In all the history of America, there has scarcely been as towering a figure as Henry Ford, and in the world’s history there may never be a greater industrialist. These are not small things and would be worthy of celebration were it not for the flies in the Ford buttermilk, because Ford was also one of the most outspoken bigots in the 20th century.
Born in 1863 to a Michigan farming family headed by an Irish immigrant and the daughter of Belgian immigrants, Henry, the oldest child, did not like farming but he was absorbed by taking apart and reassembling watches. He had the unblemished soul of a precision engineer.
When he was 16, he walked the nine miles to Detroit and became an apprentice machinist. By 31, he was chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Co. of Detroit. But he was restless. In 1896, he drove his gasoline-powered horseless carriage through the streets of Detroit for the first time. In 1903, he formed the Ford Motor Co.; in less than two years, it was making 25 automobiles a day and had sold more than a thousand.
Ford was a tinkerer, a perfectionist, confident and even audacious. He went on to develop mass production of affordable vehicles and paid relatively high wages to white and Black workers. He revolutionized transportation.
On Oct. 12, 1915, the Ford company made its 1-millionth automobile.
Ford was still restless, though, looking for ways to extend his success. He thought the Great War, in Europe, was senseless and could only be explained by the involvement of German-Jewish bankers, so he began to finance pacifist groups even as he profited from the manufacture of weapons.
There was something wrong with the world, Ford thought; part of it, he discerned, was jazz. “Popular music is a Jewish monopoly,” he explained in 1921 in “The International Jew.”
“Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.”
This was almost completely wrong, but by then Ford did not believe he could be even partly wrong. So, to counter the “abandoned sensuousness”,” he promoted square dancing, which he assumed was an old, wholesome, Anglo-Saxon pastime. (That it is still taught to public school students we also owe to Lloyd Shaw, principal of the Cheyenne Mountain School in Colorado Springs, who picked up where Ford left off and formed a square dance troupe that toured the country in the 1940s, helping to further popularize it).
Ford believed in systems, which perhaps is what made him easy pickings for the oldest conspiracy theory and led him to become one of the biggest promulgators of anti-Semitism. Ever the industrialist, in the 1920s he published and distributed 500,000 copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a hoax that claims to be a Jewish plan for global domination.
Hitler told a Detroit News reporter in 1931 that he kept a life-size portrait of Ford next to his desk. The Holocaust was his marriage of Ford’s anti-Semitism and industrial prowess.
Josephine Gomon was a Detroit birth control pioneer and the head of the city’s Housing Commission before Ford recruited her to direct female personnel at his Willow Run bomber plant during World War II, when she became close to him. Among her papers, now at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, is an unpublished manuscript, “The Poor Mr. Ford,” in which she relates the time after the war when Ford saw newsreel footage of liberated Nazi concentration camps and, shocked by the atrocities, collapsed with the stroke that led to his death, at 83, in 1947.