In the grim history of warfare, World War I stands out for its use of modern weaponry and technology to elevate the level of death and suffering.
To his credit, Henry Ford recoiled at the senseless slaughter. But his attempt to stop it quickly turned to farce.
At the time, Ford was one of the most famous Americans, already celebrated for initiating the $5 day for his workers in 1914. In late 1915, based on a short acquaintance with a small circle of pacifists, Ford bankrolled a movement to bring a negotiated end to World War I, which began in Europe in August 1914.
Late 1915 was more than a year before the United States entered the war; nearly two years before U.S. troops entered combat; and three years before the war ended. So Ford's effort could have saved millions of lives if it had succeeded. But the haphazard, spur-of-the-moment attempt was destined to be a high-profile failure.
Ford's effort was a laughingstock and cemented his reputation for taking up odd causes.
A grand gesture
In typical Ford fashion, the auto pioneer made a grand gesture to call attention to his cause of the moment. In November 1915 he chartered the cruise ship Oscar II, which became known as the Peace Ship. Ford's vaguely defined plan was to carry a delegation of pacifists and American celebrities to European capitals to initiate a peace conference.
Ford told reporters that the goal was "to get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas," even though it already was late November. When reporters asked him how he would do it, Ford confessed, "I don't know," according to Ford: The Men and the Machine by Robert Lacey.
When reporters asked Ford what countries he would visit, he gave the same answer: "I don't know."
Meanwhile, nearly all the celebrities Ford invited had turned him down - among them inventor Thomas Edison; perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; Treasury Secretary William McAdoo; Helen Keller; and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. He even invited President Woodrow Wilson, only 12 days before the Peace Ship sailed on
Dec. 5, 1915. Even his wife, Clara, refused to go, and she tried to talk her husband out of the journey.
Peace delegates fight
Not only did Wilson decline Ford's invitation, but he fatally undercut the Peace Ship mission five days into the trip by issuing a call for war preparedness. That made it seem un-American to be against the war, and Wilson's call split the peace delegates aboard the Oscar II right down the middle.
This peace flag was used by Henry Ford during his Peace Ship expedition in 1915. PHOTO: From the Collections of The Henry Ford
The delegates fought among themselves most of the way across the Atlantic. By the time the ship docked in Norway on Dec. 18, 1915, Ford was confined to his cabin, pleading a bad cold. Ford said his doctors told him to return home, and he did, immediately - on another ship, along with Marquis and Ray Dahlinger, a chauffeur-bodyguard from Ford Motor Co.
Ford continued to pay the bills for the peace effort - nearly half a million dollars, according to author Lacey. The effort produced some fruitless meetings among quasi-official representatives from various European governments. The main combatants, France, England and Germany, refused to participate.
The effort limped along, right up until America's entry into the war. But Ford was never again as closely associated with the peace movement.
Ford's effort did nothing to stop the carnage - an estimated 30 million people dead and wounded, although the precise figures were never determined.
Lacey wrote: "His (Ford's) peace crusade was doomed from the start as a viable initiative - though, as a media event, of course, it made wonderful news, since failure often makes a better story than success."