Power Is The Prize

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“One morning I was with him when he got a telephone call from Bennett. He was getting an carful and could hardly get a word in. Not wishing to listen, I stepped into the outer office, and went back when Henry II put down the receiver. Not a word was said about the phone call. He was under fire—I could see that—but young Henry was composed and resumed his talk with me as though nothing had happened. The boy can take it, I said to myself happily, everything will work out all right.”

Time continued to play an important part in the drama. For one thing, the condition of Henry Ford, nominally president, steadily worsened, and his erratic ways could do untold harm. Henry II, making every effort to maintain cordial relations, took care to say nothing that could be carried to his grandfather to create misunderstanding. He even leaned backward to be agreeable. As late as the summer of 1944, speaking before Ford dealers in Massachusetts, he paused to comment on Henry Ford. “He is in excellent health. He puts in a full working day, including Saturday. He goes to Willow Run practically every day, and has put a lot of his effort into that plant, and I believe the outstanding results accomplished at Willow Run reflect his personal supervision…He is going along toward our common objective, Leadership. All our programs have his complete endorsement.” Several aspects of this statement are significant: the young man’s tactful care to praise Henry, his willingness to help maintain the innocent fiction, good for dealers’ morale, of Ford’s competency, and his emphasis on leadership in “our” programs.

Time had already eroded the uneasy Bennett-Sorensen partnership and converted it into a tacit antagonism. The two men shared an iron-fisted temper, and while Edsel lived and Henry Ford remained vigorous, they had regarded each other with a certain respect and even some tolerance; but the moment that control of the Ford empire became doubtful, their jealousy ripened toward enmity. Sorensen, a powerful constructive force, and a man of strict standards in company matters, was irritated by evidences of graft in plant operations. He was deeply offended by the ousting of his veteran comrade, Wibel. He saw with a sense of outrage the renewed purge immediately after the death of Edsel, a purge in which Bennett’s adroit manipulation of Henry Ford’s senile resentments played a main part and which led toward Bennett’s establishment of undisputed sway.

In the discharge of one of the most valuable men in the company, the skilled engineer Laurence Sheldrick, Sorensen was himself maneuvered into playing a part. Like other episodes of the time, it has mysterious aspects. Few happenings in plant affairs were now strictly rational. Sheldrick’s own story is the most trustworthy account. He relates that Henry II, soon after his arrival, asked about his father’s ideas on postwar automobile design. Sheldrick then told of Edsel’s keen interest in plans and showed him various designs embodying Edsel’s ideas. He gathered later that some talebearer carried word of this to Bennett and Henry Ford. At about the same time Henry II proposed to Sorensen that he go with Sheldrick to Aberdeen, Maryland, to talk with federal ordnance officers with whom the company was doing business. This Sorensen approved, saying, “Fine, but I think I’d better clear with your grandfather first, though.” Arrangements were then duly made by which Sheldrick and Henry II were to meet in Washington on September 14 and go on to Aberdeen. Little did Sheldrick surmise that plans had been made for his swift decapitation.

In the light of the sequel, Sheldrick could only conclude that Henry Ford and Bennett had peremptorily ordered Sorensen to pick a quarrel with him and force his departure. For on the thirteenth Sorensen called Sheldrick into his office. He roughly charged the engineer with showing a mass of material on postwar design to Henry II. To this Sheldrick replied that young Henry knew of its existence and had asked for it. Sorensen then accused Sheldrick of making young Henry a “warmonger” by sending him to Aberdeen: “You know how his grandfather feels about that.” Sheldrick responded that he was merely trying to serve the company and that General Motors had shown more zeal in cooperating with the government. “There you go talking about General Motors again,” snapped Sorensen in his nastiest tone. “If you think they’re so goddam good, why don’t you go work for them?” To which Sheldrick made the only self-respecting answer possible: “All right, if that’s the way you feel about it, I guess I’m through”—and walked out of the plant.

“Eleanor had seen her husband so cruelly maltreated that she was resolved to fight to the last for her sons”

Sorensen knew during this autumn or 1943 that his own days were numbered. Like a great oak half-undermined by subterranean waters, he shook, careened to one side, and stood at the point of toppling. Slight after slight had been put upon him by Henry Ford and Bennett. When President Roosevelt’s train had visited Willow Run on September 18, 1942, Bennett had taken complete charge of the arrangements: the formation of the parade, path of automobiles, pace, and stops. F.D.R.’s train had pulled up alongside the plant. After the automobiles completed their circuit of the Rouge, F.D.R. and Henry Ford entered the President’s private railroad car together, leaving Sorensen outside. He did not gain entry until he went to his office to get a miniature plane of aluminum that had been used as a model at Willow Run, fetched it to show the President, and after some parley with the secret service men, was admitted.