Henry Ford, 1863-1947, was a gifted American inventor and businessman who gained nearly as much fame for his anti-Semitic views as for his pioneering role in the development of the American car industry.
Ford was a man of enormous contradiction: on the one hand he yearned for a return to the rural life into which he was born in a fundamentalist Christian area of southeastern Michigan. On the other hand, he contributed enormously to the growth of an industrial society that robbed agrarian America of its economic future and lured its farm men and women to the factories of the big city.
Ford did not even know any Jews until his early twenties. What he did know and share were the anti-Jewish images portrayed in the enormously popular nineteenth-century Readers compiled by William Holmes McGuffey that introduced an entire generation of young Americans to stereotypical images of the “alien” Shylock (“an inhuman wretch, incapable of pity”) the opponents of the apostle Paul (“the Jews caught me in the temple and went about to kill me”), images that painted Jews as “strangers to the morality contained in the Gospel.”
He blamed the “Jewish moneylenders” and the “Wall Street kikes” for gaining control of the world’s economy and destroying the moral backbone of “his” America. Yet he maintained a strong friendship with a neighbor, the well-known Detroit rabbi Leo Franklin, presenting the rabbi with a new car at the beginning of each year. Yet, when Ford’s anti-Semitism became a national issue, and Franklin sent back his latest gift, he had absolutely no idea why Franklin refused to take the car. “What’s wrong, Dr. Franklin,” he wrote to the rabbi. “Has something come between us?”
The reason for Franklin’s action was series of articles, beginning in 1920, published in Ford’s newspaper, theDearborn Independent, that for 91 successive weeks produced excerpts of the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written at the beginning of the twentieth century by Czarist Russia’s secret police. The Protocols substantiated everything that Ford had come to believe about the Jewish world conspiracy. Soon after the Independent began to publish the Protocols, they were published in book form as the International Jew (four volumes between 1920 and 1922). The volumes were translated into numerous languages and read by an obscure Austrian war veteran named Adolf Hitler who praised Ford for his insights in the second volume of his magnum opus Mein Kampf (My Battle).
For much of the 1920s, the Dearborn Independent kept up its attack on the Jewish community and did untold damage to the place of Jews in American society. It was only in 1927, when a libel suit brought by a Jewish businessman threatened to force Henry Ford to appear as a witness in front of a judge and jury and the slumping sales of his mass-produced cars, that Henry Ford finally offered a public apology for the activities of his newspaper.
In a public statement drafted entirely by the prominent American Jewish lawyer and communal leader Louis Marshall and signed sight unseen, Henry Ford promised “that the pamphlets which have been distributed throughout the country and in foreign lands will be withdrawn from circulation [and] that in every way possible I will make it known that they have my unqualified disapproval.”
Ford took no personal responsibility for any of the anti-Semitic propaganda published in the Dearborn Independent, blaming instead two trusted aides who he claimed created the anti-Jewish diatribes without his knowledge.
In the end, the man of contradictions who helped create an international atmosphere of Jew hatred both at home and abroad, whose The International Jew was translated into sixteen languages and distributed in the millions, never acted on the promises of his public apology. He remained a constant source of support for such American anti-Semites as Father Charles Coughlin and the Reverend Gerald L.K. Smith and received his most cherished accolade in the form of a medal presented to him in 1938 by the Nazi German government, “the highest honor given by Germany to distinguished foreigners.”
What was the contradiction? In the spring of 1945, the founder of the Ford Motor company sat with one of his executives viewing recently filmed newsreels of the piles of corpses and human skeletons discovered in Nazi concentration camps. At that moment he suffered one of several massive strokes that would rob him of his mental and physical capacities and from which he would never recover until his death in 1947.