His History Is Bunk

Article excerpt

Byline: Charles Legge


Did Henry Ford actually say 'History is bunk'?

If so, what was the context?

HENRY FORD (1863-1947) was a giant of American industry. He founded the Ford Motor Company and introduced the first modern assembly lines for mass production.

His Model T automobile revolutionised transport and American industry.

There's no evidence that he ever actually claimed history was bunk. He actually said: 'History is more or less bunk', and the qualification makes a big difference. He said it in an in-depth interview with Chicago Tribune journalist Charles Wheeler, which ran through three issues of the paper in 1916.

There was much hidden context woven into the interview. World War I was in its second year and Ford was a committed pacifist, whereas the Tribune was pro-war.

One of Ford's most publicised acts was to charter an ocean liner to carry himself and a party of pacifists to Europe in November 1915 in an attempt to end the war by means of 'continuous mediation'.

The so-called Peace Ship episode was widely ridiculed.

In spring 1916, Ford exasperated the Republican Tribune by winning Michigan's first ever Republican Presidential Primary. So the Tribune interview was part smear, part debate, and part PR exercise for Ford.

The key passage was: Wheeler: 'Take England, for instance. For 1,000 years France have been unable to invade this little strip of land you might tuck away in Michigan. Because England has a navy. Napoleon, with all of Europe at his feet, couldn't get across 21 miles from Calais to Dover. What you ought to stand for is an American Navy. With an adequate navy we could live in peace and security for a million years.' Ford: 'What do I care about Napoleon?

What do we care what they did 500 or 1,000 years ago?

I don't know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across there and I don't care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today.' It was not until three years later that the aphorism entered common parlance. Ford famously sued the Tribune for a million dollars for an article entitled Henry Ford Is An Antichrist, in which the paper described him as an 'ignorant idealist'.

The Tribune's high-powered legal team deliberately kept Ford on the stand during most of the eight days, asking him hundreds of questions a day, many about American history. Under this intense pressure Ford answered many questions sensibly, some shrewdly, but had forgotten some basic facts of American history.

When questioned about this statement he slipped up, stating: 'I did not say it was bunk. It was bunk to me, but I did not say -- .' The American Press seized upon this, running the headline 'History Is Bunk'. Though the jury found for Ford, it awarded him a humiliating six cents damages.

Carl Wrey, Manchester.


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