What happens when global automotive commerce gets you on the wrong side of your home government? No, we're not talking about DaimlerChrysler. We're talking about General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and World War II.
The two companies are accused by plaintiffs' lawyers and The Washington Post of allowing their German operations to help the Germans in the war.
The Post, citing newly released documents, reports that 'American managers of both GM and Ford went along with the conversion of their German plants to military production at a time when ... they were still resisting calls by the Roosevelt administration to step up military production ... at home.'
And a Russian-born woman, forced to work at Ford's Cologne, Germany, plant from 1942 till war's end, is suing Ford.
GM and Ford generally are denying immorality. In any event, the record is clear that they lost control of their plants before America was at war with Germany.
A few comments:
Sixty years later, it is easy to second-guess a company that was trying to protect its investment.
Yes, business is business. (The Washington Post quotes a 1939 letter from GM's legendary Alfred P. Sloan as saying the internal politics of Nazi Germany 'should not be considered the business of the management of General Motors.') But companies ultimately must take responsibility for their actions. Example: GM, Ford, Volkswagen and others are racing to invest in China (where the regime killed hundreds of people at Tiananmen Square). They will be judged by history. If China becomes a liberal, democratic society, they will be judged sympathetically. If China grows more oppressive and warring, they will be judged harshly.
GM and Ford must confront their past openly; it is mostly honorable, but certainly mixed. Lawsuits do complicate openness. It's one thing to confess sins; it's another to stipulate to every argument from a plaintiff's lawyer. Still, GM and Ford must be actively open. History is more valuable than a lost lawsuit.
Finally, history is slippery. In its long story on the GM and Ford of 60 years ago, The Washington Post repeatedly misspells the name of Ford spokesman John Spelich. If you cannot accurately record the name of today's 38-year-old Ford employee, you ought to suspect your ability to draw moral conclusions about decisions made by his grandparents' generation.