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TV Review: American Experience: Henry Ford

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Henry Ford (1863-1947) was one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century. He has been the subject of many books and films over the years, and the new documentary from the American Experience is one of the best I have seen.

The show opens in South America, at the site of what was once called “Fordlandia.“ In 1928, Ford bought 125,000 acres in Brazil, ostensibly to grow rubber for tires. As emerged later on though, the true reason behind the purchase was for Ford to build his very own paradise. In true Charles Foster Kane style, the grandiose project was never completed. Ford’s Xanadu may not have come to fruition, but the company he founded in 1903 still thrives. If instituting the ground-breaking assembly line means of production at his factories were all he had accomplished in his life, it would be enough. But there was much more to Ford’s life than just his cars.

He was a mass of contradictions. For one thing, even though he became one of the richest men in the world, Ford had a visceral hatred for “the wealthy.” This stemmed from his early attempts to get his business off the ground. When his backers discovered that he envisioned a vehicle for the working class, they pulled out. They saw the car as a “plaything for the rich.” Apparently, the idea of the common man having access to the automobile gave these snobs fits. They left Ford to his own devices, and in doing so they earned his lifelong enmity.

Ford may have been powerless when he was abandoned by his erstwhile partners in the beginning, but their actions came back to haunt them in a big way later on. With the success of the Ford Motor Company, he became part of what we now call the “one-percent.“ His revenge on his former backers took the form of a huge pay raise for his employees, and changed many lives. In an era when the average worker earned $2 a day for their efforts, Ford more than doubled his employees’ wages to $5 a day.

To say that there was an outcry from his peers would be putting it mildly. Now they were forced to compete with the higher rate of pay. Ford had other reasons for the raise however, as it also made sound business sense. Turnover in his factories was high, and it was costly to train new employees. With the higher wage, turnover plummeted.

He also wanted to sell cars. Ford’s workers could now afford to buy their own vehicles, and the “horseless carriage” quickly became a necessity. As the program shows, the idea of just getting in a car and taking your family out for a Sunday picnic had never existed before. We take all of this for granted today of course, but at the time, it must have felt like an incredible leap forward. In many ways, Ford’s actions marked the birth of the middle class. This scene is an example of the personal touch that I find so appealing in shows produced by American Experience. The subjects are presented in a highly compelling fashion, and in ways that make them relevant to the present day.

Ford’s life was filled with controversy, both on and off the job. The biggest battle he faced at the company was against the unions. When union organizers came to his plant, Ford took their actions as a personal affront. After all, he had voluntarily raised his employees’ wages, what else could they want? More to the point, he did not want to be told what to do. The union men were met with brutal violence from Ford’s thugs, and the footage of these confrontations is not pretty. This was a fight he would eventually lose.

There was disappointment in his personal life as well. His relationship with his son was very sad. The elder Ford was born to Irish immigrants on a small farm, and was the epitome of the self-made man. Ford and his wife Clara‘s only child was born in 1893, a boy they named Edsel. Although groomed to take over the company from his father, this never happened. He was president of the Ford Motor Company from 1919 until his death in 1943, but held no real power. Edsel had plenty of ideas, but Henry habitually shot them down. It must have been a humiliating situation.

What Henry never seemed to grasp was how different the circumstances were between his life, and that of his son. The biggest problem seems to have been that Edsel wanted to move the company forward. Their competitors were introducing new models every year, yet Ford stuck with his fabled Model T from 1908 until 1926. Edsel had a lot of great ideas, and some were even implemented. But in the end, he was a disappointment to his father. Edsel died in 1943, at the age of 49. Unfortunately, the two never really reconciled their differences. Losing his son broke Henry’s heart, and it was something he never really recovered from.

Beyond this familial tragedy was Ford’s rabid anti-Semitism. For a man who could be so forward-looking, even visionary, this aspect of his personality is hard to fathom. Ford wrote a series of articles for The Dearborn Independent which were later published in book form as The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. His efforts earned him the distinction of being the only American mentioned in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

One has to wonder where this stuff came from. With the outbreak of World War II, Ford tried to distance himself from what he had written. He said that the material was actually written by someone else. He claimed that he just signed his name to the articles, without even reading them. Needless to say, it was not much of a defense.

Ford’s reaction to the modern world that he had done so much to create was to pine for a simpler era. This was the true goal of Fordlandia. The essential idea was for him to develop his own small town, which would double as a factory town. The property was sold back to Brazil after Ford‘s death. Another attempt at “turning back the clock” took place in Sudbury, MA. His plan to turn it into a themed small-town village was never completed either.

Ford died of a cerebral hemorrhage in September, 1945, at the age of 83. His impact upon the world was enormous, as this program makes clear. With Henry Ford, the American Experience moves into its 25th year. The award-winning PBS show has been called “television’s most-watched history series.” They have done a tremendous job with Henry Ford, and the premiere broadcast of it will be from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. ET, on Tuesday, January 29, 2013.

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