A letter and a spinning wheel were the basis of a friendship between American car pioneer Henry Ford and Mohandas Gandhi, leader of a non-violent resistance movement in India against British rule.
On this day in 1941, Ford wrote to Gandhi. “You are one of the greatest men the world has ever known,” he wrote in the brief letter. “May God help you and guide your lofty work.” In return, Gandhi sent Ford his portable spinning wheel. The relationship between two men from such different worlds might seem surprising, until you realize that they were united behind one aim: peace.
But Ford's pacifism stemmed from a grim place. He was an anti-Semite. Years before he wrote to Gandhi, he was publishing an anti-Semitic newsletter, The International Jew, which inspired Hitler in forming his racist and delusional theories.
Ford opposed the United States entering World War I, and even financed the ill-fated Peace Ship, a vessel that carried a group of activists to Europe in 1915 in an attempt to work things out between the warring nations. By the time the ship reached its destination of Oslo, passengers had been stricken by a flu, and the mission was a wash, writes Garrett Fisk for Military History of the Upper Great Lakes.
Ford “believed that war was solely a means of profiteering for the people who stood to make money from the conflict,” Fisk writes. For Ford, that meant Jews. He believed that Jewish-owned businesses stood to reap financial gain from war, and opposed wars on those grounds.
When World War II started, Ford opposed the United States joining on the grounds of his own racist brand of pacifism. By the time he sent the letter, writes History.com, he had “reluctantly bowed” to government pressure and opened the massive Willow Run plant to manufacture B-24E bombers for the Allies–putting him in the position of making money from war. (Ford’s company also produced war vehicle parts during World War I, though on a smaller scale.)
Gandhi, who also flirted with anti-Semitism, didn’t actually get Ford’s letter until December 8, 1941, writes History.com– the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, throwing the United States into war. The spinning wheel, called a charkha, that he sent back was one of the ones he used to make his own cloth, symbolizing his economic independence from British colonial rulers. The charkha was a symbol of Gandhi’s movement and India’s greater independence from Britain. Gandhi, who History.com writes was “greatly pleased,” signed the gift in both Hindi and English. It travelled 12,000 miles back to Ford in Greenfield Village, Michigan, reaching him in December 1942.
“Ford kept it as a good luck charm,” writes History.com. Today it sits in the Henry Ford Museum. It's a symbol of a complicated time in history, before the full horrors of the Holocaust were known, when two men with complicated ideologies tried to connect.