As the ship prepared to leave, the crowd sang and cheered as bands played such rousing songs as “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The biggest cheers, however, were reserved for the sponsor of this unusual adventure: famed automaker Henry Ford. The previous summer Ford had declared his willingness to devote his fortune to ending the fighting in Europe between the Allied Powers, led by Great Britain and France, and the Central Powers, dominated by Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Unable to discover any just reasons for the war, Ford believed that some nations “were anxious for peace and would welcome a demonstration for peace.” With the encouragement of Rosika Schwimmer, a Hungarian author, lecturer, and peace advocate, Ford had secured passage on the Oscar II for about sixty delegates in support of his mission. These delegates would attempt to halt the bloody trench warfare being fought with such deadly weapons as the machine gun and poison gas through the establishment of a neutral commission that would offer negotiation among the nations then at war.
Indiana educator and woman’s rights leader May Wright Sewall was one of the more than one hundred people, including such famous individuals as inventor Thomas Edison, reformer Jane Addams, and former president William Howard Taft to receive invitations from Ford to join him on the voyage. The first word of the trip came to Sewall in late November when she received a telegram from Ford, followed three days later by a letter in which the automobile maker spelled out in more detail his reasons for asking her to join him and others on the trip. “From the moment I realized that the world situation demands immediate action, if we do not want the war fire to spread any further,” Ford wrote, “I joined those international forces which are working toward ending this unparalleled catastrophe.”
In describing her fellow delegates for her friends in Indianapolis, Sewall agreed that no one had an “exalted position; not one bearing the stamp of worldwide recognition.” Through their work, however, Sewall said the delegates hoped to accomplish three goals: to secure the public’s attention, turning it from war to peace; to stimulate other private efforts and encourage workers to seek peace in every country; and confirm on all those involved their resolution to work for a permanent peace.
Once at sea, the delegates attempted to establish a regular routine. Each day at 11:00 a.m. the students met to learn more about the attempt to bring an end to the fighting in Europe. Each session opened with a talk by one of the delegates on a subject in which they were regarded as an expert.
Reporters traveling with the peace treated the voyage as a joke. A London reporter even went as far to send a fake story about Ford being held prisoner in his cabin, chained to his bed by his staff. But when the Oscar II’s captain, J. W. Hempel, who reviewed all messages sent from the ship, took some of the more insulting stories to Ford, he responded kindly, telling Hempel: “Let them send anything they please. I want the boys to feel perfectly at home while they are with me. They are my guests. I wouldn’t for the world censor them.”
Early in the morning on December 18, the Oscar II docked in Christiania, Norway. Physically, Sewall said, Norway gave the delegates a cold welcome, as the weather was reportedly the chilliest in more than a hundred years. The peace expedition had barely had time to settle into its new setting when it received a bitter blow: Ford had decided to go home. Unable to shake the cold he had caught on the voyage, and encouraged to do so by his staff, Ford had decided to leave in time to catch a ship bound for America.
According to Lochner, who had been “deeply shocked” by Ford’s appearance when he visited Ford in his hotel room, the automaker told him: “Guess I had better go home to mother [his wife Clara]. You’ve got this thing started now and can get along without me.” Lochner attempted to convince Ford to stay with the expedition, but failed.
Upon his return to America, Ford told the media he had not deserted the Peace Ship and offered no regrets for sponsoring the expedition. He noted that “the sentiment we have aroused by making the people think will shorten the war.” With Ford’s departure, the delegates turned for leadership to a committee. Policy matters were handled by Schwimmer and finances were the responsibility of Ford staff member Gaston Plantiff.
The peace expedition spent a week in Stockholm, developing a regular schedule. Each morning at 10:00 a.m. the delegates met to discuss the day’s activities. From 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., the group hosted a reception at the hotel open to the public. The delegates had time to themselves until 4:00 p.m., when the expedition hosted a second public reception.
Sewall observed that visitors to the receptions seemed to fall into four categories: teachers, feminists, social reformers, and students. “I was particularly interested in the university students,” she said, “who, although it was their holiday week, called in great numbers. I was amazed by both the intelligence, and by the lively interest in serious subjects of these young people, whom I was mentally comparing with my young countrymen and countrywomen of student age to the distinct disadvantage of the latter.”
In order to reach the group’s final stop, the Netherlands, the delegates had to travel, via a sealed train, through German territory, a feat accomplished through the help of the American minister to Denmark. Once in the Netherlands, the group selected delegates for a proposed Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation, which had its headquarters in Stockholm and worked to negotiate an end to the war.
With this final task completed, the delegates and students could finally return home. On January 15, 1916, the delegates left port aboard the Rotterdam for the voyage back to America (the students had left four days earlier on another ship).
For Sewall, the “spectacular pilgrimage” had been a success, as it had “concentrated the thought of the distracted world upon this hope with a force that assures its achievement.” She felt proud of the work done by her and her fellow delegates. “To have advanced its [peace’s] arrival by one hour,” Sewall said, “is adequate compensation for the cost in money, time and sacrifices of the Expedition if multiplied a thousandfold.”
Sewall’s view was shared in part by one of the reporters aboard the Oscar II, Elmer Davis. Although he considered the trip a “crazy enterprise,” Davis, looking back on the voyage in an essay published in 1939 as Europe seemed on the brink of another war, said that any effort, “however visionary and inadequate, to stop a war that was wrecking Europe, appears in retrospect a little less crazy than most of the other purposes that were prevalent in Europe in 1916.”