Henry Ford And His Peace Ship

“We’re going to try to get the boys out of the trenches before Christmas,” the confident automaker said. “I’ve chartered a ship, and some of us are going to Europe.” This much-ridiculed attempt to stop the European war in 1916 is given a fresh, impartial evaluation in the second of a definitive series of books on Ford, recently published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Excerpted from: Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933


Henry Ford’s intensive peace activities really began in November, 1915, when a company car drew up at the Ten Eyck house, his temporary home on the Fair Lane estate, bringing two guests. One was Rosika Schwimmer, Hungarian author and lecturer, a dark, stout, vibrant woman in her late thirties who had served such causes as woman suffrage, birth control, and trade unionism. Her companion, Louis P. Lochner, a slender, blond young American, had recently acted as secretary of the International Federation of Students. Both were now workers for world peace.

From the beginning of the war an advocate of mediation by neutrals, Rosika Schwimmer in April, 1915, had helped persuade the International Congress of Women at The Hague to support such a policy. She assisted Jane Addams and others to gather evidence that both neutrals and belligerents were receptive to mediation. When she came to the United States as a lecturer later in the year, she brought documents that allegedly proved the existence of such an attitude. Madame Schwimmer noted Henry Ford’s declaration in August, 1915, that he was prepared to dedicate his fortune and his life to achieving peace, wrote to him, and through Edwin G. Pipp of the Detroit News eventually procured an interview. She aroused Ford’s interest, and after seeing her documents he remarked: “Well, let’s start. What do you want me to do?”

Lochner arrived in Detroit at this time, also seeking an interview with Ford. He came fresh from a conference which he and David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University and chairman of the Fifth International Peace Congress, had held in Washington with President Woodrow Wilson. Lochner felt that if a greater popular demand for peace could be demonstrated, Wilson might call a conference at Washington, where representatives of neutral nations would appoint a commission to work unremittingly (“continuous mediation”) for a peace acceptable to all belligerents.

After the two had arrived at the Ten Eyck house, Ford left Madame Schwimmer with his wife, Clara, “to talk things over,” and hustled Lochner off to his experimental tractor shop. There he took him aside and demanded: “What do you think of Madame Schwimmer’s proposal? Is it practical? How much will it cost to maintain a neutral commission in Europe?”

Lochner warmly supported the idea of continuous mediation, and also suggested that Ford seek an interview with President Wilson at which he could offer to maintain an official commission abroad until Congress made an appropriation; this failing, he could support an unofficial body which would perform comparable work. Ford listened closely and seemed to approve. When they returned to the Ten Eyck house, they found that Clara Ford had been won over to the cause of “continuous mediation.” Appealing to her as a mother, Madame Schwimmer had proposed that she finance a barrage of telegrams to the White House supporting that policy. These would fortify a personal plea which Schwimmer and Mrs. Philip Snowden of England were to make to Wilson on November 26. Ford approved the estimated expenditure of $10,000. Then Madame Schwimmer left for New York, Ford and Lochner agreeing to follow the next afternoon.

As the two men were borne eastward the following day, Ford was as happy as if he had hatched an idea for a revolutionary new motor car. He bubbled with talk. Lochner noted his keen instinct for publicity. “Whatever we decide to do,” declared the manufacturer, “New York is the place for starting it.” He revealed a gift for epigram, striking off such crisp pronouncements as: “Men sitting around a table, not men dying in a trench, will finally settle the differences.” He watched Lochner closely and, if he detected a favorable response, would say: “Make a note of that; we’ll give that to the boys when we get to New York.”

He established himself at the Biltmore Hotel and on the following day, November 21, lunched with a group at the McAlpin. It included Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago; Dean George W. Kirchwey of Columbia University; Paul Kellogg of the Survey; and, of course, Lochner and Madame Schwimmer. All approved the plan of sending if possible an official mediating commission to Europe; failing that, a representative private group. Ford and Lochner would go to Washington to seek Wilson’s co-operation, which would invest the project with an official status.