I’ve Been Thinking: History is Bunk


By Jim Heffernan
I’ve been thinking a lot about history. I was around for a fair amount of recent history, but the day job distractions kept me from really understanding what was happening to our country.
Henry Ford said in an interview in 1916, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”
I very much believe in the study of history. If we study and reflect on our honest, unvarnished history we can learn a lot about how our world and how our nation came to be what it is today.

Henry Ford is a very good example of “varnished” history. In popular history, Henry is fondly remembered for inventing the assembly line and paying his workers $5 a day, a princely wage for the time.
Strip off the varnish and it’s a different story. In 1920, he bought a newspaper in his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. He bought the newspaper so that he could publish his favored version of history “The International Jew: The World’s Problem” Many Ford dealerships included the book with your new Ford.
Henry and Adolph Hitler shared the same hatred of Jews and blamed Jews for World War I and most of the ills of their world.
Henry Ford knew a lot about making cars, but he and Adolph Hitler shared the same moral compass. Henry Ford was the only American to be complimented in Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf”. In 1938, as Germany prepared for war, the German government awarded Henry Ford with its highest award for foreigners, “The Grand Cross of the German Eagle”.
The $5 a day wage was about half pay and half bonus. The bonus came only with character requirements that were enforced by the company’s Socialization Committee. This was a committee that would visit the employees’ homes to ensure that they were doing things the American way. They were supposed to avoid social ills such as gambling and drinking. Their homes were supposed to be neat and clean. They were to learn English, and many had to attend classes to become “Americanized.” Women were not eligible for the bonus unless they were single and supporting the family. Also, men were not eligible if their wives worked outside the home.
Henry was also violently opposed to unions, blaming organized labor on the Jews. There were pitched battles in response to attempts to unionize and people were killed and injured by company guards. Ford was the last auto company to unionize in 1941.
Another person to benefit from a “varnished” history in Ronald Reagan. I was 34 when he became president. I didn’t vote for him, but I liked him none the less. He was a consummate actor and could deliver a line so smoothly, with so much warmth you just couldn’t help yourself. Unfortunately, despite his wit and charm, a lot of what ails us today began with his presidency.
Sadly, so many of the lessons of recent history that I was around for fall into the category of “If I only knew then, what I know now.”
One of those lessons that I failed to heed at the time was a simple line, delivered in 1980. The line came from Ronald Reagan, an actor was who had just been elected President. In his inaugural speech, he declared, “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.” Even though he was at the head of government, he joked about the evils of government throughout his term.
It should have raised an alarm in my mind and millions of other minds, but somehow it didn’t. I think the delivery was too smooth.
That simple statement, “…..government is the problem” I believe, was a small snowball dropped at the top of the hill that has been rolling downhill ever since, gathering weight on the way. I fear that snowball has become a giant threat to our future.
Some cruel trick of evolution transformed Lincoln’s “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” into Reagan’s “Government is the problem.” This largely explains us losing our trust in government and us losing our trust in each other.
Another snowball he probably started was telling lies to make a political point and getting away with it. Consider his “welfare queen” story that he told repeatedly on the campaign trail and during his presidency, “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she’s collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.”
The closest example anybody ever found to match his story was a woman who used four aliases to fraudulently obtain 23 welfare checks totaling $8000. She was sentenced to prison for 2 to 6 years.
But truth wasn’t the point, the point was setting up a climate that made us favor round after round of tax cuts that favored the upper classes and greatly increased their share of the pie. I have yet to see a tax cut that really did very much for people like me.
Another snowball was selling the idea that what held business back was too much government regulation. That was an idea that became so popular that even Democrats bought into it.
Once we had such a thing as Savings and Loan Associations. We deregulated them out of existence, but not before $150 billion was charged to us taxpayers for the folly of deregulation. Eighty people went to jail.
Once we had a “fairness doctrine” that regulated what was then considered public airways. We deregulated the public airways and sold them to the highest bidder. Now we have a myriad of cable news networks that dedicate themselves to making us hate each other.
Once we had a Glass-Steagle Act which put limits on what risks banks could take with money that didn’t belong to them. We killed that act and in 2008 we suffered trillions of dollars in losses and one token person went to jail.
No I don’t believe history is bunk. If we’re honest, history is the perfect mirror in which to see the folly that brought us here.