Henry Ford's peace mission

Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line for manufacturing automobiles, wasn't the inventor of world peace. This Jan. 14, 1916, front page of The Lake County Times tells of the inauspicious start to Ford's ill-fated peace mission.

Henry Ford, whose hangar at the Lansing Municipal Airport is a reminder of his imprint on the Region, was in Europe 100 years ago, attempting to broker world peace. His mission was doomed.

The tantalizing headline, "Wild fist fight before Ford sailed," on the Jan. 14, 1916, front page of The Lake County Times is enough to make anyone want to learn more about Ford's peace mission.

Ford chartered an ocean liner, the Oscar II, and recruited prominent peace activists to join him on a mission to Europe to try to convince the warring nations to end World War I.

This was before the United States got involved in the war.

Ford tried to get President Woodrow Wilson's support, but Wilson declined. Ford also tried to get inventor Thomas Edison to join him, but Edison declined. So did Jane Addams, William Jennings Bryan and John Wanamaker, all of whom were so prominent that their names remain familiar a century later.

The Oscar II set sail from Hoboken, N.J., on Dec. 5, 1915. According to Ford biographer Steven Watts, in "The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century," a jokester placed a cage with two squirrels and a sign reading, "To the Good Ship Nutty" on the gangplank just before the ship sailed. 

Two days later, the president addressed Congress, calling for increases in the U.S. Army and Navy ranks. The peace delegates aboard the Oscar II disagreed on the response to that speech. A majority signed a resolution to denounce Wilson's move, while a minority said to do so was unpatriotic.

There was an influenza pandemic at the time, and the ship was not untouched by it. Ford became ill and withdrew to his cabin. David Traxel, in his book "Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War 1898-1920," wrote that reporters barged into Ford's cabin to check out rumors that Ford had died aboard ship.

When the ship landed in Christiana, Norway — now known as Oslo — on Dec. 18, Ford was still ill. He met with the press a few days later, but spoke little about the peace mission. He abandoned the mission, leaving his hotel Dec. 23 and boarding another ship to return to the United States.

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The peace ship continued its trip around Europe, with delegates returning in February 1916. But Ford's early departure was newsworthy for weeks afterward.

On Jan. 14, a reporter following the peace ship reported on Ford's departure, confirming the peace mission was hardly peaceful.

"A wild scene preceded Henry Ford's departure from the peace expedition at Christiania (Oslo) it was learned here (The Hague, Netherlands) today," United Press Cablegram correspondent Charles F. Stewart wrote. "Several Ford leaders exchanged blows before Ford sped away in an automobile to catch a train that was to take him to Bergen where he took passage to New York."

"Ford it was said learned that Mme. (Rosika) Schwimmer's documents from warring and neutral rulers encouraging the peace movements were a declaration of nothing — that they were worthless," Stewart wrote.

That's how Stewart's story begins. But two paragraphs were pulled out and displayed above Stewart's byline, right below the sub-subhead, to give additional juicy details:

"Ford's chauffeur drove up, bundled Ford into the car and drove away while Mme. Schwimmer yelled 'kidnapers! murder!' Ford's chauffeur waved his hat in the air and beat a hasty retreat," Stewart wrote.

"Mme. Schwimmer it is believed was working in the interests of German propaganda."

It wasn't the only Ford faux pas when it came to exporting his ideas abroad — an article in National Geographic this month tells of Ford's Brazilian rubber plantation failing when workers were expected to adhere to Midwestern culture — but a peace mission that includes a fistfight is a great story, even a century later.