I think it's fair to generalize that most American Jews think of Henry Ford as an extreme, unrepentant antisemite who happened also to make cars. This has been, at least, my own impression, and I don't think I am alone in it.
So I was quite surprised to learn that in 1927, Ford wrote a public letter of apology, not only regretting, but even disavowing all previous knowledge of, the series of viciously antisemitic articles that had appeared in his own newspaper and under his own name, and later became the pamphlet "The International Jew".
How sincere was Ford's apology? How seriously should we take his claim of ignorance, which seem to rely upon the premise that he didn't even read his own articles in his own newspaper, let alone write them? Read on.
From the J-Vault: Statement by Henry Ford (1927)
What did Henry Ford write by way of apology? Some excerpts:
Although both publications are my property, it goes without saying that in the multitude of my activities it has been impossible for me to devote personal attention to their management or to keep informed as to their contents. It has therefore inevitably followed that the conduct and policies of these publications had to be delegated to men whom I placed in charge of them and upon whom I relied implicitly...
I am deeply mortified that this journal, which is intended to be constructive and not destructive, has been made the medium for resurrecting exploded fictions, for giving currency to the so-called Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion, which have been demonstrated, as I learn, to be gross forgeries, and for contending that the Jews have been engaged in a conspiracy to control the capital and the industries of the world, besides laying at their door many offenses against decency, public order and good morals.
Had I appreciated even the general nature, to say nothing of the details ,of these utterances, I would have forbidden their circulation without a moment's hesitation, because I am fully aware of the virtues of the Jewish people as a whole, of what they and their ancestors have done for civilization and for mankind and toward the development of commerce and industry, of their sobriety and diligence, their benevolence and their unselfish interest in the public welfare...
I frankly confess that I have been greatly shocked as a result of my study and examination of the files of The Dearborn Independent and of the pamphlets entitled "The International Jew." I deem it to be my duty as an honorable man to make amends for the wrong done to the Jews as fellow-men and brothers, by asking their forgiveness for the harm that I have unintentionally committed, by retracting so far as lies within my power the offensive charges laid at their door by these publications, and by giving them the unqualified assurance that henceforth they may look to me for friendship and good will...
Finally, let me add that this statement is made on my own initiative and wholly in the interest of right and justice and in accordance with what I regard as my solemn duty as a man and as a citizen.
This letter paints quite a different picture of Mr. Ford than do the writings for which he apologizes in it. Yet in a reply, Marshall reacts with a curious coolness, seeming to acknowledge Ford's apology, and to consider the matter closed, and even to refer indirectly to forgiveness, without really quite saying that Ford is actually forgiven:
The statement which you have sent me gives us assurance of your retraction of the offensive charges, of your proposed change of policies in the conduct of The Dearborn Independent, of your future friendship and good will, of your desire to make amends, and what is to be expected from any man of honor, you couple these assurances with a request for pardon. So far as my influence can further that end, it will be exerted...
Referring to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, Israel Zangwill once said that we Jews are after all the only Christians. He might have added that it is because essentially the spirit of forgiveness is a Jewish trait.
What accounts for Marshall's less-than-enthusiastic reception of Ford's energetic apology? If he found the apology insufficient, why did he not say so? The answer can be found hinted at in (or rather by) the cover letter that accompanies "Ford's" letter of apology:
June 30, 1927
Mr. Earl J. Davis
My dear Sir:
I hereby approve of the attached tatement [sic] and authorize you and Mr. Joseph Palma to deliver same to Louis Marshall, of New York City.
It seems clear, in other words, that the lengthy apology was signed by Ford, but written for him, not by him. (This casts a new and ironic light upon the final sentence of the apology: "Finally, let me add that this statement is made on my own initiative and wholly in the interest of right and justice...")
That the letter is not exactly the unfiltered outpourings of Mr. Ford's heart is also alluded to in Marshall's introduction recounting the circumstances of the exchange of letters. As Marshall tells it, he was approached by several politicians (Earl Davis and Joseph Palma) who were acting as Ford's emissaries. (Marshall does not mention in his introduction that Ford was in the midst of a libel lawsuit over this very issue at the time.)
There followed further discussions at personal interviews in my office with Mr. Palma, over the long distance telephone, and otherwise, with the result that on Thursday, June 30, 1927, Mr. Palma informed me that Ford was ready to sign the document previously prepared.
That someone else (Marshall himself? Palma in consultation with Marshall?) wrote Ford's statement answers both the questions I posed above regarding Marshall's response. Marshall didn't find the apology insufficient because (whether directly or indirectly) he designed it himself, and so he could hardly criticize it. But for the same reason, he could hardly grant Ford a full-throated (and undeserved) statement of forgiveness. The result was an exchange of letters which must be regarded as insincere on both sides, for the purpose of preserving the good reputation of both sides with the public at large. Ford wanted to get out of his legal troubles and stop being targeted for criticism as an antisemite. Marshall wanted the great tycoon on the record praising the Jews, even if the praise was wildly disingenuous. Both of them, it seems, got what they wanted out of the exchange.
What did Henry Ford write by way of apology? Actually, no more than this: "I hereby approve of the attached tatement [sic]".