DEARBORN, Mich. - When war started, the most prominent resident of Dearborn angrily denounced it in shocking terms. “The word murderer should be embroidered on the breast of every soldier,” he said, prompting his business manager to quit on the spot.
But that wasn't this war, and the speaker wasn't an Arab. It was the original Henry Ford himself, who, in one of the more bizarre episodes of his life, chartered a huge steamship and sailed for Europe with a mysterious Hungarian woman and an entourage to try to somehow stop World War I. He hadn't a clue about how to do this, and not surprisingly, failed miserably, but if anything, the attempt made him even more popular back home.
Ninety years later, for very different reasons, the eyes of Michigan, and to some extent the nation, were again on Dearborn as hostilities began. Ford Motor Co. still has its headquarters here, but the city is best known for its significant Arab population, and metropolitan Detroit is often referred to as the largest Arab city outside the Middle East.
In the first hours, reaction was muted, not only among Arab-Americans, many of whom feared the wrath of their non-Arab neighbors, but among pretty much everyone in the Detroit area. Though many clearly felt a sense of resignation, and others that the war was inevitable or necessary, there was little public enthusiasm for it.
Ismael Ahmed, founder of ACCESS, a social welfare organization serving the needs of Arab immigrants, said before the shooting started that “the vast majority of Arab-Americans are against this war,” but noted that many in the local Iraqi Shiite and Chaldean communities were in favor of anything that would topple the hated Saddam Hussein.
In general, most Detroiters seemed to feel about the same way after the first bombs fell as they had before the fighting began. On Thursday morning one man waved an American flag from an overpass, and others cheered President Bush's brief appearance on TV.
Meanwhile, anti-war students at Wayne State University still defiantly wore NO WAR buttons, and Green Party and other activists planned a series of anti-war rallies.
Conservatives saw many of them as disloyal. But as the story of old Henry Ford himself illustrates, there has virtually never been unanimity on any of America's wars, certainly not in brawling, blue-collar Detroit, a place where the locals have often been only too willing to fight each other - but where there has often been a healthy suspicion that formal and foreign wars were designed to make someone else rich.
Detroit saw demonstrations, some of which turned violent, against the draft, not only during Vietnam but in 1862 and 1863, during the Civil War. Though the area's black population was miniscule, racial tensions rose steadily throughout that war, and newspaper accounts suggested that whites increasingly blamed the Civil War on blacks. Finally, the city was torn by a murderous race riot in March, 1863, that had to be put down by the U.S. Army, an event notable mainly because it persuaded the city fathers that they needed a full-time police force.
Opposition to World War I was by no means limited to old Henry Ford; even after the U.S. entered the war to end all wars, many of the state's considerable German-American population thought it was a bad idea. Ford was then nominated for the U.S. Senate in 1918 by Michigan Democrats, then very much a minority.
He refused to campaign or spend a penny. Yet he lost by only 217,055 to 212,751. That result is more than a historical footnote: Had he won, the Democrats would have controlled the U.S. Senate when Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations was being debated; it is barely conceivable that a Ford in the Senate might have changed world history.
World War II is usually remembered as the “good war,” one in which Americans were as united as never before or since. That was true after Pearl Harbor - but before that, Michigan voters were deeply divided on the merits of getting involved. When faculty members at what is now Wayne State University resolved that the nation should enter the war to defeat fascism, students suggested they join the Canadian Army if they felt that way.
Michiganders have never been completely of one mind about any war - and Arab-Americans are far from the first ethnic group to be suspect. But when the Michigan Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened last year in Lansing, it took into account that many had protested that war, and that those who fought and those who dissented were, and are, Americans just the same. That might not be a bad thing to remember as this war unfolds.
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