|The American Axis:
Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of the Third Reich
by Max Wallace
Excerpt From Chapter 12
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four
On December 7, 1942, a Treasury investigator named John Lawler made a surprise appearance at the Ford Motor Company's Dearborn, Michigan corporate headquarters with a document ordering the company to immediately open its complete books and files, under the authority of the 1917 Trading With The Enemy Act. The Act, which was intended to prevent any economic activity that could benefit enemy powers, prohibited U.S. firms from having any contact with enterprises in occupied Europe. Lawler instructed the company to locate all records relating to its French subsidiary's operations since the fall of France in June, 1940. For weeks, investigators combed the company's files, copying thousands of documents relating to Ford France. For an additional three months, Treasury Department attorneys in Washington carefully scrutinized the mountain of paperwork, looking for any sign that the company had violated federal statutes. Finally, on May 25, 1943, the investigation complete, a Treasury attorney named Randolph Paul dispatched a copy of the Lawler report to US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau with a memo summarizing its most significant findings:
1) The business of the Ford subsidiaries in France substantially increased;
2) their production was solely for the benefit of Germany and the countries under its occupation;
3) the Germans have shown clearly their wish to protect the Ford interests because of the attitude of strict neutrality maintained by Henry and Edsel Ford; and
4) the increased activity of the French subsidiaries on behalf of the Germans received the recommendation of the Ford family in America.
The accompanying report is damning. It reprints the extensive correspondence between Dearborn and Ford France Managing Director Maurice Dollfuss, including numerous letters to and from Edsel proving that Dearborn knew and approved of the French company's substantial manufacturing efforts on behalf of the German military. (See Chapter Eight). For two years, Dearborn had applauded Dollfuss's efforts, praising as a "remarkable achievement" the huge profits he realized manufacturing on behalf of the Nazi war machine. Because the overwhelming majority of this correspondence was exchanged before Pearl Harbor, it broke no US federal laws.
However, Treasury investigators immediately seized on a series of eleven letters exchanged between Dollfuss and Dearborn between January and October, 1942 — after the United States had entered the war. The base of Ford's French operations was located in Poissy in the Nazi-occupied zone. The Poissy plant was therefore classified by the American government as enemy property. Any communications between Poissy and Dearborn would have violated the Trading With the Enemy Act. But Dollfuss had figured out a loophole around these restrictions. Because Ford France also had a plant located in neutral Vichy, Dollfuss was able to dispatch his assistant Georges Lesto, acting as a courier, to Vichy in order to send and receive correspondence between Ford France and American corporate headquarters in Dearborn.
From previous correspondence with Dollfuss, Dearborn was well aware that its French plants were generating enormous profits manufacturing vehicles for the German military. Edsel frequently commended Dollfuss for his efforts. Before Pearl Harbor, there was nothing officially improper about these Nazi military contracts. But on January 28, 1942, Dollfuss's letters took on a more circumspect tone. He writes Edsel admitting that, "since the existence of a state of war between the United States and Germany, correspondence is difficult." He reveals that Ford continued to profit from Nazi military contracts, despite US entry into the war, noting that "production is continuing at the same rate despite difficulties." Dollfuss goes on to boast that the company's military production is distributed between the collaborationist Vichy government and the Nazi military authorities in Occupied France, adding that "this production rate is the best of all the French manufacturers." He confides that he is still relying on Vichy to "preserve the interests of the American shareholders."
On February 11, Dollfuss sent another letter to Dearborn, reporting the company's 1941 net profit at 58,000,000 francs. A month later, Dollfuss cabled Edsel informing him that the Poissy plant had been severely bombed and that one man was wounded. On May 11, 1942, Edsel finally responded to Dollfuss's letters, writing, "It is interesting to note that you have started your African company and are laying plans for a more peaceful future." At this point, he refers to the recent bombing of the Poissy plant, revealing that photographs of the plant on fire were published in American newspapers but "fortunately no reference was made to the Ford Motor Company." Treasury investigators paid particular attention to this phrase, noting Edsel's eagerness to avoid alerting the public to the fact that a Ford plant was manufacturing for the Nazis.
On June 6, Dollfuss wrote Edsel again informing him that the Poissy plant had now been bombed four times but that the government had agreed to compensate the company for any damages incurred. He hoped Edsel would show the letter to his father and Ford Production Chief Charles Sorensen. On July 17, Edsel responded, stating that he was pleased that the company was in good health and that Dollfuss was "carrying on the best way possible under the circumstances":
"I have shown your letter to my father and Mr. Sorensen and they both join me in sending best wishes for you and your staff, and the hope that you will continue to carry on the good work you are doing."
The team of Treasury investigators were stunned by this letter. The previous correspondence clearly proved that a Ford company was complicit in helping to send thousands of American soldiers to their deaths on the bloody battlefields of Europe. The Nazis frequently commended the efficiency of Ford-produced military vehicles in the success of their combat operations. Now, here was apparent evidence that Edsel Ford approved of these efforts and wanted them to continue. On May 25, 1943 Morgenthau forwarded a copy of the Lawler report to President Roosevelt, directing the President's attention to what he calls the "amazing and shocking correspondence" between Edsel Ford and Dollfuss. Although the Lawler report was never made public, Eleanor Roosevelt was almost certainly referring to it in her "My Day" column in September, 1945 when she wrote:
"I recall hearing after France fell and after we went into the war, that the heads of a big industry in this country cabled congratulations to their managers in France because the latter were keeping the plant going — although they were keeping it going by making what the Germans asked them to make....Business complications do strange things to our patriotism and ethics."
On May 26, 1943, only one day after the Treasury Department completed its investigation, Edsel Ford died suddenly at the age of 49. His premature death had always been blamed on stress over the company's bungled B-24 program. But Edsel was well aware that government investigators were investigating his involvement in potentially treasonous activities. It is entirely conceivable that his worry over the disgrace of a federal indictment in fact contributed significantly to the rapid decline of his health and even his death.
On the same day Edsel died, copies of the Lawler report were forwarded to the US Military Intelligence Division, the Office of Naval Intelligence and the FBI. After a three-month Justice Department investigation, the United States assistant Attorney General dropped a bombshell. An examination of the correspondence between Edsel and Dollfuss concluded that there was the "basis for a case" against Edsel Ford under the Trading With the Enemy Act.