Henry Ford, Rosika Schwimmer and the WWI-era ‘Peace Ship’

Henry Ford’s 150th birthday in 2013 is sparking year-long observances in his memory as well as fresh questions about how Americans should remember this global giant. In his book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, Daniel L. Butry includes a section on Ford’s infamous World War I-era effort at Two Track diplomacy with his so-called “Peace Ship.”


Track Two mediation is undertaken by nongovernmental actors—individuals, teams and organizations. These efforts have dramatically increased in recent decades thanks to growing expertise and widespread training in conflict resolution. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have become key players, often trusted in situations where politicians are viewed with suspicion. Mediators in NGOs can open back channels and help warring parties explore new possibilities for solutions outside the glare of media. (…)

One of the earliest Track Two initiatives was the “Peace Ship” during World War I. A number of European feminists lead by the Hungarian pacifist Rosika Schwimmer tried to create a traveling conference to explore common ground for a peace agreement between the belligerents. The European powers were stuck in trench warfare that was grinding up a generation of young men, so it seemed to Schwimmer and other pacifists that citizen “peace ambassadors” might offer an alternative to the carnage.

The women’s delegation came to the U.S. seeking support and met with the American industrialist Henry Ford, who agreed to charter an old steam ship for the group. A cluster of religious leaders, journalists and others interested in peace joined Ford and the feminists. In 1915, the group sailed on the “Peace Ship” to various European neutral ports including Copenhagen and Stockholm to hold consultations. Eventually they drafted a platform for peace, but they were met with disdain by all the warring governments as well as by the United States, which was not yet engaged in the war. The conglomeration of peace mediators also became notorious for their own internal wrangling, to the delight of critics.

The initiative collapsed, but their work found new life when their ideas were reflected in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, his manifesto in early 1918 outlining U.S. goals in World War I. His list included a commitment to transparent peace treaties that would not be entangled with private deals on the side.

More on Henry Ford, the Peace Ship and Rosika Schwimmer

Historian David Traxel’s fascinating overview of early 20th-century Progressive causes, Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920, devotes an entire chapter to Henry Ford, his Peace Ship and the flamboyant peace activist Rosika Schwimmer.

At the time, Ford told reporters, “If I can make automobiles run, why can’t I steer those people clear of war?”

As Traxel describes this unique chapter in American history, Ford’s early 1915 public statements against American involvement in World War I drew Schwimmer to ask for his help in an independent peace mission to European leaders. Ford did travel to Washington D.C. and met with President Wilson, who kept the controversial automaker at arm’s length and did not reveal his own administration’s ongoing peace initiatives. Ford, as he often did, drew a hasty and dismissive conclusion. He declared that the President was of little value in this cause—and announced that he would make peace himself.

Skeptical journalists had great fun at Ford’s expense and dubbed his effort the “Peace Ship”—some openly calling it the “Ship of Fools.” Ford himself agreed to travel with the ship, which was chock full of fiercely independent men and women, all vying for the world’s attention. As Daniel Buttry describes in his book, the Peace Ship effort collapsed—although it did have an enduring influence after the war.

This project was ripe for misunderstanding from the start, David Traxel writes, including the fact that Schwimmer was Jewish. As he recounts her meeting with the Fords: “Schwimmer, a Jew, must have been taken aback by the automaker’s casually patting his pocket and claiming that he had proof that the war had been started by German Jewish bankers, but she suppressed her doubts for the greater cause.”

The Fords were mainly motivated, Traxel concludes, by Henry Ford’s firm conviction that war was a huge waste to humanity and to global development and by Clara’s more personal concern for their soldier-aged son, Edsel.


HENRY FORD’S 150TH BIRTHDAY: Stephanie Fenton, a columnist specializing in covering Holidays and Milestones, writes about Henry Ford’s life, his controversies, his legacy and plans for his 150th birtday.

THE CHALLENGE OF WRITING ABOUT HENRY FORD TODAY: Our Values columnist Terry Gallagher writes about the difficulties journalists face in remembering historical figures like Henry Ford.

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