1. Man and Myth
“We’ll never recognize the United Automobile Workers or any other union,” declared Henry Ford after all other leading auto manufacturers had signed contracts with the UAW. “Labor unions are the worst thing that ever struck the earth.”
No other American industrialist had waged so ruthlessly effective a fight as Henry Ford against trade unions; and the passage of the Wagner Labor Act had by no means diminished his determination to see that his employees remained unorganized. Ford had long regarded himself as above the laws of the land.
In the three and a half decades that had elapsed since Ford first experimented in an empty stable in Detroit with a strange looking contraption resembling a large perambulator with a motor in the back, the once obscure mechanic had become one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
Ford’s vast private empire sprawled across six continents. Ford had factories and offices in China, Egypt, Argentina, Mexico, Hungary, Japan, Germany and a dozen other countries. His domain included oil wells in California; hundreds of thousands of acres of coal and timberlands in Kentucky, West Virginia and northern Michigan; 2,225,000 acres of rubber plantations in Para, Brazil. He controlled almost a quarter of the glass produced in the United States. He owned banks, railroads, airlines and steamship lines. Among the commodities produced by Ford factories were cars, trucks, tractors, electric locomotives, airplanes, steam turbines, generators, steel, cement, textiles, paper. Despite his frequent fulminations against “international financiers,” Ford’s own enterprises were closely linked with chemical, munition, steel and rubber cartels in Europe and Asia.
The capital of the Ford Empire was the River Rouge plant at Dearborn, Michigan. The largest industrial unit in the world, covering an area of more than a thousand acres, the River Rouge plant was a city in itself. It contained over 100 miles of railroad tracks; a mile and a half of docks, capable of accommodating ocean-going vessels; an elaborate network of paved thoroughfares and broad canals. Its giant, manifold structures included office buildings, foundries, steel mills, assembly plants, press shops, a paper mill, tire, and glass and cement plants. When operating at full speed and capacity, the plant employed 85,000 workers.
By 1940, the Ford Motor Company had produced more than 30,000,000 cars. The firm’s yearly income amounted to approximately one billion dollars.
According to the legend that had been assiduously woven around the name of Henry Ford by his own highly-paid publicists and by those devotees for whom he epitomized the virtues of free enterprise, the world-famed auto manufacturer was a great humanitarian, philanthropist and sage, motivated by a desire for the advancement of mankind in general and the welfare of his own employees in particular. Actually, the mechanical genius of the tall, spare, slightly stooping multi-millionaire was coupled with intellectual sterility, fierce bigotry and an intense phobia for social progress.1
In Ford factories throughout the world, the use of the most modern industrial techniques and the lavish care of mechanical equipment contrasted sharply with the backward and brutal treatment of the human beings in Ford’s employ.
Nowhere was this contrast more pronounced than at the Ford River Rouge plant at Dearborn, Michigan.
When a worker passed through the carefully guarded gates to the River Rouge plant, it was as if he had entered an autonomous fascist state within America— a state which maintained, in the words of the National Labor Relations Board, *’a regime of terror and violence directed against its employees.”
If the dictator of this state was Henry Ford, its dreaded and all-powerful chief of secret police was Harry Herbert Bennett.
1 It was more symbolic than paradoxical that Ford — who had done perhaps more than any other man of his time to revolutionize methods of industrial production— should surround himself with antiques, stage periodic square dances, sternly forbid subordinates* to smoke in his presence and, in the early 1930s, declare that if Prohibition were repealed he would never manufacture another car.
2. The Little Fellow
Throughout Ford’s fabulous career, strange and often sinister adventurers had played a major role in shaping his policies and executing his commands. His entourage invariably included such personalities as Major-General Count Z. Cherep-Spirodovitch, a fanatical anti-Semite and ex-Czarist officer, who helped persuade Ford to finance the international distribution of the infamous Jew-baiting forgery, The Protocols of Zion; Dr Harris Houghton, a former member of the United States Military Intelligence, who in the early 1920’s headed the Ford Detective Service, which secretly compiled dossiers on prominent American liberals; Ernest Gustav Liebold, an enigmatic Germanophile who, while holding no executive title in the Ford Company, had constant access to Ford’s office and was for a time reputed to be the second most powerful in the company; and William J. Cameron, who, first as editor of Ford’s Dearborn Independent and later as head of the anti-democratic Anglo-Saxon Federation, conducted nationwide anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns.
But of all Ford’s aides, advisors, and associates, the most sinister and extraordinary was Harry Herbert Bennett.
Harry Bennett’s official title was Personnel Director of the Ford Motor Company. When asked about his exact job, Bennett liked to answer, “Me? I’m just Mr. Ford’s personal man.” The answer was deceptively modest. By the mid-thirties, many shared the view expressed by Look magazine that Bennett was “absolute boss of the company.”
“A nod from Bennett may make or break a man in the Ford Empire,” wrote Spencer R. McColloch in an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Major executives who antagonize him may find it advisable to ‘resign.’ Others have been known to roam the buildings without an office for months at a stretch in expiation for some breach in Bennett’s discipline.’1
In the opinion of Ford himself, Harry Bennett was capable of directing even larger enterprises than the Ford Motor Company. “Harry Bennett,” asserted Ford, “should be President of the United States.”
Bennett’s own lieutenants usually referred to him as “The Little Fellow.” A small, tight-lipped, dapper man, who invariably wore a bow tie because an assailant had once almost strangled him by jerking his four-in-hand tie against his neck, Bennett had served several years in the U. S. Navy and fought for a time as a lightweight boxer under the name of “Sailor Reese” prior to his employment by Ford in 1916.1
Tough, quick-witted and resourceful, Bennett had risen rapidly in the Ford organization. Given the task of forming a bodyguard to protect Ford’s grandchildren from possible kidnapping, Bennett won the auto magnate’s personal esteem by his efficient handling of the assignment. In 1926, at the age of thirty-four, Bennett was appointed head of the Ford Service Department.
The purported function of the Service Department was to protect company property against theft. But its real purpose, as was commonly known, was to guard Henry Ford not against robbery but against the unionization of his employees. The Service Department was the anti-union and labor-espionage division of the Ford Motor Company.
Under Bennett’s leadership, the Service Department expanded into a huge apparatus whose devious ramifications reached far beyond the confines of Ford’s factories. By the early 1930’s, its network not only covered the cities of Dearborn and Detroit, but also extended throughout the country, reaching into every phase of public and private life. Among its ubiquitous paid agents and secret allies were labor spies, gangsters, gunmen and ex-convicts; detectives, police chiefs and judges; lawyers, educators, editors and merchants; municipal, state and Federal officials.
Describing the Service Department’s far-reaching influence, Malcolm M. Bingay of the Detroit Free Press later wrote:
Candidates for Governor, Senate, Congress, Mayor, Common Council, the judiciary, trembled in fear as to whether “Bennett’s gang” would be for or against them. Even regents of the University of Michigan waited word from him on the conduct of that ancient institution.
According to conservative estimates, there were more than 3000 Service Department agents operating in the River Rouge plant by 1937. Most of them were spies, disguised as regular workers, janitors, sweepers and window cleaners. The operations of the Service Department outside the plant were subsequently described by one of the Department’s key agents, Ralph Rimar, in these words:
Our spy network covered Dearborn and the city of Detroit, reaching into the home of every worker and into the private offices of the highest state and city officials. Years of espionage had provided the Company with accumulated files of all the activities of every Ford employee. We also had catalogues of the private lives of public officials. Governors and Government men who might be of value to the Company . . .
My own agents reported back to me conversations in grocery stores, meat markets, restaurants, gambling joints, beer gardens, social groups, boys’ clubs and even churches. Women waiting in markets to buy something might discuss their husbands’ jobs and activities; if they did, I soon heard what they had said. Children talked of their fathers’ lives . . . Nick Torres, one of our Servicemen, was boxing instructor at a boys’ club in Dearborn. His information helped me to secure the dismissal of many men . . .
Periodically, Rimar submitted to Service Department headquarters lengthy lists of union members and workers suspected of union sympathies. In a sworn statement to National Labor Relations Board investigators, Rimar later declared:
Prior to 1937 and the rise of the CIO, I once estimated that I was responsible for the firing of close to 1500 men. During the year 1940 alone I turned in lists of over 1000 sympathizers, and they were all fired as a result of my reports.
An intimate working relationship existed between the Ford Service Department and the criminal underworld. The Detroit gang leader, Chet LaMare, up until the time of his murder by rival gangsters, shared in the concession which prepared and distributed the lunch boxes at the River Rouge Plant. Joe Adonis, the notorious Brooklyn racket chief, had exclusive rights to the trucking of all cars at the Ford plant at Edgewater, New Jersey. Members of the Purple Gang, the Bloody Gang, and other Detroit and Dearborn gangs, frequented the River Rouge Plant, where they received various favors.2
The gangsters, for their part, mobilized support for Ford-endorsed politicians, provided the Service Department with reinforcements from their own ranks, and beat and tortured active trade unionists. More than one labor organizer was found dead in Dearborn with a bullet in his back.
Bennett made no secret of his own close acquaintanceship with underworld celebrities.
“Several times,” wrote Spencer McColloch of the St. Louis Post Dispatch after interviewing Bennett, “he alluded to friendly chats with Al Capone.”
Following a visit to the River Rouge Plant, J. Killgallen of the International News Service reported:
Bennett admitted he has a wide acquaintanceship in the underworld. He said he makes it his business to know thugs and racketeers personally.
On one occasion, a gangster bearing a grudge against Bennett rashly took a shot at the Ford Service Chief, wounding him in the stomach. Soon afterwards, Bennett received in the mail a photograph of the gangster’s bullet-ridden body. On the picture was scrawled the anonymous inscription: “He won’t bother you no more, Harry.”
“I ain’t afraid of anything,” Bennett told the newspaperman, Spencer McColloch. “If I get mine — well, I’ll get it, that’s all.”
Even so, Bennett took few needless chances. Powerful bodyguards accompanied him at all times. Trusted Service Department men were stationed near his office in the basement of the Administration Building at the River Rouge Plant, and the door to the office was controlled by a button on Bennett’s desk. Day and night, armed guards vigilantly patrolled Bennett’s luxurious estate, “The Castle,” overlooking the Huron River, and after dusk the grounds were lit up by an elaborate floodlighting system. (To be continued)
1. According to Bennett’s own various, somewhat ungrammatical accounts of his youth, he had been at different times a musician, painter, draftsman, cartoonist, football player, champion prize-fighter and deep-sea diver.
2. Houses of prostitution and gambling places in Dearborn, most of which were controlled by the Bloody Gang, made payments for the privilege of operating to the Dearborn Chief of Police, Carl A. Brooks. Chief Brooks was himself a secret agent of the Ford Service Department and had been placed on the Dearborn police force at Bennett’s personal request.
Under Brooks’ protection, the vice ring in Dearborn reaped an estimated $500,000 a year.
Indicted in May 1941 on charges of selling police protection to gamblers and brothel operators, Brooks never came to trial. He was found dead in his car, shortly after his indictment; he was reported to have died from a “heart attack.”
Inspector Charles A. Slamer, who had turned state’s witness in the Brooks’ case, was also found dead soon after the indictment. An autopsy revealed that Slamer had died from the effects of a drug.