Henry Ford And His Peace Ship

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Ford had made no progress in overcoming his illness. The weather had been cold and the rooms he occupied faced north. According to Lochner, they could be entered only through those of Dean Marquis or Ray Dahlinger. “Mr. Ford was practically incommunicado.” Lochner believed that Marquis, originally opposed to the cruise, had worked steadily on Ford to abandon it and was supported by other Ford employees, both on shipboard and in Detroit. In his weakened state, the manufacturer was of course susceptible to suggestion. Lochner saw the drift of his feeling when he remarked: “Guess I had better go home to mother … You’ve got this thing started now and can get along without me.” Lochner protested that Ford’s presence was imperative. Besides, should he leave at the first stop in Europe, his act would be interpreted as an admission of failure. Why not go to Finse, a Norwegian health resort, recover there, and rejoin the party later?

Ford agreed to consider this possibility, but his decision had probably been made. If we can trust his statements then and later, he never regretted having launched the expedition. But he probably recognized that it had been badly managed, and that riding herd on the fantastic individualists who composed the party was a difficult task. He was as lost among them as Schwimmer would have been on the assembly line at Highland Park. However, his physical condition seems to have been the determining factor.

At any rate, under Marquis’ urging, Ford decided to leave on the morning of December 23 for Bergen, where he could catch the Bergensfjord, just sailing for America. As it happened, the delegates were departing a little later that morning for Sweden. Marquis wanted no trouble about Ford’s departure. He “spirited” his charge out of the hotel, with a “flying wedge” to make sure that there would be no interference. Lochner and others became aware that something was happening and rushed down to find Ford getting into a taxi. They attempted to question him, but Marquis and his group interposed; there were “a lot of fists flying.” Ford and Marquis slipped away in the cab, drove around the delegates’ train to their own, and got away as few realized what had happened.

When Ford’s flight became generally known, the effect was much what Lochner had feared. The party felt depressed—even betrayed. Plantiff indicated that Ford would return. “Before leaving, he expressed to me his absolute faith in the party and … the earnest hope that all would continue to co-operate to the closest degree in bringing about the desired results which had been so close to his heart—the accomplishment of universal peace.”

While this statement reassured the delegates and checked malicious comment, it did not soften the staggering blow of the departure. Of all the party, Ford alone had been of sufficient stature to impress and hearten neutrals. The Christiania Aftenposten of December 20 had praised him but lifted its eyebrows at his companions. Bullitt said bluntly that “so far as making an impression on Europe was concerned, the personality of Henry Ford was the party’s chief asset.” Lochner felt that his going left “a void.” Ford’s absence also affected the day-to-day conduct of the expedition. While he was with it, there was never any trouble about financing. Furthermore, while he was not pre-eminently an executive, his judgment in emergencies was usually sound. But with the ocean between him and the party, financing became precarious, disagreements began to divide those in charge, and uncertainty developed as to Ford’s own wishes. In short, his withdrawal impaired both the prestige and the management of the project.

On returning to New York, apparently with restored health, he denied emphatically that he had “deserted.” Illness had hastened his return, but he had never intended to remain long abroad—in fact, had promised his wife to be back “in about five weeks.” (He had been gone a month.) He asserted: “I don’t regret a single thing I have done. … I believe the sentiment we have aroused by making the people think will shorten the war.” And when a Tribune reporter asked him if he thought the peace ship worth what he had put into it, Ford replied, “I do.” Was the kind of publicity he had received satisfactory? “It suited me all right,” replied Ford with greater shrewdness than the reporter suspected. “I was bothered only because my wife didn’t like some of the criticism. My son, Edsel, didn’t mind, and I am really strong for it.” He hoped the criticism would continue. Why? “Well,” drawled the industrialist, “the best fertilizer in the world is weeds.”

In Europe, the expedition had done well. Following Ford’s instructions, a committee had been set up “for the management of the trip and policies.” It consisted of Jones, Aked, Huebsch, Frederick Holt (Ford’s representative), Judge Lindsey, Mrs. Lloyd, Mrs. Fels, and Plantiff, with Lochner as secretary. For a time it worked effectively. What was better, the reception in Sweden was as cordial as that in Norway had been cool. Despite the fact that Christmas holidays were under way, with shops closed and other activities suspended, the residents of Stockholm saw that the pilgrims were well-quartered, organized meetings on their behalf, and showed a warm sympathy with their purpose. But Sweden’s fear of Russia made her favorable to a strong Germany and to a peace that would penalize none of the chief combatants.