WASHINGTON, March 29 (UPI) -- For all its greatness, America is not a nation without blemish.
The historical record is replete with instances of racial or religious bias that run counter to the themes of tolerance on which the nation was founded. Appropriate for their time, they cause later generations to hang their heads in shame upon reflection.
Included in these sins is a long tradition of anti-Semitism that was generally manifested in one of two ways.
One form is much more vulgar, and thus more easily identified, than the other. It relies on slurs and violence against people or property, among other things, to make its point and is a favorite tactic of skinheads, Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, to name but a few.
The other is much more subtle but no less dangerous.
It is as much about class as religion, the kind that was evident many years ago in boardrooms and country clubs and exclusive Connecticut neighborhoods.
Brilliantly described in Laura Z. Hobson's book Gentleman's Agreement, it was a quiet thing, more about exclusion then explosions.
Trying to explain the role American automobile magnate Henry Ford played in the spread of American anti-Semitism is a daunting task, requiring a deft hand.
Unfortunately, Neil Baldwin, author of "Henry Ford and the Jews: The mass production of hate" (PublicAffairs, $27.50, 416 pages) does not have one.
Americans who remember him think of Ford as the inventor of the assembly line and the father of the Model T. He was also, in principle if not in practice, allegedly an anti-Semite, but the kind who might say "Some of my closest friends are Jewish" as a defense against the charge.
Because Ford, a one-time presidential candidate and Democrat nominee for U.S. Senate from Michigan, moved in the nation's corridors of power, his impact was far-reaching. In a very real sense, he was his era's Ross Perot, a wealthy business tycoon upon whom many looked for guidance and leadership.
Baldwin's task, building the case that Ford was an anti-Semite and explaining the way in which he promulgated his views, is made more difficult by the type of books he had written previously.
In the afterword, Baldwin himself acknowledges the latter challenge.
"The exercise of writing this book forced me to make the transition from being a biographer heretofore immersed in the realms of poetry, modern art, and high culture, to becoming an historian striking off upon a perilous ideological path through the often shameful course of human action."
Such writing is not necessarily conducive to declarative analysis. Baldwin seems to wander through the different topics to which he devotes each chapter. As a result, the picture he wishes to present, that Ford was indeed an anti-Semite and that he used his great wealth to promulgate the myth of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy of bankers and others out to rule the world, becomes muddled.
When he first happened into the public consciousness, Ford was in his late 40s. His infamous "Peace Ship" expedition of 1915, his personal attempt to rally the people of Europe against a continental war, occurred when he was 52. Baldwin devotes a chapter in the book to the effort, emphasizing Ford's pacifism and his belief that the war had been caused by arms merchants and bankers.
"Money lenders and munitions makers cause wars; if Europe had spent money on peace machinery -- such as tractors -- instead of armaments there would have been no war," he quotes Ford as saying.
The reference to moneylenders is, clearly, a pseudonym to Jews; in fact, they are the same Jews whom Ford feared would take his automobile company away from him if he borrowed their money.
Most of the book is devoted to Ford's creation and support of The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper he used as a personal vehicle for the spread of his anti-Semitism under the guise of news.
The paper, which was, according to Baldwin, circulated through the network of Ford dealers, enabled the Michigan magnate to have national and eventually international reach. Indeed, as Baldwin alludes in the book, Hitler was an admirer of Ford, going so far as to award him a medal in the 1930s.
The paper, which resulted in Ford's being dragged into court in an embarrassing episode, was full of anti-Semitic remarks and pseudo-news purporting to document the fact of an international Jewish conspiracy.
Unfortunately, Baldwin's description of events gives the distinct impression that Ford, who was an absolute autocrat where his automobile company was concerned, exercised the same behavior in other aspects of his life. As one of the wealthiest and most powerful, in his own mind at least, men on earth, he was determined to have his own way, even when it undermined him.
Toadies -- advisors on Jewish issues and employees of the newspaper, fed this aspect of his personality. They fed his paranoia about Jews, in part because they shared it, but also because it was a way to remain close to the center of power.
This is a common problem among those who possess great wealth and absolute power. Those who will say "yes" to everything move closer while those who will challenge their opinions are pushed out, by the principal and by others who are ambitious and are competing for attention and favor.
Ford's general worldview was horribly distorted by his paranoia about a Jewish conspiracy. Others may have stoked the fires for their own gain but Ford remains ultimately responsible.
From Baldwin's presentation of the events, it is possible to come away with the impression that, rather then the mastermind of a conscious campaign of deliberate anti-Semitism, Ford was the wealthy and misguided dupe of others who took advantage of the tycoon's biases. This is, perhaps, the book's principle shortcoming.
For those who are well versed in the subject, Henry Ford and the Jews will likely challenge pre-formed opinions and expand the base of knowledge on an important subject. Those who are looking to explore the issue for the first time would be better served by a short and more direct book, written by someone whose area of expertise lies in the area of political history.