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Henry Ford’s Peace Ship – Podcast #172

With Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to invade Ukraine, many talking heads have warned that we are on the verge of World War III. Time will only tell if these predictions will ever come true – and let’s hope that it never does – but here in the United States, everyone seems to have an opinion as to how involved this country should be. There are those who feel that we need to be more aggressive against Russia, those who think we are handling it about right, and those who feel that we should simply stay out of it.

I’m not here to preach which of these three options (or some combination of them) is best. That’s for you to decide, but it does remind me of a story from World War I when a group of pacifists from the United States urged US President Woodrow Wilson to not only stay out of the war but to lead the way in what was known as Continuous Mediation. This was a concept in which neutral nations would appeal to the belligerent nations, as they were referred to back then, and work toward bringing peace.

Continuous Mediation was an idea that appealed to many, and that included Mr. Model T himself, Henry Ford. Within days of learning the basic principles of Continuous Mediation, a plan was hatched in which Ford would charter a ship, gather up as many notables of the day as possible, and then set sail for Europe, with the intention of bringing the deadly war to a halt.

It would make the most sense to start a story about World War I on the day that it officially began: July 28, 1914.  But I’m not going to do that.  Instead, I am choosing the seemingly random day of January 13, 1915. The major headline of that day’s publication of The Indianapolis Star was, “12,000 Killed, 20,000 Hurt by Quake in Italy; Historic Edifices in Rome and Naples Damaged.”  In that issue, there was only one article discussing what was going on in the European war.  It was a ten-paragraph story titled, “BATTLES IN WEST WON BY GERMANS. Allies Evacuate Trenches Near Belgian Coast and Attacks Near Nieuport Are Repulsed With Loss to French. TURKS TAKE PERSIAN TOWN.” And that was all they wrote on the great war. 

Well, almost…

There was another one-paragraph article related to the war buried on page 4, column 3, fourth story down. While written seriously, we can be fairly certain that some readers placed the story in the “You’ve got to be kidding” category. I know that I certainly would have.

Basically, the article told of how Frank Lindsay, who was the Secretary of the Kokomo (Indiana) Chamber of Commerce, had penned a letter to President Woodrow Wilson requesting the endorsement of his plan to bring a quick end to the war.  Lindsay had come up with the idea while at a Chamber luncheon a few days prior, so you know that it had to be good.  The idea was simple: send US representatives on a “peace ship” to Europe and plead for peace.

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson. Library of Congress image.

Just seven days later, Ohio Senator-elect and soon-to-be US President Warren G. Harding made a similar proposal.  Load a ship up with American sailors and American-made products and send it overseas to spread the message of peace to the whole world.

Fast-forward another two months and we get another proposal for a peace ship.  This time it came from Rosika Schwimmer, a 37-year-old Hungarian immigrant. Largely forgotten today, Schwimmer was a well-known suffragist, feminist, and, most importantly to this story, a pacifist. She had been working in London as both a reporter and as the press secretary of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, but with the outbreak of the war, she was branded an enemy alien and forced to leave England. Unable to return to Hungary, she opted to tour the United States and make a case for her Continuous Mediation peace proposal. This plan called for ongoing negotiations between the belligerent nations and the neutral countries of Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

Schwimmer first met with President Wilson on September 18, 1914, and presented to him with a signed petition calling for the establishment of Continuous Mediation. Wilson was reported to have been cordial to the idea but refused to commit the United States to it.

Frustrated, Schwimmer announced on March 13, 1915, “I have become convinced that the United States will not call a conference of the neutral nations.” She continued, “The last resort, then, is a peace ship. Delegates shall be chosen at mass meetings throughout the country. They shall sail to Europe and stop at all neutral countries to carry delegates those nations have chosen to a gigantic peace conference.”

And she was serious.  On April 13, 1915, more than forty women, all members of the Women’s Peace Party, boarded the steamer Noordam in Hoboken, New Jersey, and sailed off to the International Women’s Conference at The Hague in the Netherlands. The ship’s flag simply displayed “PEACE” in large blue letters on a solid white background.

No one was fooling themselves into believing that they could stop the war, but they hoped to create a worldwide yearning for peace.  From April 28 through May 1, 1915, an estimated 1,300 women from twelve countries came together to draft proposals to end the war. While the conference was deemed a success, its proposals were drowned out by bigger news on May 7th: that of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat, killing 1,198 passengers and crew.  This shifted public opinion within the United States about the war and many feared being drawn into the European conflict.

One of these people was Henry Ford. The introduction of the Model T on October 1, 1908, had made him an incredibly wealthy man.  At the time of his death in 1947, Ford’s net worth would equate to nearly $200 billion in today’s dollars.

Photograph of Henry Ford taken of August 14, 1919.
Photograph of Henry Ford taken on August 14, 1919. Library of Congress image.

Ford hated war and had always considered himself a pacifist. He was appalled by what was happening in Europe and was desperate to keep the United States out of the conflict. So, he decided to put his money where his mouth was.  On September 5, 1915, Ford announced that he was setting aside $1 million (nearly $28 million today) to campaign for peace. Three days later, he increased his peace fund endowment to $10 million.

So, let’s do some simple math: Lots of money + a campaign for world peace = Rosika Schwimmer.  She had found the perfect substitute for Woodrow Wilson.  If she couldn’t get the President to sign on to her plan for Continuous Mediation, maybe she could get Ford to do so instead. Schwimmer immediately penned a letter and soon had an appointment to meet with Henry Ford.

In November 1915, a company car pulled up to the Ten Eyck house on Ford’s Fair Lane estate in Dearborn, Michigan. Two guests stepped out of the vehicle: Rosika Schwimmer and Louis P. Lochner, the Executive Director of the Emergency Peace Federation and a future Pulitzer Prize Winner. Once inside, there were the usual greetings and a discussion of Schwimmer’s proposal. Yet, it wasn’t long before the two men headed off to Ford’s nearby experimental tractor shop. Schwimmer remained behind to discuss her proposal of Continuous Mediation with Henry’s wife, Clara.

It’s unclear if Ford knew that Rosika was Jewish, but she recalled years later that he had blamed the world war on “International Jews,” his scapegoat for just about everything wrong in the world. While Schwimmer could have easily argued with Ford over that Jewish remark, she opted to bite her lip this time and allow the meeting to continue.

Ford had a legitimate reason to head off to the tractor shop without the women. He wished to question Lochner without Schwimmer listening in,  “What do you think of Madame Schwimmer’s proposal? Is it practical? How much will it cost to maintain a neutral commission in Europe?” Lochner expressed his approval for her plan but added that Ford should first meet with President Wilson to obtain his approval before proceeding further.

Rosika Schwimmer in 1910 - Henry Ford's Peace Ship.
Rosika Schwimmer in 1910. Flickr image.

Meanwhile, back at the Ten Eyck, Clara and Rosika discussed the proposal.  Schwimmer added that she had a meeting scheduled for November 26 with the President and it would be of great help if the White House could be bombarded with telegrams supporting her position.

By the end of the meeting, both Henry and Clara were convinced. He pledged $10,000 (over $270,000 today) to cover the costs of the telegrams alone and agreed to support Schwimmer’s plan for Continuous Mediation. After the meeting ended, Schwimmer left for New York, with Ford and Lochner agreeing to meet up with her there the next day.

On November 21, Ford had lunch with Lochner and Schwimmer at the Hotel McAlpin in Manhattan. At some point during their discussion, Lochner half facetiously suggested, “Why not a special ship to take the delegates over?” Ever the promoter, Ford loved the idea. The use of a ship was a flamboyant, over-the-top approach that was certain to bring much-needed attention to their cause.

Two days later, Ford was in a meeting with Wilson, urging him to assemble a group of representatives from neutral nations who would work toward stopping the bloodshed in Europe. While approving of the concept, Wilson was noncommittal, preferring to keep his options open, should a better idea come along.

With no objection from the President, Henry Ford decided to go it alone.  He held a press conference the next day and revealed his plan to the world.

“I want to get those boys out of the trenches by Christmas. In sending the ship we will establish a clearinghouse at some port in Holland or Scandinavia, where all the nations at war can be brought together and peace proposals made.

He continued, “We are not ready to announce definite plans. The ship is on its way to New York. When it arrives the arrangements will be completed, and I will be ready to say who will go on the expedition, and who will be in charge. I do not know yet whether I will go or not. I will give my last penny for the purpose of bringing peace, and will borrow money if necessary. I can still make a living at any time. I want to get those boys out of the trenches by Christmas.” (Note that Christmas was just four weeks away.)

“Our ship will be armed with the longest gun in the world—the Marconi.  It will let the world know we are bound for peace, and will keep the world in touch with the movement.”

Ford may have been the face of this endeavor, but it was really Rosika Schwimmer who was working behind the scenes to pull the whole thing together. Lochner’s role would be relegated to that of Ford’s assistant.

The first thing needed for any voyage is a ship.  Arrangements were made with the Scandinavian America Line to use their steamer, the Oscar II. While the image of the S.S. Minnow from Gilligan’s Island fame initially ran through my mind, the Oscar II was a grand ship.  At around 60% of the length of the Titanic, although not nearly as immense, it featured rooms ranging from luxurious first-class cabins all the way down to spacious, well-ventilated third-class rooms. 

The Oscar II Peace Ship.  Inset: Captain G. W. Hempel on the left, Henry Ford on the right.  - Henry Ford's Peace Ship.
The Oscar II Peace Ship. Inset: Captain G. W. Hempel on the left, Henry Ford on the right. Wikipedia image.

Then, an entire floor at the Biltmore Hotel was rented to set up operations for the trip. Ford’s staff of clerks, managers, and stenographers worked to send out invitations, and deal with the sudden deluge of telegrams, mail, and visitors. Invited guests were told to prepare for a six-week trip, which could be extended if deemed necessary.

From the outset, it was clear that no representative of the United States government would be participating.  To do so would imply an official endorsement by the US. Yet, that didn’t exclude elected officials on both the state and local levels.  Invitations were sent to every governor, lieutenant governor, college president, and notable of the day encouraging them to hop aboard the peace ship.

The overall response was not what the planners had hoped for.  Nearly all of the replies were negative. Here is just a small sampling of them:

From New Jersey Governor James Fielder: “Invitation declined. Believe that efforts for peace by citizens of neutral nations as individuals would be considered meddlesome.”

Alabama Governor Charles Henderson: “Prolonged absence from the state would necessarily prevent my acceptance. The spirit of Alabama’s two and one-half million citizens is with you and wish your success in behalf of suffering humanity.”

Mississippi Governor Earl Brewer: “Sorry can’t get off to accept your invitation: congratulations on great work you are undertaking. If you succeed you will have accomplished more for humanity and the world than all the generals that have fought in all the wars.”

I could go on and on, but you get the idea…

Yet, Ford did announce that three prominent people had accepted.  They were future Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, inventor Thomas Edison, and department store magnate John Wanamaker. Ford may have jumped the gun a bit here as none would actually sail on the ship, the latter two having declined Ford’s invitation. Jane Addams had planned on going but illness prevented her from traveling.

While the vast majority of the notables of the day declined the invitation, many others expressed interest in going.  So many, in fact, that Ford’s staff began to book them on a second ship, the Frederik VIII.

As departure day approached, Basil Peel of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had a bad vision: “I dreamed I saw the peace ship in midocean and a German submarine approaching. Suddenly there was a terrific explosion and the peace ship began sinking. I saw a wireless operator call for help. An English battleship appeared. The people of the sinking boat cried for aid, but the commander of the battleship refused it and the whole party was lost.”

Ford must have had similar thoughts because he had a new will drawn up that detailed the distribution of his fortune and how his business affairs were to be handled should he not return.

Saturday, December 4, 1915, was a cold, raw day as a crowd estimated at 15,000 people gathered on a dock in Hoboken, New Jersey to witness the launch of Ford’s peace ship.  With less than two weeks of planning, there was a general sense of pandemonium in the air. Few seemed to know what was going on, what they should be doing, or where they should be going. Two caged squirrels were delivered to the ship, one addressed to “The Good Ship Nutty.” A steward was informed that one of the squirrels was Mr. Ford’s pet and proceeded to deliver it directly to his stateroom and leave it on a table.

Finally, at 1:15 PM, a car arrived with Mr. and Mrs. Ford inside. As the 52-year-old Ford emerged from the vehicle, the crowd cheered as if he was being crowned king. Lloyd M. Bingham, a New York theatrical manager, announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I take great pleasure in presenting to you Mr. Henry Ford. Three cheers for Mr. Ford.” Ford appeared uneasy with all of the sudden attention, so he simply smiled and attempted to hide behind a stanchion. Bingham continued, “Mr. Ford wishes to thank you individually and collectively for coming here to wish him Godspeed.”

Lloyd M. Bingham - Henry Ford's Peace Ship.
Lloyd M. Bingham. Image appeared on page 1 of the December 28, 1915 publication of the Austin American.

The Oscar II set sail at 3:15 PM. From the ship’s deck, Ford tossed a bouquet of roses down to his weeping wife. As the ship moved away from the dock, a band played the recent hit song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier.” Then, suddenly, a man jumped from the dock into the icy waters of the Hudson River, attempting to swim toward the quickly receding ship. A tugboat rescued the man, who was later identified as Urban Ledoux, although he wished to be referred to as Mr. Zero and stated that he was “swimming to reach public opinion.”

Different sources provide varying totals of how many passengers were on board.  The general total was somewhere between 140 and 165 people. But, they weren’t all peace advocates. Just roughly, 60-65 were guests of Mr. Ford, 45-55 were members of the press, there were two or three motion picture cameramen, and approximately 20 were on Ford’s personal staff.  

Those on board as peace delegates were typically described as being pacifists, suffragists, socialists, lecturers, or some combination of these. Add to that a sprinkling of teachers, government officials, and ministers. Yet, there was a glaring absence of farmers, scientists, labor officials, and, excluding Ford, businessmen.

Interior photo of the Oscar II, Henry Ford's Peace Ship, taken in December 1915.
Interior photo of the Oscar II, Henry Ford’s Peace Ship, taken in December 1915. Library of Congress image.

For the first few days of the trip, Ford mingled among the crowd.  He spoke at both a morning and afternoon news conference each day, providing plenty of meat for the reporters’ stories. Yet, he seemed most comfortable down in the ship’s engine room.

Once the ship was out on the open water, messages began to be sent back to shore via the Marconi; telegraph signals sent over the radio waves.  The idea was simple: now that the Peace Ship had captured the world’s attention, they planned to bombard their audience with wireless messages. The first message sent was from Ford to his wife Clara, who was still at the Biltmore Hotel. Part of that message read, “Everything is splendid.” This was followed by Reverend Charles Aked, who was on board, delivering his 2,000-word Sunday sermon, transmitted in fifty-word installments, and costing Ford over $1,000 (roughly $28,000 today) to transmit.

The Oscar II leaving New York - Henry Ford's Peace Ship.
The Oscar II leaving New York. Flickr image.

On Monday, December 6, Ford sent the following message to Congress: “We the citizens of the United States, now sailing to Europe on the steamship Oscar II, with the serious purpose… to deliver the men from the trenches and the women from their suffering and agonies and restore the peace of the world upon an honorable and just basis which will stop the mad race of competitive armament, do hereby earnestly petition and entreat you to give the Peace Mission your support and encouragement…”

This was followed by messages to all of the belligerent countries, which concludes, “Let the armies stand still where they are… so that the soldiers may be delivered back from another bitter winter in the trenches and sent back to their labors and their firesides. As there is no other way to end the war except by mediation and discussion, why waste one more precious human life?

“For the sake of humanity,

“Respectfully yours, Henry Ford and 165 representatives of the people of the United States of America”

Well written, although not by Henry Ford.  His staff of writers penned those words.

Initially, things seemed to be going well aboard the Peace Ship, but that feeling would soon drastically change.

S. S. McClure - Henry Ford's Peace Ship.
S. S. McClure. Wikipedia image.

Tuesday evening, after dinner, there was a meeting of all the delegates where magazine publisher S.S. McClure read extracts from President Wilson’s State of the Union speech, which he had delivered to Congress that same day.  McClure had obtained an advance copy of the speech before sailing. In it, Wilson discussed the need for the United States to prepare for war, should the United States be drawn into the European conflict. While McClure and others understood and agreed with Wilson’s plea for preparedness, many aboard disagreed. From this day forward, the expedition would become divided into two camps: the McClureites and the anti-McClureites.

A motion was made to pass a resolution condemning Wilson’s preparedness policy, but the McClureites argued that this would be unpatriotic. They ultimately decided to shelve the resolution for five days so that everyone had time to think it over. The delay made no difference. Five days later, the resolution passed with more than a dozen delegates refusing to sign it. Some even threatened to leave the Peace Ship once they arrived in Europe.

Headlines back home weren’t helping their cause either.  They screamed, “Mutiny on board!” “War Over Peace Plan Splits Ford Pilgrims,” “Peace Ship Jarred By Wilson Message,” and so on.

There was another potential problem brewing: Rosika Schwimmer. She was basically in charge of the entire peace mission but was difficult to work with and incredibly secretive. Schwimmer insisted that she had documents proving that the belligerent nations were ready to mediate.  Yet, she stubbornly refused to share those details with anyone. Some were beginning to wonder if those documents existed at all.

After nearly two weeks at sea, the Oscar II was about to enter the North Sea but was forced to stop in Kirkwall, Scotland so that the British could search the ship for weapons and ammunition.  None was found, although wrapped Christmas gifts that had been brought along for the children of Scandanavia, reported having been in the thousands, were ripped open and searched. After two days, the Peace Expedition was on its way to its first planned stop: Christiania, Norway, which we know today as Oslo. From there, they were to head to Sweden, then to Denmark, with their final destination being The Hague. There they intended to set up a permanent home for the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation. As the Ford party moved from country to country, they would select delegates (representatives) of each country to take permanent seats at the Conference.

The North Sea was an incredibly dangerous place to sail during the war. Submarines were on the prowl and its waters had become a graveyard to a great many ships.  The Oscar II proceeded cautiously with its sidelights burning and its Danish flag brightly illuminated so that no one could mistake it for an enemy ship.

On December 13, the following message was sent by wireless to all of the ruling monarchs: “Sir — We come in this time of trouble, not to add to your burdens, but to help lift them; not to consider which nations are most of blame for the disaster that has befallen Europe, but to end the strife; not to intrude ourselves upon your national life and national ideas, but rather with an earnest desire to understand them and a heartfelt wish to aid in realizing them.”

It continues, “Enough blood has been shed, enough agony endured, and enough destruction wrought. The time has come to stop the bloodshed, to save the people from further slaughter, and the civilization of the world from anarchy and ruin. Has not war been tried enough in sixteen months of fighting?”

It concludes, “For the sake of humanity, HENRY FORD.”

"The Tug of Peace" political cartoon taking aim at Henry Ford's Peace Ship.
“The Tug of Peace” political cartoon taking aim at Henry Ford’s Peace Ship, which originally appeared on page 483 of the December 15, 1915 issue of Punch magazine.

Finally, on December 18, 1915, the Peace Ship docked in Christiania. Everyone aboard had expected a huge welcome, similar to what they had experienced when they left the dock in New Jersey.  Instead, the pier was deserted. While meetings and discussions between the peace pilgrims and the Norwegians took place over the next few days, their response could be described as lackluster, at best. Norway was a nation preparing for war, with a large standing army and universal conscription. An unnamed, high-ranking Norwegian government official summarized their position, “Madame Schwimmer visited me twice last Spring and endeavored to obtain action toward a peace conference by the Norwegian Government. It would’ve been useless then, and it is just as useless now.”  He added, “If Mr. Ford’s party had credentials from the American Government the whole complexion of the matter would be changed, but the conversations must pass between the three Scandanavian Governments before there can be any action or any change in the official attitude. The time is not ripe for peace. Interference is not wanted now. Norway can give no official recognition of any conference planned by the Ford party.”

One person who was notably absent from all of the events in Norway was Henry Ford himself. He was confined to his room at the Grand Hotel suffering from the flu. He wasn’t alone. Many aboard the Oscar II were suffering from varying degrees of influenza (Rosika Schwimmer included) long before they ever reached the shore. None paid the price more than Lloyd Bingham, the man who stood at the ship’s rails back in Hoboken to announce Ford’s arrival. When the peace ship arrived in Norway, Bingham was already in a coma and needed to be carried off the ship on a stretcher. He would not survive.

With each passing day, Ford became noticeably more ill. Late in the evening of December 23, Ford and his friend, Reverend Samuel Marquis, secretly slipped out of the hotel and took a train to Bergen. There they, along with the body of Lloyd Bingham, boarded the steamer Bergensfjord the following day and sailed off for New York.

Around the same time that Ford was leaving, eleven railway cars departed Christiania and headed east to Stockholm, Sweden. After a sixteen-hour ride, just as the train was approaching its final destination, a statement was read to the members of the party that Ford had been compelled to leave on the advice of his physician.  The peace ship, or should we now say the peace train, had lost its leader.

Could they continue without him? They had to.

The reception that the peace mission received from the Swedish was completely opposite to the cold shoulder that they had received in Norway. The Swedes were far more enthusiastic. Things went so well that Stockholm Chief Magistrate Carl Lindhagen asked the group to consider establishing his city, instead of The Hague, as the permanent home of the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation.

But things were not so peaceful among the members of the peace mission itself. With Ford absent, the expedition’s leaders made a power grab and undemocratically selected a governing committee. This caused another major fracture in the group, one from which it would never recover.  In particular, Inez Boissevain, a leading suffragist and one of the more prominent members of the peace mission, had enough of this nonsense and quit to go back home.

Inez Milholland Boissevain - Henry Ford's Peace Ship.
Inez Milholland Boissevain. Wikipedia image.

On Thursday, December 30, the peace party boarded a special train and headed southwest to Copenhagen, Denmark. While the Danes were cordial, a recently passed law forbid foreigners from holding public meetings within their country. The delegates found an easy way around this restriction: they held well-attended private meetings. And with one of the world’s richest men paying for everything, they were able to do a lot of partying and a lot of purchasing of gifts.

But their free ride was about to come to an end. It was announced on January 3, 1916, while they were still in Copenhagen, that the peace expedition would disband at The Hague on January 12. Ford would pay for their passage home. Only those who had permanent seats in the peace conference would remain.

But, before they parted, the group had one really big problem: they needed to get to The Hague and there were only two ways to get there. The first was via the North Sea, which meant going through mine-infested waters and traveling dangerously close to Germany. No ship large enough to carry the entire group was willing to take that risk and possibly have their ship sunk. Their only other option was to take a train through Germany, something that no tourist group had been able to do since the outbreak of the war.

Yet somehow they did get permission to travel by rail, but it came with several strict stipulations: First, no one in the party could touch German soil, which meant that all doors on the train had to be kept locked at all times. Second, no written, typewritten, or printed papers were allowed. And, lastly, all cameras, opera glasses, and gold currency had to be left behind.  While the gold coins could be exchanged for paper money, the bulk of these prohibited items were simply gathered up and shipped from Copenhagen back to the United States.

"By Wireless From the Peace Ship," by Bart - Henry Ford Peace Ship
“By Wireless From the Peace Ship,” by Bart, December 19, 1915, Great Falls Tribune, page 1. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The entire trip through Germany was made in darkness, which was purposely done to prevent the passengers from seeing anything war-related. Only one guard was assigned to the train, and he quickly relaxed the rules and fraternized with the passengers.  At each train stop, the peace advocates were able to get off the train and walk around the platform. Upon crossing the border into the Netherlands, everyone transferred to a Dutch train, arriving in The Hague at noon on January 8.

The peace council held its first meeting the next day, with representatives of Denmark, Holland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States all present. Yet, this was nothing special to the Dutch people. Nearly sixty similar peace groups were operating within the country at that very moment, with new ones continuously popping up. This was all old hat to them.

Five Americans were elected, along with the delegates already chosen from the other countries, to serve as permanent members of the peace board. Each member was paid for their services and Ford picked up the bill for the entire operation, which was estimated to be approximately $500,000 annually. ($13.8 million today.) Louis Lochner, who had taken a  backseat to Rosika Schwimmer up until now, was placed in charge of the entire kit and caboodle.

Louis P. Lochner - Henry Ford's Peace Ship.
Louis P. Lochner. Wikipedia image.

And then, as planned, beginning on January 10, the group began to disband and head home. This included Rosika Schwimmer who, under pressure of being fired, resigned from the peace mission.

In the end, the general consensus was that Ford’s Peace Ship was a total failure, but that wasn’t quite true. Those who served on the permanent board worked diligently to bring an end to the war, although within a few months the number of delegates was reduced from five to two people from each nation.

First, they appealed to the neutral nations to sign on to their concept of continuous mediation. Bills to do so were introduced in the parliaments of four neutral nations, although none were passed. Many of the principles that they formalized were decades later incorporated into the United Nations charter. This included the right of self-determination by people, economic freedom, peaceful settlement of all disputes, and the creation of a world congress to deal with issues as they came up.

On January 3, 1917, Ford requested that Louis Lochner return immediately to the United States. Lochner accompanied Ford to two meetings with President Wilson. Then, on January 22, Wilson gave his historic speech in which he urged the warring nations to establish a “peace without victory.” Ford concluded that the federal government was doing all that it could to establish peace. On February 7, Ford told Lochner to shut down the European peace operation.  Then, on April 2, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, which was granted four days later.

The total cost of Ford’s peace adventure has never been established. Estimates vary wildly, from $500,000 to $5 million ($13.8 million to $138 million, adjusted for inflation). Even the costs for the wireless telegraphy from the Oscar II range from $10,000 to $50,000 ($277,000 to $1.38 million).

As for the ship itself, it was sold in 1933 for $67,500 (nearly $1.5 million today) and scrapped.

Mutt and Jeff Cartoon - Henry Ford's Peace Ship
Mutt and Jeff Cartoon that appeared on page 11 of the January 22, 1916 publication of the San Francisco Chronicle. (Click to enlarge.)

Ford and the members of his expedition were largely ridiculed by the American press, but it was clear that they hoped to bring an end to the world war before the United States was dragged into the conflict.

In 1965, 78-year-old Louis Lochner reflected back on the Peace Ship adventure. “Well, the peace ship was a stunt but the welfare of humanity was in our thoughts. We felt that somebody ought to do something to end the war, and we did our best. Maybe it all came to nothing in the end, but who knows? Perhaps the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation germinated the idea which grew long after into the United Nations.”

But, I think that Henry Ford summed it up best: “I wanted to see peace. I at least tried to bring it about. Most men did not even try.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Further Reading on Henry Ford’s Peace Ship:

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