Power Is The Prize

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Sorensen remained impassive as Bennett, using his malign influence over Henry Ford, steadily disabled him. The service chief effectively pinioned Sorensen just before Henry II’s return, for on June 18, 1943, Bennett had himself appointed assistant to Sorensen for administrative problems and his associate, Ray R. Rausch, made assistant to Sorensen for production. The two, with Henry Ford, thus hemmed Sorensen in. Long the general production chief, Sorensen had latterly aspired to general administrative direction—but now his power was reduced, and he was largely confined to Willow Run. Overworked, often under terrible strain with his bomber program, and half ill as he drove it to success, he saw that he must soon go.

In November, 1943, he told an uncomprehending Henry Ford that he wished to be relieved on January 1 to go to Florida. According to his own story, he advised his chief to make Henry II president without delay and warned him that Washington was grumbling over the plant’s loss of key men and the resulting confusion. Perhaps he made some impression upon Ford’s mind, for on December 15, Henry II was elected vice president. But when on, or just after, New Year’s Day Sorensen said good-by, Henry Ford’s only comment was, “I guess there’s something in life besides work.” Still seeming not to understand what was happening, the elder Ford left for Ways, Georgia. Sorensen had not resigned, and we can only guess whether he really wished to step out. But from his winter home in Miami, he declares, he kept asking Henry Ford for “release”; and on March 2, 1944, he got his answer.

It came through an intermediary: Henry Ford wished him to resign because he had been ambitious for the company presidency! Sorensen, doubtless furious, of course instantly offered his resignation. Its announcement on March 4 was a shock to the whole industry, and to war-production heads in the government. Sorensen tells us that Charles E. Wilson, one of the heads of the War Production Board, telephoned that the President wished him to take charge of the Ford Motor Company for the government. Determined federal action could have arranged this. Sorensen adds that he not only refused to be a party to any such plan but protested against government removal of Henry Ford, “much as that removal was desirable,” and expressed faith that Henry II would see the remaining war work of the plants carried through. Through friends in Washington, he asserts, he made his view prevail.

To what extent the dramatic exit of Sorensen at the height of the war crisis was a product of the machinations of Bennett, to what extent it represented another erratic impulse of Henry Ford, and to what extent other factors counted, nobody can tell. After Edsel’s death no one in the company was in a position to stand up for Sorensen. He himself, after inquiry, concluded that Clara Ford made the decision. This view gains some support from Ernest Kanzler’s statement that since Edsel’s death Clara’s hostility to both Sorensen and Bennett had become implacable. It is certain that she now began to act decisively in her husband’s name, and it was high time she did. In this course Mrs. Edsel Ford would have strongly supported her.

Sorensen’s departure had the quality of a denouement in an Elizabethan tragedy. For decades he had been Ford’s principal lieutenant. Like Edsel Ford, he belonged to that little group of true builders who, using the erratic genius of Henry Ford, lifted the corporation to international fame and power. Of all the men who served Henry Ford after he acquired complete control of the company, Sorensen was the most powerful, while he stands alone as the most dynamically ruthless. Certainly he had played a major role in the greatest single achievement of the Ford Motor Company, the consummation of the mass-production process which transformed modern industry.

Sorensen’s and Sheldrick’s expulsions, clearing the ring, left the surviving antagonists in this murky, undeclared war face to face: Bennett and Henry II. Lesser officers grouped themselves about these two. To be sure, something in Bennett’s motivation, conduct, and aims remains unknown, and men may err in attributing to him the completely Machiavellian, not to say Mephistophelean, role given him by journalists addicted to black-and-white portraiture. We can say, however, that his continued activities in this critical hour, like his past actions, did not belie such portraiture.

The dislodgment of Sorensen was generally accepted as proof that Bennett’s star was rising to the zenith. Unquestionably Bennett held strong cards in his hand. He had his own junta, his palace guard. He had his well-placed plant police, seeded with bruisers and thugs. Above all, he had the codicil to the will, for what it was worth, and his domination over Henry Ford’s uncertain mind. When, in his reminiscences, he tells us that a public remark by Henry II acquiescing to government wartime controls over the industry “enraged” the grandfather, we may wonder if Bennett did not promote the rage. Henry Ford’s obsession with the idea that his beleaguering enemies were held back by Bennett’s wall of defense was somehow sedulously nourished. One of Ford’s remarks chills the blood. “The Jews and Communists,” he said, “have been working on poor Harry until he’s almost out of his mind.” He needed a vacation. “Then he’ll come back all ready to keep on fighting the ones who are trying to take over our plant.”