Henry Ford And His Peace Ship

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The conference quickly developed a character and a program. Their first notable act was an appeal in March, 1916, to the neutral powers, urging them to take the initiative in offering mediation. As a result, bills to implement it were introduced in the parliaments of Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and Holland; but no action was taken by any neutral government.

A month and a half later the conference issued an Appeal to the Governments, Parliaments and Peoples of Belligerent Nations. This document not only again stated the case against continuing the war, but also offered a set of principles which might form the basis for peace. These included the right of self-determination by peoples, guarantees of economic freedom (to make wars for commercial advantage pointless), freedom of the seas, parliamentary control of foreign policy, an international organization to promote co-operation between nations and peaceful settlement for all disputes, and a program of world disarmament. A world congress was to deal with these questions.

After this appeal, on instructions from Dearborn, the five delegates per nation were reduced to two, and the site of sessions was transferred to The Hague. The conference stimulated pro-mediation gatherings, encouraged appeals for peace by eminent writers like Georg Brandes, and indirectly stimulated others like Ellen Key, Selma Lagerlöf, and Arne Carbourg to serve the same end. Representatives of the group communicated with prominent citizens of belligerent countries, suggested that the German government endorse the idea of a league of nations (which it soon did), and planned an international magazine devoted to peace.

Ford meanwhile had vigorously pursued his opposition to war and preparedness through large advertisements in various American newspapers. Apparently he was pleased with the work of the conference in Europe. In October, when Lochner visited the United States, Ford was cordial, but wanted a shift to direct mediatory efforts—contacts with belligerent nationals, attempts to find a common ground for action, and so forth. Lochner was heartened. He felt that all the belligerents were showing a desire to negotiate and that overtures toward action would soon be made, either through the conference or through President Wilson.

An overture soon came, but not in a form that Lochner welcomed. Emperor Wilhelm of Germany announced his willingness to negotiate, but in so arrogant a fashion as to antagonize the Allied governments and peoples. Wilson, who had been about to act, was embarrassed by the imperial gesture. However, apparently eager to be heard before a reply could be made to the Kaiser by others, the President on December 18, 1916, sent to all belligerents notes identical in text suggesting that each declare the terms on which it would consider peace. The Germans promptly expressed a willingness to confer; the Allies rejected the suggestion. Thus two peace tenders (the German and the American) had been made, and their failure had the logical effect of stimulating German activity, including the more intensive use of submarines. This really wrote finis to the activities of the commission (as the conference had become), although as yet no one perceived the fact.

Lochner, still hopeful of peace, was recalled to the United States on January 3, 1917; he saw President Wilson twice and Henry Ford oftener. Wilson made his famous “peace without victory” speech. Ford felt that with this utterance the government had taken over his crusade. As submarine activity assumed a more ruthless character, he also saw the possibility of our being drawn into the war; but apparently his dominant feeling was that Wilson was doing all for peace that he could and more than anyone else could do. On February 7 Lochner was told that the work in Europe would stop.

Thus the peace crusade ended. Having made his decision, Ford could not detach himself from the project too quickly. With his approval, Liebold took over the termination of the work at The Hague, brushing aside Lochner’s protest that an abrupt suspension of activities would work hardship upon some of the commission’s foreign members and ignoring other suggestions. The drive for peace had lasted fourteen months; what had Ford accomplished in that period?

Opinion on that question varies almost absurdly. Mark Sullivan in Our Times declared bitingly of the project: “After its failure, dying down to an echo of gigantic and exhausted laughter, it deprived every other peace movement in the country of force and conviction.” Although Sullivan in a footnote reported Jane Addams’ vigorous dissent and admitted that the peace movement retained force despite the peace ship, his judgment has been endorsed by some responsible journalists, including Elmer Davis, who reported the cruise, and even historians.