By John H. McCool
Originally Presented on the Kansas University History Blog
It ranked, according to one contemporary observer, as “a sublimely screwy paragraph in American history.” And while some later-day historians have been a bit kinder, most still view it as an absurd spectacle that provides, as biographer Charles Merz has said, “another demonstration of America’s abiding faith in slogans.”
Yet, for a two-month period in the winter of 1915–1916, American automobile magnate Henry Ford, then one of the richest men in the world, actually thought he could talk the leaders of Europe into stopping World War I. This experiment in freelance personal diplomacy was called the “Peace Ship” and a Kansas University undergraduate was part of the delegation. His name was Kenneth Pringle, and on 31 January 1916, he returned to Lawrence to tell of his adventures. It had been quite a trip.
In late 1915, Ford decided that the war in Europe had gone on long enough, that there had been already too much killing and suffering, and furthermore, that the U.S. government was entirely wrongheaded in its strict isolationist stance. “If I can make automobiles run,” he rhetorically asked a reporter at the time, “why can’t I steer those people clear of war?” He planned “to put a stop to the silly killings going on abroad” by leading a peace delegation across the Atlantic to negotiate personally with European heads of state. His favorite slogan became “Out of the trenches by Christmas, never to go back,” and the American press was quick to pounce: “Great War Ends Christmas Day; Ford to Stop It!” read a New York Tribune headline on 25 November 1915.
Having no patience for diplomacy, Ford believed if he could only get foreign leaders to sit down in a room, he could make them listen to reason and the war would end. Straight talk from a no-nonsense businessman would persuade where diplomatic double-talk had failed. To symbolize America’s unified desire for peace, Ford invited a remarkably diverse group of people to accompany him to Europe, including thirty college students. Letters went out to the heads of major American universities asking them to nominate a student for this high-profile expedition. One such letter reached the desk of KU chancellor, Frank Strong.
The chancellor decided that the best representative for the KU would be Kenneth Pringle, a senior majoring in history who was also president of the KU International Polity Club. This organization was dedicated to “the fair and impartial study of international relations, with a view to the formation of a sound foreign policy for the United States.” Membership was open to “pacifists and militarists” alike, the overarching goal being a “frank exchange of ideas” on the important, pressing issues of the day.
Pringle, along with his fellow delegates, would travel to several neutral European capitals (Oslo, Norway; Stockholm, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; and The Hague, the Netherlands) and speak to like-minded pacifists in an attempt to open lines of communication between the belligerent nations. They hoped, as historian Barbara Kraft has explained, to act as international mediators, “transmitting peace proposals from both sides until negotiable terms had been developed and the warring powers were ready to meet at the peace table.” According to Charles Merz, one of Ford’s biographers, “The theory was that the war had settled down into a groove, that the bitterness which it aroused had shut off the chief powers from a direct exchange of their peace terms, but that an indirect exchange of views might in due time take place through a neutral agency.” In actuality, though, the ship itself stole all the attention: “It was the fate of this crusade that the peace ship, a mere incidental to the plan, ran away with the whole idea.”
Indeed, from the beginning, the Ford Expedition was hampered by ridicule from the American press for its idealism and its motley collection of passengers. Burnet Hershey, a Brooklyn Eagle reporter traveling with the Peace Ship, recalled that “every crackpot and nut in the country wanted to get on that boat,” from socialists, to prohibitionists, to anti-smoking crusaders, to pro-German partisans, and people from “every religious splinter-group” in the country. Describing the chaotic scene on the day of departure, Jonathan Leonard, another Ford biographer, later noted that, although “the proportion of actual lunatics was probably small, the general impression was of a revival in a psychopathic ward.” The Expedition also caught scorn from the U.S. government for meddling in international affairs, with one State Department official calling it a “bloody nuisance.”
Nevertheless, hopes were high among the “peace pilgrims” as they embarked aboard the Oscar II, a steamship Ford had chartered for the journey. “We were not very far out until practically everybody had met Mr. Ford,” wrote Kenneth Pringle in a letter to the University Daily Kansan. “He is a likeable, democratic sort of man—very much in earnest.” On the voyage over, British gunboats stopped and searched the Oscar II for contraband and ammunition, and during this interlude, Pringle got to speak with some British marines. They are “sick and tired of the war,” he told the Kansan, and “want to see it ended so they can get back home.” One marine told Pringle that “there was considerable rivalry in the Royal Navy over who would get to take charge of the Peace ship” and this soldier “felt rather proud of his good fortune.”
Aboard the Oscar II, Pringle and the other student reps held “special meetings … in which [we] have discussed chiefly plans for a world court and a world federation.” The “Ford Student Body,” as the reporter Hershey described them, “studied world problems and heard an address every morning from one of the delegates,” although some did not see much merit in these activities. “We are to assemble twice each day for discussions,” one student recalled, but “what we are to discuss seems to be of minor importance.” He continued: “Everyone seems to be in awe of everyone else. We, especially, the students, walk the decks on tiptoe and give everybody who passes a wide berth or a deferential bow.” Well, maybe not everybody; as Hershey remembered, “it seemed every female was strikingly pretty.”
|Kansas Student Kenneth Pringle|
Kenneth Pringle told the Kansan that he and the other students were “treated royally” by their European counterparts, and “everywhere we were met and entertained with banquets and public meetings.” His visits to the capitals of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands were “most enjoyable and exciting” and he had “certainly gained much in instruction from the trip to Europe….”
As nice as all this was, by most objective accounts, the Peace Expedition became a farce, not least because, three weeks into the voyage, Ford himself abandoned the group in Oslo, Norway. He had finally heeded the advice of his onboard associates who had been repeatedly urging him to consider his (and his company’s) reputation and return to the U.S. To make his escape, Ford used the pretext of suffering from a bad cold. He exited his Norwegian hotel room at 4 a.m. and took the next ship back to New York.
With Ford missing in action, European leaders refused to conduct any more meetings with the peace delegates. The world press mocked them mercilessly, and the expedition devolved into little more than an adolescent romp in fancy hotels and opulent ballrooms—all on Henry Ford’s tab. Indeed, Hershey remarked, “One of the Expedition parlor games was to see who could run up the highest bill.”
Pringle, apparently, remained strikingly upbeat, both during the trip and following his return to KU. He did not regret “taking the time off from [his] school work to go with Henry Ford to attempt some arrangements whereby peace might be brought to the warring nations.” According to the Kansan, he “does not feel in the least that the expedition has been a failure, as the delegates did not expect to accomplish all” the idealistic goals that many critics had ascribed to them. Pringle’s idealism, however, may not have survived unscathed. A short time later, he and the International Polity Club became involved with an initiative to promote military “preparedness” training on campus.