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Fordís Fundamentals, Part Two

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. After nearly a century of making cars, Ford is still one of the most important names in American business. And while much has been written about Fordís automobiles, there has been comparatively little focus on his life. Todayís guest believes that Henry Fordís story and his influence on American culture has not been fully appreciated. Who was Henry Ford? And why is he important today?

To find out, Think Tank is joined by Steven Watts, Professor of History at the University of Missouri and author of The Peopleís Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century.

The topic before the house: Fordís Fundamentals, part two, this week on Think Tank.


WATTENBERG: Steven Watts, welcome back to Think Tank.

WATTS: Thank you.

WATTENBERG: And I want to start about Fordís life, but I noticed that your previous book was about Walt Disney. And thereís something of a similarity between Ė I mean, thereíre all sort of century-shapers and technology-shapers and storytellers and itís an interesting match. I mean, one would not think that a professor who wrote a book about the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney would pick next, Henry Ford, but you did. Alright. Heís born in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War. He grows up on a farm, the way most people at that time did. Doesnít much take to farming and horses and that kind of stuff, and what did he do?

WATTS: Well Ford growing up on the farm was notorious as a kid for hating farm labor and apparently there were family stories where he would sneak off and not work and sort of got into a lot of trouble for that.
He also hated the inefficiency of farm labor. He thought a lot of work Ė the process of work was done in a very kind of haphazard way, not efficient and he hated horses. Sort of a personal pathology. He hated horses with a passion.

WATTENBERG: I mean, thereís sort of an irony that the guy who hates horses creates a horseless carriage.

WATTS: The horseless carriage.

WATTENBERG: Horseless carriage. Right.

WATTS: Exactly. One of his notebooks I found after the Model T was up and running, he had written ďTHE HORSE IS DONE!Ē in capital letters with an exclamation point.

WATTENBERG: How long did it take you to write this book?

WATTS: It took me about five years, give or take a...

WATTENBERG: You have a great gift for a narrative recounting and I commend you for it.

WATTS: Thank you very much.

WATTENBERG: Okay. So he Ė he leaves home after he finishes Ė how many grades?

WATTS: Well he hung around home Ďtil he was in his late teens and then he drifted off to Detroit.

WATTENBERG: And what did Ė and what did he do?

WATTS: Well he got a job in a variety of mechanical sorts of trades and shops sort of learning basic mechanical skills. He then was very interested in steam power and electricity and he ended up getting a job as an engineer in the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit and...

WATTENBERG: Edison Ė Thomas Alva Edison...

WATTS: The same.

WATTENBERG: ...later becomes a bosom buddy of Henry.

WATTS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And itís while Ford was an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company that he grows fascinated with this new technology sort of bubbling up of the gasoline engine and the automobile as itís coming to be known and he begins to tinker with his own version of that.

WATTENBERG: That era, of I guess the...

WATTS: 1890s.

WATTENBERG: ... late 1880s/1890s up until World War I, we had a Ė I had a colleague at the American Enterprise, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Herbert Stein who said that the change that occurred in those 25 years, or 30 years, whatever it is, was greater and would be greater than changes at any other time, that I mean Ė we hear about high tech in computers and all that kind of stuff which is wonderful. But when you start list Ė well, why donít you list some of the things that came into the consumer maw at that time.

WATTS: Well, I think the two big things, one is electricity, of course, which Edison and others were pioneering which really transformed middle class life in this country first. And then the automobile was the second. And I think Stein was absolutely right; in the early 20th century changes occurred which really overhauled American life, middle class life in amazing ways and the automobile I think was the key to creating modern American society structures, the way we live in the modern world. And I think Edison was the cutting edge person with the former and Ford...

WATTENBERG: With the light...

WATTS: With electricity and then Ford with the...

WATTENBERG: I mean, but you also had the advent of radio and moving pictures and the telegraph, I guess, is a little earlier. And my own favorite is one thatís really going to change the world and is now is air conditioning. It starts Ė it begins as in industrial thing but itís a Ė I mean, it made a whole area of the world habitable. I mean, you look at the American south...

WATTS: Absolutely.

WATTENBERG: ...a city like Atlanta or something like that city. Who would want to work in those conditions without air conditioning?

WATTS: Absolutely. And the other thing I would add in from that period is I think a consumer economy as opposed to an older kind of producer economy in the 19th century really revs up in the early 20th century. And I think that changes the economic structure in the ways in which ordinary people live in this country as well.

WATTENBERG: Alright, so now you say that Ford is a visionary, a moralist, a bigot and a desolate. Sir...

WATTS: (Laughing) Thatís a lot of ground to cover.

WATTENBERG: Well, we can Ė we can get into it.

WATTS: Well which one shall we start with?

WATTENBERG: Well, letís start with the moralist.

WATTS: Okay. Well Henry Ford the moralist, I think that is a reflection of a complicated part of his personality in that Henry Ford who created the modern world in many ways was also Henry Ford who was deeply attached to certain traditions in 19th century America and the older he got, I think the more profound those attachments became.
He was an old-fashioned believer in a kind of Victorian ethic of reticence and self control, at least ostensively. A believer in the old-fashioned virtues of hard work; a believer in old-fashioned traditions, even culturally, like folk dancing, fiddle music, all of this kind of thing. So thereís Henry Ford, the 19th century moralist whoís there at certain times...

WATTENBERG: And when he gets richer later creates these museums that in exquisite detail recreates his boyhood home and Thomas Edisonís boyhood home and buys everything in sight thatís antiquarian and worships it. Thatís one side.

WATTS: Absolutely. And itís a very important part of his personality and by his older years, thatís where Ford liked to spend his time actually, at Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum. Deeply attached I think ironically to the world that he had destroyed in many ways with his automobile.

WATTENBERG: He, again, thinking of his agricultural roots, creates not only automobiles but tractors as well. Is that right?

WATTS: In the 1930s Ford gets very involved with creating a tractor for the American farmer, sort of the Model T version of the tractor. The Ford-Ferguson tractor in the Ď30s, yes.

WATTENBERG: Right. And he becomes sort of a hero in that regard. Sort of, you get the feeling not realizing he said itíll make the life of the farmer easier, which it surely did, but it also diminishes the import... I mean, you know, you have a person Ė one person able to do what twenty people used to have to do, I mean with a hoe and whatever else it is you use.

WATTS: Well, in a sense it was, I think, but in a larger sense the tractor project in the Ď30s was part of the old Henry Ford reassessing what the younger Henry Ford had done.

WATTENBERG: It was called what, the Fordson?

WATTS: The Fordson tractor was one version of it and then the Ford-Ferguson tractor in the Ď30s was yet another version.
I think the real story with this in the Ď30s is that Ford in a sense went back to the land. He had second thoughts about the assembly line; he had second thoughts about the River Rouge Plant and what he wanted to do in the Ď30s in a way was to reform agricultural life. So heís doing the tractor stuff for American farmers, heís also talking about decentralizing the production of Ford automobiles and creating small factories out in the countryside for farmers to work in.

WATTENBERG: So here you have this great traditionalist, moralist, and it turns out that he has a mistress for, what, twenty or thirty years... a long... whatís her name?

WATTS: Eve Dahlinger.

WATTENBERG: Right. A very accomplished woman, horseback rider, and he installs her in a mansion next to his. Is that correct?

WATTS: It is. It was a young woman heíd met in the 19-teens in his company and an attraction kind of grew up and he ended up marrying her off to a man who essentially Ė his sort of bodyguard, right-hand man Ė in a kind of false marriage in many ways.

WATTENBERG: And this goes on and on and she, his mistress, has a son.

WATTS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: And the son works in the plant, in the company in one way or another.

WATTS: A little bit.

WATTENBERG: What is his name?

WATTS: John Dahlinger.

WATTENBERG: Keeping the maiden name of...

WATTS: Yes. Well, actually the gentlemanís name was Dahlinger who married Eve so itís his ostensible fatherís name. Yes.

WATTENBERG: I see. Now, given all his structural activity as an anti-Semite, it does not, apparently, fall over into anti-Black sentiment. And he becomes a very close friend and supporter and admirer of George Washington Carver. Why donít you tell us something about him?

WATTS: Right. Although it is surprising to me as well, I expected that Ford would have a kind of prejudice against African-Americans, but quite the contrary, he was a beloved figure for hiring black Detroiters for many decades in Ford factories when others wouldnít. And then in the 1930s he strikes up this great friendship with George Washington Carver, who he once said was a greater man than Edison, and Edison was his god, so that was a very significant statement. He became very enamored of Carver for his agricultural experiments and his endeavor to create new sorts of crops and so on for the American farmer...

WATTENBERG: And Carver was black.

WATTS: Oh, absolutely.

WATTENBERG: Right

WATTS: Yes. An African-American from the south. And they became very close friends and I think it is an interesting aspect of his kind of social views in that vein.

WATTENBERG: And at one point, again considering his prejudices, he is employing immigrant labor in great amounts. Is that right?

WATTS: Yes. Tremendous amounts. Yes. Especially with the advent of the assembly line, Ford Motor Companyís hiring tens of thousands of often new immigrants to the Detroit area, so much so that foremen have to learn certain commands in several different languages in order to get jobs done.

WATTENBERG: And he sets up classes to teach them English. Is that right?

WATTS: Indeed. Yes. The famous Ford Schools up there where Ė well not only to learn English but to learn to be an American, as Ford liked to put it, because these classes were also about not just English language but about the American political system, about sort of the morays and the habits of Ė of middle class America and so on... really trying to get immigrants I think sort of acclimatized to Ė to regular American life, as Ford would have called it, in this country.

WATTENBERG: Tell us about this truly unique set up within Ford Motor Company called the Sociology Department.

WATTS: Well, the Sociology Department was created along with the five dollar day in 1914 because Fordís doubling of the salary was also connected to what he thought was helping his workers to lead a better life. And what he set up was a kind of bureaucracy within the Ford Company, essentially social workers who worked for Ford who went to peopleís houses and there was sort of a good side and a not so good side. The good side was they tried to help often fairly poor people learn the rudiments of caring for children, of hygiene...

WATTENBERG: Saving money, buying a house.

WATTS: Essentially. Thrift and various kind of habits. Sort of the bad side of that is there was also a kind of a certain big brother quality...

WATTENBERG: It was very paternalistic, wasnít it?

WATTS: Very paternalistic.

WATTENBERG: You want to work here you got to Ė I mean, it was sort of the company store kind of mentality.

WATTS: And interestingly a lot of progressive reformers embraced Fordís Sociology Department in the early going, but as the paternal side of it became more evident they sort of drifted away as well, so itís a bit of a failed experiment in the long run.

WATTENBERG: Now on another topic, he believed in reincarnation. Is that correct?

WATTS: Yes. Yes. Ford had really from a fairly young age what most Americans would have considered rather curious religious ideas. He was raised as a kind of traditional protestant but he did get attracted to sort of mystical religions in early adulthood. Believed in reincarnation, had some theories of his own about subatomic particles floating around, recombining and so on. A little off the beaten track in American religion.

WATTENBERG: Now, Henry Ford, in the course of this variegated life, also became somewhat of a health food nut, didnít he? I mean, could you tell us about that?

WATTS: Well, one aspect of Fordís life that I knew nothing about and I donít think many people know much about is his endeavors in the early 20th century as a kind of reformer of physical health and life.
He became a great believer in health foods and he sort of ran the gamut of - I guess we would call fads of vegetarian diets, exclusively eating carrots for example, or onions. He became a big crusader, one of the first in the country against cigarette use, tobacco use; big crusader against alcohol consumption; a big crusader on behalf of physical development and exercise and this kind of thing. And all of this eventually came together as sort of this creed of positive thinking...

WATTENBERG: I mean, you say Ė you have a very interesting few passages there about when he goes into his carrot phase and he has carrot pie, carrot main dishes and carrot jello and carrot Ė I mean, itís a Ė he does everything in a big way.

WATTS: He does, indeed, and the story of that banquet he held with 20-some carrot dishes from the entrťe to the desert, was that all of the guests when they left the room were looking in the mirror to see if they had turned orange because some of them were convinced that they had. So he had one fad after another that he embraced throughout his life.

WATTENBERG: And he at one point became a physical fitness buff. Is that right?

WATTS: Absolutely.

WATTENBERG: Whatever he did, he did wholeheartedly. I mean, what he did on the physical fitness thing? Did he run regularly or...

WATTS: Well, he was notorious for running and even as a middle-aged man apparently he would go through his factory and challenge men to races and they would race the length of the building. Even when he was in his seventies and eighties he would sort of jump out of his car with guests and challenge them to a footrace. So he was notorious for doing that. He rode his bicycle a lot. Was very interested in physical health.

WATTENBERG: Now, can you tell me Ė again, weíre going backward a little bit in time - who were the four vagabonds?

WATTS: The four vagabonds was kind of a popular term that referred to Henry Ford himself, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and a famous environmentalist, naturalist of the time named John Burroughs.

WATTENBERG: Right.

WATTS: And the four vagabonds, sort of evidence of Fordís marketing genius of himself, they went on camping trips in the 19-teens and Ď20s and Ford would carefully invite several dozen reporters and newsreel photographers to accompany them and theyíd follow them through the countryside and sort of hang on every word and write down...

WATTENBERG: I mean he Ė he...

WATTS: ... in the newspaper...

WATTENBERG: He sort of knows everyone, doesnít he?

WATTS: Just about.

WATTENBERG: I mean, heís free with giving interviews and having books and articles ghostwritten for him, which some people would say - and weíve talked about some of them - have kind of crackpot ideas, but it is Ė again, he remains a great hero to the people.

WATTS: Well, I think he is a great hero to ordinary people who I think admired Ford enormously for the Model T and for the kinds of messages that he brought to them about enjoying material abundance being a good thing in our culture.

WATTENBERG: Alright. So you have this visionary, this moralist, this positive thinker, and yet letís talk first about his personal despotism. What is the story on that?

WATTS: Well, Ford I think had a very despotic streak in his personality. He wanted to run the show and he did so with more or less a kind of iron hand at the Ford Motor Company, both for good and for bad, I think. In the early days of the company that control allowed him to envision and create the Model T.

WATTENBERG: I mean, one of the reasons he got out of all these little companies in the early part of the century was that he didnít have the absolute control that he wanted to create this vision.

WATTS: Absolutely.

WATTENBERG: So he buys out everybodyís shares or he sets up a new company or fakes one way and goes the other way. But ends up with the ability to be in control, which at times leads to despotism.

WATTS: Well, it does and I think it illustrates the old saying, ďAbsolute power corrupts absolutelyĒ because by the 1920s and the 1930s, Henry Ford basically had no one to tell him no. And he made some very serious errors in judgment because of his absolute control, like holding onto the Model T probably ten years after it had lost its usefulness.

WATTENBERG: And started losing share, not only to General Motors, but to Chrysler at one point. Ford is number three.

WATTS: Absolutely. Falls dramatically by the late Ď20s.

WATTENBERG: I guess the classic example of his despotism deals with his only legitimate son, Edsel Ford. Can you Ė itís not only despotic, but cruel.

WATTS: It is indeed. Itís in my view the most tragic chapter of Fordís life and as I was studying it and seeing it unfold, it made me very sad, actually.
Edsel was Henry Fordís only son with his wife Clara and he wanted his son to be a copy of himself; a kind of hard-driving, shrewd businessman and Edsel was a very different kind of man. He was very refined. He was interested in art. A very different kind of temperament. And basically Henry, even though he made Edsel the President of the company, undermined him at every opportunity...

WATTENBERG: Publicly...

WATTS: Publicly. Pushed him at very opportunity, wanting Edsel to rebel and show some fire and spunk and...

WATTENBERG: And yet the people that Edsel worked about who were his fatherís people, Sorenson Ė was Sorenson his first name?

WATTS: Right. Charles Sorenson

WATTENBERG: Yes... liked Edsel and respected him.

WATTS: Everybody liked Edsel. Everyone thought he was a gentleman and a wonderful human being.

WATTENBERG: And he was quite capable, I mean, apparently.

WATTS: Extremely capable. The problem is Henry wanted him to be a kind of cookie cutter image of himself and he was just a different person. And basically he made Edselís life very, very difficult. Edsel developed stomach ulcers, probably as a result of all of this, eventually stomach cancer and died at a very young age.

WATTENBERG: And he predeceases his father.

WATTS: Yes, he died in the early 1940s at age 48 or 49, a very young man.

WATTENBERG: Steven Watts, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank. You have sketched here a portrait of great progress, great abundance, great contradiction, a great deal of absolute flakiness, but a story of a true American original, so we thank you for that.

WATTS: Thank you very much for having me.

WATTENBERG: And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments to us via email. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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