Power Is The Prize

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As World War II drew to a close, the great industrial empire that was the Ford Motor Company seemed to be reeling madly downhill. At the root of its troubles was Henry Ford himself, whose grip upon the levers of power was failing. Who would succeed him? Therein lies a tale worthy of Machiavelli. Involved, to begin with, was the no-holds-barred rivalry of two subordinates, Charles Sorensen—the company’s long-time production head, and Harry Bennett—the tough little man with underworld connections who was the plant security chief and the master’s closest confidant. Rumors circulated about a mysterious codicil to Henry Ford’s will. There was Ford’s strange antipathy to his only son, Edsel, and the desperate battle of Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, to win control. What follows has been adapted from the third and final volume of the authors’ monumental history of Ford and his company, to be published early next year by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

“Lonely, disillusioned, uniting the most brilliant gifts with the most hopeless limitations, he was groping for some stay, some support.”

“For montns” remarked a news magazine early in 1944, “the world-straddling empire of Henry Ford has quivered and groaned like a leviathan with acute indigestion.” A more accurate metaphor might have been drawn from Gibbon’s pages on Byzantine history. The empire had shaken for years because its aging sultan, refusing to bestow his scepter on his son, had let his chief vizier and the head of his Janissaries, or palace police, contend for it.

Time referred to the struggle for power within the Ford Motor Company between the tough, big manager, Charles Sorensen, and the tough, little service chief, Harry Bennett, whose rivalry had become more pronounced with every passing year. Now both were contenders for the throne. Henry Ford, nearing eighty when the United States entered the Second World War, had suffered his first stroke in 1938, and a second in 1941; a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, his only son, Edsel, had an operation for stomach ulcers, and while he remained active in the company, his health became dubious. With the question of the succession unsettled (Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, was still an unknown quantity), and with the elder Henry’s strength precarious, a vacuum was developing in the center of authority. No man knew how it would be filled.

Inevitably, an atmosphere of uncertainty, intrigue, and apprehension enveloped the company. Everyone knew that Sorensen’s service ran back forty years to the bright early days of the corporation; in Ford history the years 1925-1944 were “the Sorensen period,” and during most of that period he was indeed a dominant and domineering figure. Most people knew that Bennett had taken his first job in the art department in 1915, and had soon reached the point where Ford detached him to the great River Rouge plant—his reported instructions being, “I’m sending you over there to be my eyes and ears.”

Sorensen and Bennett had risen rapidly because, as both assert, they caught Ford’s ideas instantly and obeyed him implicitly. Sorensen professed respect and liking for Edsel, but if Bennett ever respected anybody but Henry he failed to make it clear. Both knew that, although Edsel was widely admired as one of the finest leaders in American industry, his father had an unshakable conviction that he lacked the steel needed to drive the company forward against competition, labor, and government restrictions. Sorensen later wrote that, as Henry failed, he himself wanted the power of a regent, but only to conserve the vast Ford property for Edsel’s heirs. However that may be, Bennett wanted power to keep it, wield it, and enjoy it.

Most contributors to the legend of Henry Ford have found it convenient to assign to Sorensen most of the blame for the rough management of labor before the 1941 surrender to the CIO, and to Bennett the blame for the company’s dissensions and gangster atmosphere. Sorensen’s hostility to unions was explicit in words and acts, and one reason why he never negotiated labor problems was simply that he had no taste for negotiation. To him union leadership was “a high-pressure group, surrounded by smart lawyers,” and its claims that an all-union shop would bring greater efficiency were an impudent imposture. As bluntly direct as a piledriver, he was an aggressive executive, whose tyrannies in handling workmen won him general dislike as “Cast-Iron Charlie.”

Bennett, with equal harshness and a readiness to use violence which earned him the hatred of thousands, had less grasp—for nobody ever doubted Sorensen’s abilities—but more subtlety. He was a figure that Machiavelli would have appreciated. Brassy, companionable, self-assertive, he remained at bottom coldly cynical and reticent, with depths in his personality which he kept veiled. Nobody was ever quite certain that he might not suddenly drop his friendly mien and strike. To many Ford employees, he carried about him an aura of secrecy, darkness, and mystery; performing functions that were often vague and unpredictable and using methods equally undefined and arbitrary, he stalked the Rouge horizon like a malign satrap.