“History is more or less bunk.”
— Henry Ford
“I invented the modern age.”
— Henry Ford
“I never made a mistake in my life.”
— Henry Ford
“I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.”
— Adolf Hitler to a Detroit News reporter, 1931
Henry Ford certainly revolutionized modern society — probably for the better — by transforming the automobile from a plaything of the rich into the affordable, primary mode of transportation for millions of average working people.
But while Ford was opening up the road and the world for others, he himself lived in a closed, nasty little universe.
Henry Ford was a vile, bigoted, vicious, stupendously ignorant man, almost illiterate and supremely uninterested in anything that didn’t involve tinkering with machines or making life miserable for Jews. He was, in my opinion, one of the most loathsome human beings to walk the face of the earth.
No wonder Adolf Hitler thought so highly of Ford and lavished Nazi honours on him.
Because of his wealth and reputation, Ford was able to spread his views far and wide and build, through a well-oiled, well-financed PR campaign, his image as a paragon of American ingenuity, innovation and integrity (which is, of course, true in many ways but tells only part of the story).
A poll of U.S. college students in 1920 ranked Henry Ford as the third greatest man in the history of the world, right behind Jesus Christ and Napoleon. He was widely viewed at that time as a prime presidential candidate.
Coincidentally, Time magazine just a few days ago put out a supposedly scientific list of the 100 most influential figures in world history: Jesus and Napoleon still hold the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings, but No. 3 is Muhammad on this new list.
Henry Ford? He’s not on the current Time list at all. Elvis Presley, Edgar Allan Poe, Grover Cleveland (a mediocre 19th-Century U.S. president) and George W. Bush (a mediocre 21st-Century U.S. president) are all seen by Time’s “scientific” analysis as having had a far greater impact on the world than crazy, vicious, ignorant Henry Ford.
I never thought much about Henry Ford until dipping into Bill Bryson’s latest book, One Summer: America 1927.
I knew I had an instinctive dislike for this crotchety, mean-spirited old lizard just by looking at pictures of him. (How’s that for a completely arbitrary prejudice?) But until reading what Bryson had to say about him, I never realized what a lunatic Henry Ford was in almost every area apart from the automotive — and even in that field he was rich enough and powerful enough to get away with doing crazy, megalomaniacal things that would have been ruinous to anyone less rich or powerful.
(For example, he shut down his entire worldwide operation for six months in 1927 to convert production from Model T’s to Model A’s. It wasn’t a case of just retooling the lines to a new production model: Ford just stopped production with two weeks notice and then began designing the new Model A from scratch — and all the heavy equipment needed to manufacture it. Many Ford dealerships just went out of business during that six months and General Motors took over leadership of the American automotive industry.
(By the way, very little of this diatribe comes via Bryson’s book and there are certainly no direct lifts of text. But he got me looking into Ford’s life, and the more I looked the uglier the view became.)
Henry Ford held deep and rigid convictions on every issue under the sun — usually bizarre beliefs without foundation or rational evidence, based solely on his gut instinct. But because his gut instinct and obsessive drive had propelled him to the heights of wealth and power, he trusted his gut instinct completely.
For example, Ford was absolutely convinced that the weight of new-fangled skyscrapers would collapse the surface of the earth and cities would tumble to their doom in black pits. He also believed milk was unhealthy once it had been touched by air.
Always distrustful of the medical profession, Ford at one time contemplated getting rid of all the doctors at his self-financed and self-named Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and replacing them with chiropractors.
Oh yeah, and in his later years Ford believed he had divine guidance. He came to believe his gut instinct was God pushing him in a certain direction. And he wouldn’t let anyone in the entire world call him by his first name — except his wife … and maybe God.
Henry and Clara Ford
On the other side of the equation, along with his creation of the automotive age and transformation of American industry, Ford had some views that were wildly progressive for the time. He was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement (probably because his wife Clara was an ardent suffragette) and he hired more black workers than all other car manufacturers combined, even placing black foremen in charge of white workers — an extremely rare practice in the 1920s.
Ford was also something of a pacifist — but in his own idiosyncratic way and for the worst possible reasons. Primarily, he believed that war was bad for business — whatever the cause — and that Jews were usually responsible for starting wars to serve their particular financial and religious ends (all of which seems somehow contradictory to me, but never mind — we’re talking about a very creepy mind).
Ford’s decision to pay his workers $5 a day — double the going rate in 1914 — was not really the enlightened benevolence it’s portrayed as being, giving his workers enough income to buy the Model Ts they were building (a rationale that just doesn’t add up financially, either). The real reason was to reduce Ford’s high employee turnover rate (and resultant need to constantly train large numbers of raw replacements), a far more costly business expense than paying higher wages to a skilled, experienced, stable workforce.
The $5 a day wasn’t all pay, either. It was 60% wages and 40% bonus. The bonus came with a lot of strings attached — including visits by investigators for Ford’s “Sociology Department” to workers’ homes to ensure they were living and conducting themselves “the American Way.” That included a ban on drinking, smoking, gambling, divorce — and taking in boarders. Despite Ford’s support of suffrage, women employees were generally not eligible for the bonus and neither were men if their wives were found to be working outside the home.
(In his typical contradictory way, Ford had friends and confidantes who were drunks and professional gamblers and worse but who got a pass because of their relationship with Ford. A worker on the assembly line with even a whiff of alcohol on his breath, however, would be pulled off the line and fired on the spot — no appeal.
(Ford, the rigid moralist, also had to buy his way out of trouble with several chamber maids and with at least one secretary, who was forced to marry Ford’s chauffeur to cover the great man’s tracks.)
Through the 1920s, ’30s and into the ’40s, Ford ruled over his factories with gangs of armed thugs called the “Ford Service Department” or simply “Ford Service.” His chief henchman was an ex-sailor and ex-boxer named Harry Bennett, who led a private army of ex-cops, ex-cons and ex-jocks to control the factory floor. At one point, as many as 20% of the company’s employees were “Ford Service.”
Harry Bennett and Henry Ford
(By this time, General Motors and Chrysler were paying their workers better than Ford and treating them better.)
Anyone who displeased Ford or crossed Bennett or even murmured about unions could be beaten to a pulp and fired for starting a fight. Henry Ford’s son and heir Edsel (who seems to have been a genuinely nice guy and the complete antithesis of his father) often went into the Ford factories carrying a gun — because he feared Bennett and his thugs, not because he was worried about workers on the line.
Ford Service thugs beat up a union organizer outside a Ford plant in 1937.
(As a complete aside, Bennett kept lions and tigers as pets at his home. Really. Sometimes Bennett would take one of his “pets” for a walk on the factory floor, just another measure to intimidate Ford’s workers.)
After Ford died and his henchman was stripped of his power, Bennett wrote a book about his time with Ford in which he said, “I was closer to him even than his own son.” Birds of a feather.
Bennett made it clear that nothing happened without Ford’s knowledge and usually at his direction.
“He expected me to carry out his wishes without probing for his motives,” Bennett (or at least his ghost writer, Paul Marcus) wrote. “Mr. Ford always had a motive for everything he did; usually, he had two motives — the one he gave, and the real one. He didn’t want me digging into that too far.”
Henry Ford was a shrewd, devious, ruthless manipulator and businessman but he was also a profoundly ignorant man.
He knew almost nothing of American history or anything of the world except mechanical tinkering and soya bean production (a pet interest of his). He did not know when or why the 13 colonies revolted against Britain to create the United States and he did not know who American traitor (or loyal British subject, depending on your point of view) Benedict Arnold was.
Those tidbits came out during a 1919 libel trial he had initiated against the Chicago Tribune for calling him an “anarchist” a few years earlier. Ford also testified that he had only voted once in his life — and even then he could not name the candidate for whom he had voted. He thought it was President James Garfield, but Garfield had been assassinated three years before Ford was old enough to vote, a Tribune lawyer pointed out.
And he was profoundly superstitious.
“He was afraid of black cats, walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, and all the rest of it,” Harry Bennett (or Paul Marcus) later wrote. “And on a Friday the 13th, you could hardly get him to move.”
Of course, Ford had distinct memories of past lives and believed in reincarnation (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
But, as with most things, Ford’s view of reincarnation took a turn for the self-serving and creepy. He believed, for example, that farm chickens stayed by the side of country roads because, in earlier chicken lives, they had foolishly wandered into the path of oncoming automobiles … and had thus learned their lessons. For that reason, Ford didn’t mind driving over anything in his path: He just assumed that it would reincarnate as a wiser version of whatever he had just killed.
Henry Ford died less than 20 km from where he was born in Michigan. Although he had travelled through North America and Europe, he would have much preferred to have lived his entire life within the confines of that 20-km birth-and-death matrix.
Through his personal newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, Ford attacked what he called “the Jewish Menace” every week in the early and mid- 1920s, sometimes in bylined articles. The most virulent of those articles were collected in The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, a four-volume series of booklets which Ford published, had translated into 16 languages and distributed around the world.
The Independent promulgated such stories as the one that Jewish financiers had organized the assassination of Abraham Lincoln because Lincoln had flooded the market with paper money to pay for the Civil War, thus debasing the value of silver and gold currency. Everything that went wrong in the world, from the rise of jazz (“moron music”) to financial depressions to crop failures to world wars, was blamed on Jews in the pages of the Independent.
Ford made sure the Independent was widely distributed: From a subscription base of about 20,000 when Ford took over the paper in 1919, circulation reached a peak of 700,000 in 1924. That was largely due to Ford’s insistence that Ford automotive dealerships (called “agencies”) across the U.S. had to achieve a quota of Independent subscription sales as well as car sales. Most dealers just incorporated the cost of a subscription into the price of the Model Ts they were selling but a few dealers — a very few — refused to participate, losing their dealerships.
When a Jewish lawyer sued Ford and his newspaper for libel in 1927, the magnate scuttled for cover (in part because he was still smarting from the humiliating experience of the 1919 libel trial). Before the trial began, he denied all prior knowledge of the content of the articles and denied exercising any control over the editorial content of the Independent (a claim ridiculed repeatedly by a parade of witnesses who knew Ford, his management style and his opinions). In court, Independent editor William Cameron took complete responsibility for everything that appeared in the newspaper and denied that Ford had any knowledge of or exercised any control over what appeared in the paper.
To avoid having to testify himself, Ford faked a car accident and went into hiding on a closed-off wing of the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. When the first hearing was declared a mistrial, Ford quickly emerged to settle the case and, as part of the settlement, apologized profusely in an open letter and ultimately closed the Independent in December 1927.
Ford was also largely responsible for widespread distribution in the U.S. of an English translation of the bogus Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document created in Russia in 1905 by Czarist agent Sergei Nilius purporting to be a record of an 1897 Zionist conclave in which Jewish leaders met to plan the subversion and conquest of the Christian world.
Ford had an extensive and expensive network of spies and agents whose primary purpose was to establish the extent of the Jewish plot to control American business and government. He once sent one of his agents, a Russian emigré named Serge Rosdionov, to Mongolia to track down 13 supposed additional Protocols in their original Hebrew. How and why these Protocols would end up in Mongolia was never entirely clear, but the very possibility of their existence was enough for Ford to mount an elaborate and expensive search. It was, as with Ford’s other witch hunts, a wild goose chase (although I’m surprised Rosdionov didn’t come back with another set of forgeries).
Fritz Kuhn, leader of the pro-Nazi American Bund, was on Ford’s payroll for several years in the 1930s.
Whenever anyone questioned Ford about the evidence for his assertions, he would conspiratorially pat one of his pockets and assure the questioner he was almost ready to lay it all out before the American public. Of course that time never came.
The thing I find funny here is that so many of the conspiracy theories Ford had about Jewish cabals plotting to control and/or destabilize Western society are now trotted out as conspiracy theories about Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Edison and their cabal of ruthless capitalists and successors scheming to control Western society and kill the electric car and do all sorts of other dastardly things. The difference is that there’s a lot of truth — proven in court — to the stories about Ford-Rockefeller-Edison cabals, cartels, monopolies and trusts controlling large chunks of the American economy 100 years ago.
I seem to be focusing on Ford’s anti-semitism but that’s mainly because it’s well recorded in public statements and court proceedings and there is a lot of clear, unambiguous information available on it.
But his anti-semitism was just one aspect of his general ignorance, venom and nuttiness.
Ford was also down on Catholics (especially Irish Catholics, probably because his father and grandfather were immigrant Irish Protestants and carried the Old Country’s battles and prejudices with them to the New World) — but often only because he considered them “tools of the Jews.”
And he didn’t just hate Jews and Catholics (although he always said it was nothing personal): He hated trade unions with a passion. And shareholders (“parasites”). And accountants. And bankers (but then, he considered most bankers to be Jews, tools of Jews or crypto-Jews). And fat people. I think I’ve already mentioned doctors and skyscrapers and pasteurized milk. And black cats.
(The fact that you agree with some — or maybe all — of Ford’s prejudices doesn’t make either of you right.)
Well, that’s it. I’m stopping now.
I haven’t run out of things to say about Ford — for example, he developed a prototype plastic automobile made partially of hemp but never put it into production because of the expense and really nasty smell the processed hemp plastic gave off. (Not having smelled the prototype, I have no idea whether the offensive smell was one that would now be considered a selling point by a large element of the public.)
Henry Ford swings an axe in 1941 to show his hemp-plastic car body was stronger than steel.
And then there was the whole Nazi connection.
Adolf Hitler called Henry Ford his “inspiration” and kept a photo of Ford on his office wall in Munich in the 1920s. And Ford was the only American mentioned by name in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
In July 1938 — long after Hitler was recognized as a threat to humanity and Nazi Germany was seen by the American public as a likely combatant enemy of the United States — Henry Ford proudly accepted das Verdienstkreutz des Ordens vom Deutscher Adler (the Grand Cross of the German Eagle), the highest Nazi medal that could be bestowed on a foreign civilian.
And, of course, the German subsidiaries of both Ford and GM were turned into significant parts of the Nazi war machine during World War II. How directly implicated the American parent companies were in allowing — and directing and profiting from — that transformation is still being investigated and debated.
At the time the U.S. entered the war in December 1941, Henry Ford still owned 52% of the German Ford subsidiary, which was building — with forced labour — trucks for the Wehrmacht and engines for Nazi bombers and tanks that would soon be killing Americans.
Ford-made Maultier flakwagen
Of course, Ford also set up GAZ, the Soviet Union’s largest auto maker, for Stalin in 1929.
No, there’s plenty more that could be said about Henry Ford.
I’m just immensely, achingly tired of talking about the crazy, vicious, ignorant old bastard.
The best thing you can say about Henry Ford is that he’s dead. Unfortunately, there are still other of his ilk walking the earth today. Different names but same twisted, evil soul. To hell with them all.