Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate, by Neil Baldwin. Public Affairs. 416 pages. $27.50.
Neil Baldwin's Henry Ford and the Jews is a crisp account of Henry Ford's utterly crazy belief in a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. Other than those with a special interest in the details of Ford's mania, however, readers looking for a compelling history of ideas or perhaps just a useful moral may be disappointed. As told by Baldwin, Ford's story casts only a little light on the fleeting history of anti-Semitism in America and offers no insight into why and where truly murderous anti-Semitism continues to flourish today, albeit in other parts of the world.
A notable biographer of Thomas Edison, Man Ray and William Carlos Williams, Baldwin fully details all the weird facts of Ford's essentially psychotic fear of "the greed and avarice of Wall Street kikes." Despite his personal friendships with a number of Jews, through most of the 1920's Ford devoted a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, to spreading the gospel of the world Jewish conspiracy and anthologized its screeds in The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem.
He also published and distributed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the tsarist forgery purporting to document Jewish designs for world domination. After bowing to the pressures of a defamation suit, Ford formally apologized for his ranting, but he happily accepted the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle from Hitler's ambassador. He also provided employment to the American Nazi bund leader Fritz Kuhn, and funded the bigoted radio priest Father Charles Coughlin and the populist demagogue and Ku Kluxer Gerald L.K. Smith.
What motivated Ford's anti-Semitism? The crude "Shylock" stereotypes he learned from the McGuffey's Readers of his simple rural youth had something to do with it. So did the later influence of his business associates E.G. Liebold and W.J. Cameron, men whose crackpot racial and religious theories were bent to the service of Ford's propaganda. So too, perhaps, did his corporate frustrations with banks, labor unions, General Motors and Chevrolet.
But Baldwin offers no overarching theme to explain Henry Ford or why in this regard he is important to history. In an afterword he notes that anti-Semitism is "losing legitimacy" in America where it is "moving toward the distant fringe," and that "behavior on the scale of Henry Ford's manifested today by a figure with equal public visibility is well-nigh inconceivable."
Even in his own day, however, Ford's ideas never really took hold in the United States. For the most part, they were not accepted by contemporary elites, who despite whatever prejudices they may have held blanched at Ford's loony extremism. More importantly, to the extent that Ford's theories were taken seriously, it was during a period when most of the world -- except America -- was giving in one way or another to the totalitarian impulse.
It is not so remarkable that America has produced its Henry Fords. Every nation has its odious kooks. It is remarkable that America has not produced a Hitler or a Stalin. Biographers and historians looking for fresh material would do well to examine this phenomenon ... and to look for their anti-Semitism elsewhere than in the American past.
Jonathan Cohen is vice president of corporate communications for Mercator Software. Previously he was publisher of Commentary Magazine from 1995 to 2000 and before that served as an adviser to Edgar Bronfman, Sr., president of the World Jewish Congress, and to New York City Mayor Ed Koch.