General Motors showroom, Detroit, 1923. CREDT: <a href="">Alden Jewell</a> <a href="">(CC)</a>
General Motors showroom, Detroit, 1923. CREDT: Alden Jewell (CC)

The Crack-Up: How General Motors Shaped America, with Anna Clark

Nov 4, 2019

From financing mechanisms to labor policy to the rise of the suburbs, General Motors had a huge effect on the development of the United States in the 20th century. In this wide-ranging talk with historian Ted Widmer, Detroit-based journalist Anna Clark explains how 1919 was a turning point for the automobile manufacturer and why 2019 could be another pivotal year.

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to another episode of The Crack-Up, an occasional podcast series about the year 1919, and we're delighted to have with us Anna Clark today.

Welcome, Anna.

ANNA CLARK: Thank you for having me. This is wonderful.

TED WIDMER: Anna wrote a great piece in our 1919 series called "The General Motors Century." She's a journalist based in Michigan, who has written a lot about Flint and its water crisis, but she turned her lens back to the beginning of our car-obsessed century with a really thoughtful piece about the rise of General Motors (GM). What led you to want to go back further in history than you usually write about?

ANNA CLARK: Everything is always connected, right? Anything you look at, there's always another link back to something else.

One thing I love about this series in general is it's an opportunity to look at a lot of intersecting causes and stories that stretch maybe a little bit further back than I think people are used to considering when they talk about how they play out in our modern-day lives. I think you see this a lot when people talk about, not just General Motors, but the future of the car industry in general, manufacturing, and how cities are designed for mobility. When we talk about the history, I don't think most people are really accustomed to looking back past the 1950s.

TED WIDMER: When my colleagues at The Times and I conceived this series, we had an idea that 1919 was a bigger year than most people realize—countries were recovering from the war; a lot of people were back from the front, a lot of young men; there was more money in people's pockets, so you were seeing a kind of consumer revolution, too. Your piece really brought out how many ways the car was changing Americans' lives.

ANNA CLARK: Yes. It was huge. I intuitively knew this, I think, when I started out doing this but having the opportunity to read more and research more in writing it, I was astounded at exactly how dramatic it was. People were really ready to buy cars in 1919, and the car companies—especially GM—were really adjusting in pretty revolutionary ways to make it more accessible to more people, and more appealing to more people, so that cars weren't just a far-out technological idea, but it was really becoming an ordinary part of people's lives in a whole new way because of a lot of things that were happening that very year.

TED WIDMER: Besides making exciting cars—and you're very good on that—what are the other ways they were making it irresistible? What were the financial ways they were making it easier to buy a car?

ANNA CLARK: In 1919, GM developed its financing mechanism, so you could buy a car on credit for the first time. That was huge. Ford morally opposed this idea. They didn't have an in-house financing arm until the 1950s, which is extraordinary.

GM, as it was making a big bid to challenge Ford for, especially, the affordable car market—the average family vehicle—the financing mechanism opened up a whole other array of customers. Cars were beginning to be common enough that other strategies that we now take for granted—like the trade-in or buying used cars—were becoming more a part of the marketplace.

GM—especially because of a major deal they made in 1919 with Fisher Body—was becoming a major leader in developing affordable, accessible, appealing cars with roofs, which is partly a style thing but partly a very practical thing, too. If your car is going to be something more than a toy, if it's going to be something that's going to actually be of use to transport you in different parts of the country in different seasons with children in the car—all these other different conditions—that's a pretty basic, important development. Because of this deal they made with Fisher Body, they really came to own that market in way that really bested their peers.

They were offering cars in different colors and making major inroads in developing plants and being able to produce so many vehicles that they were on their way to being the world's largest seller of cars for 70-some years straight. It's incredible.

TED WIDMER: That was a huge takeaway for me—the importance of the car roof, which I had not really thought about too much—but it is a different kind of environment. You're not taking your sweetheart out for a ride in a Flivver. You're with your family. Like you said, you can go a longer distance. It really was a revolutionary new approach to automobiling.

ANNA CLARK: Right. They didn't exactly invent it, but they started normalizing it. It wasn't like a higher-end vehicle feature; it was starting to become more of a standard thing, which just makes it a much more practical thing to buy for a lot more people.

Because they were hiring so many people—especially in this postwar era—to fill all their factories to make all these cars, GM was literally building neighborhoods. They were building houses, and they were beginning to normalize a kind of suburban-style neighborhood that uniquely adapted to cars—with boulevard-like streets and garages and things like that, that also made owning a car and using a car more a middle-class feature of life and, again, not just something that wealthy folks have stashed somewhere in the back of their estate.

TED WIDMER: So, it's not just suburbs were forming in response to the car, but car companies like GM were really active in the shaping of suburbs and what they would look like. They were investing in them, and they owned a lot of these places where workers lived.

ANNA CLARK: Yes, they did. They were building capacity so that the people they employed could come live near their companies so they could come work there. They were trying to get folks to come to places like Flint and Detroit, and they along with other industries definitely did. They were a huge engine in the worldwide migration that radically transformed this country.

They were really practically involved in shaping what these kinds of communities looked like, first outlying neighborhoods, new green-filled neighborhoods in cities; but of course, over time that model spread throughout the suburbs and beyond as we built out our highway system, and had different kinds of city policies that basically spurred white flight and disinvested in cities.

TED WIDMER: Speaking of white flight, you're very eloquent in all the ways that GM was an inventive and creative company that shaped Americans' lives for the better, but you also call them on ways—racial policies and in other ways—in which they were not really designing the best possible future for Americans.

ANNA CLARK: This is one of the things that intrigue me so much. In 1919 you're looking at this really entrepreneurial company. It's only like 10 years old, it's still in formation in many ways. It's developing its modern structure, but it was accruing a radical amount of power, some of which it used in these creative and lovely ways, but much of which was used truly inappropriately and caused harm to actual people in ways that have created patterns that play out even today.

So, those neighborhoods that they built, for example, were for white people only—very explicitly. They were creating all these jobs that were well-paying and stable. They developed a forerunner of a 401(k) plan. That's all lovely, but if you were not a white worker, if you were a person of color, you were relegated to the lowest-paid jobs, the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs systematically. It's rather timely with the strike going on right now, but GM's relationship with its workers could be very strained sometimes. [Editor's note: This podcast was recorded before the GM strike ended on October 25.]

I was just reading this weekend in a bookstore, flipping through the pages of Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. I came across one from C. S. Mott, who was a major, major early figure in General Motors and three-time mayor of Flint, built all his wealth out of the car companies, and so on. He just sort of casually mentioned how the sit-down strikers at the Flint plant—whose successful strike won the right to collectively bargain in the first place, creating the United Auto Workers—should have been shot for trespassing, just saying this as if it's like no big deal. It's very painful.

GM, of course, also had Charles Kettering as their director of research, a genius inventor of many things, but his most unfortunate legacy is leaded fuel, which has caused a great deal of harm to a large number of people. Even in the 1920s, when it was clear that handling this stuff was causing real harm and even death to workers, he and other folks at GM and other industries that stood to profit created a campaign of doubt that led to the proliferation of a toxic substance throughout our environment, creating a very difficult clean-up legacy for us today that I don't think we've taken seriously yet. That's very frustrating.

When we look at GM, 1919 was a pivotal moment. It had enough power to affect not just a lot of people who buy cars or work in car companies but really change how we live, how we move, how we interact with each other, how we work. Unfortunately, a lot of the standards it set were harmful ones. I think that's a story that's as important to talk about as anything else.

TED WIDMER: They not only contributed to pollution in lots of ways, but there was some falsification of the science also, isn't that right?

ANNA CLARK: Yes. There was a lot of willful denial. In the 1920s, in the early days of putting leaded fuel on the market, The New York Times did some reporting on what was happening to a lot of the workers, especially at a New Jersey plant that was nicknamed "The House of the Butterflies" because of the hallucinations the workers were having. It's spooky, actually.

That led to it being suspended for a brief time, and there was this surgeon general's confab of public health advocates and industrialists talking about whether or not leaded fuel should continue on into the marketplace or whether it was too unsafe. It was a really interesting debate about who carries the burden of proof: Do you have to prove that it's safe before you put it out there, or do you have to prove it causes harm before? Where do we put the preponderance of responsibility here?

The carmakers—including Charles Kettering and their folks—their stance was like, "Well, yes, it carries some risk, but it can be managed, it can be handled. It's really the workers' own fault for not handling it responsibly. If we see somebody who has symptoms, we'll just fire them, and that'll solve the problem." It was enough that—unfortunately for public health—they won, and leaded fuel did go onto the market for many decades to come.

GM and others funded research that attempted to validate what they were saying—that lead actually isn't that bad, some of it's normal, some of it's fine—none of which is true, and which affects not just how we think about fuel but it also affected the proliferation of lead in house paint, and lead in our water infrastructure, in an unfortunate rhyme with the Flint story.

They were involved with creating a false narrative that exploited some of the public health difficulties in making an affirmative proof and denying the patterns of how this was—it was a toxic substance, none of it is good for anybody, and it shouldn't have been put in our cars, even if it did make them run more smoothly.

TED WIDMER: There's a nice ending to your piece. It is very negative about GM for a few paragraphs after beginning so positively, but then you end on a note of hope and talk about how many electric cars they're planning to build and how they are accepting even in the middle of this ugly labor dispute—and we don't know how that one's going to end—they're making noises about being socially responsible. Where do you think it's all going?

ANNA CLARK: I do think it is interesting that here in 2019, just like 100 years ago, we really do seem to be at a pivot point where it seems to have a great deal of power, and the choices it's making right now are going to have a lot of influence over our lives, for better or worse, just as before.

That's true in deals that they're making with workers; it's true in which plants they decide to close and how they do that, where they decide to make the cars; it's true in how they envision their role as perhaps not just a car company but—I think as they're trying to put out there—a mobility company. They're investing more in electric bikes. In contrast to some of their behavior in the past, they're presenting themselves as more of a clean air advocate, supporting, for example, California's higher-than-federal standards.

They seem to be at a moment of change, and how it changes, whether or not any individual drives a GM car or drives at all, I think the choices that they're making right now are going to affect American life, and perhaps well beyond, in very important ways. So, I feel very curious and interested where they go with some of this perhaps open-spiritedness they have, some of the resources they have because of the bankruptcy they went through, because of a lot of their cuts.

Where does it go with the $8.1 billion in profits it made last year? How does it use that power? I'm intrigued. It's a story I want to keep following.

TED WIDMER: It's a great story and so tied to the presidential election coming up, too.

ANNA CLARK: Yes. President Trump was somewhat infamous for going to Ohio a while back and promising people—he's like, "Don't sell your homes. Don't leave. The jobs are coming back"—and that's legendary. The Lordstown plant is one of the ones that are shutting down. That's hard to take, no matter what, but he put himself on the line with that one in a really explicit way.

The plant closures are part of the holdup in making a resolution to the strike right now. A lot of workers are pointing out that it's not like it was 10 years ago anymore, of the company in really dire financial straits. "Why shouldn't we be making these cars here? Why are we having these closures? What's going on with that?" It's a big point of dispute.

TED WIDMER: When you're talking to people in Flint or in Detroit, do you feel hope that things are going to get better? I liked what you said about how the decisions GM makes will affect our whole country, just as they did in 1919, but it feels like they still will. Do you feel some hopefulness?

ANNA CLARK: I feel some hopefulness but with caution. I don't want to say that this one company is going to save the day or something. Do you know what I mean? It's a huge corporation, and it's hard to sometimes tell which direction it will go in and how it will play out its vision, and what's just talk and what's real.

I feel hopeful about what is possible. I feel hopeful that there is enough consumer pressure and political pressure for a company like GM to even be talking about clean air standards and electric bikes and all that. I think that's great.

TED WIDMER: Yes, it is.

ANNA CLARK: There's also an experiment with car-sharing services, which is a little bit in contrast with its history of wanting everybody to buy a car with debt as that symbol of adulthood, just like the other car companies. I feel hopeful that people have created a culture that makes it clear that that's what it wants, and that it's having an impact on a major, huge company like this. That's very promising.

I know there are a lot of really wonderful people who work at that company who are trying to do really great things, so I guess I do feel hopeful, but with real caution because I think there are communities—including Flint—that got really accustomed to GM in a sort of patron role, like "They'll take care of us, they've got our best interests at heart." It wasn't always true, unfortunately.

So, I feel like I don't want to take anything on faith. I think we have to be watchful and vigilant and urge the company to make good decisions for our communities, for our well-beings, for our families, our health, and all that.

They're fun, too. There are a lot of people who really—cars are fun for them. What if we go back to the point where cars are just like kind of a toy for some but aren't as essential a piece of how we get around in our daily lives? Maybe in some ways we are going back. The bikes are kind of a part of it.

TED WIDMER: They're everywhere in New York City.

ANNA CLARK: Maybe it's looking more like 1919.

TED WIDMER: That's right. Well, Anna, we're so lucky that you're reporting on these issues from Flint and Detroit. It's such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for writing the piece in The Times series. Everyone really loved it.

ANNA CLARK: Thank you. It was clearly fun, and I can ramble about it for a long time. Anytime.

TED WIDMER: We've been talking to Anna Clark, the author of The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy. Thank you so much for being with us today, Anna.

ANNA CLARK: Thanks for having me.

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