Views on Jews leave stain on Ford legacy
Given the sensibilities of modern society, there would have been no public patience for a businessman who mongered hate and fomented intolerance in the way Ford did in the 1920s.
He disliked Jewish people and made no secret of it.
More precisely, he disliked "the Jew" - an abstract and false impression of what Ford imagined to be a sinister people bent on controlling the world and making life miserable for the sort of decent folks who wanted to buy Henry Ford's Model T's and tractors.
Not only did he make no secret of his contempt, but he launched a weekly newspaper - Dearborn Independent - in 1919 to promote his paranoid views around America.
Hitler was a fan
He pressed Ford retailers to sell subscriptions to his newspaper. He published bogus documents that inflamed others to resent and ostracize "the Jew." And in the 1920s, according to historians, his anti-Semitism was admired by Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party, which were responsible for the greatest evil and genocide in history.
According to press reports, Hitler had a portrait of Henry Ford on his office wall and a copy of Ford-published hate literature, The International Jew, on his desk.
Eighty years later, the question that lingers about Ford's dark side is not whether he behaved this way. Author Neil Baldwin, in his recent book, Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate, uses Ford's own words and actions and those of his colleagues and employees to chronicle the vast range of Ford's anti-Semitism. Among the acts Baldwin lays at Ford's feet is the dissemination in English of the notorious The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a fake story of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world that is still bumping around on the Internet.
Eighty years later, the lingering question probably isn't even why Ford behaved the way he did. Baldwin's book traces Ford's sour psychology to his spotty education, his contempt for complex facts, his disdain for history and his restless urge to solve the world's problems. There also were Ford's own frustrations as a businessman facing world economic stagnation, labor unrest, the growing complexities of corporate finance and the rise of Socialism after World War I.
Then there was the influx of Eastern European immigrants to America, and even the mutating nature of the American identity of the day - from the stereotype of rugged pioneer farmers to the stereotype of helpless city dwellers crowded into tenements and reliant on the type of factory jobs that Henry Ford was offering by the thousands.
The question that may be the most difficult to answer is what should the modern world make of Henry Ford's strange hang-up?
Granted, the old industrialist was misinformed. Granted, he bears some responsibility for the mistrust he sowed, right down to the aspiring 21st century neo-Nazi who downloads The Protocols from the Internet and believes what he reads. But Ford also was a product of the rampant ignorance of his time and place. He was not the first American to stumble onto the idea of blaming Jews for the world's ills.
Detroit in the late 19th century was known for its anti-Semitic ways. By 1921, Michigan was home to an estimated 875,000 Ku Klux Klan members, according to Henry Ford and the Jews. That number equaled almost one-fourth of the state's population, making it the largest KKK membership in the nation. In the 1920s and 1930s, a Detroit-area priest - the Rev. Charles Coughlin, pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak - preached hatred over the radio and at appearances nationwide. Also during that period, the American Nazi support organization, the Bund, would rise in Detroit.
It was a time of widespread hate mongering and social division. It was a time when the naive, the ignorant and the frustrated were manipulated by rabble-rousers and misguided fools on both sides of the Atlantic.
Among them - in one group or the other - stood one of the greatest industrial minds of American history, Henry Ford. The contradiction was enormous.
"Ford had almost a bipolar trait," says Baldwin, discussing his book. "To a certain degree he was a victim of these currents of thought. But I don't feel pity for him. Henry Ford is responsible for the promulgation of a very dangerous document, the Elders of Zion, in English."
At the same time, Baldwin notes that Ford's distasteful views illustrate the complex nature of the man. The same man who gave his workers some of the highest wages in the world also violently hated unions. The same man who encouraged local authorities to open the gates on immigration then decried the presence of immigrants and insisted his own immigrant workers abandon foreign customs.
As an illustration of Ford's contradictory manners, Baldwin relates the story of Ford's relationship with his next-door neighbor, the prominent Detroit rabbi Leo Franklin. Franklin and Ford considered themselves friends. Ford made an annual gift to the rabbi of a custom-made Model T.
In 1918, Henry Ford ran for one of Michigan's U.S. Senate seats. He was narrowly defeated.
"I don't think his bigoted, dangerous, pernicious behavior should obliterate what else he did for the world," Baldwin says. Nor, he adds, should Ford's own behavior be confused with modern-day Ford Motor Co., a company that takes pride in issues of social justice.
Back to business
As the 1920s wore on, Ford the company mercifully overtook Ford the man. Ford the company required additional management support, opening the door to Henry's son, Edsel - who had no taste for his father's social agenda.
The 1927 introduction of the Model A also required Ford the company to make an enormous investment to renovate its factories. It would be an expensive replacement of a stodgy product that had lingered for 18 years. Marketing managers now fretted over the negative publicity of Ford the man and his tirade against "the Jew." That tirade had provoked a libel suit against Ford by Jewish agricultural reformer Aaron Sapiro, whom the Independent suggested was trying to take control of the world cotton market.
Under the heat of the lawsuit and the Model A launch, Ford closed the Independent in 1927. And to settle the Sapiro suit, in an about-face that surprised even those close to him, he issued a public apology for the literature he had published.
"I am fully aware of the virtues of the Jewish people as a whole," Ford wrote (or at least approved and signed), "of what they and their ancestors have done for civilization and for mankind."
The apology was distributed to news organizations worldwide.
"Those who know me," Ford went on, "can bear witness that it is not in my nature to inflict insult upon and to occasion pain to anybody, and that it has been my effort to free myself from prejudice. … I frankly confess that I have been greatly shocked as a result of my study and examination of the files of The Dearborn Independent and of the pamphlets entitled The International Jew. 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."
But 80 years later, the impact of Ford's actions still are felt. Even today, Internet book merchant amazon.com is offering the four-volume set of The International Jew, with its author listed as Henry Ford Sr. Ford's misinformation and anti-Semitic suspicions live on.
"This book is really wonderful," gushes one of the Web site's reviewers, a person identified only as Greg from Montreal. "It helps to understand who is ruling our modern world, who is acting behind the scenes and the real intentions of (people of the Jewish faith). Moreover, the book was not written by a fanatic or an anti-semit (sic), but by the great Henry Ford. I recommend the book to everybody. After reading it, you'll feel more intelligent and more aware of what is really going on."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.