Home > Uncategorized > The problem of far right extremism is nothing new in America – posted 4/21/2021

The problem of far right extremism is nothing new in America – posted 4/21/2021

The Trump presidency and the events of January 6 made me wonder about past American experience with authoritarian threats. Did America ever have other close calls with far right wing extremism? Here I am not talking about the racist, totalitarian system that persisted in the South for almost 100 years after Reconstruction.

Although it is little remembered now, before Pearl Harbor, there was a surprisingly strong pro-Nazi movement in the United States. The story of the heroic war against the Axis powers has overshadowed what happened before Pearl Harbor.

In his book, Hitler’s American Friends, Bradley Hart reconstructs a forgotten time. In 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, isolationism was a strong American political tendency. The America First Committee organized to keep America out of the coming war. It had considerable, possibly majority, support nationally.

The slogan America First did not originate with Donald Trump. It had been a favorite slogan of the Ku Klux Klan back in the 1920’s. It also had been used to support eugenicist, anti-immigration bills in that same time period. Earlier presidential candidates had also adopted the slogan.

In the 1930’s, while it attempted to present itself as patriotic, America First’s agenda ran on a parallel track with the German Nazis. The goal of German propaganda was to discredit the British and to promote confusion so that the U.S. would take no side in the war in Europe. America First opposed entry into what they called “a faraway war” on behalf of the British empire. In their propaganda, they smeared the British.

As a mass movement, America First included a variety of political types from isolationists to Gold Star mothers to anti-New Dealers to Nazi sympathizers. The movement had a strong anti-semitic undercurrent. Its most charismatic front man was the pilot, Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, in speeches around the country, blamed the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration for conspiring to push America into war against Germany. Even though the Nazis had invaded and taken France, Lindbergh argued that America’s geographic separation from Europe and Asia offered protection from any foreign attack.

Lindbergh minimized any risk to America should Britain fall to the Nazis. In retrospect, it is hard not to see him as a stooge of the Nazis. In 1938, Herman Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, on behalf of Hitler, gave Lindbergh the Service Cross of the German Eagle.

While acknowledging the persecution of Jews in Germany, Lindbergh simultaneously argued that the Jews presented a unique danger to America. Indulging an anti-semitic stereotype, he complained about Jews’ ownership of the movies and media and their influence in government.

Even with Lindbergh’s anti-semitism, the America First Committee saw an outpouring of support around the country. America First was not alone on the far right. There were multiple other pro-fascist forces in the U.S. before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor utterly changed the equation.

The German-American Bund was possibly the most prominent. The Bund emerged in 1936. With chapters around the nation, Bund members paraded with American flags and swastika flags. Under their leader, Fritz Kuhn, the Bund required members to state they were “of Aryan descent, free from Jewish or Colored Blood”.

The Bund’s high point was probably 1939 when it filled Madison Square Garden for a “Pro-America Rally” featuring a large picture of George Washington surrounded by swastikas.

Along with the Bund was the Silver Legion with its founder William Dudley Pelley. The Silver Legion, also known as the Silver Shirts, was a membership organization founded in 1933 open to all except Jews and African Americans. The Silver Shirts advocated the establishment of a fascist government in America that would oversee a “Christian Commonwealth”.

Pelley said he would save America just as Mussolini saved Italy and Hitler saved Germany. In his propaganda, Pelley called for a Secretary of Jewry for his future government. That Secretary would be responsible for dealing with the Jewish population by restricting them to a single city per state so that their activities could be monitored.

Then there was the religious right of the time, especially Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin was a Catholic priest who developed a massive radio following estimated at a monthly audience of nearly 29 million listeners. The German newspaper Der Sturmer praised Coughlin as one of the only Americans “to speak his conviction that national Socialism is right”.

Coughlin claimed that Nazism was a natural response to the threat posed by communism. He typically conflated Jews with communism.

Father Coughlin was not the only religious figure to organize on the far right. Gerald L.K. Smith, a former Midwest preacher who moved to Louisiana, and Gerald Winrod, a Christian fundamentalist from Kansas, expressed admiration for Hitler. They both said that the Nazis were protecting Christian churches from Jewish and Communist threats. Winrod ran for U.S. Senate in Kansas but was defeated in the Republican primary.

The American business community also figured noticeably in support for Hitler. Much of corporate America hated Roosevelt for his New Deal policies. Some corporate leaders felt they could do business with Hitler – and they did. General Motors, Ford and Coca-Cola all pursued business with the Nazis.

Most infamously, Henry Ford and Hitler had a mutual admiration society. Ford was a vicious anti-semite. He built trucks for the German military while distributing huge numbers of the anti-semitic tract, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion at home. Ford continued its operations in France after France had fallen to the Nazis. A Ford plant near Paris built aircraft engines, military trucks and other vehicles for the German military while the war continued.

The diverse pro-Nazi forces in America were never able to unify around a leader. It is easy to speculate about things that never happened but if Charles Lindbergh had run for President in 1940 he might have been a formidable opponent to FDR. That is the premise for Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America.

After Pearl Harbor, things changed overnight. People who had previously identified as pro-Nazi disappeared into the shadows. The FBI paid attention to Nazi agents and convicted over 100 of various offenses during the war period. Many people changed names and tried to start over. The Nazis had developed a far-reaching network of sympathizers, spies and supporters which mostly vanished into obscurity.

The U.S. government never took any action against Henry Ford and other corporate leaders who had actively collaborated with the Germans. After the war, the Nazi threat was quickly forgotten as the U.S. government moved on to fear of the Soviet Union.

January 6 should serve as a wake-up call about the threat posed by the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Boogaloo Bois and others of their ilk. That movement has surprising military and police background and training. They are the newest incarnation of our recurring far right authoritarian tradition.

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