Returning and Redemption
HENRY FORD AND THE JEWS
The Mass Production of Hate
By Neil Baldwin
PublicAffairs — 416pp — $27.50
On the occasion of his 75th birthday, in 1938, Henry Ford received a medal, the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, from Adolf Hitler. Such was Hitler’s regard for the carmaker that at one time he kept a portrait of Ford in his office and expressed his admiration in the second volume of Mein Kampf. Some of this sentiment had to do with Ford’s automotive achievements, which the Fuhrer mimicked with a grand plan for German motorways filled with “people’s cars–inspired by the American model.” But autos aside, the two men also shared an idée fixe- that Jews were responsible for the evils of the world.
For much of the 20th century, Henry Ford was America’s most notorious anti-Semite–something that’s largely forgotten today. Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation and author of Edison- Inventing the Century, redresses that with Henry Ford and the Jews- The Mass Production of Hate. It is a provocative, carefully wrought history that is far from the diatribe suggested by its subtitle. Baldwin’s publisher had proposed a full biography of Ford, who was an Edison protégé. But Baldwin could not set aside his distaste for Ford. Then came a major media event- the 1997 television broadcast of the Holocaust film Schindler’s List, sponsored solely by Ford Motor Co. (F ) The irony of this sponsorship inspired Baldwin to write a book tightly focused on what he calls “an inadequately told story in American history.”
Ford wasn’t alone in being biased, of course. Baldwin shows that anti-Jewish attitudes were common in Ford’s “tightly circumscribed world of post-bellum midwestern America.”
But Ford took anti-Semitism a step further than most of his contemporaries by personally stoking a powerful propaganda campaign. His chief instrument was The Dearborn Independent, an obscure Michigan weekly that Ford built into a national presence beginning in 1919. The publication carried news of the world, photo displays, and a variety of features. But even though Ford car dealers were required to meet a quota for subscription sales, the paper was $284,000 in the red by 1920 and circulation was languishing. Ford and his right-hand man, Ernest Liebold, resolved upon an “educational” campaign to build interest. Thus began a series of 91 successive articles slugged “The International Jew- The World’s Problem.”
The portrait that emerged there, says the author, “fit squarely into a thousand-year-old continuum of Jew hatred.” It depicted a group of perpetual aliens, united by race and busy employing their financial sophistication to further a program of world domination. The series was collected and published as a book around the world, with notable success in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s. The Dearborn Independent also reprinted The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a document purporting to be a blueprint for Jewish world domination that was actually created in the 1890s by the Russian secret police.
Ford’s campaign had an unintended consequence. It galvanized an anti-Ford movement among Jewish leaders–including Louis Marshall, a lawyer and president of the American Jewish Committee–who were already beginning to organize around such matters as war relief. Baldwin paints an engaging portrait of these men and their counterattack, which in time drew support from prominent Christian executives, scholars, and three U.S. Presidents.
By the mid-1920s, Ford confronted two related crises- His unchanging, no-frills, black-bodied Model T was losing sales to the innovative line of autos produced by a nimble, decentralized General Motors Corp. And Ford’s anti-Semitic campaign had left him isolated and under fire. Most important, he was hit with a $1 million libel suit by agribusiness executive Aaron Sapiro, whom Ford had characterized as part of a malign, international Jewish cabal.
Ford initially responded to both problems by defiantly refusing to change. On several occasions, for example, he was drawn into public screaming matches with his son, Edsel, who argued for styling and engineering changes in the cars. But in the end, says Baldwin, Ford “understood the necessity for a `clean slate’ in both instances.” In 1927, he shut down Model T production and began the retooling that would result in the Model A. That same year, Ford issued a public apology for his anti-Semitic words and settled the Sapiro lawsuit. The newspaper then ceased publication.
The apology didn’t signify a change in attitude. Ford’s private notebooks show that he continued to view Jews as part of an anti-Ford Motor Co. conspiracy, involving “financiers,” the New Deal, labor unions, and his major auto competitors. These antipathies, as Baldwin sees it, “rose and fell in tandem with the chronically uneven fortunes and missteps of his automobile business.” For the rest of his days, Ford would indulge in an occasional outburst against “the Jews,” while demagogues such as radio evangelist/politician Gerald L.K. Smith circulated Ford’s anti-Semitic texts. By the 1940s, American Jews were engaging in a near-complete boycott of Ford vehicles, prompting yet another apology from the old man, in 1942. Five years later, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Baldwin ends on an upbeat note, asserting that overt anti-Semitism has been relegated to “the distant fringe” of U.S. life. Even if that’s true, no one should be surprised to find the old bigotries popping up elsewhere–stimulated even today by Ford’s writings, which are available on the World Wide Web.