Power, Ignorance, and Anti-Semitism: Henry Ford and His …

Posted By on July 9, 2015

Power, Ignorance, and Anti-Semitism: Henry Ford and His War on Jews by Jonathan R. Logsdon

This paper traces the anti-Semitic activities of automobile manufacturer Henry Ford. Ford first voiced his anti-Semitic leanings in 1915, around the time of his "Peace Ship" episode. Eventually, his belief that the "International Jew" was the source of the world's problems led him to conduct a campaign against them in the pages of his newspaper; The Dearborn Independent. The articles in Ford's newspaper blamed the Jews for everything from the Bolshevik Revolution and the First World War to bootlegged liquor and cheap movies. They also accused the Jews of conspiring to enslave Christianity and destroy the "Anglo-Saxon" way of life. The articles were later gathered into book form and published under the title: The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. This book was translated into 16 languages, and was to have a profound influence upon the growing Nazi movement in Germany. Eventually, Ford publicly apologized for the articles in light of a legal suit. However; he continued to express his anti-Semitic beliefs in his private circles. In the 1930's, he hired many fascist sympathizers, accepted an award from Hitler; and engaged in business ventures in Nazi Germany. In the 1940's, the Ford Motor Company was transformed into a more tolerant organization through the efforts of Ford's son and grandson. However; Ford himself never abandoned his deep-rooted anti-Semitism. His anti-Semitic literature can still be found in great abundance, more than fifty years after his death. While Ford is considered to be a great man by many Americans, he spawned an ugly legacy of hatred and bigotry that still has ramifications today.

Anti-Semitism has been described as being a disease of the soul. It is a prejudice that has gained particular notoriety in the 20th Century-- the century of Treblinka and Auschwitz. However; this phenomenon of hate has not just been confined to the continent of Europe. In 1920, a small newspaper in Dearborn, Michigan began publishing a series of articles entitled: "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem." The newspaper was owned by the famous automobile manufacturer; Henry Ford. Through a combination of influence, power; and ignorance, he was able to unleash the largest and most damaging campaign against Jews ever waged in the United States.

By 1915, the Great War had been going on for well over a year. Henry Ford's attitude towards the conflict was well known to the public. He had told the Detroit Free Press that he would give all of his money to stop it and that the building of armaments by the U.S. was "wasteful and war breeding."1 At the time, the 52 year old Ford was one of the richest and most popular men in America. More than half of the automobiles in the nation came from the Ford Motor Company. Many Americans saw him as a champion of the working class; the previous year; he had made national headlines by raising the minimum wage for his workers to $5 a day. It came as no surprise when a steady stream of pacifists soon began courting Ford, hoping to utilize his finances and his prestige. One such hopeful was a Jewish Hungarian named Rosika Schwimmer; who called upon Ford in November of 1915. Mine. Schwimmer proposed to Ford her plan to stop the war by sending a delegation of pacifists to Europe on a chartered "Peace Ship." Ford was enchanted with the idea, and organized a group to book passage on a Scandinavian-American vessel, the Oscar II. Before he set sail, Ford granted an interview in which he proudly boasted, "We're going to stop the war... We're going to get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas."2 At the same time, however; Ford admitted that that he did not exactly know where the ship was going. Nor did Ford reveal any specific plans of the operation. The ship eventually docked in Oslo, Norway on December 18, 1915. No one greeted the ship in the freezing temperatures of --12 E Ford gave his first, and only, press conference of the "campaign" four days later. It was a confusing speech in which Ford mainly talked about a new tractor he had on the market. He expressed his belief that it would be wiser for the munitions factories of Europe to produce tractors instead of weapons. One newsman sarcastically noted that Ford "must be a very great man indeed who permits himself to utter such foolishness."3 Ford then booked passage on the first steamer returning to New York and returned the next morning, weakened by a nasty cold. The ill-conceived Peace Ship venture, which accomplished nothing, soon ended in disaster and embarrassment.

One of those who came to Ford's defense in the aftermath was Philadelphia rabbi, Joseph Krawkopf, who declared that it was better "a thousand times Lto] be branded a fool in the service of humanity than be hailed a hero for having shed rivers of blood."4 Ironically, Ford had made a strange statement to Mine. Schwimmer before their Peace Ship departure-- a statement that she found "cheap and vulgar." "I know who caused the war-- the German-Jewish bankers. I have the evidence here," Ford declared, slapping his pocket. "Facts. I can't give them out yet because I haven't got them all. But I'll have them soon."5

Ford found himself in the press spotlight again in 1919, when a $1 million libel suit he had filed against the Chicago Tribune went to court. A June 23, 1916 editorial, entitled "Ford is an Anarchist," had characterized Ford as an "ignorant idealist," an "anarchist enemy of the nation," and as being "so incapable of thought that he cannot see the ignominy of his own performance."6 In Ford's defense, the article was based on a false report that Ford would not guarantee the jobs of workers who were called away for military operations. However; this did not prevent Ford from enduring one of the most embarrassing episodes of his career. When Ford took the stand, Tribune lawyer Elliott Stevenson took issue with his influence on the public. "You call yourself an educator;" he noted to Ford. "Now I shall inquire whether you were a well informed man, competent to educate people."7 Stevenson then launched into a series of questions which Ford's lawyer; Alfred Lucking, had been dreading: "Have there ever been any revolutions in this country?" "There was, I understand." "When?" 'In 1812." "Did you ever hear of Benedict Arnold?" "I have heard the name." "Who was he?" "I have forgotten just who he is. He is a writer; I think."8

Eventually, Ford was forced to admit to Stevenson that he was "ignorant about most things."9 After enduring the cross-examination for a grueling six days, Ford left the witness stand, vowing, "Never again." The jury eventually ruled in favor of Ford, but awarded him, as damages, the insulting sum of $.06. The press had a field day over the trial's outcome. One paper described Ford as "a man with a vision distorted and limited by his lack of information," while The Nation commented that "the unveiling of Mr. Ford has much of the pitiful about it, if not the tragic."10 Most brutal of all had been Stevenson's closing remarks to the jury, in which he declared that he had never been so shocked as he was in this case "when Henry Ford disclosed the pitiable condition of his mind."11

Ford, however; was not in court to hear Stevenson's comments. He had departed on a camping trip with his good friends Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs, their third such outing together. During this particular trip, Burroughs noted in his diary that: "Mr. Ford attributes all evil to the Jews or Jewish capitalists-- the Jews caused the war; the Jews caused the outbreak of thieving and robbing all over the country, the Jews caused the inefficiency of the navy which Edison talked about last night.12

By now, it was not just close acquaintances to whom Ford was expressing such anti-Semitic beliefs. An executive at the Ford Company was up late one night and decided to tide himself over with a candy bar. Ford walked up to the man, started some small talk, and took a bite of the man's snack. A look of dissatisfaction came over his face. "This stuff isn't as good as it used to be, is it?" The executive replied that he had not noticed any change. "The Jews have taken hold of it," Ford replied. "They're cheapening it to make more money out of it." Since it happened to be the fourth anniversary of the ill-fated Peace Ship expedition, the subject came up in their ensuing conversation. "What did you get out of that trip, Mr. Ford?" the executive enquired. "I know who makes the wars," Ford responded. "The international Jewish bankers arrange them so they can make money out of them." He then cryptically added, "I know it's true because a Jew on the Peace Ship told me.. .That man knew what he was talking about-- gave me the whole story. We're going to tell the whole story one of these days and show them up!"13

By this time, Ford had been in possession of The Dearborn Independent for several months. A typical small country newspaper of the time, it was Ford's intention to use it as his public mouthpiece. He had "practical" ideas that he wanted to give to the public "without having them garbled, distorted, or misrepresented. " 14 In order to promote its absolute purity against outside influences, Ford refused to accept advertising among its pages. He hired as Editor-in-Chief E.G. Pipp, who had served for 12 years as manager and editor of the Detroit News. Pipp shared Ford's outspoken liberalism and was quite pleased with the chance to work with him.

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