The Dearborn Independent and Anti-Semitism
Ford in the early 1920s sponsored a weekly newspaper that published (among many non-controversial articles) strongly anti-Semitic views. At the same time Ford had a reputation as one of the few major corporations actively hiring black workers; he was not accused of discrimination against Jewish workers or suppliers.
In 1918, Ford's closest aide and private secretary, Ernest G. Liebold, purchased an obscure weekly newspaper for Ford, The Dearborn Independent. The Independent ran for eight years, from 1920 until 1927, during which Liebold was editor. Every Ford franchise nation-wide had to carry the paper and distribute it to its customers.
The newspaper published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was discredited by The Times of London as a forgery during the Independent's publishing run. The American Jewish Historical Society described the ideas presented in the magazine as "anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-liquor, and anti-Semitic." In February 1921, the New York World published an interview with Ford, in which he said: "The only statement I care to make about the Protocols is that they fit in with what is going on." During this period, Ford emerged as "a respected spokesman for right-wing extremism and religious prejudice," reaching around 700,000 readers through his newspaper. The 2010 documentary film Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story (written by Pulitzer Prize winner Ira Berkow) noted that Ford wrote on May 22, 1920: “If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball they have it in three words—too much Jew.”
In Germany, Ford's anti-Semitic articles from The Dearborn Independent were issued in four volumes, cumulatively titled The International Jew, the World's Foremost Problem published by Theodor Fritsch, founder of several anti-Semitic parties and a member of the Reichstag. In a letter written in 1924, Heinrich Himmler described Ford as "one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters." Ford is the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf. Adolf Hitler wrote, "only a single great man, Ford, to fury, still maintains full independence... the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions." Speaking in 1931 to a Detroit News reporter, Hitler said he regarded Ford as his "inspiration," explaining his reason for keeping Ford's life-size portrait next to his desk. Steven Watts wrote that Hitler "revered" Ford, proclaiming that "I shall do my best to put his theories into practice in Germany," and modeling the Volkswagen, the people's car, on the Model T.
On February 1, 1924, Ford received Kurt Ludecke, a representative of Hitler, at home. Ludecke was introduced to Ford by Siegfried Wagner (son of the composer Richard Wagner) and his wife Winifred, both Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites. Ludecke asked Ford for a contribution to the Nazi cause, but was apparently refused.
While Ford's articles were denounced by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the articles explicitly condemned pogroms and violence against Jews (Volume 4, Chapter 80), but blamed the Jews for provoking incidents of mass violence. None of this work was written by Ford, but he allowed his name to be used as author. According to trial testimony, he wrote almost nothing. Friends and business associates have said they warned Ford about the contents of the Independent and that he probably never read the articles. (He claimed he only read the headlines.) However, court testimony in a libel suit, brought by one of the targets of the newspaper, alleged that Ford did know about the contents of the Independent in advance of publication.
The libel lawsuit, which was brought by San Francisco lawyer and Jewish farm cooperative organizer Aaron Sapiro in response to anti-Semitic remarks, led Ford to close the Independent in December 1927. News reports at the time quoted him as saying he was shocked by the content and unaware of its nature. During the trial, the editor of Ford's "Own Page," William Cameron, testified that Ford had nothing to do with the editorials even though they were under his byline. Cameron testified at the libel trial that he never discussed the content of the pages or sent them to Ford for his approval. Investigative journalist Max Wallace noted that "whatever credibility this absurd claim may have had was soon undermined when James M. Miller, a former Dearborn Independent employee, swore under oath that Ford had told him he intended to expose Sapiro."
Michael Barkun observed,
That Cameron would have continued to publish such anti-Semitic material without Ford's explicit instructions seemed unthinkable to those who knew both men. Mrs. Stanley Ruddiman, a Ford family intimate, remarked that 'I don't think Mr. Cameron ever wrote anything for publication without Mr. Ford's approval.'
According to Spencer Blakeslee,
The ADL mobilized prominent Jews and non-Jews to publicly oppose Ford's message. They formed a coalition of Jewish groups for the same purpose and raised constant objections in the Detroit press. Before leaving his presidency early in 1921, Woodrow Wilson joined other leading Americans in a statement that rebuked Ford and others for their anti-Semitic campaign. A boycott against Ford products by Jews and liberal Christians also had an impact, and Ford shut down the paper in 1927, recanting his views in a public letter to Sigmund Livingston, ADL.
Wallace also found that Ford's apology was likely, at least partly, motivated by a business that was slumping as result of his anti-Semitism repelling potential buyers of Ford cars. Up until the apology, a considerable number of dealers, who had been required to make sure that buyers of Ford cars received the Independent, bought up and destroyed copies of the newspaper rather than alienate customers.
Ford's 1927 apology was well received. "Four-Fifths of the hundreds of letters addressed to Ford in July 1927 were from Jews, and almost without exception they praised the Industrialist." In January 1937, a Ford statement to the Detroit Jewish Chronicle disavowed "any connection whatsoever with the publication in Germany of a book known as the International Jew."
In July 1938, prior to the outbreak of war, the German consul at Cleveland gave Ford, on his 75th birthday, the award of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest medal Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner. James D. Mooney, vice-president of overseas operations for General Motors, received a similar medal, the Merit Cross of the German Eagle, First Class.
Distribution of International Jew was halted in 1942 through legal action by Ford, despite complications from a lack of copyright. It is still banned in Germany. Extremist groups often recycle the material; it still appears on antisemitic and neo-Nazi websites.
One Jewish public figure who was said to have been friendly with Ford was Detroit Judge Harry Keidan. When asked about this connection, Ford replied that Keidan was only half-Jewish. A close collaborator of Ford during World War II reported that Ford, at the time over 80 years old, was shown a movie of the Nazi concentration camps and was horrified by the atrocities documented in it.
The damage, however, had been done. Testifying at Nuremberg, convicted Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach who, in his role as military governor of Vienna deported 65,000 Jews to camps in Poland, stated,
The decisive anti-Semitic book I was reading and the book that influenced my comrades was that book by Henry Ford, "The International Jew." I read it and became anti-Semitic. The book made a great influence on myself and my friends because we saw in Henry Ford the representative of success and also the representative of a progressive social policy.
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