigue and purpose. They declare it with assurance; they offer a mass of facts to confirm it; they believe that history will provide the fullest proof.”
But this editorial was just an opening volley. The next 91 issues of the paper carried anti-Semitic tirades of equal or increasing vitriol. A sampling of their titles is enough to imagine their content:
- The Historic Basis of Jewish Imperialism
- Jewish Plan to Split Society by ‘Ideas’
- Does Jewish Power Control the World Press?
- The Scope of Jewish Dictatorship in the US
Ford also had the dubious honour of being the only American mentioned in Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
All the articles conveyed the unifying theme of Jews secretly controlling every aspect of contemporary life, from politics and communications to finance and industry. Collated into a four-volume set of pamphlets, the editorials had wide readership in America. Translated to German in 1922, many prominent Nazis read them, including Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth and later Gauleiter of Vienna, Austria, where he oversaw the murder of 10,000 local Jews. He said, “I read it and became anti-Semitic. In those days, this book made such a deep impression on my friends and myself because 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.” (Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, V. 14, page 368)
Ford also had the dubious honour of being the only American mentioned in Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote, “Every year makes them [American Jews] more and more the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty million; only a single great man, Ford, to their fury still maintains full independence.” (First Edition of My Struggle (Mein Kampf), Houghton Mifflin, page 639)
Henry Ford soon turned his attention to a notorious forgery written in Russia around 1902, a spurious document that bolsters and rationalizes anti-Semitism to this day: The Protocol of the Elders of Zion. It served as a justification of widespread anti-Semitic pogroms throughout the Russian Empire. It is a hoax, a crude forgery purported to be the minutes of a fictitious Zionist congress in September 1902 during which the so-called elders plot to control the world. The New York Times reported as early as 1920 that leading Jewish organizations denounced The Protocols as a “base forgery” and as a “recrudescence of medieval bigotry and stupidity.” Ford nevertheless published the American version of The Protocols in his newspaper, and later bankrolled the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies. He gave new life to this egregious libel against the Jews that had been, up till then, a work known mostly by obscure European hate groups. After its widespread dissemination and translation into almost every language on Earth, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has become what the Washington, DC, Holocaust Museum describes as “The most widely distributed antisemitic publication of modern times.”
Will Rogers probably said it best when he quipped, “Ford used to have it in for the Jewish people until he saw them in Chevrolets, and then he said, ‘Boys, I am all wrong.’”
Henry Ford’s very public display of racism might have resonated with xenophobes and proto-white supremacists, but many Americans took offence. Jewish and non-Jewish groups and organizations began unofficial boycotts of Ford products. This took its toll, as sales began dropping away. This was especially true of big markets with large Jewish populations, like New York City. Whether it was his personal initiative or he was pressured into it by others, Ford decided to make a public apology to the Jewish community. Was this mea culpa the result of sincere regret, or simply a transparent effort to stop the hemorrhage in sales? Will Rogers probably said it best when he quipped, “Ford used to have it in for the Jewish people until he saw them in Chevrolets, and then he said, ‘Boys, I am all wrong.’”
On Friday, July 8, 1927, Louis Marshall, a distinguished lawyer and co-founder of the American Jewish Committee, made public a letter of apology from Henry Ford. The letter rambled on in sycophantic prose for more than 300 words, culminating in this statement, “I deem it to be my duty as an honorable man to make amends for the wrong done to the Jews as fellow-men and brothers, by asking their forgiveness for the harm that I have unintentionally committed, by retracting so far as lies within my power the offensive charges laid at their door by these publications, and by giving them the unqualified assurance that henceforth they may look to me for friendship and goodwill..”
It was an astonishing change of tone and manner for Henry Ford. But although his anti-Semitism was retracted from public pronouncements, there are good reasons to believe that it never left his heart. In any case, his publication The International Jew, translated into several languages, found fertile ground in Europe. The Nazis also distributed thousands of copies to help “sell” their anti-Semitic policies.
And what of Henry Ford’s pacifism? It also seemed to evaporate into thin air, as he did not hesitate to cash in on the war effort by building a variety of US military vehicles. Worse still, he appeared to have no problem with equipping both sides of the ideological divide. In 1938, five years before the USA declared war against the Axis forces, Ford A. G. of Germany began producing military vehicles for the Nazi regime. On July 8, 1938, in recognition for this assistance to the German war effort, Henry Ford was awarded the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, a distinction created by Hitler just the year before. Hitler, not known to hero worship anyone except himself, had a cultish devotion to Henry Ford. A reporter for the New York Times wrote in 1922, “The wall beside his desk in Hitler’s private office is decorated with a large picture of Henry Ford. In the antechamber there is a large table covered with books, nearly all of which are a translation of a book written by Henry Ford [The International Jew/Der internationale Jude].”
A growing body of evidence shows that Ford may have continued doing business in Nazi Germany long after the USA had entered the war. Consider that “…up until Pearl Harbor, Dearborn made huge revenues by producing war matériel for the Reich and that the man it selected to run its German subsidiary was an enthusiastic backer of Hitler. German Ford served as an ‘arsenal of Nazism’ with the consent of headquarters in Dearborn,” says a US Army report prepared in 1945.
Moreover, Ford’s cooperation with the Nazis continued until at least August 1942 – eight months after the United States entered the war – through its properties in Vichy France. Indeed, a secret wartime report prepared by the US Treasury Department concluded that the Ford family sought to further its business interests by encouraging Ford of France executives to work with German officials overseeing the occupation. “There would seem to be at least a tacit acceptance by [Henry Ford’s son] Mr. Edsel Ford of the reliance…on the known neutrality of the Ford family as a basis of receipt of favors from the German Reich…” (The Nation, Ford and the Führer, by Ken Silverstein, January 6, 2000)
Striking an even more ghoulish note, a search of Auschwitz archives reveals that “…the Ford Motor Company was one of 500 firms which had links with Auschwitz, Polish officials said yesterday, delivering a setback to Ford’s attempts to extricate itself from allegations that it profited from wartime slave labour.
“Although it was unclear how deep or extensive Ford’s contacts with the camp administration were, the documents are likely to provide ammunition for former slave labourers who are suing the company in a US court over claims that they were forced to work in the Cologne plant run by Ford’s German subsidiary.”
Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947, leaving a complex legacy of genius, vision, and relentless anti-Semitism. He belied the image of the cliché Jew-hater, personified by Adolph Hitler’s histrionic fist-shaking and foaming at the mouth. Henry Ford was a mild-mannered man, quiet and always courteous. He championed women’s rights, advocating equal pay for equal work as far back the ’20s; he gave assembly line jobs to black Americans and promoted many to middle-management positions, and this at a time when such colour-blindness was unheard of in a deeply segregated America. But on the dark side of his mind, Ford hated Jews, and the words he committed to his personal Paper Pogrom remain an incitement to anti-Semitism to this day. ♦