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Debunking Henry Ford

August 22, 2011
Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919)

Image via Wikipedia

“History is Bunk” said Henry Ford. Or did he?

Was this a considered statement of principle from the most successful industrialist of the 20th century? If so, it doesn’t bode well for those of us engaged in the business of business history.

The source of the quotation was the third part of an interview by Charles H. Wheeler published in the Chicago Tribune on May 26, 1916.

So it wasn’t important enough to kick off the series. Nor was it even the intro on day three. This was the actual headline:

FIGHT TO DISARM HIS LIFE’S WORK, HENRY FORD VOWS
Pacifist Sees Submarines as Powerful Agency to Destroy All Armament.

Oops, nothing about history then?  Nope. This is the full text:

Henry Ford gave out his views on disarmament straight from the shoulder.

“But you’re wrong there, Mr Ford” I (Wheeler) argued. “Take England, for instance. For a thousand years they have been unable to invade this little strip of land you might tuck away in Michigan. Because England had a navy. Napoleon, with nearly all of Europe at his feet, couldn’t get across the that twenty-one miles from Calais to Dover. What you ought to stand for is an American navy and with an adequate navy we could live in peace and security for a million years.”

There was another twinkle in his eye.

 “Say, what do I care about Napoleon?” he rambled on.  “What do we care what they did 500 or 1,000 years ago? I don’t know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across there and I don’t care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk.  It is tradition.  We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.

“That’s the trouble with the world. We’re living in books and history and tradition. We want to get away from that and take care of today. We’ve done too much looking back. What we want to do and do it quick is to make just history right now.

“The men who are responsible for the present war in Europe  know all about history. Yet they brought on the worst war in the world’s history.”

He doubled up his fist and laid it on the table.

“There is one thing the United States and the world ought to do this minute and that is disarm. I’ll spend the rest of my life and all I have to see that is brought about.”

The interview then goes on for another 2000 words without anything more on history and bunk.

What’s clear is that Wheeler was doing his job – goading a reaction from Ford, a passionate pacifist.  There was a strong anti-war movement in the USA then still bearing the scars of its own civil war.

So the context was quite specific with Ford, as Wheeler describes, “rambling on.”

The quotation gained wider currency because it echoes so well with the  development of his business: if history means being stuck in a time warp all we would need is a faster horse rather than an engine to replace the horse.

It’s a large step away from this to disparage the value of lessons that history can offer  in whatever context – family, business, people, international. Ford wasn’t condemning history per se – just the failure to learn from it.

“The object of education is not to fill a man’s mind with facts; it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking.  And it often happens that a man can think better if he is not hampered by the knowledge of the past” he wrote in his autobiography, shortly before his infamous and odious anti-Semitic diatribe. Ford’s anti-semitism and his influence over Hitler are explored in detail in this Spartacus piece.

Ford was very keen to ensure his own place in history by preserving his own writings and avidly collecting historical objects which are now displayed in one of the largest museums in the world.

Named after him, of course, and bunk nowhere to be seen.

Footnote: Charles Wheeler had a celebrated namesake, one of the greatest BBC correspondents of his generation.

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