Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
Henry Ford, the industrial genius who perfected the mass production of motorcars before World War I and thereby revolutionized the way we live, was a reclusive man who brooked no opposition or criticism. Ford’s determination to prevent unionism at his plants produced strikes and violence, mostly initiated by Ford’s own strikebreakers. He opposed various symbols of social and cultural change around him, including Hollywood movies, out-of-home childcare, government regulation of business, Eastern European immigration, and new fashions in dress and music.
In an age that celebrated industrial heroes, Ford was a true giant. In 1922, he considered running for the presidency. Public opinion polls reflected his widespread support. Despite his desire to occupy the most visible position in the nation, historian Keith Sward described Ford as “inaccessible as the Grand Lama” and an anti-democrat. One of the few individuals Ford trusted was his personal secretary, Ernest Liebold, whom historian Leo Ribuffo calls “an ambitious martinet” who took advantage of Ford’s dislike of paperwork and refusal to read his mail to control access to the great man. Ford would later blame Liebold for his Jewish woes.
In the period from 1910 to 1918, Ford grew increasingly anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-liquor, and anti-Semitic. In 1919, he purchased a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. He installed an editor and hired a journalist, William J. Cameron, to listen to his ideas and write a weekly column in his name.
Strangely, Ford came to believe in a Jewish world conspiracy. He blamed Jewish financiers for fomenting World War I so that they could profit from supplying both sides. He suspected Jewish automobile dealers of conspiring to undermine Ford Company sales policies. Ford vented his beliefs about Jewish power public in the pages of the Dearborn Independent. For a year, the editor resisted running Ford’s anti-Jewish articles and finally resigned rather than publish them. Cameron, Ford’s personal columnist, took over the editorship and, in May 1920, published the first of a series of articles titled “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.”
For the next 18 months, Cameron ran the “International Jew” as a series and later collected the articles and published them as a book. Liebold hired former military intelligence investigators to assist Cameron in gathering so-called “evidence” that “proved” Jewish control of world finance, Jewish organization of radical political movements, and Jewish manipulation of diplomacy to cause wars in which Christians died to enrich Jews. The investigators unearthed evidence that President Woodrow Wilson took secret orders over the phone from Justice Brandeis and that a Jewish member of the Federal Reserve Board personally thwarted Ford’s plan to purchase nitrate mines from the Federal government.
(Image to the left: The Dearborn Independent, “The International Jew: The World’s Problem,” May 22, 1920. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)
A few months after the series began, Ford’s operatives introduced him to a Russian émigré, Paquita de Shishmareff. She showed Ford a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document forged by the Russian czar’s secret service at the turn of the century that purportedly recorded a series of lectures by European Jewish leaders that outlined a conspiracy by Jewish communists and bankers to overthrow European governments. Ford passed a copy of the Protocols to Cameron and the Independent turned its attention to bringing this “blueprint” for world destruction to the public.
As historian Ribuffo puts it, “Whether or not an Elder of Zion actually gave these lectures” described in the Protocols, “it was clear [to Ford] that Jews used these ideas to ‘corrupt Public Opinion,’ [that Jews] controlled finance, sponsored revolution, and were ‘everywhere’ exercising power.” The Independent charged that the Jewish-inspired national debt was enslaving Americans and that German Jewish financier Paul Warburg had immigrated to America “for the express purpose of changing our financial system” by creating the Federal Reserve. As an “international nation” of people who cooperated with each other, Jews had an unfair advantage in business over Christians, who relied on individualism to get ahead. The paper even described American Jewish aid for European Jewish victims of pogroms as part of the conspiracy.
For seven years, the Independent continued to publish anti-Semitic articles until the target of one series, California farm cooperative organizer Aaron Sapiro, sued Ford for libel. Sapiro was the third Jew to sue Ford and the first to get to trial. Ford refused to testify and apparently staged an automobile accident so he could hide in a hospital. The judge finally declared a mistrial, but Ford decided to settle with Sapiro out of court. During the trial, Jewish leaders had called for a boycott of Ford motorcars and slumping sales might have played a role in Ford’s decision to put the case behind him.
Leaders of the American Jewish Committee and B’nai Brith Anti-Defamation League negotiated an agreement whereby Ford publicly announced that “articles reflecting on the Jews” would never again appear in the Independent. Ford claimed that he was “mortified” to learn the Protocols were forged, described himself as “fully aware of the virtues of the Jewish people” and offered them his “future friendship and good will.” He claimed to have been too busy to read the pieces and implicitly blamed Liebold and Cameron for printing them. Louis Marshall, chair of the American Jewish Committee, described Ford’s statement as “humiliating.”
Ford closed the Independent in December 1927. He later claimed that his signature on the agreement with Marshall was forged, and that Jewish bankers had caused World War II. Ford died in 1947, apparently unrepentant.