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Jewish Journal

Life and Times of Henry Ford

by Jack Fischel

May 23, 2002 | 8:00 pm

"Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate," by Neil Baldwin (Public Affairs, $27.50).

The belief that Jews are a conspiratorial people bent on world domination has a long history in our Western tradition. During the Middle Ages, Christians maintained that Jews conspired with the devil to destroy Christianity, and during the past two centuries, anti-Semites have disseminated the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a vicious pamphlet that advanced the idea of a Jewish conspiracy to subjugate humankind through their control of international banking and world revolution.

No one promoted this canard in America more than did Henry Ford, the subject of an important work by Neil Baldwin titled, "Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate." Baldwin, the executive director of the National Book Foundation and the author of biographies on William Carlos Williams and Thomas Edison, traces the roots of Ford's anti-Semitism to his youth, when he was first exposed to the caricature of Jews in his McGuffey's Reader (a primer that was widely disseminated during Ford's time). It was as a teenager that he read about the "unfeeling character of the moneylender Shylock" and that Jews were an "unfortunate" people because they did not accept Christianity.

As he grew older, Ford's negative images about Jews were joined by his exposure to the agrarian ferment of the years 1870 to 1896, when, during the so-called "Populist Revolt," some leaders of the agrarian movement used anti-Semitic rhetoric to denounce "the hook-nosed Jew with his bag of gold, carrying the curse of usury, like the money-changers of old."

Although Ford did not meet a Jew until after he turned 30, it is evident from Baldwin's work that Ford's negative image of Jews was already well formed by that time. Ford, as one of the pioneers of the automobile industry and one of the most powerful men of his time in American life, is nevertheless described by Baldwin as poorly read, often guided by his hunches and, despite his success in business, a provincial type who never lost the prejudices about Jews that characterized rural America during his lifetime.

Ford's anti-Semitism was exacerbated by two of his closest employees, W.J. Cameron and E.G. Liebold. It was Cameron, as editor of the Dearborn Independent, Ford's house organ newspaper, who began to publish anti-Semitic articles commencing with its first issue in June 1926. Cameron promoted a British-Israelite theology that argued that the Anglo-Saxon race was descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and that those calling themselves Jews were, in fact, usurpers. This theology, in our own time, has become the basis for the white-supremacist Christian Identity theology that feeds the anti-Semitism of the Aryan Nations.

For his part, it was Liebold who first alerted Ford to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," reaffirming Ford's belief that Jews were behind the calamities that had befallen the world, from the outbreak of World War I -- which he blamed on German-Jewish bankers -- to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. (Liebold, an admirer of Adolf Hitler, later became a supporter of Father Charles Coughlin, the notorious anti-Semitic priest who broadcast his hate-filled program from his parish in Royal Oak, Mich.)

It is useful to reflect that when Ford said "history is more or less bunk," he was contending that history as found in textbooks was written to fool people, while the conspiracy theory of history, as revealed in the "Protocols," constituted historical reality.

In any case, Ford began promoting the "Protocols" at a time that could not have been worse for Jews. More than 120,000 European Jews had passed through Ellis Island in 1920, and their arrival provided a convenient scapegoat for the country's swelling unemployment. Added to this was the association made by the Anglo-Saxon elite that identified Jews with radicalism in general and the Bolshevik Revolution in particular.

Nativist reaction to immigration was swelling the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, not only in the South but also in Ford's own state of Michigan. Promoting "100% Americanism," the Klan was as much anti-Semitic as it was anti-Catholic and anti-black. By 1921, Michigan's 875,000 Klan members represented the largest group in the United States.

It was during these difficult times that Ford's Dearborn Publishing Co. printed a 25-cent, 250-page paperback anthology of anti-Semitic articles originally published in the Dearborn Independent, which included excerpts from the "Protocols," called "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem." From its initial publication in November 1920, the Dearborn Co. proceeded to publish an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 copies over the next 18 months that were sent gratis to "locally influential citizens, especially clergymen, bankers and stockholders."

Ironically, although "The International Jew" did not subsequently find the large U.S. readership Ford had anticipated, it did find an important audience among the growing Nazi movement in Germany. The fledgling Nazi Party led by Hitler found common ground between its anti-Semitism and Ford's attitude toward Jews.

In describing the similarity of beliefs between the Nazis' celebration of rural values and Ford's reverence for the rural landscape, Baldwin concludes that Ford would have agreed with the Nazi condemnation of the Jews as decadent "asphalt men" who polluted the immoral metropolis. Baldwin writes that in Hitler's Munich office in 1922, there were multiple copies of the German translation of "The International Jew," with a preface that lauded Ford for the great service he had provided America by attacking Jews.

A year later, Baldwin writes, Hitler stated that he "looked to Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing fascist movement in America." Given the mutual admiration that developed between Hitler and Ford, Baldwin raises the question as to whether Ford helped finance Hitler during the 1920s.

Although he states that there is no hard evidence to that effect, the author does cite a meeting between Ford and Winifred Wagner, the composer's daughter, wherein the automaker became vociferous about the Jews and Wagner observed that "the philosophy and ideas of Ford and Hitler were similar." More than a half-century later, she recalled Ford telling her "that he had helped to finance Hitler with money from the sale of automobiles and trucks that had been sent to Germany."

Indeed, in July 1938 Ford was the recipient of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest honor given by Germany to distinguished foreigners. (Ford was recognized for his pioneering "auto work in motorization and in making autos available to the masses.")

Under pressure from domestic Jewish organizations, Ford ultimately apologized for his promotion of anti-Semitism. Although there had not been an organized Jewish boycott of Ford, sales of his automobiles in 1921 had dropped in New York City, and Baldwin suggests that Ford's contrition resulted more from his fear of a further decline in business than from any change of heart. A second reason for his apology, Baldwin states, was that Ford was flirting with the idea of running for president and realized that no one had ever been elected to the office without capturing the electoral votes of Ohio and New York, states where the Jewish vote was crucial.

Baldwin concludes his study by noting that the Ford family eventually made amends for the behavior of Henry Ford. Beginning with Henry Ford II, the Fords have sought to put an end to Henry Ford's anti-Semitic legacy by extending economic credit to Israel and generously supporting Jewish charities at home and abroad. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that the first Henry Ford continues to this day to have great influence on the anti-Semitic right wing in this country.

This article is reprinted with the permission of The Forward.

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