In short order, the censorship accomplished exactly the opposite of what the mayor intended. Deadline Detroit posted the article online, and word of the mayor’s disregard for the First Amendment and his attempt to whitewash the ugly prejudice of Dearborn’s most famous resident exploded in the national press and on social media.
Critics accused O’Reilly of seeking to bury a history that remains all too relevant because of a resurgence of anti-Semitism across the country during the past few years and the massacre of worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October. Stifling discussion of Henry Ford’s antipathy for Jews is dangerous because Ford, whose hatred still escapes many U.S. history textbooks, was a primary source of anti-Semitic writing in the United States. He published the Independent’s anti-Jewish articles as a book titled “The International Jew” and was directly responsible for propagating the worst piece of anti-Semitic propaganda generated in the 20th century, the fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
When O’Reilly’s and Ford’s defenders at his company and his museum refuse to confront Ford’s role in promoting anti-Semitism at home and across the globe and inspiring figures such as Adolf Hitler, they allow Ford’s propaganda to distort our understanding of the past and present alike. “The International Jew” had a tremendous influence on Hitler, who boasted of his admiration for Ford in a 1931 interview, kept a portrait of the car manufacturer in his private office and enjoyed the cooperation of Ford and his son, Edsel, when Nazis nationalized the company’s plant in Berlin.
Ford began his attacks on Jews in 1920, intensifying postwar discontent with the potent conspiracy theories of “The Protocols.” He ordered his dealers to distribute copies of the Independent as they sold cars, and he directed the newspaper to be mailed, unsolicited, to schools, libraries and hospitals all over the country. Initially, leaders of the American Jewish community decided to ignore Ford and his newspaper, in hopes that no one would pay attention. But the Independent’s circulation soon reached 700,000, and it became clear that the strategy had failed.
One brave American stood up to Ford and demanded that he retract the anti-Semitic articles in the Independent. When Ford refused, Aaron Sapiro, an agricultural lawyer from Chicago, sued him for libel in federal court in 1927. I was the first scholar to find documentation of the lawsuit in the Ford archives that are open to the public. Ford actively participated in the management of the Independent and in the preparation of the defense in the libel suit. Once he realized a guilty verdict was almost certain, Ford manufactured grounds for a mistrial, planting false accusations against Sapiro and one of the jurors in the Detroit Times. The litigation bankrupted Sapiro, who never recovered professionally. Ford shut down the newspaper, but “The International Jew” continues to be published all over the world.
This is the troubling legacy that Ford’s family and business has to confront.
The Ford Foundation’s philanthropy has attempted to address these actions. Its grants for development projects in Israel during the 1950s were seen by contemporary observers as an act of atonement for Ford’s anti-Semitism.
The Henry Ford Museum, however, has avoided the issue, something I noticed in June 2012 while on a family trip to Dearborn. The museum rivals the Smithsonian in the range and depth of its collections, which Ford began assembling early in the 1900s. The museum is as much a paean to Ford’s 19th-century childhood and rural roots as it is to 20th-century technology and innovation. You can see the earliest Macs and PCs ever manufactured and trace the development of firearms through the ages.
What you won’t find, even now, is anything that indicates that the Independent ever existed, much less that it was the mouthpiece for Ford’s anti-Semitism.
Families love the Henry Ford Museum. In 2016, more than 1.8 million people visited. The tumult caused by O’Reilly’s poor judgment has already drawn far more attention to the Independent than the Dearborn Historian, which lacks a website, could have attracted on its own. The New York Times interviewed a recent visitor to the Ford Museum, Daniel Markey, a 76-year-old retired high school chemistry teacher from Howell, Mich., who was accompanied by his 4-year-old grandson. Markey declared that sugarcoating history is a bad idea: “What does it accomplish to pretend that this isn’t a part of Henry Ford’s story?” he asked.
That’s a question worth asking. For decades, the Ford Museum has been pretending that the entire episode never happened. Why should anyone be surprised that the mayor of Dearborn thought to do likewise? Indeed, his own explanation for his action indicates his disregard for the history he sought to conceal. According to O’Reilly’s spokeswoman, the mayor made his decision “to help people understand what Dearborn is today.”
The Ford Motor Co. has also struggled to grapple with Ford’s anti-Semitic legacy. In 2003, Ford celebrated its centennial with a lavish ad campaign on television and online in which grainy video of its founder was prominently featured. The video evokes a nostalgic vision of America guided by the nation’s foremost captain of industry. Clad in white, Ford projected an air of principled yet determined ambition and accomplishment. Today, the company’s website is replete with the founder’s name, but his picture is curiously absent.
The corporation has had it both ways for too long with this history. As long as Ford makes money off the name of Henry Ford, it cannot evade some responsibility for his anti-Semitic publications. Reasserting its commitment to equality and fairness, as the company did in its response to the O’Reilly incident, is praiseworthy; but like the mayor, the Ford Motor Co. would prefer that everyone just forget about the past.
The Dearborn Historian article is important precisely because these other local institutions prefer to erase this part of Ford’s legacy. In an era when “fake news” has become a rallying cry for a presidential administration, our willingness to recognize propaganda and to acknowledge the uglier side of our national story are all the more critical to the survival of our democracy. Let’s hope that O’Reilly and the Ford Museum curators now understand that when Americans encounter their history, they deserve to know the whole story.