By Bradley W. Hart
Thomas Dunne Books
It was a nice summer picnic in 1937 with a lot of the trappings you might find at any gathering with hundreds of families, food and drink, patriotic speakers, and energetic bands. But look a little closer and you would see this picnic was festooned with scores of Nazi flags and banners, marching men in brown shirts, and frequent cries of “Heil Hitler!”
While most of us learn in history class that seemingly all of America was united against the Nazis during World War II, we were actually late to the dance. It took the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to truly sway American minds and military forces. But in the years prior while Hitler was rampaging across Europe, a sizable portion of the U.S. population was either pro-German, or of that mind that America certainly did not need to enter an overseas conflict – albeit one that was creeping closer to these shores.
In this surprising, well-researched, and easy-to-digest book, Hart lays out how Americans from all stations in life were working out front or behind the scenes with their actions (or at least sympathies) for the Nazi regime. And hoping to advance their cause and goals in this country.
Two groups at the forefront were the German American Bund (made up mainly of German Americans with a political end) and the Silver Shirt Legion (who dressed just as their name indicates and came from a more religious standpoint). Each was led by a self-styled leader who aimed to become an American Führer – Fritz Kuhn and William Dudley Pelley respectively. But were brought down by controversies, including when Pelley proposed a “Secretary of Jewry” who would oversee all U.S. Jews moved to live in one location.
Then there was Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin, a model for what Brady says are today’s “indignant, belligerent, no-holds-barred radio talk show hosts.” The influential media mogul would spend his time on the airwaves increasingly railing against “international bankers” (read: Jews) dead set turning America into heathen country in economic turmoil.
“Hitler’s government was not seeking aid from the United States,” he writes. “The entire goal of Nazi propaganda was to encouraged apathy and confusion by sowing discord, discrediting the British, and turning Americans against one another…the Germans were hoping to dissuade the United States government from any action at all.”
But the one man who weaves most in and out of several chapters is Charles Lindbergh. Arguably one of the most famous men in the world at the time, he won the respect of many for his aviation feats and the sympathy of more after the kidnapping and murder of his son.
But after he became enamored of the Third Reich and the leadership of Adolf Hitler in the mid-1930’s, he began to pepper his increasing number of written editorials and speeches with anti-Semitism, finally falling in with the America First Committee. He was the headline speaker at a 1941 rally hosted by the organization New York’s Madison Square Garden. The venue was filled to capacity with 22,000 attendees and another 10,000 outside the listening on loud speakers.
The event – in which the audience booed any mention of President Roosevelt’s name – was not without its comic moments. It was decided that the assembled should not sing the song “God Bless America” because it was seen as “too interventionist.” Escaping completely the fact that it was written by a Jew, Irving Berlin.
Undoubtedly, Hart’s text will have many readers making some comparisons to today’s political climate, be it a charismatic celebrity-turned-political leader who espouses a hardline “America First” agenda, or a slew of people facing charges for skirting the FARA Act, which requires those working for foreign governments to declare their intentions. It’s the same law being used to prosecute former Trump associates like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, as well as the NRA-loving Russian gun girl, Maria Butina.
And while it’s far too far a stretch by any means to make too many comparisons at this point between events and attitudes of 1938 and 2018, Hart’s book nevertheless comes off as both a historical tale and a cautionary one as well.