Rachel Maddow’s new book examines American fascism in the WWII era

Rachel Maddow, seen at Smith College, has written a book, “Prequel,” about fascism.

Rachel Maddow, seen at Smith College, has written a book, “Prequel,” about fascism. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Members of the German American Bund, waving Nazi and American flags side by side, march in New York City in October 1937.

Members of the German American Bund, waving Nazi and American flags side by side, march in New York City in October 1937. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

George Sylvester Viereck, a German-American writer and Nazi propagandist, wrote speeches for an isolationist U.S. senator and used his office for preparing mailings to Americans urging the country to stay out of WWII.

George Sylvester Viereck, a German-American writer and Nazi propagandist, wrote speeches for an isolationist U.S. senator and used his office for preparing mailings to Americans urging the country to stay out of WWII. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/WIKIPEDIA

Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from the Detroit area, used his popular national radio show in the 1930s to attack Jews and express his admiration for Nazi Germany.

Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from the Detroit area, used his popular national radio show in the 1930s to attack Jews and express his admiration for Nazi Germany. HAMILTON SPECTATOR/WIKIPEDIA

Hermann Goering gives Charles Lindbergh a Nazi Medal in Berlin, circa 1936. Lindbergh admired the Nazis and blamed U.S. Jews in part for any effort to involve America in World War II.

Hermann Goering gives Charles Lindbergh a Nazi Medal in Berlin, circa 1936. Lindbergh admired the Nazis and blamed U.S. Jews in part for any effort to involve America in World War II. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

U.S. Sen. Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota was an isolationist who had sympathetic views of Nazi Germany and allowed a Nazi propagandist to use his office and write speeches for him.

U.S. Sen. Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota was an isolationist who had sympathetic views of Nazi Germany and allowed a Nazi propagandist to use his office and write speeches for him. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis drew inspiration for their laws penalizing and dehumanizing Jews from the segregation and Jim Crow laws of the southern U.S. states.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis drew inspiration for their laws penalizing and dehumanizing Jews from the segregation and Jim Crow laws of the southern U.S. states. DEUTSCHES BUNDESARCHIV/WIKIPEDIA

William Dudley Pelley was the founder of an American fascist paramilitary group and was jailed during WWII for sedition.

William Dudley Pelley was the founder of an American fascist paramilitary group and was jailed during WWII for sedition. WIKIPEDIA

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 01-17-2024 7:07 PM

Modified: 01-17-2024 7:24 PM


The conventional story of World War II in the United States is the one about how the country, shrugging off the hardships brought on by the Great Depression, rolled up its sleeves to defeat the fascist forces of Nazi Germany and Japan and make the world safe for democracy.

But as Rachel Maddow outlines in her newest book, a certain percentage of Americans, in the run up to WWII, expressed open admiration for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, believed our country would be better off under its own brand of fascism, and actively worked to keep the U.S. out of the war or to align itself with Germany.

In “Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism,” Maddow documents a story of paramilitary groups plotting to overthrow the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, an effort by numerous U.S. congressmen to help spread Nazi propaganda, and a virulent national strain of antisemitism that had one extremist vowing to fill “American gutters” with “more Jew corpses than ever were found in the most ambitious European pogroms.”

Maddow, the television host and journalist who splits her time between Cummington and New York City, has crafted “Prequel” as a followup and deeper dive into a story she first began telling last year on “Ultra,” an MSNBC podcast.

Some of the issues she plumbs have been well documented, like the rise of the isolationist group America First, which denounced Roosevelt as a warmonger and lobbied hard in 1940 and 1941 to keep the U.S. from getting involved in the fighting in Europe.

Still, it’s bracing to recall how America First’s leading figure, the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, partly blamed American Jews for pushing the nation closer to war. Doing so, Lindbergh warned in a September 1941 speech, threatened the Jewish community because “Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength.”

“His threat that America’s ‘tolerance’ for Jews would end if war began was barely tacit,” writes Maddow. “To Lindbergh, the Jews were not only alien to America, they ought to be afraid about it.”

Writing in a punchy, sometimes darkly witty style, Maddow profiles a range of other figures on the right who were drawn to fascism for various reasons: fear that the Great Depression signaled the failure of democracy and capitalism; admiration for the cult of personality Hitler had used to revive Germany; and a hatred of communism, which they believed could only be defeated by creating a right-wing dictatorship in America.

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Antisemitism was a common denominator for many of these malcontents, who equated Jews with communism and claimed American Jews were part of a sinister cabal that controlled the international money supply and were pushing for war to enrich themselves — the same belief espoused by Hitler.

“Just look at Russia!” a member of a paramilitary group called Silver Legion told the young journalist Eric Sevareid, just out of college and working for a Minneapolis newspaper. “The Jews certainly got Russia, didn’t they?”

Many of these agitators may have been fringe figures. But as Maddow notes, the “threads of isolationism, antisemitism, and fascism were becoming an ominously tight weave” in the U.S. by 1939-1941.

Other fascist groups, some of whom worked with German nationals, stockpiled weapons and plotted to steal more from U.S. armories. In one case, National Guard members simply gave firearms to a group in the New York City area; Maddow says a disturbing number of police officers and other law enforcement figures seemed sympathetic to U.S. fascists.

Missing in action

In fact, a central premise of her book is that federal law enforcement failed to conduct active surveillance of these groups or perform effective counter-intelligence operations against them.

“The plain truth is the FBI was missing in action as fascism and Nazism took root and grew in the United States in the mid-1930s,” writes Maddow, adding that part of the problem was that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was much more focused on combating communism.

She also notes that fascism and Nazism attracted a strange group of fellow travelers, from the future architect Philip Johnson, to the Hollywood screenwriter and Silver Legion founder William Dudley Pelley (who dreamed of becoming the American Hitler), to Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who used his enormously popular national radio show to attack Jews and endorse Nazism as an antidote to communism.

But “Prequel” also profiles a group of journalists, undercover investigators, prosecutors and dedicated anti-fascists — even a direct mail advertising consultant — who took it upon themselves to counter these extremists.

“These mostly unremembered Americans stood up and challenged both the fascists and the political figures who were running a protection racket for them,” says Maddow.

It was a young Washington Post journalist, Dillard Stokes, and the direct mail executive, Henry Hoke, who, working separately, revealed perhaps the most startling story from that era: how a number of mostly Republican congressmen were allowing Nazi propaganda to be disseminated through their offices and in some cases working directly with a paid Nazi agent to do it.

For instance, two isolationist senators, Burton Wheeler of Montana and Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota, were among perhaps two dozen politicians who lent their congressional “frank” — a facsimile signature that allowed mail to be sent free of charge — to groups aligned with Germany or directly financed by the Nazis.

In addition, Lundeen took bribes from George Sylvester Viereck, a German-American writer and Nazi propagandist, and allowed Viereck to use his office and ghostwrite speeches and op-ed pieces for him — all designed to persuade Americans to stay out of the war. (Lundeen died in a plane crash in August 1940, just as the FBI had begun investigating his ties to Germany.)

Once the U.S. and Germany went to war in December 1941 — Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — some of these issues faded, and a few people, like Viereck, were imprisoned. But an effort by U.S. prosecutors in 1944 to try 30 people on sedition charges for engaging in pro-German activities eventually fell apart.

Maddow’s book speculates that U.S. President Harry Truman may have had a hand in eventually getting O. John Rogge, the U.S. assistant attorney general who had prosecuted the case, fired from the Department of Justice because of complaints that Burton Wheeler, an old friend of Truman from their time together in the Senate, made against Rogge.

The failure of the “Great Sedition Trial of 1944” offers a discouraging coda to Maddow’s book, a story she believes is relevant today, when authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide and the leading Republican candidate for U.S. president is vowing to use the office to wreak vengeance on his political opponents — opponents who, in a speech a few months ago, he called “vermin” that needed to be “rooted out.”

“Calculated attempts to undermine democracy, to foment a coup, to spread disinformation across the country, to overturn elections … are not unprecedented,” she writes. “Our current American struggle along these lines, it turns out, has a prequel.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazet tenet.com.