Fordlandia: An Interview with Greg Grandin

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Greg Grandin is the author of Empire’s Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, and the award-winning The Blood of Guatemala. An associate professor of Latin American history at New York University, and a Guggenheim fellow, Grandin has served on the United Nations Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War and has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Statesman, and The New York Times.

In this interview Grandin talks about what led him to write his recent book, Fordlandia, The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, the auto industry, US foreign policy, and the modern day parallels to this failed American utopian adventure in the Amazon.

What is Fordlandia and why have most of us never heard of it before? 

Fordlandia was the name given to the American town and rubber plantation built by Henry Ford in the Brazilian Amazon, on an area of land he had acquired about the size of Connecticut.    

How did you first find out about Fordlandia? What about this story made you realize you wanted to spend years researching and writing the book?

I kept reading about references to Fordlandia in books on the Amazon – and wondered why there wasn’t a full-length history of it.  The story is usually mentioned in passing, as an example of hubris or arrogance, but had never been explored at length. Some while ago, Eduardo Sguiglia, from Argentina, wrote a novel based on Fordlandia.  I remember reading somewhere that Sguiglia had set out to do a non-fiction account, but the evocative nature of the tale led him to fictionalize the story.  It’s a great novel, but I thought perhaps that this was one of those cases where history could be stranger than fiction.   

You have visited the overgrown remains of Fordlandia in the lower Amazon twice now. What does it look like today? 

It’s beautiful.   It takes about a full day to get there by boat from the nearest provincial town, up a broad river where every bend reveals the same green wall of trees.  Then finally, after about 16 or so hours, you turn a corner and there is this enormous water tank rising from the jungle canopy.    The houses where the Americans seem like they could come from any Midwestern small town, except they are derelict and abandoned save for some pretty scary bats.    The old hospital, designed by the architect Albert Kahn, is fascinating, still filled with metal and glass medical equipment, which in the 1930s was state-of-the-art but now seems vaguely menacing.   The sawmill and power house and other workshops seem like they could be straight out of Ford’s lumber operations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and they are still filled with lathes and other industrial tools and even a few rusting Model Ts.   And many local Brazilians still live in the worker bungalows, built in a kind of Cape-Code traditional style, and keep flower gardens in front – much the way Ford required them to do many years ago.   They changed the names of the streets though, from Riverside Avenue, Mainstreet, and Hillside to more properly Portuguese names. 

Beyond the economics of securing a stable proprietary source of rubber for his factories, what were some of the other motives you unearthed about Ford’s massive investments in the Amazon? 

"Why?" is the million dollar question, or in this case, the quarter billion dollar question, which is the amount Ford poured into the project, adjusted for inflation.  The initial reason was to grow rubber to bypass a proposed British latex cartel.   But by the time the project got underway, the economic logic had changed.  The price of latex had collapsed.   Yet Ford ignored advice and went forward anyway.   And the more the project failed, the more he plowed more and more money into it.  My answer to that question was that Ford was less motivated on laying control over yet another raw material as he was by a restless dissatisfaction with the way things were going at home.   Ford, the man who unleashed the power of industrial capitalism by perfecting the assembly line, spent most of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle, to tame the forces he set loose.  He tried doing this by founding a number so-called "village industries" in the US, small factories powered by hydroelectricity manned by "mechanic-farmers."  But through the rolling 1920s and then depressed 1930s, Ford found himself frustrated on one front after another, as well as implicated in many of the vices he condemned.   So he turned to the Amazon.    

During your visits there you were able to meet a few Brazilians who worked at Fordlandia during its heyday-what do they have to say about its impact on the Amazon, and how do they remember it today? 

Nearly everyone I spoke to who worked for Ford, or had family members who did, recall the Ford Motor Company with affection, highlighting the good wages and medical care provided by the company.   And they all say that the reason why he closed operations was because his son Edsel died, which prevented him from visiting the plantation.  Lots of small businesses in the region have taken the name "Ford" – there’s a Ford Barbershop, a Ford Restaurant, and, closer to the region’s provincial city, a Ford Brothel. 

In your last book, Empire’s Workshop, you wrote extensively about covert and overt U.S. military intervention in Latin America in the 20th century, yet here you document an ostensibly well-meaning example of U.S. corporate investment in the region. Were you surprised to find fewer examples of cloak and dagger politics or U.S. interventionism tied to Fordlandia? 

I like to think of it as a kind of kitschy Heart of Darkness, where instead of unleashing lethal racism, as in the case of the Congo and Kurtz, the enormity of the Amazon provoked a kind of nostalgic homesickness among the Midwesterners Ford sent down to build and run the town, a yearning not so much for a disappearing Amazon but rather a receding America – which the Ford Motor Company played no small part in dispatching. 

Besides Fordlandia the city, this book is also a fairly thorough biography of Henry Ford the man, who as it turns out was a fierce and outspoken pacifist, opposing WWI when this was an unpopular position to take. Why do you think there are fewer anti-war figures amongst the corporate elite of today?  

I think it was a different moment of history, when the future of society, the way it was to be organized, was still very much up in the air and subject to debate.   Many people prior to WWI thought pacifism to be in ascendance, and nearly all the world’s great religions, including heartland evangelism, had strong anti-militarist traditions.   What is fascinating about Ford is that he thought intensely about the problems that his industrial method produced, and was committed to proving that you could have capitalism and even expansion without militarism.    

You write about how Henry Ford pioneered the system of high wage industrial labor in the United States-in fact he raised wages for his factory workers during the Great Depression. What were some of the contradictions, or darker aspects of Fordism that you dug up in your research? 

In a way, the explanation for Fordlandia can be found at the intersection of Ford’s unparalleled economic success – the Model T, the River Rouge, the Model A, all those things that made him one of the richest men in history – and constant political frustration.    Starting with his bid to keep the US out of WWI, all of Ford’s many schemes to reform America failed.   By the early 1920s, even Ford’s famed liberal paternalism of his Five-Dollar-Day had given way to the brutality of Harry Bennett, who terrorized Ford workers and met any attempt to form a union with brutality.   As a result, Ford’s early optimistic modernism increasingly turned darker, intensifying not only his well-known anti-semitism but also a broader cultural critique about what was wrong with the world.   He began to believe that America’s – and the world’s — best future resided in returning to small-town virtue, of the kind he hoped to create in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.   

Despite the fact that wages at Fordlandia were higher than anything else in the region, retaining employees was a huge challenge, with turnover as high as 300% in the early years. Why was this?  

There was nothing to buy!   Consumerism is a key element of early Fordism, paying workers enough money in order to be able to buy the products they produce, which served as an incentive to keep up with the pace of the assembly line.   In the Amazon though, there was little reason why workers would agree to submit, as one person in the story put it, to the "365-day machine."  So Ford opened shoe stores and ice cream parlors…. 

Conditions at the Fordlandia settlement became so untenable that a riot erupted in 1930 amongst the entire workforce, with workers chanting, "Kill all the Americans." What were the underlying causes of the riot? 

Being forced to eat brown rice and whole wheat bread, which Ford insisted on as part of a healthy diet, was bad enough.   But when a manager from Dearborn’s River Rouge plant arrived with the idea of doing away with table service and having workers line up cafeteria-style – because that system was more efficient, closely resembling a Ford assembly-line — simmering resentment came to a head.     

Why did Fordlandia ultimately fail?

There were two great waves of failure at Fordlandia.  The first was social:  Ford’s attempt to raise an American town and impose his brand of Puritanism on Brazilian workers – making them eat whole wheat bread and brown rice, for example, or enforcing prohibition – led to a series of revolts and riots.  Rather than Our Town, the early years of Fordlandia seemed more like Deadwood, with brothels, gambling halls, and bars set up around its periphery.  After a while the company managed to establish control, but then nature rebelled:  by ignoring expert advice and planting rubber trees close together – as a way of replicating industrial mass production in the jungle – Ford effectively created an enormous incubator, as bugs and fungi reproduced like wildfire to repeatedly lay waste to the plantation.

What, if any, are the modern day parallels to this failed American utopian adventure in the Amazon?

At the very least, I would hope the book would nurture some skepticism of the kind of technological utopianism that underwrites much of America’s self understanding, the blind faith that endless growth and expansion can be promoted, and that whatever social or ethical problems that arise as a result of that expansion could be solved by new technology.  Such a view is endemic to a certain kind of public intellectual (read Thomas Friedman!).   Likewise, I would hope the story of Fordlandia would help generate an awareness that debates over foreign policy often have as much to do with domestic issues than with whatever issue is actually being debated.  Ford’s obsession with raising America in the Amazon had almost nothing to do with the Amazon itself.  

Fordlandia seems to be particularly relevant today, considering the troubles afflicting the US’s Big Three auto companies. 

It does, doesn’t in? In many ways, the sudden collapse of the Big Three is comparable to Great Britain losing India in 1948, the jewel in its imperial crown.   Forget owning a colony or the bomb, in the second half of the 20th century, the true marker of world power was the ability to make a precision V-8.   And the story of Fordlandia I think captures well the ascendancy of the US as a world power, invoking a moment when the titans of US industry – and none were more titanic than Ford – believed that the American Way of Life could be easily exported, even to the most wildest and ecologically complex place on the planet.      


By donating to Toward Freedom today, you’ll receive a free gift of Greg Grandin’s new book, Fordlandia, The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. Click here to make a donation.