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Henry Ford and Anti-Semitism: A Complex Story
As with most famous people, Henry Ford was complex and had traits and took actions that were laudatory as well as troublesome. The most controversial and least admirable aspect of Ford’s career was his descent into anti-Semitism. Convinced that “bankers” and “the Jews” were responsible for a whole range of things he didn’t like, from the world war to short skirts to jazz music, Ford used his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, to carry on an active anti-Semitic campaign. Between 1920 and 1922 a series of articles denounced all things Jewish. While officially apologizing for the articles in 1927, Ford’s anti-Jewish sentiments ran deep. Seen within the context of the times, they demonstrate the sharp realities and tensions that emerge in societies undergoing profound cultural, economic and political change.
In January 1919, Henry Ford began publication of the Dearborn Independent, a small financially troubled community weekly he had purchased the previous year. Carrying the subtitle, The Chronicler of the Neglected Truth, the paper primarily served as a forum for Henry Ford’s views. Each issue of the Independent carried “Mr. Ford’s Own Page,” an editorial expressing his opinions, written by William J. Cameron. Ford hired Edwin G. Pipp from the Detroit News to serve as editor. Agents went door-to-door selling subscriptions, and Ford Motor Company pressured car dealers to buy multiple subscriptions and hand out copies to customers. The newspaper was popular, and circulation reached 900,000 in 1926.
The idea of acquiring a newspaper first came to Ford during his antiwar crusade, when he became convinced that a hostile press controlled by banks and other powerful financial interests was campaigning against him. The paper would provide Ford a means to express his own views and to counter the attacks that had been launched against him for the five-dollar day, his pacifist activities, and his 1918 run for the U. S. Senate, which he believed his opponent, Senator Truman H. Newberry, had stolen from him.
The Dearborn Independent would, most likely, have remained a sidebar in Ford’s biography were it not for a controversial series that began on May 22, 1920 and lasted for several years. Appearing on the front page every week, “The International Jew: The World’s Problem” examined a purported conspiracy launched by Jewish groups to achieve world domination. The basis for the articles was an ancient and notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic hoax, first published in Russia in 1903.
Why would Ford agree to publish such a thing? Many have accused Ford’s personal secretary, Ernest Liebold, of being the source of the campaign, and Liebold’s anti-Semitic views are well documented. E.G. Pipp resigned as editor in protest over the series. However, William Cameron, who then became editor of the Independent, was an enthusiastic supporter of the publication of the anti-Semitic diatribes.
However, Ford’s own attitudes towards Jews were the major reason for the publication of “The International Jew.” His anti-Semitic beliefs formed along several strands from his upbringing, attitudes, and personal beliefs. They were also influenced by current populist political sensibilities that advocated a distrust of financiers, bankers and institutions of economic power. A common stereotype at the time led some people to assume that Jews controlled the international banking system; that belief may have fed his anti-Jewish feelings. Ford’s pacifism probably formed a second strand. His crusade against World War I convinced him that international Jewish bankers were fomenting the war. Here again, the stereotype noted above may have convinced him that international Jewish bankers supported the war for personal gain. Lastly, Ford’s growing cultural conservatism, anti-urbanism, and nostalgia for the rural past formed an important third strand. Ford saw Jews present in everything that he viewed as modern and distasteful—contemporary music, movies, theater, new dress styles, and loosening social mores.
The publication of “The International Jew” caused an uproar. In some quarters, such as anti-immigrant and nativist groups, the series confirmed their own beliefs. Others were appalled by the series, published demands for a retraction, removed the paper from public libraries, and promoted a boycott of Ford automobiles. Some Ford dealers refused to carry the paper. Responding to this pressure, Ford halted publication of the anti-Jewish series in January 1922, only to start it up again less than a year later.
In April 1924, the Independent initiated a new series of attacks on attorney Aaron Sapiro, accusing him of exploiting farmers’ cooperatives. When Ford refused to print a retraction, Sapiro sued him for libel. The case finally came to trial in March 1927 and quickly turned into a media circus. Shortly before Ford was scheduled to testify, he ordered the closing of the Dearborn Independent (it closed at the end of 1927) and explored an out-of-court settlement with Sapiro. After negotiations with U.S. Representative Nathan D. Perlman, a vice president of the American Jewish Congress, and Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee, Ford agreed to release a formal apology, written by Marshall, and to make a cash settlement with Sapiro.
Although this seemingly ended a sad chapter in Henry Ford’s life, the episode tarnished his reputation and it has never been completely forgotten.
This essay relies primarily on The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, by Steven Watts (New York: 2005). Additional material and perspectives are drawn from the following books and articles:
Neil Baldwin, Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate. New York, 2001.
Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York, 1969.
Albert Lee, Henry Ford and the Jews. New York, 1980.
David L. Lewis, The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company. Detroit, 1976.
Stefan Link, “Rethinking the Ford-Nazi Connection,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, Vol 49, Fall 2011, 135-150.
Morton Rosenstock, Louis Marshall, Defender of Jewish Rights. Detroit, 1965.
There is a large body of material documenting this subject in the Ford Motor Company records held at the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Listed below is a sample of what is available:
Bound Proceedings series, Ford Motor Company Legal records collection, Accession 295.
Business and Personal Correspondence series, Henry Ford Office records. 1920 Folders, Boxes 17 and 30, Accession 284; 1921-1952 Folders (scattered), Accession 285.
William J. Cameron Reminiscences, Oral History subgroup, Archives (Ford Motor Company) records, Box 11, Accession 65.
Clippings and Articles, Advertising Department records series, Ford Motor Company Sales and Advertising records collection, Box 1, Accession 274.
Dearborn Independent, Aaron Sapiro v. Henry Ford Lawsuit collection, Accession 48.
Ernest Liebold, Reminiscences, Oral History subgroup, Archives (Ford Motor Company) records, 16 volumes, Accession 65. See especially volume 6, “A Publication and an Apology.”
Repudiation Letter Written to Sigmund Livingston, January 12, 1942, Henry Ford Office records, Folder 681, Box 2534, Accession 285.
Repudiation Letter and Clippings, Blueprints, Drawings, Newspapers and Printed Material subseries, Frank Campsall records series, Boxes 42 and 43, Accession 292.
Sapiro vs. Ford, William J. Cameron records subgroup, Ford Motor Company Public Relations records collection, Box 15, Accession 44.
Vertical File (at Benson Ford Research Center): a collection of articles and references to images and other sources—See Ford, Henry-Anti-Semitism, and other topics