- Historic Sites
Henry Ford And His Peace Ship
American Heritage Book Selection -- Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
At the Hoboken dock, despite a raw, cold day, a crowd estimated at 15,000 had gathered for the sailing. People filled the pier, with more constantly arriving. The Fords appeared, greeted by resounding cheers. Soon afterward, Bryan approached the ship. The band struck up “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” the crowd roared, and the commoner made “many sweeping bows” as he went smiling up the gangplank. On board, he acted as a witness at the marriage of the poet Berton Braley and Miss Marian Rubicam. The reporters reveled in the episode as fully in the spirit of the cruise and were almost as enthusiastic about two caged squirrels, dispatched to Ford on the ship by some prankster to live happily among the “nuts.” (One was later christened “William Jennings Bryan” and the other “Henry Ford” by the reporters.)
The Fords chatted with the Edisons and other friends. According to William C. Bullitt of the Philadelphia Ledger, Ford urged Edison: “You must stay on board, you must stay on board.” Then, with a quizzical smile but (thought Bullitt) “intense seriousness,” he said: “I’ll give you a million dollars if you’ll come.” Because of his deafness Edison couldn’t hear; Ford repeated the offer but the inventor smiled and shook his head. However, he assured his friend that he was heart and soul with him. Later Edison and his wife left with Edsel and Clara Ford, down whose cheeks tears were streaming. Dean Marquis, as he had promised Mrs. Ford, had taken passage with her husband. The Fords and Edisons stood on the pier until the ship left.
As it did so, in a final touch of the mad circus atmosphere of the occasion, a figure leaped from the pier and swam stoutly after it. Rescued, he announced himself as “Mr. Zero” and explained that he was “swimming to reach public opinion.” Meanwhile the crowd, oblivious to most of these decorative incidents, warmed to the departure. It stood waving and roaring: it “cheered and yelled until it had no voice left.” According to Lochner, Ford was exalted. “Again and again he bowed, his face wreathed in smiles that gave it a beatific expression. The magnitude of the demonstration—many a strong man there was who struggled in vain against tears born of deep emotion—quite astonished and overwhelmed him. I felt then that he considered himself amply repaid for all the ridicule heaped upon him.”
As the Oscar II slipped out of New York harbor in the fading light and pointed her nose northeast, she was perhaps the first physical missile ever launched against a war. Nobody was sure what effect she would have. Dozens of reporters described the vessel’s progress in day-to-day stories; later it provoked magazine articles, chapters in books, and at least one complete volume. Significantly, its ideological character dominated all these accounts. It was not a ship, but the peace ship. Actual details about vessel and mission are hard to come by, for it was the pilgrims and their quest that fascinated every observer.
The group was a strange one—not, as Mary Alden Hopkins tried to persuade herself, “representative: a cross-section of America.” Almost half the delegates were writers (many suffragists, socialists, single-taxers, or pacifists); the next largest segment comprised lecturers and workers for causes; there were a few government officials, ministers, teachers. No business men, farmers, industrialists (except Ford), scientists, engineers, or labor officials were included. While a few delegates like S.S. McClure and Governor Hanna were “practical,” the great majority were social evangelists of some kind. The reporters, who never gave the finer personalities the respect they deserved, probably pronounced the careless American’s appraisal in terming the shipload “a bunch of nuts.”
Naturally, the center of interest for both delegates and journalists was Henry Ford, for all hoped that on shipboard he could be studied at leisure. Ford was cooperative. When a wave drenched him one morning as he was briskly walking the deck and he caught cold, he was of course no longer available. But the reporters, skeptical at first, by that time had been converted. Ford’s complete sincerity, his friendliness, his pithy, quotable comments, won them all. Bullitt says they were convinced that the manufacturer was “an absolutely unselfish egoist.” “Ford is really Christlike,” Bullitt recorded. He liked the realism with which Ford appraised the voyage.
“Don’t you feel that this is a holy cause?” a minister asked him.
“No,” Ford replied. “I don’t know what you mean by holy. Instead of a holy cause I consider this expedition a people’s affair.”
“Are you not sailing with faith?” persisted the other.
“Yes,” agreed Ford, “but it is faith in the people. I have absolute confidence in the better side of human nature … People never disappoint you if you trust them. Only three out of six hundred convicts in my factory have failed to make good.”