Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Book Review

Realistic, Ugly Look at Anti-Semitism of a U.S. Business Icon

January 22, 2002|BERNADETTE MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HENRY FORD AND THE JEWS

The Mass Production of Hate

By Neil Baldwin

PublicAffairs

432 pages, $27.50

Neil Baldwin, author of the well-researched, eminently readable "Henry Ford and the Jews," remembers being surprised when Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" was to be broadcast on network television for the first time, sponsored in its commercial-free entirety by the Ford Motor Co.

The marketing attempt seemed incongruous: Hadn't Henry Ford earned a worldwide reputation as a virulent anti-Semite, publishing his own newspaper to spread his poisonous rhetoric, receiving from Hitler the highest medal given by Germany to distinguished foreigners as late as 1938?

A communications director at Ford, when asked about the odd pairing, said the company's decision to sponsor the program had nothing to do with Henry Ford's reputation. "I think quite a few are not even aware of his background," the spokesman replied.

For Baldwin, "the mind-bending concept that 'Schindler's List' was being packaged as a gift from the Ford Motor Co. to the American television viewing public" alerted the author that "here resided an inadequately told story in American history."

Slowly, building the narrative piece by piece, Baldwin excels in setting the record straight about the icon of American ingenuity and manufacturing excellence and his vitriolic hatred of Jews. He deals equitably with the facts, presenting a balanced account, including the brave response of the Jewish American community in the face of Ford's aggression.

Beginning with Ford's childhood days, Baldwin examines the influences on Ford and his contemporaries, establishing how anti-Semitism became part of the American psyche. From what Baldwin could determine, Ford "did not know any Jews until middle age. His impressions and prejudices ... were drawn from widespread stereotypes common to this tightly circumscribed world of post-bellum midwestern America."

Yet, as Baldwin points out, it's one thing to be exposed to biased images and quite another to harbor, assimilate, believe and give public vent to them. Sometime between 1910 and 1918, Ford metamorphosed from ignorant idealist to embittered anti-Semite, finding a target to blame for his boredom, disillusionment and middle-aged unhappiness. "He grabbed onto the Jews and never let go." Within Ford's increasingly xenophobic worldview, his ignorance and isolation from Jews bred a heinous form of paranoia and hate.

It was at the start of World War I, just as his motor company was flourishing and he was awash in money and power, that Ford's vague rantings against Jews grew to monstrous proportions.

By the 1920s, Ford was publishing "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," "The International Jew" and a series of 91 weekly noxious essays on "The Jewish Question" in his privately published (and utterly profitless) newspaper, "The Dearborn Independent," blaming all that ailed America on Jews.

Deftly, Baldwin gives readers a sense of Ford's thinking and motivations without ever wading into the tenuous waters of psychological speculation. Using Ford's statements and writings, as well as oral history transcripts and unpublished family memoirs, Baldwin presents Ford's mind--clearly genius in terms of auto manufacturing--to be pitiably naive, ill-educated and unpatriotic.

During Ford's libel trial against the Chicago Tribune in 1919, for example, Ford's statements under oath make it painfully clear that the auto magnate was "ignorant of most basic textbook facts," including the fundamental principles of government, the dates of the Revolutionary War and the identity of Benedict Arnold.

Later, in 1927, when confronted by the damage wrought by the "Dearborn" essays, and considering the potential negative impact on auto sales as the company prepared to launch the new Model A, Ford apologized--in a way.

He asked Louis Marshall, an attorney active in New York Jewish affairs whom Ford had never met, to draft an apology on his behalf. Ford signed the apology and dispersed it to the press without reading its content, and clearly without changing his mind on the matter.

Apology or no, the fallout of Ford's attacks were far-reaching. Ten years before Hitler became chancellor of Germany, he praised Ford for the "great service" his articles had provided America; Hitler's private office boasted a large portrait of Ford.

Recent research has shown that during World War II, half of the work force at Ford-Werke, the German arm of Ford Motor Co., were slave-labor foreign captives working under Gestapo supervision.

To the corporation's credit, Ford Motor Co. embarked on correctives even before its founder died, seeking to put an end to the dark legacy. But the legacy is a legitimate part of American history and deserves to be weighed as such.

Baldwin's book seeks not to smash the history book portrait of Henry Ford as the great American manufacturing icon, but to shade that image with honesty. Though the narrative wanders a bit now and again, these digressions seldom detract. Rather, Baldwin's engaging inquiry adds a realistic, if ugly, patina to our image of Henry Ford.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|