On July 25, 1941, the American automaker Henry Ford sits down at his desk in Dearborn, Michigan and writes a letter to the Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The letter effusively praises Gandhi and his campaign of civil disobedience aimed at forcing the British colonial government out of India.
By July of 1941, Ford’s pacifist views led him to despair at the current global situation: Nazi Germany had invaded Poland, causing Britain and France to declare war against it. The United States, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was firmly on the side of the Allies, but Ford was convinced that the country should remain neutral, despite mounting pressure from the government for his company to start mass-producing airplanes to help defeat the Nazis. The previous May, Ford had reluctantly bowed to this pressure, opening a massive production facility for airplane production at Willow Run, near Dearborn, to manufacture B-24E Liberator bombers for the Allied war effort.
As Douglas Brinkley writes in “Wheels for the World,” his history of Ford Motor Company, the automaker disliked imperialism and was hopeful that Gandhi’s campaign would succeed in pushing the British out of India and establishing Indian home rule. In addition, Ford Motor Company had long enjoyed healthy sales in the cities of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta. Ford’s letter to Gandhi, now included in the Henry Ford Museum and Library, read: “I want to take this opportunity of sending you a message…to tell you how deeply I admire your life and message. You are one of the greatest men the world has ever known.”
The letter was sent to the Mahatma (as Gandhi was known) via T.A. Raman, the London editor of the United Press of India. According to Raman, Brinkley recounts, Gandhi didn’t receive the letter until December 8, 1941–the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Greatly pleased, he sent in response a portable spinning wheel, one of the old-fashioned devices that Gandhi famously used to produce his own cloth. The wheel, autographed in Hindi and English, was shipped some 12,000 miles and personally delivered to Ford by Raman in Greenfield Village, Michigan. Ford kept it as a good luck charm, as well as a symbol of the principles of simplicity and economic independence that both he and Gandhi championed.