Recently, Peggy Noonan wondered if Barack Obama — his professed love for America aside — had ever grown “misty-eyed” thinking about great men like Henry Ford, the renowned auto maker, conspiracy theorist and proud ignoramus who insisted that he did not read books because they addled his mind. Asked once about the American Revolution, Ford remarked that while he was aware of “one in 1812,” he tended not to “pay much attention to such things.”
In addition to being staggeringly unknowledgable about his nation’s history, Henry Ford was also a religious bigot who strivings against International Jewry eventually secured the admiration of the Adolf Hitler. Shortly after the close of the first World War — a war Ford claimed was the ejecta of subterranean Jewish saboteurs — Ford had financed the distribution of The Protocols of the elders of Zion in the United States. Based on Ford’s endorsement of these gross forgeries, newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor chimed in with similarly shrill warnings about the Jewish menace. Ford’s periodic editorials in The Dearborn Independent, which blamed Jews for an array of global ills — everything from the Bolshevik revolution to immoral popular films to the alleged decline of American baseball — were later compiled into a book titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem (1920).
Among his more grotesque observations, Ford insisted that Germany had emerged after the Great War as the primary front in the global struggle between the Semitic and the Anglos-Saxon races. On his view, the German people had ignored the problem for too long but had regained their senses in time to thwart “the dictatorship of the Jews.”
So suddenly have German eyes been opened, so stormfully wrathful has been the reaction, that the word has gone out through German Judaism to retire to the second trench. There has been a sudden and concerted abandonment of office wherever the office made direct contact with the public; there has, however, been no abandonment of power. What will happen in Germany is not now known. Some regrettable things have already happened. But the Germans will doubtless prove themselves equal to the situation by devising methods of control at once unobjectionable and effective.
By the late 1920s, anti-Semitism had taken its place as a routine feature of American culture. It was not, however, without its perils. In addition to bringing notoriety to their author, Ford’s distracted theses also resulted in legal action in 1925, when a lawyer and agricultural marketer named Aaron Sapiro brought a million-dollar libel suit against America’s greatest industrialist. As part of an eventual settlement of the case, Ford reluctantly allowed an evasive apology — in which he expressed surprise that Jews would “regard me as their enemy” — to be released in his name. Though much of the public accepted Ford’s earnest-sounding disavowal at face value, others spied ordinary motives in the statement. As Will Rogers put it, Ford remained a steadfast anti-Semite until he realized that American Jews were driving Chevrolets. Upton Sinclair would later surmise that the Flivver King’s retreat was motivated by rumors that Jewish film executives were preparing an anti-Ford newsreel, loaded with images of accidents involving his cars, for wide theatrical release.
Following the Sapiro affair, the controversy over Ford’s anti-Semitism receded into the background for more than a decade, as Ford avoided public declarations of any kind. He broke his silence only occasionally, as in late April 1938 when he cryptically warned a gathering of reporters that “the powers that be” — “the people behind the Government” — were “trying to kill competition.”
A few months later, Ford participated in a small, private ceremony that would forever anchor his biography to the rise of European fascism.
The year 1938 had been an auspicious one for Ford Aktiengessellschaft, the company’s German analogue. After 13 years of existence, the company announced that it would finally be able to pay shareholder dividends. Business looked especially good as the Nazi government prepared to expand the nation’s borders. In March, pro-Nazi leaders seized power in Vienna, enabling the Blumenkrieg — the War of Flowers — which quickly and bloodlessly absorbed Austria into German land. The Nazi government, flush with anticipation, issued orders for more than 3000 V-8 trucks, which they — along with Ford officials in the US — insisted were not intended for military use.
In recognition of Ford’s industrial prowess and his erstwhile labors against the many realms of Jewish perfidy, the Nazi government chose 1938 to recognize one of its most revered Americans. And so seventy years ago today, on 30 July 1938, Ford celebrated his 75th birthday by receiving the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the most important honor that Germany might offer a non-citizen. He received the award — a golden Maltese cross embraced by four swastikas — in his office, joined by the German consuls from Cleveland and Detroit.
A longtime admirer of Ford’s, Adolf Hitler sent a personal note of gratitude to be delivered at the ceremony. Signed on July 7, the parchment scroll warmly thanked Ford for his “humanitarian ideals” and his devotion, along with the German Chancellor, to “the cause of peace.” Contrary to legend, the note mentioned nothing about Ford’s genius in manufacturing cars; it was, rather, a gesture of ideological affinity. Stung by criticism of his acceptance of the medal, Ford once again expressed surprise, declaring in another written statement that
[m]y acceptance of a medal from the German people does not, as some people seem to think, involve any sympathy on my part with naziism. Those who have known me for many years realize that anything that breeds hate is repulsive to me.
Years later, according to one acquaintance, Ford suffered a heart attack upon seeing images from a German concentration camp. One assumes his eyes were misty as well.