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On the evening of September 11, 1941, one of America’s most famous men took to a stage in Des Moines, Iowa, to discuss the national security issue that was on everyone’s mind. Exactly six decades later the date of Lindbergh’s speech would be associated with a far different type of threat, but on this night the famed aviator—the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Time magazine’s first Man of the Year, and once estimated to be the most photographed man in the world—was discussing the war in Europe. The United States was not yet involved in the conflict and, if Lindbergh and his fellow members of the America First Committee had their way, it never would be.
“Lucky Lindy” had been traveling the country for months arguing against American intervention in the war, making the case that the country’s geographic separation from Europe and Asia, and its two bordering oceans, were sufficient protection from foreign attack. The United States should prepare for defense, not offense, Lindbergh and his associates believed; and if the country could establish a ring of air and naval bases around its perimeter, it would become an impenetrable fortress. Providing aid to Britain—the last Western European country still fighting the Germans—would simply detract from building up the country’s defenses. This was the standard isolationist position before Pearl Harbor: let the Europeans fight their own conflicts and make sure America was sufficiently prepared to stay out of them.1
This fateful Iowa evening, however, Lindbergh deviated from the standard script. Perhaps he was full of confidence from becoming the America First Committee’s most popular circuit speaker, receiving so many invitations to towns and cities across the country that there was simply no way he could accept all of them. No doubt he was partially inspired by the Roosevelt administration’s recently passed Lend-Lease policy, which had made it through Congress earlier in the year and allowed the president to provide military vehicles, aircraft, and munitions to the ailing Allies. Whatever the exact alignment of reasons and circumstances, Lindbergh chose that night to unveil his own interpretation of American foreign policy. The consequences would haunt him for the rest of his life.
In past speeches, Lindbergh had referred broadly to unnamed “powerful elements” that were seeking to draw the United States into the war, but he left the details up to the listeners’ imagination. Tonight, before a crowd of more than seven thousand, he decided to reveal exactly whom he believed was behind the alleged push to war. There were, he told the crowd, three groups that had conspired to draw the country into the conflict: “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.” Together, he continued, these groups had executed a plan to draw the country into war gradually by building up its military and then manufacturing a series of “incidents” to “force us into the actual conflict.” Britain, he continued, might be able to hold out against the German onslaught. Yet even if it did, there was no hope of invading Europe and liberating France. Under normal circumstances the British government would have made peace with the Germans long ago but was merely holding out to make the United States responsible for the war “financially, as well as militarily.”2 President Franklin D. Roosevelt was simply playing into the hands of the perfidious British.
The bulk of Lindbergh’s ire, however, was reserved for the second group he mentioned: the Jews. It was understandable that Jewish Americans sought war against Germany, he claimed, because, “The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race.” However, “the Jewish groups in this country” should realize that in the event of war “they will be among the first to feel its consequences.” Jews themselves, he concluded, presented a unique danger to the country because of their “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” Despite the alleged machinations of these groups, Lindbergh reserved hope that they might cease their efforts to push the United States toward war. If that could be managed, he continued, “I believe there will be little danger of our involvement.”3
Lindbergh’s speech was covered by major papers and carried on page 2 of the New York Times the following morning. It quickly sparked a firestorm. Was Lindbergh blaming Jews for the outbreak of the war in Europe? Was he claiming that Jews were in control of the Roosevelt administration? These seemed very much like the same claims being made by Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis in Berlin. The comparison did not go overlooked. White House press secretary Stephen Early remarked that there was a “striking similarity” between Lindbergh’s speech and recent “outpourings from Berlin.” New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia was less sparing in his condemnation, calling the remarks “a carbon copy of a Nazi paper.”4 Jewish groups denounced the slurs and called on Lindbergh to retract the comments, similarly evoking comparisons to the anti-Semitism of the Nazis.5
The outrage spanned the mainstream political spectrum. Roosevelt’s past and future Republican rivals for the presidency both denounced the remarks. His 1940 opponent, Wendell Willkie, proclaimed himself shocked by Lindbergh’s bigotry. “If the American people permit race prejudice to arrive at this critical moment, they little deserve to preserve democracy,” Willkie remarked.6 Roosevelt’s future opponent in 1944, Thomas Dewey, similarly told a Republican Party picnic that Lindbergh had committed “an inexcusable abuse of the right of freedom of speech.… When the religion or race of any individual or group is made a part of the discussion of domestic or foreign policy, that is a challenge to our freedoms,” he continued.7
Faced with growing pressure from all corners, the America First Committee’s leaders—who had not reviewed Lindbergh’s speech prior to delivery—were forced to put out a statement asserting that the organization was not anti-Semitic and blaming the interventionists (those who sought to take the United States into the war or, at a minimum, provide additional aid to the Allies) for inserting “the race issue” into the “discussion of war or peace.” The attacks on Lindbergh, they claimed, were simply a distraction from bigger issues.8 This halfhearted explanation did little to calm the controversy, with the New York Times noting in an editorial that the Committee had not actually disowned Lindbergh’s sentiments about Jewish Americans, and “By not disowning them it associates itself with them.… What is being attacked is the tolerance and brotherhood without which our liberties will not survive. What is being exposed to derision and contempt is Americanism itself.”9
Behind the scenes, however, the Committee was seeing a grassroots outpouring of support that very much contradicted the stories being seen by readers of the Times. In the Committee’s mail room, at least 85 percent of the letters being received were supportive of Lindbergh, in part because of the anti-Semitic undertones of his speech. Some messages were so extreme in their racist language that the Committee did not see fit to even respond, but others came from regional leaders of their own organization and other paid-up members. Lindbergh was clearly far from being the only America First member to harbor such views about who was really responsible for the war.
The emerging controversy between the “respectable” voices within the America First Committee’s leadership who saw the need to denounce Lindbergh, and the rank-and-file membership, was symptomatic of the wider divisions in the United States before Pearl Harbor. Lindbergh was just one of a wide range of figures who argued positions ranging from isolationism to the establishment of closer relations with Nazi Germany and, in the most extreme cases, the adoption of Nazi policies in the United States. These groups and individuals often did not get along with one another: it was supposedly forbidden for a member of the German American Bund—the nation’s largest and most prominent Nazi-emulating mass organization—to join the America First Committee, or so the America Firsters claimed.10 Yet these organizations were working toward many of the same goals whether they were aware of it or not. The America First Committee’ goal was arguing to keep the United States from entering the war in Europe, an objective perfectly in line with the intentions of the German government and, in fact, the Bund itself. The German embassy in Washington, DC, for its part, instructed one of its agents to support and promote America First because it was “the best thing you can do for our cause”.11 Whether they intended to do so or not—or were even aware of it—the leaders of America First had become an important asset to Hitler’s government.
The German government was far from wrong in its belief that the United States might be potentially kept out of the war in Europe. There were even some indicators that Americans, however unlikely it might seem, might even be receptive to National Socialism itself. In June 1938, Gallup polled Americans on their views of the respective merits of fascism and communism, asking them which “you think is worse.” While nearly half of respondents offered no answer, 32 percent thought communism was the worse ideology. Only 23 percent saw fascism as more destructive. Seven months later, Gallup asked Americans, “If you had to choose between Fascism and Communism, which would you choose?” Around half again offered no answer, but among those who did, fascism and communism tied at 26 percent each.12 Though this result was a major decline from March 1937, when a full 45 percent of respondents who had recently read about politics willingly chose fascism as their answer (with just 29 percent responding with communism), a level of comfort with the concept of fascism endured.13 The United States was not at risk of an imminent fascist takeover in the late 1930s, but there was certainly fertile terrain in which dictatorship might be able to take root.
More important was American public opinion related to the war itself. Intervention versus isolationism was the most potent political issue from late 1939 until Pearl Harbor, dividing friends and families against one another in a way that would not again be seen until the Vietnam War era. The isolationists, led by Lindbergh and some of the country’s leading congressmen, argued that America had no business getting involved in the war. Any form of intervention, they argued, would inevitably result in young men dying on faraway battlefields and financial ruin at home.
President Roosevelt and his administration led the interventionist side, arguing that Americans could not afford to sit the war out, lest the Germans and Japanese become unstoppably powerful and a direct threat to the United States. This became more than an academic argument when France fell to the Nazis in the summer of 1940 and Britain was left to face the Nazi onslaught alone. With London being bombed nightly and the British Expeditionary Force barely making it out of Dunkirk, there was no guarantee that Britain would not become the next Nazi-occupied country. If Britain were to fall, would America be next? No one knew. In August 1940, Gallup asked Americans if they thought Hitler would invade the United States if Britain fell under Nazi jackboots. Opinion was evenly split, with 42 percent believing the Nazis would invade the United States and 45 percent disagreeing.14
Public opinion was equally split on what the United States should actually do under these circumstances. In 1940, the British ambassador to the United States, Lord Lothian, told a friend in London that American public opinion was “95% against Hitler and 95% against being drawn into the war, but as the fear complex dies away, thinking Americans are beginning at last to ask themselves seriously about their own future if the Allies don’t win the war.”15 This assessment was not far off the mark. A year before Pearl Harbor, 79 percent of Americans said they wanted their country to send supplies and equipment to Britain, but only 11 percent wanted the US military to actually help defend the country.16 Most Americans believed sending aid would be beneficial to their own interests: in January 1941, 57 percent of respondents told Gallup sending aid to the British would help keep the United States out of the war.17 “U.S. is still extremely friendly to the Allies and vehemently against both Hitler and Stalin, but they will not abandon neutrality until their own vital interests are affected in some obvious way,” Lothian presciently wrote in January 1940.18
Favorable polling numbers were certainly good news for the British, but London was also aware that maintaining favorable American public opinion was a delicate task. In February 1941, a Fortune magazine survey reported that a full 33 percent of respondents believed the most prominent advocates of sending aid to Britain were propagandists, not patriotic Americans (a plurality of 48 percent disagreed and thought they were patriots).19 The skepticism toward Britain evident in findings such as this meant the country’s spokespeople had to be very careful not to push their case too hard, lest their American advocates lose credibility. Accordingly, the British Foreign Office issued a general prohibition on any form of public relations activity in the United States before the outbreak of war, “on account of the great sensitiveness of America to any suggestions of propaganda,” as one senior government minister put it in 1939.20 American public opinion was simply too important to risk on such a potentially amateurish endeavor. “The average Briton seems to think that what is needed in the U.S. is a flood of British speakers sent over to tell the United States what it ought to do,” Lothian reported in mid-1940. “That, of course, you will understand, is both futile and harmful.”21 Nothing could build favorable American opinion, he continued, “except events.… The public does not pay much attention to publicists and Ambassadors,” he concluded, “because it prefers wishful thinking, and if a foreigner does too much he is dismissed as a foreign propagandist and the American public is warned not to pay any attention to what he says.”22
The Germans, for their part, had much simpler objectives. Hitler’s government was not seeking aid from the United States. The entire goal of Nazi propaganda was to encourage apathy and confusion by sowing discord, discrediting the British, and turning Americans against one another. There was no positive case for action that needed to be built; on the contrary, the Germans were hoping to dissuade the United States government from any action at all. Nazi propagandists could therefore be ham-handed, aggressive, and contradictory in their approaches. As will be seen, this even meant not actively helping some of the key figures who were pushing pro-German views, out of fear that it might inadvertently harm their credibility. The entire German objective was to sow enough confusion and discord that the American people would grow weary and simply want to check out of the world events.
The Nazis and their supporters jumped on this task with enthusiasm. Washington newspaper correspondent David Lawrence reported in 1940 that the city was full of Nazi propaganda that had been “planted here and there in those academic circles, isolationist quarters or political precincts where almost any argument opposing the President’s policy would be seized upon as valid.” The Nazis “know their America,” Lawrence concluded, and had been successful in influencing “certain members of Congress and certain individuals of prominence outside of Congress.”23 The Nazi propaganda apparatus in the United States was designed to influence Americans through four simple methods, he wrote:
1. Blame the last war on England. Make it a war of profit and trade, and above all scoff at the idea that it was a war to save democracy.
2. Smear the British as much as possible.… Make it appear that the England wants to drag America into the war.
3. Cast doubt on the integrity of newspapers and newspaper men who favor the Allied cause.
4. If the Administration starts thinking of national defense, call the president a war monger. Find out who his advisers are. Start attacks along religious and racial lines.… Keep the people of the United States fighting amongst themselves, and play to the keep-out-of-war sentiments of the people by painting the horrors of war.24
This was therefore a classic disinformation campaign full of the “fake news” and other distortions a new generation of Americans would again encounter in the 2016 presidential election. In the place of stories suggesting that President Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim from Kenya, Americans in 1940 were told that Franklin Roosevelt was secretly Jewish and had changed his name from “Rosen-feld.” Rumors about dangerous communists infiltrating the United States in groups of European refugees (“Refu-Jews Go Back” was the title of a far-right song of the era) would be replaced with alarmist rhetoric about Syrians decades later.25 Cries against the “liberal” and “left-wing” media were common to both eras. Even in the pre–social media era, combating these types of rumors and false narratives was just as difficult. Lothian bemoaned in 1940 that London was not giving him adequate funds “which would enable me to handle these matters more promptly.”26 The Democratic Party’s social media experts might well have made the same complaint in 2016.
While the German disinformation campaign had fairly straightforward objectives, there were sophisticated dynamics playing out at the same time. The Nazis were actually more successful than they expected or intended when it came to inspiring Americans to adopt their views. After Hitler’s ascent to the German chancellorship in 1933, the American groups examined in the pages to come began to spring up spontaneously around the country. Few, if any, received official support from the German government. Some became so embarrassing they were explicitly denounced by the German embassy. Others were deliberately kept at an arm’s length, either because their leaders were disreputable or because the Nazis believed they could actually be more effective if left to their own devices.
Between the German government’s disinformation campaign and the groups that voluntarily aligned themselves with Hitler, Nazism had tentacles that touched every American community to some extent. Thousands of people joined groups like the German American Bund and the Silver Legion, marching down American streets in Nazi-esque uniforms, sending their children to Nazi summer camps, and heiling their leaders. Supporters of celebrity radio host Father Coughlin’s Christian Front roughed up Jews on subway platforms and discouraged Americans from shopping at Jewish-owned stores. In the marbled corridors of Washington, DC, a German agent ran an ingenious operation to disseminate shocking quantities of isolationist and pro-German propaganda at taxpayer expense. This twentieth-century version of spam email showed up unsolicited in millions of mailboxes around the country. Business leaders found themselves courted by Nazi envoys who promised huge profits in the Reich if they could only convince Roosevelt to keep out of the war. Students at American universities were caught in the middle of academic freedom battles as anti-Nazi faculty were forced off campus and pro-Nazi groups spread hateful propaganda. Most sinisterly, some Americans were enticed by German military intelligence to offer their country’s secrets to the Reich. There was even a bold plot by Nazi agents and their American friends to meddle in the presidential election of 1940. Nazism’s corrupting influence could not be avoided. “The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact,” Vice President Henry A. Wallace wrote in 1944. “Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy.… Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”27
Given how far Nazism managed to spread on its own in the United States, it was fortunate that the Germans were not more adept at pressing their advantages. The Nazi propaganda and spy network on Capitol Hill was never used to its full potential, and the ultimate political prize—defeating Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election—was never really within grasp. Pro-German organizations often ended up fighting one another for members, money, and newspaper coverage. The German government could never fully decide whether to embrace its self-proclaimed American friends or whether it should denounce them as a threat to German-American relations. Berlin ended up trying both approaches at different times, confusing the situation further. Much-needed money was funneled to some of Hitler’s friends through the German intelligence and propaganda network, but rarely in sufficient quantities to influence major events.
The main reason for this failure was the fact that Hitler and his inner circle actually knew little about the United States and seem to have cared even less. In the early days of the Reich, Hitler’s circle of advisers included Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, a half-German, half-American Harvard graduate who had once been in the young Franklin Roosevelt’s social circle.28 Hanfstaengl moved to Germany and became a confidant of Hitler before the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, giving him a front-row seat for the Führer’s eventual rise to power. He later recounted that Hitler was obsessed with European military history but had almost no sense of why the United States was an important player on the world stage. “I never really succeeded in bringing home the importance of America as an integral factor in European politics [to Hitler],” Hanfstaengl wrote. The result was that Hitler’s perception of the United States was “wildly superficial.” “He wanted to hear all about the skyscrapers and was fascinated by details of technical progress, but failed utterly to draw logical conclusions from the information,” Hanfstaengl wrote. The only American Hitler admired was industrialist Henry Ford, “not so much as an industrial wonder-worker but rather as a reputed anti-Semite and a possible source of funds.” He also expressed an interest in the Ku Klux Klan as “a political movement similar to his own, with which it might be possible to make some pact, and I was never able to put its relative importance in proper perspective for him.”29
Not only did Hitler fail to understand the geopolitical significance of the United States, he was downright dismissive toward the country on racial grounds. Over a wartime dinner in January 1942 he predicted that America’s racial diversity would be its downfall:
I don’t see much future for the Americans. In my view, it’s a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social inequalities. Those were what caused the downfall of Rome, and yet Rome was a solid edifice that stood for something. Moreover, the Romans were inspired by great ideas.… my feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance. I feel myself more akin to any European country, no matter which. Everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it’s half Judaised, and the other half negrified. How can one expect a State like that to hold together—a State where 80 per cent of the revenue is drained away for the public purse—a country where everything is built on the dollar?30
Hitler’s American friends might have thought they were doing the Führer’s bidding by trying to establish their own version of Nazism, but Hitler himself had little hope in the idea. His only personal design on the United States for the time being was to keep it from entering the war. While his followers in the country had plans of their own, this essential fact explains why the Nazis did not exploit their network of supporters in the United States more aggressively. Even Germany’s most effective spymaster in the United States, embassy first secretary Heribert von Strempel, was only sent to Washington because he spoke both English and Spanish and had prior experience working in South America. His superiors in Berlin were plainly more interested in their operations in Latin America than the potential to subvert the United States. Subsequently, 90 percent of the information Strempel reported back to Berlin was merely culled from American newspapers and just 10 percent from his Capitol Hill agent, though, as will be seen, there is little doubt that more could have been obtained from this source.31
None of this is to say, however, that Hitler’s American friends failed to make a significant impact. Until 1941, the threat of fascist subversion was very real. Even if Hitler himself believed that the United States was inevitably doomed, this did not stop his supporters from trying to “save” it by advocating their own form of dictatorship. Tellingly, few if any American Nazis ever argued that National Socialism should simply be imposed on the United States, as if the German army had conquered Washington and imposed a new regime by force. Even the most hardcore domestic Nazis agreed that their ideology should be adjusted to fit American sensibilities and conditions. This search for a “secret recipe” of Nazism and Americanism that could thrive in the United States became the main preoccupation of the groups discussed in the pages to come. American flags and swastikas were therefore carried through the streets side by side, and giant portraits of George Washington hung at pro-Nazi rallies. The ultimate fear for US national security officials was that the pro-Hitler right would unite and become an actual “fifth column”—a group of traitors who helped turn the country over the Nazis, as had been seen in France and Norway.
The most important missing ingredient in this recipe, of course, was an American Hitler who could unite the factions into a single movement. Numerous candidates thought themselves worthy of becoming the Führer and made their respective bids for power. Indeed, nearly every major figure discussed in the coming chapters was viewed as a potential Hitler at one point or another. All of them failed. Yet even the midst of these competing bids, knowledgeable observers kept a single name in their minds, believing there was only one man who could have the fame, charisma, and instant network of supporters to join the far right into a single movement. That man was Charles Lindbergh. For a few brief months before Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh became the de facto leader of a broad right-wing coalition, operating under the banner of America First, that included nearly all of Hitler’s American friends alongside more moderate conservatives and even some liberals. More menacingly, this group’s apparent respectability made it a political force to be reckoned with. America First was the culmination of years of Nazi disinformation and propaganda, coupled with the extremism of home-grown fascism. Whether Lindbergh was actually aware he was occupying this position is uncertain, but there is no doubt that many of his supporters viewed him as the perfect American Führer.
For its part, the US government was remarkably slow to respond to the threat posed by Hitler’s American friends and emulators. In fact, for much of the critical 1940–1941 period British intelligence was better informed, and clearer-eyed, about the activities and intentions of the American radical right than even the FBI. Recently declassified files at the UK National Archives reveal that the British Foreign Office and intelligence services kept close tabs on almost every anti-interventionist and pro-German group in the United States. The British embassy in Washington was so well informed about German plots that its officials turned over evidence to American counterparts who often had no idea what was going on under their noses. British intelligence operations in the United States were extensive and well-provisioned. In the years before the war, the British maintained a Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) station in New York City. In June 1938, this was foolishly shut down out of concern that its activities might lead to a diplomatic incident with the US. The British hoped the shutdown would generate goodwill from the US government and lead to a closer relationship with the FBI. However, little progress resulted and the British were now simply blind to what was taking place in the United States. As the war unfolded, it became clear to MI6 chief Sir Stewart Menzies that he would quickly have to reactivate intelligence operations in the United States.32
In June 1940, Canadian-born British intelligence officer William Stephenson arrived in New York City. On paper, Stephenson was taking up the role of passport control officer, and would mainly be involved with issuing visas and other bureaucratic tasks. In reality, this was the usual diplomatic cover held by the MI6 New York station leader. Stephenson’s real mission was to secretly conduct intelligence and propaganda operations in the United States while avoiding diplomatic incidents. He set up an office on two floors of a Rockefeller Center building under the name of a front company and began recruiting agents. British Security Coordination (BSC), as his operation was known, became massively successful in gathering intelligence from German and Italian embassies in the United States, unraveling German plots and disseminating pro-British narratives to the American public through a network of sympathetic journalists and even a commercial radio station.
Among Stephenson’s stable of journalists was Broadway gossip columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell, one of the most popular and influential commentators in the country. Winchell was increasingly in favor of US intervention in the war and as a result he became a friendly conduit for the British. Through a third-party conduit, Democratic Party attorney Ernest Cuneo, the White House fed Winchell key stories supporting Roosevelt’s stance on the need for American intervention. Stephenson separately convinced Cuneo to feed Winchell British propaganda and intelligence about German operations in the United States. In some cases, this included information that had not previously been provided to the FBI. Winchell therefore not only became a propaganda tool for the British government and Roosevelt, but also an important intelligence source for the FBI.33
Ironically, the FBI’s blindness to the domestic Nazi threat was partially a deliberate choice. Throughout the 1920s the bureau was focused on organized crime, bootlegging, and communist subversion. Wiretapping, a key tool for counterintelligence investigators, was forbidden by President Calvin Coolidge’s administration after a series of scandals, severely curtailing agents’ ability to monitor suspects. The Roosevelt administration eventually increased the FBI’s powers and resources and directly requested an investigation into pro-Nazi groups in 1934, but under legendary director J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau’s focus remained firmly on the communist threat. The FBI was not even formally placed in charge of US counterintelligence operations until 1939, and even then only conducted such investigations on request from the president or attorney general.34 Stephenson quickly found Hoover to be a mercurial partner, though the director expressed interest in intelligence sharing with BSC and secretly cleared the arrangement with the White House.35
Despite his arrangement with Stephenson, Hoover’s personal obsession with communism continued to influence the bureau’s investigations. In February 1940, FBI agents arrested former members of the left-wing Abraham Lincoln Brigade who had traveled to Spain and fought Francisco Franco’s troops in the Spanish civil war years before. Even though the conflict had already ended, the former fighters were accused of illegally recruiting other Americans to join the conflict back in 1937. All this looked particularly silly in light of the war currently being fought, and led to a public outcry against the FBI’s tactics and priorities.36 To its credit, the FBI was generally receptive when BSC provided evidence that helped the bureau unravel a German plot and take public credit for it, but Hoover soon became concerned that Stephenson’s operation was becoming a dangerous nuisance. In spring 1941, the FBI director declared war on BSC. He told Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, one of the Roosevelt administration’s counterespionage experts, that BSC was “probably in violation of our espionage acts” and demanded the administration let him shut it down.37
Stephenson had a powerful patron of his own by this time, however. In July 1940, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox had dispatched Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan to Britain as part of a fact-finding expedition related to the progress of the war. Donovan was already a living legend. He had earned his distinctive nickname as a soldier fighting Pancho Villa. He was then sent to the Western Front of World War I, where he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. He returned to civilian life to serve as assistant attorney general in the Coolidge administration, giving him credibility with both Republicans and Democrats.38 During his wartime visit to the United Kingdom, Donovan met Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the king, and other leading political figures. He returned to the United States convinced that Britain could survive the German onslaught, and that there should be close coordination between US and British intelligence to make victory more likely. In July 1941, Roosevelt agreed and created the Office of the Coordination of Information (COI) with Donovan as its head. COI was essentially the American counterpart of BSC, designed to not only detect enemy plots but also conduct proactive propaganda operations and even sabotage. Donovan and Stephenson quickly became close collaborators in the fight against Germany in the United States and overseas.
Hoover’s campaign to shut down BSC eventually culminated in the passage of a congressional bill that would have severely restricted the work of British agents. Donovan convinced Roosevelt to veto it. A watered-down version specifically excluding the British from its restrictions was eventually signed in its place.39 Donovan’s liaison with BSC would have far-reaching consequences. In 1942 the COI would be split into two divisions, one of which became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an eventual forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. Donovan would be the first director of OSS and later recalled that Stephenson “taught us all we ever knew about foreign intelligence.”40
Beyond Hoover and Donovan, the other main figure behind the US government’s efforts to detect and neutralize Hitler’s American allies was controversial in his own right. In 1938, Texas congressman Martin Dies Jr. became chairman of the newly created House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Dies Committee, as it was commonly known, was tasked with unmasking subversive plots wherever they could be found. Dies was a conservative Democrat who had turned gradually against the New Deal and became a constant thorn in the president’s side. Most of Dies’s focus was on communist subversion of labor unions, making him one of the precursors of postwar McCarthyism. His critics were numerous. “There is little evidence in this man’s public career to indicate that he either understands or believes in American democracy,” author William Gellermann wrote of Dies in 1944. “On the contrary, the evidence indicates that he is a spearhead of a native American reaction.”41
Dies answered his detractors by proclaiming that his only interest was “Americanism.” “As I have expressed many times, I am just as much opposed to Nazism and Fascism as I am to Communism,” Dies told a skeptical correspondent in 1938. “All of these ‘isms’ constitute a different form of dictatorship and I am sure you are just as much opposed to Communism as you are Nazism.”42 He viewed communism and fascism as two sides of the same coin. “I regard Communism to be as dangerous to the liberties of the people as Fascism,” he wrote in 1938. “In fact the lawlessness and violence inspired by Communism in Italy and Germany gave the Dictators an opportunity to seize control of the government. Communism is the forerunner of Fascism.”43
Dies’s personal views aside, American public opinion was split on whether the cigar-chomping Texan should prioritize communist or fascist subversion in his investigations. A Gallup poll in February 1939 found that 23 percent of respondents thought the Dies Committee should focus on “Nazi activities in this country,” 30 percent on “war propaganda,” and 17 percent on the communist threat. A full 32 percent failed to answer the question.44 Without a clear mandate from the voting public it was unclear where Dies should focus his efforts. Regardless, Dies dramatically announced in August 1939 that his Committee had discovered that “there are nearly 5,000,000 enemies within our borders. 5,000,000 people living among us, who do not believe in the American way of government.”45 If true, a threat of this magnitude demanded drastic action.
Typical treatment for a Dies Committee witness included being subpoenaed to appear in Washington and then being extensively questioned under oath. Additional witnesses were then brought forward to present their evidence, which would often contradict previous testimony and, in some cases, open the door for perjury charges against others who had testified. While few of the organizations considered in these pages were brought down directly by the Dies Committee, their leaders’ testimony often brought questionable activities to public attention. Historians have occasionally referred these investigations as the “Brown Scare,” drawing a comparison to the Red Scare targeting communists. While there was certainly some element of public hysteria at play in the hunt for Nazi subversion, there was also no doubt that some of the organizations investigated by Dies were a threat to national security. While far from an ideal champion of democratic values and civil liberties, Dies’s efforts did help protect the country against powerful forces that wished it ill.
At the same time, the limits of this form of investigation should be acknowledged. The Dies Committee could dominate the headlines and potentially expose all sorts of damaging information, but unless witnesses perjured themselves—which did occasionally happen—there were rarely criminal charges that immediately resulted. Most of Hitler’s American friends were instead brought down by three forms of illegal activity. The first was financial mismanagement. Just as bloodthirsty mob boss Al Capone was eventually sent to prison for lying on his tax returns, several prominent Nazi sympathizers ended up in prison for embezzlement, fraud, and other financial shenanigans. Their demands of absolute and unquestioning loyalty from their followers made financial crimes easy to pull off.
The second legal mechanism for putting Hitler’s agents out of business was the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). This legislation was passed in 1938—it is no coincidence that it was passed the same year the Dies Committee was established—and required agents working for “foreign principals” to declare their activities to the government. In other words, anyone spreading propaganda to the American people on behalf of a foreign government had to make their actions known to federal officials. The monetary aspect was key: if an agent received money from a foreign government to support their activities they were required to make a FARA filing. Several of Hitler’s most useful American agents were ultimately tripped up by this requirement and ended up in prison for failing to properly reveal their activities.
FARA remains in place to the present day and returned to the headlines after the 2016 election when it was revealed that President Donald J. Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, initially failed to make a FARA filing related to work he had done for a company linked to the Turkish government. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort faced similar allegations related to his advocacy for various foreign clients and was indicted in 2017 on a raft of charges that included failing to properly register under FARA.46 At least one legal commentator remarked that the Manafort indictment “gave bite to a toothless law.” As will be seen, FARA’s teeth similarly proved to be very sharp indeed for some of Hitler’s American friends.47
The third crime committed by Hitler’s American friends was outright espionage. This was the most serious crime of the three and carried stiff prison sentences for those convicted. Most Nazi espionage cases involved the spy rings examined in this book’s final section. Many convicted Nazi spies were American citizens whose motivations ranged from money to sex, and even sometimes boredom. As will be seen, the Nazi spy network in the United States was extensive and effective, though many of the stolen technical secrets proved to be of limited use to the German military. Making up for its earlier complacency, the FBI became very adept at breaking up Nazi spy rings and managed to put the entire German intelligence network in the country out of commission by late 1941. Hitler then launched a wild last-ditch gamble to spread terror in the United States that ended in one of the most sensational espionage cases in American history.
These were not abstract, faraway events for Americans. They were very real threats to the American way of life and, ultimately, the US government. Had Hitler’s American friends been successful, the US would never have entered World War II, Britain would have fallen under Nazi occupation and, ultimately, a version of National Socialism would have taken root in the United States. To a very real extent, the United States only escaped this fate through an uneasy combination of wise statesmanship and sheer luck—as will be seen, a constellation of events never aligned in a way that opened the door to defeating Roosevelt or seizing control of the government. Ultimately, the glue that held Hitler’s American friends together as a broad group was anti-Semitism. Nearly all the individuals considered in these pages harbored a deep-seated hatred toward their own country’s Jewish community and had little or no sympathy for the plight of Jews in Europe. Anti-Semitic views, especially conspiracy theories about supposed Jewish control of the government and the financial sector, often served as a precursor to deeper involvement in extremist groups. This dynamic was true with individuals as prominent as Lindbergh and far more average citizens alike. The leaders of extremist groups knew this themselves and propagated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as a key recruiting tactic. Anti-Semitism was effectively the entry point to becoming one of Hitler’s American friends for the vast majority of those who traveled that path.
This book argues that the threats posed by the American pro-Nazi movement were far greater than we remember today. In addition, events only turned out the way they ultimately did due to a combination of luck and the astute responses of a few key players in the US government. As will be seen, credit must be given to the courageous journalists and law enforcement officials who risked life and limb to expose plots against the United States. Similarly, while some politicians arguably disgraced themselves in this period, others rose to do the right thing under difficult circumstances by denying Hitler’s friends the political connections they so desperately craved. In an era in which Americans have once again seen swastikas carried alongside American flags in Charlottesville, Virginia, and other communities, the lessons learned from the first defeat of Hitler’s American friends should once again be remembered.
What follows is a story of differing degrees of Nazi sympathy, and of some ebb and flow in levels of support for an American Reich. Yet what also emerges is the sheer geographic spread of such advocates. From upstate New York to San Francisco, and from Washington State to U-boats unloading German saboteurs and explosives in Florida, these forces spanned most of the contiguous United States. This was truly a nationwide “Plot against America” rather than a regional flash in the pan. In some ways, this made cooperation between the various groups supporting Hitler both costly and difficult. But even by very conservative estimates there were over a hundred thousand Americans prepared to affiliate with the types of bodies discussed here, close to a million prepared to vote for a long-shot third-party presidential candidate espousing a pro-Hitler platform, and over ten million we could classify as “Hitler’s friends in waiting” in one form or another. This was a big deal.
The first chapter of this book examines the most high-profile group with ostensibly pro-Nazi views in the mid-1930s: the German American Bund. Founded in 1936 as a combination cultural organization and political action group, dozens of Bund chapters emerged around the country and enjoyed an estimated initial following of more than one hundred thousand people, and perhaps double that number at its peak. Its armed wing brawled with communists and union members in cities across the country and, in 1939, it was responsible for a near riot in New York City. Millions of Americans saw newsreels of Bund members goose-stepping, giving stiff-armed salutes, and greeting their leaders with “Heil Hitler.” Even more menacingly, the Bund also became known for running summer camps for kids that included Nazi salutes and weapons training.
Chapter 2, The Silver Legion and the Chief, examines another radically pro-Nazi group, but one with decidedly stranger preoccupations than the Bund. This was the Silver Legion, a lesser-known but no less racist organization. Founded by Hollywood screenwriter-turned-mystic William Dudley Pelley, the Silver Shirt movement set up chapters around the country and attired its members in striking uniforms reminiscent of Mussolini and Hitler. Through a bizarre combination of Nazi ideology and claims that he was directly communicating with Jesus, Pelley built a national following and began arming his followers in preparation for civil war.
Chapter 3 changes tack to explore a movement that would be considered part of the “religious right” today. Throughout the 1930s, religion underwent a significant change in American life, serving as a bastion of solace for many people who had lost everything in the Depression. The invention and proliferation of radio presented religious leaders with access to regional or even national audiences for the first time, giving them massive pulpits. Detroit priest Father Charles Coughlin would become the best-known national figure to use the new medium of radio, reaching an audience numbering in the millions. Coughlin initially used his program to preach on a combination of the Scriptures and economic issues, and he initially supported Roosevelt. Yet by the mid-1930s he began turning toward classic anti-Semitism and, from there, clear Nazi sympathies. He was not the only religious leader to do so: similarly, Gerald Burton Winrod, a Kansas minister who prided himself on opposing all forms of “modernism,” turned to radio to spread his message in the early 1930s. Both men increasingly turned from the spiritual toward the political realm, with Winrod making a serious run for the Senate in 1938. Coughlin subsequently established the Christian Front, a radical group of his followers who embraced violence and referred to themselves as “Coughlin’s brownshirts.” Religion and politics thus went hand-in-hand for Hitler’s American friends, with devastating consequences.
Chapter 4, The Senators, turns from the radio sets in American living rooms to the corridors of power in Washington, DC, where the political battle over intervention and isolationism was playing out on a day-by-day basis. Into this turbulent milieu stepped George Sylvester Viereck, a former propaganda agent during World War I who was again on the payroll of the German government. Viereck’s task was to build as much support for the anti-interventionist position as possible in Washington and to this end he quickly built himself an extensive network of sympathetic congressmen and senators. He soon established an impressive operation within the corridors of power that would disseminate propaganda directly to millions of Americans and—even more insidiously—present it as the thoughts and words of their elected officials. Viereck’s activities, and the reports he filed with his Berlin overseers, quickly made him one of the Reich’s most valuable agents in the United States.
The fifth chapter, The Businessmen, examines interactions between America’s corporate community and the Third Reich. American businesses, heavily invested in Germany when Hitler took power, had a vested interest in the regime’s success. Major brands including General Motors, Ford, and Coca-Cola maintained German branches of their firms throughout the Nazi era. More sinisterly, the Nazis soon realized that these American investments could be held hostage and used to pressure Roosevelt. As war approached, Nazi envoys approached prominent business leaders and encouraged them to advocate nonintervention. Chillingly, one American businessman even embarked on an ambitious scheme to inject German money into the 1940 presidential election and defeat Roosevelt. His nefarious plans would ultimately be thwarted by the incompetence of his associates.
Chapter 6, The Students, turns to examine a demographic group the Nazis and their American friends were particularly eager to reach: the young. Specifically targeting college students (in a period in which only about 5 percent of the population had a bachelor’s degree) the Third Reich and its supporters established a variety of programs and groups to interest students in the events taking place in Germany. The most direct of these efforts could be found in the study-abroad programs many universities offered their students, as they do today. It was seen as natural at the time that Germany remained a possible destination for students to visit, especially given the high reputation the country’s universities had enjoyed in the past. As the political situation in the Reich changed, however, US universities responded in differing ways, with some curtailing their involvement with German universities and others continuing it. These decisions would have a profound impact on how their wider campus communities responded to Nazism as war approached.
Chapter 7, America First!, explores the final moment of truth for Hitler’s American friends, the founding of the America First Committee. As will be seen, this organization was essentially an amalgamation of all the groups considered in the previous chapters. Its chairman, General Robert E. Wood, was an executive for Sears, Roebuck and company and brought a number of leading business leaders into the organization. These men were rich and some were famous, but none could approach the fame of the America Firsters’ best asset: Charles Lindbergh. Throughout 1940 and 1941 the famed aviator traveled the country arguing against the prospect of intervention in the unfolding European war. Lindbergh’s views of the conflict had been undoubtedly colored by his various trips to Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s and, as will be shown, he was viewed by the British as effectively a Nazi agent. Despite the vocal protestations of its leaders to the contrary, the America First movement became one of Hitler’s key American friends.
The final chapter, The Spies, explores a group of individuals whose significance to the Reich was based on their names remaining completely outside the public eye. These were, of course, Hitler’s intelligence and espionage agents. From the mid-1930s onward the Germans escalated their efforts to obtain information about American defense preparations and weaponry. The Nazi intelligence network was widespread and focused largely around its consulates in major cities around the country. The FBI kept a close eye on the activities of known German agents but it was naturally impossible to be aware of everyone who might pose a risk to national security. The Germans were therefore able to gather a great deal of intelligence about the United States, though much of it turned out to be low-value. This section also explores the activities of two high-profile spies whose loyalties were less easy to pin down. Captain Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s former commanding officer in the First World War, found himself appointed consul general in San Francisco and subsequently ran a spy network that extended all the way to South America. He was joined there by his erstwhile mistress, former Hitler confidant Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe. The American press and the FBI assumed that both of them were high-profile German agents, which they were. Everything was not what it appeared, however. They were also both looking to help secure an early end to the war and, to that end, tried to make back-channel overtures to the Allies. The two people Americans assumed were Hitler’s highest-profile friends were in fact the opposite.
Collectively, these sections provide a wide-ranging view of the pro-Nazi movement in the prewar United States. Some aspects had been built and sponsored by the German government while others, such as the German American Bund, were actually seen as unhelpful by the Reich’s leaders. However, whether Hitler would have embraced their friendship or not, they all purported to be his friends and represented themselves as such in the public eye. The darkest underbellies of American society were at the heart of all this: anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, and greed were the fundamental forces that drew these groups together. With the American economy in dire straits, businessmen fearing the potential rise of communism, and disenfranchised voters looking for a political solution to their woes, the climate was potentially right for the rise of fascism. There had already been some indications that antidemocratic politicians were on the rise. The most prominent example had been Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long, who ruled his state with an iron fist from 1928 until his assassination in 1935. Analogies between Long’s meteoric climb and the simultaneous rise of European dictatorships were widely discussed at the time.48
Throughout this book, I have told the story of Hitler’s American friends using a wide range of underutilized and sometimes even forgotten sources. From archives in Liberty, Texas, and North Newton, Kansas, to the Hoover Institution Library & Archives and the UK National Archives in London, I have deliberately drawn upon material ignored or overlooked by past historians when possible. My intention is to tell this story from the perspective of the people who lived and experienced it in a variety of ways. I have drawn upon official American sources, particularly FBI files, when necessary, but I have relied more heavily on the papers of individuals who were firsthand participants in the events described. My hope is that this approach not only sheds important new light on Hitler’s allies but also gives a sense of how unstable and frightening this period was for the American people during one of the most uncertain periods in US history.
The culminating moment for Hitler’s American friends came in the 1940–1941 period, when anti-intervention sentiment reached its peak simultaneously with the power of the far right. Bund members marched through American streets giving Nazi salutes. Silver Shirts armed themselves in preparation for war. “Father Coughlin’s brownshirts” beat up Jews. Senators made wild allegations about the president becoming a dictator. Nazi agents tried to convince American businessmen to oppose and defeat Roosevelt. In the background, the figure of Charles Lindbergh loomed—the man the far right had chosen as their leader, though he himself was ignorant of the fact. It was a violent and uncertain atmosphere unlike any the country would experience again until the unrest of 1968. It seemed and appeared that everything was in play, and potentially everything was at stake.
In 1972, political scientist Bruce M. Russett argued that in “cold-blooded realist terms, Nazism as an ideology was almost certainly less dangerous to the United States than is Communism. Marxism-Leninism has a worldwide appeal; Nazism lacks much palatability to non-Aryan tastes.”49 Russett may well have been correct about the threat posed by communism, but the appeal of Nazism and fascism was far greater than he and most Americans have recognized. In the end, Hitler’s American friends were not only often representatives of the nation’s worst qualities but also showed how many of their countrymen could be lured into supporting a reprehensible regime even as its violent nature was increasingly becoming clear and war loomed on the horizon.
Looking back from the first decades of a new century that has already seen its share of bloodshed—though thankfully far less than the equivalent decades of the twentieth century—it is worth remembering how easy it can be for an ideology based in hatred to spread widely. Appeals to fear and prejudice are powerful things. Hitler’s American friends were successful for a time because they seemed to provide an alternative set of answers to those being offered by the political establishment. In the end, those answers would be discredited and rejected by the vast majority, but this was never guaranteed to be the case. If nothing else, the example posed by Hitler’s friends should remind us that the maintenance of a free, liberal, and democratic society requires diligence and active confrontation with antidemocratic ideas that threaten the very system that allows them to be discussed in the first place. Hitler’s friends would go down to unequivocal defeat, yet, for a brief period, it appeared that the American flag and the swastika might well end up flying side by side.
Copyright © 2018 by Bradley W. Hart