Henry Ford And His Peace Ship
American Heritage Book Selection -- Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
In the talk at table, Lochner half jestingly suggested: “Why not a special ship to take the delegates over?” Ford’s approval flashed like a light to the click of a switch. In vain Jane Addams objected to the plan as flamboyant; Ford liked it for that very reason. Men could see it; it would lift talk into action and arouse a sharper interest. He sent at once for representatives of steamship companies and, posing as “Mr. Henry,” inquired what it would cost to charter a vessel. The agents stared at him, but when told his identity quickly made their calculations. Having started negotiations, Ford waved them over to Rosika Schwimmer, and by evening she had chartered the Scandinavian-American liner Oscar II
Through Colonel Edward M. House, then in New York, Ford procured an appointment with President Wilson for the following day. Promising a group of reporters that he would see them Wednesday, he and Lochner left for Washington.
The conference with the President began pleasantly. “Mr. Ford slipped unceremoniously into an armchair, and during most of the interview had his left leg hanging over the arm of the chair and swinging back and forth,” Lochner observed.
Ford complimented the President on his appearance; how did he keep so trim? Wilson replied that he tried to forget business after business hours and to enjoy a good joke. “Some of them Ford jokes, I hope?” suggested Lochner. Ford then told one such story he had invented himself.
One day, he said, driving by a cemetery, he had noticed a huge hole being dug by a gravedigger and asked him if he were going to bury a whole family in one grave. The man replied No, that the grave was for one person. Then why was it so enormous? The gravedigger explained that the deceased was a queer fellow and had stipulated in his will that he must be buried in his Ford, because the Ford had pulled him out of every hole thus far, and he was sure it would pull him out of this one.
Wilson chuckled and capped it with a limerick. Then Ford explained his mission. He urged Wilson to appoint a neutral commission, offering to finance it. The President replied that he did not feel able to take such a step. He approved the idea of continuing mediation, but a better plan might be offered. He could not be tied to any one project; he must be free.
This was too equivocal for Ford. He said that he had chartered a steamship and had promised the press an announcement on the following morning. He offered the ship to the President. “If you feel you can’t act, I will.” Wilson was startled but stood by his first statement, and Ford and Lochner soon found themselves on the White House grounds. Ford shook his head, but if his companion feared for the fate of the expedition, he was quickly reassured. Ford was only regretful that the President had missed a great opportunity. “He’s a small man,” he said.
Even before the appointed hour of ten on Wednesday the twenty-fourth, reporters began to arrive at the Biltmore. With Lochner and Oswald Garrison Villard, whom he had expressly asked to be present (the New York Times reported Jane Addams and Ida M. Tarbell also there), Ford chatted with the newsmen until forty had gathered, a number which somewhat abashed him. He began rather haltingly: “A man should always try to do the greatest good to the greatest number, shouldn’t he?” He went on: “We’re going to try to get the boys out of the trenches before Christmas. I’ve chartered a ship, and some of us are going to Europe.”
Lochner and Villard supplied details. Asked about the ship and its voyage, Ford stated that he would assemble a group “of the biggest and most influential peace advocates in the country, who can get away, on this ship.” He would also have “the longest gun in the world—the Marconi.” Jane Addams, John Wanamaker, and Thomas A. Edison would sail with him.
The interview was page one news for New York papers and, in consequence, for most others. But from the beginning a vein of satire was apparent:
GREAT WAR ENDS
FORD TO STOP IT
announced the Tribune. The World, Times, and Evening Post were more factual. Only a flicker of humor lit the news accounts. For two days there were no editorials.
When they came, satire was more pronounced, often veering toward invective. American opinion, molded by the Lusitania and other submarine sinkings and by skilled Allied propaganda, was increasingly anti-German. Also, men tended to believe that only a clear Allied victory could insure a satisfactory peace.
The general chorus was condemnatory. The World