Supporting the enemy

Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, support in the US for Germany and Nazi ideology was more extensive than generally known.

CHARLES LINDBERGH speaks at an ‘America First’ rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1941. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
CHARLES LINDBERGH speaks at an ‘America First’ rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1941.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Support for Nazism in a post-World War I-weary America was far more extensive than previously realized. In his new book, Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States, Bradley W. Hart reveals the sizable network of Nazi sympathizers, spies and supporters in the US during the 1930s and early 1940s.
Using newly available archives, Hart, an assistant professor at California State University, Fresno, reveals how key figures in US government, business, academia and the priesthood – along with German Americans – aspired to bring Nazi ideology to the US and keep the country out of World War II.
Hart pores through unsealed archives and personal papers to tell the story of Hitler’s domestic advocates. Prominent isolationist groups – the German American Bund, the Friends of the New Germany, the Silver Legion and the America First Committee – politicians, corporations and universities, plus leaders such as industrialist Henry Ford, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and celebrity priest Father Charles Coughlin, endeavored to advance Nazi ideology and cultivate support for the Third Reich in America. These individuals and entities not only pushed for isolationism and neutrality, they also distributed German propaganda, some with assistance from the German Embassy in Washington and German agents within the US.
Between 1933 and 1935, the Friends of New Germany – with an armed wing that engaged in brawls and painted swastikas on Manhattan synagogues – recruited 5,000 members, established two newspapers, and founded branches in five cities. After US authorities targeted the group’s leader for deportation, the group’s prominence was replaced by the German American Bund, with members largely drawn from recent German immigrants.
Bund members saluted each other with “Heil Hitler,” adorned their events with swastikas, and goose-stepped like storm troopers. They avowed they were of “Aryan descent, free from Jewish or Colored Blood,” and adopted the slogan “Free America,” meaning an America free of Jewish influence. They spread throughout the East, Midwest and West, and established chapters in nearly every major city, attracting 10,000 to 30,000 members and 100,000 sympathizers. The Bund’s youth division held Nazi-themed summer camps modeled after Hitler Youth that attracted 7,200 campers in at least 15 US locations. The organization ended after its leader was convicted in 1939 of embezzlement and his successor was deemed a Nazi spy.
The Silver Legion’s national chapters totaled about 15,000 members, mostly of British and German background. The German American Bund was secretive, but the Silver Legion openly sought to bring fascism to the US and rid the nation of Jewish and communist oppression. The Legion allied with the Bund and the Ku Klux Klan, accepting men and women who weren’t Jewish or black.
Lindbergh led the America First Committee, the best-known group that supported Hitler. Founded in late 1940, the Committee opposed Roosevelt’s attempts to aid the British and prepare the US to enter the conflict. It was operated by some of the country’s most powerful anti-Jewish, anti-British, anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal business interests and succeeded in attracting politicians and business leaders to its ranks. By 1941, nearly every major US city had at least one chapter. At its peak, the organization boasted 800,000 members. A British intelligence officer called the America First Committee “the most effective weapon at the disposal of the enemy for keeping the United States out of the war.”
HART ALSO details the influence of Charles Edward Coughlin, a Detroit priest whose broadcasts reached millions. Coughlin publicly defended Nazi Germany’s policies toward the Jews, supporting his views with biblical quotes, even after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in which nearly 100 people died. In his broadcasts, Coughlin equated Judaism with communism and derided Jewish influence on the media, finance, world politics and more. In 1938, he created the Christian Front, known as “Father Coughlin’s brownshirts,” whose members physically beat Jews on American city streets.
He attracted other Christian clergy who also attacked Jews, quoted liberally from Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (a fabricated antisemitic text), expressed admiration for the New Germany and supported Hitler’s anti-Jewish worldview. By 1939, a Fortune magazine poll found that 32% of Americans believed the government should take steps to “prevent Jews from getting too much power in the business world.”
From the late 1930s until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the German Embassy used more than two dozen US senators, many knowingly and willingly, to disseminate pro-German and anti-British propaganda, Hart reports. Minnesota Sen. Ernest Lundeen, in a speech written by a Nazi agent on Capitol Hill, criticized the Roosevelt administration, aid to the British and imposition of a US military draft.
Meanwhile, several American corporations conspired with the Nazi government to unseat Roosevelt and keep the US out of the war. Ford, General Motors and Coca-Cola, among others, held some $300 million worth of investments in German corporations and manufacturing facilities when Hitler came to power in 1933. Perceiving opportunities and profits from business dealings with the Third Reich, they were decidedly anti-Roosevelt and non-interventionist. Nazi leaders, recognizing that American business ties could thwart Roosevelt’s foreign policy, pushed corporate America to call for ending the war.
The virulently antisemitic Henry Ford distributed huge numbers of copies of Protocols, and blamed Jews for the New Deal and for bringing the country into war. Throughout World War II he remained captivated by Nazism, continuing Edsel’s operations in France after German occupation and secretly manufacturing aircraft engines and military trucks for the German military in a Ford plant near Paris.
During the 1930s, American academia was also fertile ground for Nazi propaganda, Hart explains. Pro-German speakers and German exchange students freely spoke on American university campuses, even after Germany’s violent antisemitism became known. As antisemitism rose in America, some universities established quotas for Jewish admissions. Many university administrators refused to stand behind Jewish students and faculty and suppressed anti-Nazi views.
Hart also details an influential, 50-member Nazi spy network in the US that was planted by Hitler. Some defense-industry Nazi spies were privy to American military secrets, gathered information about US industrial capacity and read confidential communications. Fortunately, law enforcement, dedicated journalists, the FBI and British intelligence mollified the impact of this extensive Nazi fifth column. Subversive influences were monitored and tracked down and ultimately forestalled in their efforts.
The extent of sympathy and support for Nazi Germany by Americans revealed by Hart’s well-researched book should be of concern to US citizens, even today.  
By Bradley W. Hart
Thomas Dunne Books
296 pages; $28.99