In a time of essential national solidarity, American corporations’ loyalties do not always remain with the country. In a study of corporate ethics during Nazi Europe, David Cahill ’01 investigated the Ford Motor Company’s clandestine business with the Nazi regime during World War II.
A panel titled “Doing Business with the Nazis” on Friday featured Cahill’s extensive research in his honors thesis, for which he was the Chase Peace Prize recipient in 2001. The Dickey Center sponsored this event and invited three other experts to speak and discuss Cahill’s argument.
Cahill began by articulately reading a summary of research, in which he targeted Ford as a huge supplier to the Third Reich’s artillery. Ford emerged from the war, he said, with “blood of allied civilians on its hands” as a result of its secretive affairs in the enemy territory.
The only completely intact automotive industry after the war, Ford markedly increased its market share during the period from 1933-1945, according to Cahill. He revealed that Ford ascended from sixth largest auto industry in Germany in 1933 to the largest in 1945.
Ford “chose to aid and abet the Nazi regime,” said Cahill, and “facilitated Nazi rise to power.”
Whether Ford’s dealings were illegal or violated instated corporate codes remains a contested, pending debate, one that is still being tried in a court case. However, Cahill asserted that “our government needed Ford more than Ford need our government,” and thus American “soldiers went to war against an enemy supplied by Ford Motor Company,” an American corporation.
Cahill interned for the law firm in Washington D.C., Milburg Weiss, which decided to prosecute Ford in court. Dr. Simon Reich, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, author of “The Fruits of Fascism: Ford Motor Company in Germany,” was called on by the firm for his knowledge.
The second speaker in the panel, Reich disputed Cahill’s findings. Reich has spent the last three-and-a-half years overseeing private investments into Ford and conducting further research into the case.
Reich presented three questions he considers integral to the resolution: Was Ford in control of the company at the time?, what was the form of communication between the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan and the German plant?, and had Ford materially benefited?
While Cahill discussed Ford’s exploitative use of slave labor in the factories, Reich termed such conditions as forced labor, which Cahill described as “voluntary.” Such a discrepancy, he claimed, showed that Ford did not have control over the plant, thus lessening their guilt in the case.
The third speaker, Harold James, a history professor at Princeton University, spoke about how corporations function — focusing primarily on the Deusche Bank. An expert on the prominent German bank, James compared the Ford Motor Company’s role in Germany to the bank’s.
“Of course, both God and the devil are in the details ,” said Dartmouth Professor of history H. Michael Ermarth, who wrapped up the discussion by emphasizing the difficulty of accordance between historians and the legal system in such debates.
While there is the problem of these two legal systems trying to “come to grips with what is ownership … time is running out for a resolution of these questions,” Ermarth said.
Members of the 80-person audience, comprised mostly of older community members, asked questions following the speakers. Questioned about the obstacle of obtaining solid evidence, Cahill spoke about the hindrances he encountered in his research.
“The truly independent historian, one not working under the auspices of company research, is at a disadvantage,” he said. You “essentially do a dance around circumstantial evidence. I had to exclusively use government and other private resources.”
When asked whether documents were shredded and thus even more inaccessible, Reich whispered, “Not true. German businesses keep records. You can find the most damning evidence.”
Cahill said he was satisfied yet slightly frustrated with the long-awaited discussion. “There was a problem of uneven information … Dr. Reich can make a claim and I have no ability to refute it,” he said.
“I also take issue with Dr. Reich’s claim that Ford was vindicated by U.S. courts, which is not true. Ford has a half-century long history of maintaining a silence and that silence rings loud in my ears,” Cahill said.