Henry Ford And His Peace Ship

PrintPrintEmailEmail

, usually friendly to Ford, called the peace ship an “impossible effort to establish an inopportune peace.” The New York Herald termed it “one of the cruellest jokes of the century.” The Hartford Courant remarked that “Henry Ford’s latest performance is getting abundant criticism and seems entitled to all it gets.”

Along with such cutting comment by editors ran a leitmotiv of raillery in news reports, letters, and verse. John O’Keefe dashed off “The Flivvership,” which the World printed on the same day and page as its editorial. One verse ran:

I saw a little fordship
Go chugging out to sea,

And for a flag
It bore a tag
Marked 70 h.p.

And all the folk aboardship

Cried “Hail to Hennery!”

It is only just to note certain factors bearing on the peace ship which were ignored by most commentators at the time and have never been given the attention they deserve. Particularly should Ford’s pacifism and his project be considered in relation to the peace movement of his day.

While his aversion to war flared out intensely in 1915, we have no direct evidence as to how it had developed. A year later one writer asserted that it had been implanted from childhood by his mother, Mary Litogot Ford. Her personal experiences in the Civil War, including her son’s birth during it, were represented as so affecting her that “she gave to Henry Ford an inherited aversion to war.”

This statement is more than plausible. It is also possible that both Mary Ford and her son were influenced by Mary’s adopted father, Patrick O’Hern, who deserted from the British Army in Canada and presumably had no love for things military. Furthermore, an aversion to war may have marked the Ford side of the family. Of a dozen Fords of military age in the Dearborn area in 1861, including Henry’s father, William, not one volunteered to serve the Union.

Actually, Ford grew up in an era marked by an increasing devotion to peace. When he was beginning his experiments with the automobile in the 1890s the few faltering peace societies of the early nineteenth century had become many, strong, and influential. The cause of international arbitration, receiving its first great impetus from the successful work of the Geneva Tribunal in settling Anglo-American differences in 1871, and supported by Quakers, Manchester Liberals, and international business interests, had enlisted many authors and editors. When in 1899 Czar Nicholas II called a conference at The Hague to codify the laws of war and establish a Court of International Arbitration, the event seemed to confirm the value of their work, as did a second conference in 1904.

Even before the first Hague conference Alfred Nobel of Sweden had established a Peace Prize of 150,000 kroner for “the man or woman who, during the year, has contributed most … to the cause of peace.” Ideas of the humanization and prevention of war continued to grow. A brilliant Englishman, Norman Angell, attacked motivations for war in The Great Illusion (1908), arguing that the victor as well as the vanquished lost by it. In the United States the American School Peace League (1907) fostered peace sentiment in the public schools, peace societies multiplied, and peace magazines flourished. Theodore Roosevelt had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1904 for helping to end the Russo-Japanese War, and two institutions had been founded in 1910 to combat war: Edwin Ginn’s World Peace Foundation and Andrew Carnegie’s Endowment for International Peace.

Pacifism in the United States on the eve of World War I was thus not only respectable but little short of triumphant. An atmosphere of faith in the goodness of mankind hung over the country like a spell of golden weather. The Hague conferences, the adjudication of fourteen disputes by the International Court of Arbitration, the signing of arbitration treaties—such events seemed milestones leading to a glorious goal. Young intellectuals earnestly discussed the probable span of time—ten, twenty-five, or fifty years—before war would become extinct.