- Historic Sites
Henry Ford And His Peace Ship
American Heritage Book Selection -- Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
These talks did not live by the ideal of peace alone. New winds of thought and aspiration from other sources were then blowing across the United States and the world. The ideas of Theodore Roosevelt on social justice and Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom fortified all believers in a nobler world. Henry Ford had not read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, or John Spargo’s The Bitter Cry of the Children, but he knew that the protest against human exploitation was gaining volume. He knew something of what Tom L. Johnson of Cleveland, Ben Lindsey of Denver, and Jane Addams stood for, and he moved among men and women who carried the dream of a more just, serene, and joyful world through their hours of work and leisure. Great hopes were in the air; a new age was being born when the war of 1914 lurched across it like an artillery caisson over a bed of flowers.
If the war shattered the mood of the time, it also aroused fierce resentment and intensified bruised hopes. Pacifists proclaimed the conflict to be merely a frightful demonstration of the rightness of all they had said. Peace societies were more aggressive than ever. In verse and prose American writers lifted voices of protest. An immense section of the public was receptive toward any step likely to hasten the end of the slaughter. Ford himself, who had hitherto been silent but like others had now stepped forth to testify, spoke in the spirit of the time. His was no wild, perverse crusade; he was marching along the same road that Hay, Root, Taft, Bryan, and others had traveled, and millions in spirit marched with him.
He had already won an important objective: he had aroused the widest possible attention. Could the venture, even if born in ridicule, be so managed as to impress the watching world? One element was time: time for effective organization, time for eminent individuals to adjust their affairs to the voyage. It would have been wiser to postpone a public announcement until a number of distinguished guests had been pledged. But the announcement having been made when it was, Ford could still have associated the project with the new year rather than with Christmas, gaining a month or more. He and his associates could then have planned the cruise more carefully, enhanced the chances of success, and safeguarded the dignity of the enterprise. Instead, announcing December 4 as the date of sailing, he left only nine days for assembling guests and planning the expedition. This was stacking the cards against his project from the start.
Why did Ford set himself this all but insuperable challenge? The answer lay in his own character. He had never followed conventional paths and delighted in the seemingly impossible. Doubtless he felt that he and his associates could rise to the emergency, and that the sensation would be the greater. Again, he craved action. For half a year he had been writing and talking against preparedness and war and had built up a reservoir of explosive energy. Moreover, something could be said for speed. It might accomplish more than a deliberate procedure with its delayed impact. As to the dignity of the expedition, had anyone mentioned it, Ford would have responded with a snort.
At Ford’s suite in the Biltmore, headquarters for the enterprise, Gaston Plantiff, manager of the New York branch of the Ford company, began to plan the administration of the cruise and soon staffed it with dozens of workers. Ford and Rosika Schwimmer began to send out invitations.
Characteristically, Ford himself did not help organize the crusade. Schwimmer and Lochner were at hand. Schwimmer regarded the crusade as a project of her own to which Ford had attached himself, and she was eager to manage it. Tacitly he let her do this (apart from matters in Plantiff’s hands), shunting Lochner into the post of her general assistant. In leaving chief authority to Madame Schwimmer, Ford made a serious error. She was an enemy alien, a fact which many Americans and other neutrals never forgot. Intelligent enough to perceive the delicacy of her status, she made a pretense of keeping in the background. This proved impracticable because of her striking appearance and aggressive manner.
Work began at once with the invitations to prospective guests. Within a day of Ford’s first announcement both Edison and John Wanamaker denied that they would go. Jane Addams, however, still planned to sail. Ford appealed to John Burroughs, Luther Burbank, William Howard Taft, Bryan, David Starr Jordan, and other distinguished Americans. The full list numbered 115.
The work was scarcely begun when Schwimmer, Ford, and Lochner went to Washington for the interview which Mrs. Philip Snowden and Schwimmer had obtained with Wilson on November 26. At a preliminary mass meeting in the Belasco Theatre, Ford sat on the platform while the two women addressed the audience. Finally there were calls: “We want Ford!” He was terrified and whispered to Lochner, “You say it for me.” Lochner urged: “Just say a few words!” At length Ford rose, cried, “Out of the trenches by Christmas, never to return!” and darted off the stage as if the applause were a pursuing monster.