Henry Ford's anti-Semitic views echoed the fears and assumptions of many Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anti-Semitism in America saw a change in expression and virulence when increased immigration from Europe brought millions of Jews to the U.S. during Ford's childhood in the latter half of the 19th century. It reached its peak during the mid-1920s: a time when Ku Klux Klanmembership had reached four million, Prohibition restricted alcohol consumption, and discriminatory immigration policies were enacted favoring immigrants from northern and western Europe over other parts of the world.
A close friend recalled a camping trip in 1919 during which Ford lectured a group around the campfire. He "attributes all evil to Jews or to the Jewish capitalists," the friend wrote in his diary. "The Jews caused the war, the Jews caused the outbreak of thieving and robbery all over the country, the Jews caused the inefficiency of the navy…"
In 1918, Henry Ford purchased his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. A year and a half later, he began publishing a series of articles that claimed a vast Jewish conspiracy was infecting America. The series ran in the following 91 issues. Ford bound the articles into four volumes titled "The International Jew," and distributed half a million copies to his vast network of dealerships and subscribers. The rhetoric was not unusual for its content, as much as its scope. As one of the most famous men in America, Henry Ford legitimized ideas that otherwise may have been given little authority.
In 2012, American Experience interviewed Hasia Diner, the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History and Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, and Director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History to ask her about Henry Ford's anti-Semitic views and the impact of his public expression of them. Diner is a prolific author and has written many books about American Jewish history, including her 2004 book, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. Here are excerpts from her interview.
What is the climate of anti-Semitism in America during the late 19th century?
By the 1870s in Europe and the United States, the argument shifts to the Jews as defective. Not Judaism as defective, but the Jew as a particular social type who had defective mental and moral abilities. All sorts of attributions were made to "the Jews." The Jews killed Christ, the Jews do not want to accept the truth of Christianity, the Jews made money off the war, the Jews are profiteers, the Jews cheat you in business. The Jews have a certain phenotype: the Jew has a hook nose, the Jew is loud, the Jew talks with his hands.
Anti-Semitism came from the top down from elite sources, and from the bottom up from populist sources. It came from the right, and the left. Small towns were no more hotbeds of anti-Semitism than large cities. It could be pretty much anyplace.
What exposure might Henry Ford have had to anti-Semitism when he was growing up on a farm in rural Michigan in the 1870s and 1880s?
The world that Henry Ford grew up in was one that very likely offered him certain themes about the Jews. He might have heard about them in church, that they were responsible for the crucifixion. He could have heard about them when somebody grumbled about having shopped in a Jewish-owned store and felt that they didn't get the right price, or that they were sold shoddy goods, that the Jewish shopkeeper was too aggressive in trying to talk them into buying something. There were many places, without being able to put your finger on a specific one in a specific town, in which "the Jew" serves as, at that point of time, almost both a theological and a kind of racialized symbol of forces that people considered to be nefarious.
What kind of things did Henry Ford blame on Jews?
Throughout The Dearborn Independent, Ford published articles that would refer to Jews in every possible context as at the root of America and the world's ills. Strikes: It was the Jews. Any kind of financial scandal? The Jews. Agricultural depression? The Jews. So "the Jew," in a way, became the symbol of a world that was being manipulated and controlled.
To me, that's one of the really crucial forces in this rhetoric -- that things didn't just happen; but rather somebody is orchestrating these developments, and it's the Jews who are doing it for their benefit. They're doing it in order [to] gain the twin-linked goodies of power and wealth.
Ford also republished the Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- what is that?
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a notorious forgery that originally came from Russia, and [was] translated into English. [It] claimed the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy -- that a group of Jews got together and basically planned the fate of the world, be it financial catastrophe, be it war. The world was controlled by this little cabal of Jews. [This forgery was] printed in The Dearborn Independent as a factual piece. And so someone reading it would take this to be the news.
What separates Ford from other people who were publishing anti-Semitic material during this time?
There are lots of small town newspapers that publish scurrilous anti-Semitic material, so it wasn't unusual in that way. But what's notable about The Dearborn Independent is that it was also spread through the Ford Motor dealerships. And so that there'd be stacks of them in a dealership in California, dealership in Massachusetts, a dealership in Iowa. In some places, the dealership would actually put copies of the newspaper in the car, so that when you drove off with your Model T, there you had on the seat next to you a copy of The Dearborn Independent.
And because The Dearborn Independent was published by Ford, it meant that other newspapers would pick up on what he said, and if only in reporting on an article that appeared in The Dearborn Independent, it meant that it got much greater currency than if it had just been a small-town newspaper in some equivalent sized town in Wisconsin or Montana. But this was Henry Ford's newspaper, and pretty much anything Henry Ford did was news.
What Henry Ford says, people stop and listen. There are people who talked about him as a potential presidential candidate in the 1920s. Some local tavern keeper makes a anti-Semitic remark over the bar, well, nobody cares. Somebody may listen, and maybe repeat it, but it has a very limited span. But Henry Ford's ability to gain a national audience with his words made him a very dangerous person.
What did the Jewish community think about Ford's paper?
For the Jews who are reading Ford's rants in The Dearborn Independent, this is very frightening. Jewish publications in English and in Yiddish are reporting on the material that comes out in The Dearborn Independent. They're really tracking this.
They're frightened, I think, for two reasons. One, which is haunting, which is they're aware of what's going on in Germany. They see the rise of the National Socialist Party, and they're tracking that at the same time. And while it's at a very early date in Hitler's career, they are really paying attention to what's happening. It's also frightening because it's going on in their home in the United States, where they want to feel like they really belong and that they have served their country and that they are citizens and that they are viewed as real Americans.
And Ford is just about the most popular American, certainly one of the wealthiest; here's the person whose money and whose influence commands tremendous attention, spewing stuff that's no different than what Hitler is saying in his beer hall meetings in Munich at the same time.
For the Jews, I think it causes them to really question how really they're being accepted as Americans. I think it had psychic damage. I think it caused a kind of inward turning, a kind of fear of the larger society. I think it caused them to feel that they had to prove themselves, that it wasn't just enough that they were sober, honest, hard-working citizens. They had to make these pronouncements about how American they were.
In 1938, Ford received an award from the Nazi regime called the "Grand Cross of the German Eagle." How do we make sense of this award? What does it mean?
The Germans honor Ford, we could say, for a couple reasons. For one thing, they're very taken with the whole assembly line technological modernization. The Model T and Volkswagen are sort of similar cars. The idea of the Volkswagen, the people's car, was to be affordable to the average German. It's kind of like the Model T of its day; that the automobile shouldn't just be something for the elite, but it should be a car that the ordinary German could afford. So the Ford Model T and Volkswagen, we might think of as sort of in a similar category.
From the point of view of anti-Semitism, Hitler could look at Ford as somebody who was -- let's call him an age-mate. They were both in the 1920s beginning to write and disseminate information about what they both considered to be this great powerful threat, "the Jew."
And Hitler was very much inspired by Ford's writing. And the idea that this could happen in the United States, I think, was very important to Hitler as well, because as people in the United States were speaking out against Nazism and were using a kind of rhetoric, "Well, it could never happen here," and "We are the bastions of democracy," I think Hitler would have derived a degree of satisfaction to be able to point to Ford as, in a way, just as good an anti-Semite as he was.
Is it possible to quantify the damage Ford wrought?
It's hard to say how much damage Ford did. People may have been anti-Semitic without Ford. It's only intriguing as to the degree to which he may have been responsible, rather than the degree to which he corroborated ideas that were floating out there from other sources.
Hitler was very aware of Henry Ford, of Henry Ford's writings, and praised them. He turned to the same documents. There's a common thread. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a cherished text for both. And there were certainly business connections between Ford Motors and the Nazi regime.
The question is always asked: What did American Jews do in response to the escalating crisis in Europe, after Hitler's rise to power? And while I think there's no question they did a lot, they were very active, they were agitated and agitating, to some degree their behavior was tempered. Their sense of what they could do was tempered by the knowledge of how pervasive anti-Semitism was in America. If somebody like Henry Ford, with such power and such wealth, could be such an outspoken anti-Semite -- and we know Hitler was very impressed by Henry Ford -- then it must be that lots of Americans share those attitudes. And therefore there's really a limit to what we can do.
If there had been no Henry Ford, would they have been more aggressive? We can't know that. But I think in their calculus, "How aggressive can we be, pressing for the cause of the Jews of Europe?" "How much can we try: pressure Congress, editorials in newspapers, demonstrations, for example to allow in more German Jewish refugees, or then Polish Jewish refugees?" They were very much aware of the extent of anti-Semitism and the degree to which they-their options were really limited by that attitude out there, in a way, embodied by Ford.