It isn't an urban myth: Henry Ford really did say: "History is bunk."
It is somewhat ironic that Henry Ford's words - "history is bunk" - are now a part of the historic record. What is not clear from most writings about Henry Ford is the context in which he gave his views of history. I hope to remedy that defect somewhat.
"Understanding Henry Ford is more than a puzzle; it is a pursuit."
The Detroit Saturday Night, cited by -
Henry A. Wise Wood, The New York Times, May 17, 1916
History is a contest of evidence, much like a legal case. Discovering facts is somewhat like archaeology: you need to dig. A senior archaeologist at a 'dig' once told me that most Roman remains in Britain have no historical value. This counter-intuitive fact is based in sound logic: we already have more than enough evidence that the Romans were in Britain. In the same vein, most information about Henry Ford's views on history are of no historical value: we already know that he did not place any value whatsoever on historical studies. What we don't know is why.
Much of the information on the web about Henry Ford's view of history is bunk. A majority of sites claim that he never said: "History is bunk.", but rather, he actually said: "History is more or less bunk." As I said before: that is bunk. Henry Ford actually said both of those things about history, and many more besides. He also said: "History is myth." He said that to Henry A. Wise Wood, of which, more below. As to the "history is more or less bunk", he is quoted as using those exact words in the Crawfordsville Review, June 6, 1916. It was long after that, in 1921 that he made the widely cited statement: "History is bunk."
History is bunk - New York Times, Oct 28 1921
In archaeology and library research you can make a claim based on the easy pickings that lie on the surface or you can break into a sweat as you dig deeper. But it is not enough to dig deep. You must sift every spadeful, and sift it fine. Truth is most often found in the tiniest of grains: it is easy to miss if you don't focus intently.
... truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn - address at Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises,
Thursday, June 8, 1978
History is myth - New York Times May 15 1916
Henry Ford was a master of the debate-stifling Ford flurry - a technique known in modern times as the Gish gallop. The technique is simple: make as many "statements of fact" as possible in the time or space allowed and then claim victory in the debate for every point not refuted. Henry A. Wise Wood, a noted historian and author of books such as Money Hunger, reported an interview with Henry Ford which shows Ford to have been something of a conspiracy theorist and wingnut.
A WILD MENTAL JOURNEY WITH FORDThe interview should be understood in the context that Henry A. Wise Wood supported a strong military and a preparedness for war based on his expertise in historical studies, whereas Henry Ford opposed such preparedness based on - well,we don't really know.
History Is Myth, Two Bankers Invented This War, Flags Are Fatal
and Preparedness Talk Is Eastern Scare Gas.
By HENRY A. WISE WOOD.
New York. May 15, 1916-To the Editor of The New York Times:
On May 8. while in Detroit for the purpose of speaking on preparedness, I spent several hours with Henry Ford. I found Mr. Ford eager to talk about national defense, but unwilling to discuss it. While volleying his assertions with great rapidity, he refused to pause long enough to permit any one of them to be examined and dealt with. To facts which I submitted he responded with a brief word of dismissal or with a sweeping denial that they were facts: sometimes with the remark that he could not consider them because he himself did not know them to be facts.
When In our " discussion " or a nation's need for defensive strength history was appealed to, Mr. Ford replied that he did not believe in history, that history was of the past and had no bearing upon the present and that, there being nothing to be learned from it, history need not be studied nor considered. The American Revolution he refused to have touched upon, saying that the Revolution was " tradition," that he did not believe In tradition.
New York Times - May 15 1916
From what is reported of this interview, Henry Ford seems to have had a very shallow understanding of history and a lack of trust in the little he did understand. Small wonder that he failed to research the prior art of farming mechanization and claimed - in a New York Times interview June 19 1915 - that he invented 'an automobile tractor'.
Greeks flew kites?
The news article in which Henry Ford is quoted as saying "History is bunk" offers an intriguing puzzle to the modern reader. What did Henry Ford mean when he said: "History is bunk. What difference does it make how many times the Greeks flew their kites?" It appears that Mr Ford was wrongly crediting the Ancient Greeks with having flown kites. But what was it in then-current topics that raised the issue of kites?
During Henry Ford's lifetime, heavier-than-air flight went from being a dream to a reality. Experiments in flight began with gliders and kites. In January 1903, William A. Eddy - an expert in the science of kites - successfully replicated an experiment by Alexander Graham Bell. Eddy confirmed Bell's assertion that a heavier-than-air machine in the form of a box kite could carry the weight of a man and an engine.
In December 1903 the Wright brothers made history - but not much of a stir in the newspapers - when their 'untethered box kite' flew at Kitty Hawk. Most reports of this success did not make the front pages.
The Clinton Morning Age Dec 17 1903 - Flying machine proves a success
Whether on the front page or an inside page, common to all reports is the description of the Wright brothers' machine as a kite.
A flying machine that flies - The Evening News, Dec 18 1903
By 1921, when Henry Ford made his remarks about 'Greeks flying kites', the word 'kite' was in popular use as a slang term for any kind of airplane. In that context, according to myth, Daedalus and Icarus 'flew kites'. Maybe Henry Ford was right in this one instance: what has a Greek myth to do with the science of flight? I would go so far as to side with Henry Ford and say of the science of flight that a history is bunk if it mentions Daedalus but not William Abner Eddy.
William Abner Eddy - the scientific kite flier.