By Ronald J. Granieri and Susan Elia MacNeal / Special To The Washington Post
As Americans consider the aftermath of the Jan. 6 uprising at the U.S. Capitol and contemporary struggles over voting reform in Congress and at the Supreme Court, many wonder about the fate of our democratic republic. The principles Americans are supposed to hold dear — voting rights, equality, freedom — appear imperiled.
But Americans’ commitment to democratic participation has always been contested. Even during World War II, as the United States mobilized to defeat Nazi Germany and portrayed itself as an “arsenal of democracy,” Americans remained divided about who deserved to be treated as a full citizen. In an era when restrictive nationalist and authoritarian movements took power across Europe and Asia, even explicit appeals to Nazism attracted adherents in the United States.
Remembering the history of American Nazis is important because it shows us that great threats to our institutions come not only from outside, but from inside the republic itself.
Although formal fascist organizations such as the German American Bund failed to enter the realm of official party politics, the ideas they espoused — arguing that American prosperity depended on protecting “real” Americans from variously defined threatening others — were not foreign to American ears. Deep traditions of racism and nativism found many Americans receptive, even as the United States prepared to fight against them overseas.
The Bund’s February 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden, for example, drew more than 20,000 enthusiastic supporters under banners that included swastikas and images of George Washington. After the outbreak of the European War that autumn, the America First Committee agitated against American participation in the war. Born of legitimate desire to avoid foreign entanglement, America First appealed to anti-interventionists across the political spectrum.
Nevertheless, it was especially popular on the right, where suspicion of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration mixed with darker thoughts about the forces working behind the scenes. America First’s most prominent spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, said the quiet part out loud in a September 1941 speech in which he suggested, “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish [sic] and the Roosevelt administration,” as if all three were foreign bodies in American society.
Father Charles Coughlin — a Roman Catholic priest with a popular radio broadcast in the 1930s — went even further, mixing antisemitic rhetoric with direct support for Adolf Hitler. Eventually forced off the air in 1942 and nearly defrocked by the church for his pro-Nazi politics, Coughlin’s near-decade of national popularity reflected the appeal those beliefs had for a measurable segment of the American public.
Less famous than Lindbergh and Coughlin, though well known in certain circles, were those who rejected democracy altogether. They included Henry George Curtiss of the American Nationalist Party, who beginning in 1935 published a weekly antisemitic newsletter called “American Bulletin: The White Man’s Viewpoint,” which claimed to be the only National Socialist paper in the United States. As war broke out in 1939, Curtiss complained: “Democracy, democracy, democracy. They throw it in our faces. You hear it on all sides until you get sick of it. What is democracy? It is a rotten form of weakness, a defeatist and pacifist attitude that only can mean defeat. I say to hell with democracy and up with the banner of American nationalism! America is for the white, Christian, Americans.”
For such nationalists, democracy was worth sacrificing to preserve the dominance of the white race; as they defined it.
The German government helped foster support for Hitler and the Nazis among German immigrants and German Americans in the United States. As early as the summer of 1933, according to historian Steven Ross, Hans Winterhalder, propaganda chief of the Friends of the New Germany (the precursor to the Bund), worked to unite the nearly 50 German American organizations in Southern California with their nearly 150,000 total members under one banner.
Winterhalder wanted to emphasize the unity of the white race against immigrants, African Americans and Jews; all of whom, he argued, represented frightening forces of social change. He planned to “teach the Nazi system” as an alternative to pluralist notions of democracy. The group was dissolved and members were absorbed into the German American Bund in 1936. The Bund was not only Berlin’s functional propaganda agent; its true political objective was to Americanize Nazism.
As U.S. forces fought under the banner of democracy, advocates for “white, Christian America” even denounced the war against Japan. Ellis O. Jones, leader of the “National Copperheads,” told an audience that “the Japanese have a right to Hawaii. There are more of them there than there are Americans. … I would rather be on the side of Germany than on the British side.”
Robert Noble, well-known in California as the co-founder of the fascist and antisemitic isolationist group Friends of Progress, proclaimed: “Japan has done a good job in the Pacific. I believe this war is going to destroy America. … We are for Germany and for Hitler.” Noble and Ellis organized a December 1941 mock trial of President Roosevelt, convicting him of being “traitorous to the American people for getting us into the war.”
Just as the revived KKK in the 1920s enjoyed mainstream support, the ideas animating U.S. fascist groups were hardly fringe. In April 1940, when asked whether “Jews have too much power and influence in this country,” a national majority answered, “yes.” After U.S. entry into the war, public participation in pro-Nazi organizations ceased, but the sentiments remained. In July 1945, the number of Americans who responded “yes” to this question about influence had risen to 67 percent.
The war drove American Nazis underground, but nativism, antisemitism and authoritarian tendencies did not vanish, even in the fastest-growing city in the country, Los Angeles. Los Angeles had been one of the largest centers of Klan activity outside the South in the 1920s and 1930s. A Klan member had been elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1923.
In a city where hostility toward African Americans and Latinos would boil over in the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, racial animus led some to Nazi sympathies that remained visible well into the 1970s, as displayed in the Oscar-nominated 1975 documentary, “The California Reich.”
Those espousing such views were in the minority. But they were not alone, nor were they completely chastened by the defeat of fascism in 1945. Deep suspicion of strangers, people of color and immigrants, fed by restrictive constructions of American identity, have continued to animate American politics even as American society slowly embraced more expansive definitions of civil rights and citizenship.
After World War II, American Nazi parties and groups were replaced by new organizations that combined conspiratorial thinking about Jews, immigrants and African Americans with new fears of communist subversion, from groups such as the John Birch Society and the Liberty Lobby (both founded in 1958) to George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party and further spinoffs such as the National Alliance. Far-right, racist organizing continues to the present day, manifested in the cluster of organizations that gathered in Charlottesville in 2017 to “unite the Right,” as well as in subsequent rallies and demonstrations.
Racists, eugenicists and immigration restrictionists have long been part of our national fabric, even when the ideas they espouse have been recognized as extreme. A truly inclusive country cannot be built by appealing to a largely mythic past of comity and unity. Instead, recalling this history of sinister forces within American society reminds of the need for vigilance and a consistent effort to marginalize such forces and their toxic ideas.
Ronald J. Granieri is a Templeton Education Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and history professor at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. Susan Elia MacNeal is a New York Times-bestselling and Edgar Award-nominated novelist living in Brooklyn. Her most recent novel is The Hollywood Spy, out July 1.