Power Is The Prize

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As Henry Ford’s attitude toward Edsel became increasingly harsh, Sorensen had the courage to expostulate with the old man. “Again and again,” he writes, “I tried to impress upon him, without success, that his attempt to drive Edsel into line by using Harry Bennett to annoy him and check his every move was breaking down Edsel’s respect for him.” He added that it was ruining Edsel’s precarious health. What was even worse, Henry was showing a jealous antagonism toward Edsel’s sons. Late in 1940, Henry II, recently out of Yale and just married, began to work at the plant along with his brother Benson. Men might have supposed that the grandfather would be overjoyed by this promise that the Ford line would continue in control of the great property, and would greet the boys affectionately. Instead, Sorensen tells us, Henry at first said that he did not wish them around, and when they stayed on, treated them with brusque indifference. This attitude did not displease the man who exulted that he was closer than a son to Henry.

Perhaps Sorensen overstates the tension between Henry and Edsel, but some weight must be given an incident he recounts. He relates that in 1941, just after Sorensen, Edsel, and the two boys visited the Consolidated bomber plant in San Diego to study its methods, Edsel came in from a talk with his father. He was overwhelmed with anxiety, for Henry had bid him to get the boys out of the Rouge—to California, to any other place, the farther away the better. They might stay on the payroll, but they should get out at once! At this, Sorensen writes, he telephoned for a meeting with Henry. When he went he took Edsel along. As they entered the office the old man, caught by surprise to see Edsel there, betrayed himself by what Sorensen calls a look of hatred; probably dismay would be a more appropriate word. The outraged manager told Henry not only that he was completely opposed to the exile of the boys, but that if it were carried through, he would leave the company. This ended the matter; but Edsel could not forget it, and the memory still oppressed him when a little later Henry II entered the Navy, and Benson joined the Air Force.

“‘The hurtful thing is that Father takes Harry’s word and won’t believe mine. Who is this guy anyway?’”

With the war raging more hotly, the Ford contribution to the Allied cause growing more important, and Sorensen so overburdened that he twice fainted in the plant, events reached a partial climax in the spring of 1943. Edsel’s condition had become serious when his stomach ulcers gave way to cancer, and he fell ill with undulant fever contracted from non-pasteurized milk from Henry Ford’s farm. His father refused to believe he was in danger. If he would only change his diet and mode of life to that which Henry Ford had found best, if he would stop worrying, listening to men of the wrong type, and opposing Henry and Bennett, he would soon get well. Disgust, discouragement, and anger possessed the best Ford executives as they heard Henry express these views.

One of the ablest men was ejected from the organization in April—A. M. Wibel. His rigidly honest administration of purchasing, sympathy with liberal ideas, and intimacy with Edsel and Sorensen, all made him repugnant to Bennett. This fine-spirited man, who over the years since 1912 had worked his way up from a machinist’s bench, had apparently always pleased Henry, and certainly no rational basis existed for his dismissal. He had been elected a vicepresident and director along with Sorensen in 1941, thus becoming a figure of national repute. Some men in the company, however, did not want an honest administration of purchasing, and poisoned Henry’s mind. When an irresponsible agent made trouble in his department, Wibel brought hot accusations against Bennett—and his discharge followed. His loss, which was telegraphed over the country, was a shock to both Edsel and Sorensen, for it meant that one of the company’s pillars was gone.

Another event of this troubled April is detailed by Sorensen. On the fifteenth, the day before the manager was to leave for a short Florida vacation, Henry Ford telephoned him. He wanted Sorensen to take Edsel, then almost too ill to move about, in hand, and change his whole attitude toward Bennett, toward Henry, and toward life. “Some job!” ejaculated Sorensen. Of the seven-point program which Henry laid down, five points might have been dictated by “the little fella” himself. Roughly jotted down by Sorensen, they ran as follows: