How much money do you think it takes to stop a war?
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One of the richest men in the world, U.S. automaker Henry Ford, set out a century ago to answer that question and to test the boundaries of privately funded diplomacy. Frustrated with America’s strict isolationist stance under President Woodrow Wilson, the pacifist tycoon took matters into his own hands, organizing an independent delegation of “the biggest and most influential peace advocates in the country” and chartering a “Peace Ship” to take them across the Atlantic in the winter of 1915. Their mission was no less than to end World War I and restore peace in Europe.
The origins of Ford’s pacifism, as Steven Watts explores in The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, are somewhat unclear. He prided himself on being a man of the people and believed that many of his fellow business leaders were commercial “parasites” eager to profit from the conflict in Europe. Perhaps the enormous human and material waste associated with war also offended his sense of economic efficiency.
The ship’s “peace pilgrims” quickly devolved into warring factions.
Whatever the reason, as World War I raged on, Ford became an increasingly outspoken opponent. “To my mind, the word ‘murderer’ should be embroidered in red letters across the breast of every soldier,” he told one reporter. He soon launched a national campaign of newspaper articles and advertising, vowing that he would “do everything in [his] power to prevent murderous, wasteful war.”
But by late 1915, Ford, a man of action more than words, had decided that it was time “to put a stop to the silly killings going on abroad.” “Well meaning but naive,” according to Watts, “he embraced an initiative that would eventually absorb huge amounts of time and money before degenerating into an international fiasco.”
In November, Ford traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Wilson and convince him that delegates from neutral nations should help mediate a peaceful end to the war. When Wilson demurred, the automaker decided to win the peace himself and held a press conference. “We’re going to try to get the boys out of the trenches before Christmas,” the straight-talking businessman told those assembled.
“Great War Ends Christmas Day; Ford to Stop it,” the next day’s headlines cynically proclaimed. Ford was stung by the ridicule but pressed on, leasing a ship and sending out invitations to well-known progressives and pacifists like William Jennings Bryan and Thomas Edison, as well as to the governor of each state. Most recipients declined the invitation, the initiative flailed and countless political cartoons lampooned the misguided diplomat (one depicted Ford as a clown dragging a deflated balloon labeled “Peace”). A circus atmosphere and a crowd of 15,000 greeted the Peace Ship as it departed from Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 5.
Ford’s fellow passengers included a Denver judge and the governor of North Dakota — neither of whom were pacifists — 54 reporters, 18 college students and, as Watts puts it, “a motley collection of reformers advocating everything from temperance to sexual freedom, pacifism to vegetarianism.”
The plan was for the delegates to land at Oslo, Norway, and proceed with meetings in other neutral states like Denmark and Holland to mobilize opposition to the war and bring the belligerents to the bargaining table. But Ford’s earnest plan for world peace would soon turn into an epic farce on international waters.
The 13-day ocean journey was plagued by difficulties. Rampant seasickness gave way to a flu outbreak. The ship’s “peace pilgrims” quickly devolved into warring factions, feuding over tactics and strategy. Bored, drunken reporters looked to stoke and embellish the proceedings at every turn. Yet throughout, Ford persevered, giving reporters twice-daily briefings, broadcasting updates back to shore and cordially mingling with the ship’s passengers. Among the legions of activists and eccentrics aboard, reporters came to respect Ford for his honest and straightforward approach. “I came to make fun of the whole thing,” one reporter later confided, but “I believe in Henry Ford and I’m going to say so even if I lose my job for it.”
Ford himself took ill (some say rather conveniently), and when the ship finally sailed into Oslo’s harbor on a frigid December 18, the ailing industrialist was rushed to the city’s Grand Hotel. He emerged a few days later to meet with the press before quietly booking passage back to New York and washing his hands of the whole affair — though he continued to fund its operations for another year. Without the auto tycoon at the helm, the expedition rapidly lost momentum on European soil, degenerating, says historian John H. McCool, “into little more than an adolescent romp in fancy hotels and opulent ballrooms — all on Henry Ford’s tab.”
It is not known how much Ford’s dalliance in diplomacy cost him, but he maintained it was money well spent. “We got a million dollars worth of advertising out of it,” he would later explain, “and a hell of a lot of experience.”