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Henry Ford: Behind the Myth

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With new revelations about unprecedented levels of domestic spying by the Obama administration, many Americans are reimagining the president in whom they once invested great hopes. While it is too soon to know how history will judge the Obama administration, we do know that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes mistaken for the truth. The same can be said for a myth. An often-repeated myth can create just as much of an aura of untruth as an outright lie. This is especially so when the myth has the effect of softening the image of historical figures, particularly our heroes. For our own sake if not for theirs, we should oblige ourselves to view these individuals without the distortion of filters that have been created for us.

One of the most mythologized figures in 20th century American history is the automaker Henry Ford. Ford refined (but did not invent) the car and invented the assembly line to produce it en masse. In the process he transformed American society. By making cars integral to family life and by revolutionizing industrial transportation, Ford came to personify the archetypical American rags to riches narrative. His origins cemented his identity as a "man of the people" and kept him eminently relatable no matter how wealthy he became.

Such was the foundation of a powerful myth: the idea that our economic captains, our kings of industry, are noble idealists whom we can aspire to emulate. Even as we become aware of their foibles and shortcomings, we measure them by what we admire and discount the lasting impact of what we don't. Henry Ford was an inveterate anti-Semite who used his company's money and resources to mass distribute a newspaper that defamed Jews. And yet, historians are reluctant to disturb the heroic image of Ford that continues to prevail more than 65 years after his death.

New biographies of Ford by Richard Snow and Vincent Curcio tell us that the automaker probably did not read the anti-Semitic articles in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. Responsible Ford biographers can no longer maintain this claim. Evidence from the papers of the lawyers who defended Ford against libel charges shows that Ford knew exactly what his paper was saying. Not only did he give orders to stop the articles in 1922, he also instructed the paper to resume attacking Jews in 1924. Ford orchestrated the outcome of the lawsuit, staging an automobile accident to avoid testifying and then arranging circumstances to produce a mistrial. Ford never lost control over the legal process, though he never stepped foot into Detroit's federal building.

To insist otherwise, as Snow and Curcio apparently do, is to follow biographers who seek to balance Ford's iconic legacy as an industrial entrepreneur with his shameful record as a purveyor of hate speech. No such balance is possible unless one divorces Ford's contributions to American business from his racial intolerance. Though Ford compartmentalized conflicting aspects of his life and work with ease, writers interested in historical assessment should not follow his lead. It is incumbent on anyone working on Ford to separate fact from fiction, or, at a minimum, history from myth.

One example shows the staying power of stories that reflect Ford as we might hope he was. In June 1920, after the Independent's first anti-Semitic article appeared, an exchange supposedly took place between Ford and his former neighbor, Detroit Rabbi Leo M. Franklin. Franklin had returned Ford's gift of a new Model T, with a note to Ford saying that he hoped eventually their friendship could resume. Upon receiving the letter, Ford telephoned Franklin to ask, "What's wrong, Dr. Franklin? Has something come between us?"

The conversation was first reported in the second volume of the trilogy by Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill, published in 1953; they cite as their source an issue of a local newspaper that does not exist. Instead of verifying the quotation, more than a dozen subsequent authors have repeated it verbatim for decades, citing Nevins and Hill. That both Snow and Curcio include it in their books demonstrates the holding power of one of the myths that suffuses Ford: he literally had no idea how his anti-Semitism affected the people around him.

Ford escaped from the libel lawsuit without paying lasting consequences. The least biographers can do now is to hold him accountable in the historical narratives they construct about him. Rehashing popular myths won't accomplish that end.