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Greg Grandin is the author of Empire’s Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, and the award-winning The Blood of Guatemala. An associate professor of Latin American history at New York University, and a Guggenheim fellow, Grandin has served on the United Nations Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War and has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Statesman, and The New York Times.
NOTHING IS WRONG WITH ANYTHING
January 9, 1928: Henry Ford was in a spirited mood as he toured the Ford Industrial Exhibit with his son, Edsel, and his aging friend Thomas Edison, feigning fright at the flash of news cameras as a circle of police officers held back admirers and reporters. The event was held in New York, to showcase the new Model A. Until recently, nearly half of all the cars produced in the world were Model Ts, which Ford had been building since 1908. But by 1927 the T’s market share had dropped considerably. A half decade of prosperity and cheap credit had increased demand for stylized, more luxurious cars. General Motors gave customers dozens of lacquer colors and a range of upholstery options to choose from while the Ford car came in green, red, blue, and black— which at least was more variety than a few years earlier when Ford reportedly told his customers they could have their car in any color they wanted, "so long as it’s black."1
From May 1927, when the Ford Motor Company stopped production on the T, to October, when the first Model A was assembled, many doubted that Ford could pull off the changeover. It was costing a fortune, estimated by one historian at $250 million, because the internal workings of the just- opened River Rouge factory, which had been designed to roll out Ts into the indefinite future, had to be refitted to make the A. Yet on the first two days of its debut, over ten million Americans visited their local Ford dealers to inspect the new car, available in a range of body types and colors including Arabian Sand, Rose Beige, and Andalusite Blue. Within a few months, the company had received over 700,000 orders for the A, and even Ford’s detractors had to admit that he had staged a remarkable comeback.2
The New York exhibit was held in the old Fiftieth Street Madison Square Garden, drawing over a million people and eclipsing the nearby National Car Show. All the many styles of the new model were on display at the Garden, as was the Lincoln Touring Car, since Ford had bought Lincoln Motors six years earlier, giving him a foot in the luxury car market without having to reconfigure his own factories. But the Ford exhibit wasn’t really an automobile show. It was rather "built around this one idea,"said Edsel: "a visual demonstration of the operation of the Ford industries, from the raw materials to the finished product."Visitors passed by displays of the manically synchronized work stations that Ford was famous for, demonstrations of how glass, upholstery, and leather trimmings were made, and dioramas of Ford’s iron and coal mines, his blast furnaces, gas plants, northern Michigan timberlands, and fleets of planes and ships. A few even got to see Henry himself direct operations. "Speed that machine up a bit,"he said as he passed a "mobile model of two men leisurely sawing a tree, against a background of dense forest growth."3
Though he was known to have opinions on many matters, as Henry Ford made his way through the convention hall reporters asked him mostly about his cars and his money. "How much are you worth?"one shouted out. "I don’t know and I don’t give a damn,"Ford answered. Stopping to give an impromptu press conference in front of an old lathe he had used to make his first car, Ford said he was optimistic about the coming year, sure that his new River Rouge plant— located in Ford’s hometown of Dearborn, just outside of Detroit— would be able to meet demand. No one raised his recent humiliating repudiation of anti- Semitism, though while in New York Ford met with members of the American Jewish Committee to stage the "final scene in the reconciliation between Henry Ford and American Jewry,"as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency described the conference. Most reporters tossed feel- good questions. One wanted to know about his key to success. "Concentration on details,"Ford said. "When I worked at that lathe in 1894"— the carmaker nodded to the machine behind him—"I never thought about anything else."A journalist did ask him about reports of a price war and whether it would force him to lower his asking price for the A.
"I know nothing about it,"replied Ford, who for decades had set his own prices and wages free of serious competition. "Nothing is wrong with anything,"he said, "and I don’t see any reason to believe that the present prosperity will not continue."4
Ford wanted to talk about something other than automobiles. The previous August he had taken his first airplane ride, a ten- minute circle over Detroit in his friend Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, just a few months after Lindbergh had made his historic nonstop transatlantic trip. Ford bragged that he "handled the stick"for a little while. He was "strong for air travel,"he said, and was working on a lightweight diesel airplane engine. Ford then announced that he would soon fly to the Amazon to inspect his new rubber plantation. "If I go to Brazil,"he said, "it will be by airplane. I would never spend 20 days making the trip by boat."5
Ford didn’t elaborate, and reporters seemed a bit puzzled. So Edsel stepped forward to explain. The plantation was on the Tapajós River, a branch of the Amazon, he said.
Amid all the excitement over the Model A, most barely noted that the Ford Motor Company had recently acquired an enormous land concession in the Amazon. Inevitably compared in size to a midranged US state, usually Connecticut but sometimes Tennessee, the property was to be used to grow rubber. Despite Thomas Edison’s best efforts to produce domestic or synthetic rubber, latex was the one important natural resource that Ford didn’t control, even though his New York exhibit included a model of a rubber plantation. "The details have been closed,"Edsel had announced in the official press release about the acquisition, "and the work will begin at once."It would include building a town and launching a "widespread sanitary campaign against the dangers of the jungle,"he said. "Boats of the Ford fleet will be in communication with the property and it is possible that airplane communication may also be attempted."6
In the months that followed, as the excitement of the Model A died down, journalists and opinion makers began to pay attention to Fordlandia, as Ford’s Brazilian project soon came to be called. And they reported the enterprise as a contest between two irrepressible forces. On one side stood the industrialist who had perfected the assembly line and broken down the manufacturing process into ever simpler components geared toward making one single infinitely reproducible product, the first indistinguishable from the millionth. "My effort is in the direction of simplicity,"Ford once said. On the other was the storied Amazon basin, spilling over into nine countries and comprising a full third of South America, a place so wild and diverse that the waters just around where Ford planned to establish his plantation contained more species of fish than all the rivers of Europe combined.7
It was billed as a proxy fight: Ford represented vigor, dynamism, and the rushing energy that defined American capitalism in the early twentieth century; the Amazon embodied primal stillness, an ancient world that had so far proved unconquerable. "If the machine, the tractor, can open a breach in the great green wall of the Amazon jungle, if Ford plants millions of rubber trees where there used to be nothing but jungle solitude,"wrote a German daily, "then the romantic history of rubber will have a new chapter. A new and titanic fight between nature and modern man is beginning."One Brazilian writer predicted that Ford would finally fulfill the prophecy of Alexander von Humboldt, the