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Business and the Holocaust
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©The Hanover Historical Review 1999.   Used by permission.
Power, Ignorance, and Anti-Semitism:
Henry Ford and His War on Jews
by Jonathan R. Logsdon
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          Ernest Liebold did not help matters with his response to the criticism. He looked at it from a purely business standpoint, arguing that Ford employed 3,500 Germans and produced 15,000 cars each year in their overseas agency. "For a nation," Liebold stated, "of 70,000,000 to recognize the achievements of a man in another land seems to be an honor which cannot be disregarded or ignored. We have interests, physical, financial, and moral, which have taken many years to establish, and consequently such foundations cannot be uprooted overnight to comply with propaganda intended to arouse American sympathy."249

            Ford, himself, did not publicly respond to the charges until four months later; in December of 1938. Ford met with Rabbi Leo Franklin and, following their conversation, had an authorized statement issued to the press. In the statement, Ford advocated U.S. acceptance for the growing tide of Jewish refugees from Europe and pledged his support for such an effort. He also defended his acceptance of Hitler's medal, stating that it was his opinion that the German people as a whole "are not in sympathy with their rulers in their anti-Jewish policies," which, Ford explained, was the work of "a few war-makers at the top." "My acceptance of a medal from the German people," Ford continued, "does not, as some people seem to think, involve any sympathy on my part with Nazism. Those who have known me for years realize that anything that breeds hate repulses me."250 Ford's statement was applauded by Jewish leaders across the country. Rabbi Abraham L. Feinberg brought up another noteworthy American in his praise for Ford, commenting, "Perhaps Colonel Lindbergh will now follow his good example and make a similar public disapproval [of Nazi policies]."251 Charles Lindbergh, like Ford, had recently received a medal from the Nazi Government. However; the sincerity of Ford's statement was soon to be called into question. One evening, not long after Ford's statement was issued, Rabbi Franklin received an anonymous telephone call from someone who would only identify himself as "former Ford serviceman." Franklin was told that he had been duped by Ford and would soon be double-crossed by Ford, Father Coughlin, and Ford investigator Harry Bennett.252

            The next Sunday, Father Coughlin announced in his weekly radio address that Rabbi Franklin had actually ghostwritten Ford's statement following their meeting. Coughlin alleged that the phony direct quotations were "totally inaccurate" to Ford's true feelings, that Ford actually believed that there was little or no persecution of Jews in Germany, and that Ford believed that the war mongering parties in Europe were the "international bankers" and not the German government. "Moreover;" Coughlin added, "while Mr. Ford expressed his humanitarianism for all people, yet he believed that Jews wouldn't be content to work in factories."253 Father Coughlin went on to state that this information had been obtained from Harry Bennett while in the presence of Henry Ford, and had been authorized in a signed statement.

          Bennett himself issued a statement the next day. In it, he presented a compromise between the earlier press release and Father Coughlin's accusations. Bennett claimed that Father Coughlin's version was essentially correct, except that he had not used the phrase "totally inaccurate" and that Ford did not state the belief that "there was little or no prosecution in Germany." However; Bennett further stated that "Mr. Ford did not attack the German Government, and did not mention Nazism. He did say that he did not know whether there was any persecution, but that if there was any he didn't believe that the German people or the German Government were responsible, but an organized few, the warmakers and international bankers."254 The statement was then written by Dr. Franklin, changed to the first person, authorized by Ford, and issued to the press. When Father Coughlin's Social Justice magazine called and asked if the press release was accurate, Bennett had explained that it was "not totally accurate" and signed a statement declaring it as such.255

          In the aftermath of this statement, an understandably confused Rabbi Franklin refused to make an official comment. The Detroit Free Press, however; made it clear where it stood. It praised Rabbi Franklin as "One of the great spiritual leaders of Detroit," while it condemned Coughlin as a man "well known for his congenital inability to tell the truth."256 An outraged Father Coughlin sued the newspaper for $4,000,000, but later retracted when he saw the evidence the paper had against him. In the meantime, Bennett issued another statement in which he stated that "Father Coughlin crossed me up. I am going to get in touch with him and tell him so. The statement as published was accurate and expresses Mr. Ford's sentiments."257

          Throughout the whole episode, Ford remained silent. He refused to comment on either Bennett or Father Coughlin's statements and, more importantly, refused to defend his old friend, Rabbi Franklin. It appeared that Ford was trying to project a double image with the conflicting statements. To Jewish groups, he would appear to be a pawn for the notoriously anti-Semitic Father Coughlin. At the same time, to Nazi-sympathizers, it would appear that Ford had been taken advantage of by Rabbi Franklin. In the end, the whole matter was never truly resolved. The Anti-Nazi Bulletin complained that, "in handling the situation in this way Ford has settled nothing. He is completely naive, or utterly contemptuous of public opinion if he supposes that this torturous way of dealing with the gravest problem confronting Democracy will leave him unscathed."258 Secretary of the Interior; Harold L. Ickes, ignored all of the public excuses, and proclaimed that anyone who accepted a decoration from a dictator automatically foreswore his American birthright. "How can any American," Ickes demanded, "accept a decoration from the hand of a brutal dictator who, with that same hand, is robbing and torturing thousands of fellow human beings?"259

          Privately, Ford stated that, "They [the Germans] sent me this ribbon band. They [the critics] told me to return it or else I'm not an American. I'm going to keep it!"260 Editor Oswald Garrison Villard noted that he did not think that Ford had the mentality to understand the significance of his actions, that "a boy of 12 would do better." Villard pointed out that Ford had many German workers employed overseas, so it seemed to Ford "just a pleasant gesture, quite harmless."261 Harry Bennett, himself, later expressed a similar opinion, believing that Ford did it out of mulishness, ignorance, and a failure to understand the consequences of his actions.262

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End Notes

249. Lewis, 150.

250. New York Times, 1 December 1938, 12.

251. New York Times, 4 December 1938, 42.

252. Sward, 454.

253. New York Times, 5 December 1938, 4.

254. Ibid.

255. Ibid.

256. Sward, 455.

257. Lewis, 151.

258. Anti-Nazi Bulletin, December 1938, 5.

259. New York Times, 19 December 1938, 5.

260. Lewis, 151.

261. Ibid., 150.

262. Bennett, 210.


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