Hitler's American Friends: The Third Reich's Supporters in the United States
by Bradley W. Hart
Thomas Dunne Books, 2018
Bradley W. Hart opens his new history of the American far right in World War II, Hitler's American Friends, with the low point of a national icon's career. Standing before an admiring crowd in Iowa three months before Pearl Harbor, legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh warned his countrymen that "the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration" conspired to lure America into war. Lindbergh's involvement in the America First Committee – an eclectic array of anti-war Americans, not all of whom were far right – was well known, but the Iowa speech exposed a raw anti-Semitism Lindbergh previously tried to wear lightly. Now the man who conquered American hearts when he crossed the Atlantic, and whose name frequented lists of presidential possibilities, watched his reputation plummet as news of the speech crossed the country. When Gallup pollsters asked Americans seven months later what they thought of Lindbergh, only 10 percent liked him. Eighty-one percent disapproved.
Lucky Lindy is only one of the faces in Hart's hall of rogues, and Hitler's American Friends is more than a gallery of bad behavior. Hart cogently makes the case that the rightist underbelly of American politics – more visible now than at any point since then – was more dangerous in the 1930s and 1940s than historians often assume. It may not have come close to seizing power, but it still wreaked havoc by spreading anti-Semitism and racism, trashing democracy, undermining U.S. foreign policy, and, after the country entered the war, costing American lives by leaking shipping routes and other military secrets.
Some of the people who populate Hart's narrative are usual suspects like the German Bund's Fritz Kuhn or radio's Father Coughlin, while others are lesser figures Hall ferrets out of the shadows. A few literally worked for the Nazi government, including the German-born American writer George Sylvester Viereck, whose talent for schmoozing with anti-Roosevelt Congressmen enabled him to have anti-British propaganda inserted into The Congressional Record. Others had private reasons for number among Hitler's friends. William Rhodes Davis, grandfather of former California governor Gray Davis, wanted nothing more than to keep refining oil in Hamburg, but thanks to a preposterous attempt to liaise between Herman Göring and Franklin Roosevelt, he was branded "almost a Nazi agent" by FDR confident Adolf Berle.
In addition to saboteurs, secret agents, and opportunists in high places, Hart also reveals a distressingly large number of ordinary Americans who admired Hitler, though he mostly keeps them in the background. Their most bizarre standard-bearer was William Dudley Pelley, a former Hollywood screenwriter who never lost his flair for the dramatic. Pelley didn't hobnob with heads of state but he did claim to speak with Jesus, and he described his Silver Legion, better known as the Silver Shirts, as a "Christian Militia" for America. Only slightly less outrageous was Kuhn, who led what probably was the period's most famous pro-Hitler American organization – the German Bund. Like the Silver Shirts, the Bund attracted followers and repelled everyone else by waving swastikas while singing the Star-Spangled Banner or "revealing" Roosevelt's real name as Rosenfeld.
Against such crackpots Hart pits an unlikely trio of saviors – Texas Congressman Martin Dies, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and the lesser known Deputy Attorney General O. John Rogge, an authority on American Nazi activity. Dies, the longtime chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Hoover are familiar heavies to readers of Cold War history since both went on earn reputations for overzealousness while chasing Communists in the 1950s or, in Hoover's case, civil rights activists in the 1960s, but in this book they chase Nazis, ultimately effectively.
And that is what makes Hitler's American Friends more than what it could have been – a thinly veiled historical warning about the present. Writing in the age of Charlottesville and MAGA, Hart acknowledges the proverbial 800-pound orange-haired gorilla in the room, but for all the ugliness in his tale, he summons an engaging subtext of hope. "If nothing else, the example posed by Hitler's friends should remind us that the maintenance of a free, liberal, and democratic society requires diligence and active confrontation with antidemocratic ideas that threaten the very system that allows them to be discussed in the first place," he writes. Though it is depressing to realize that Americans must deal again with the same stupidities they encountered eighty years ago, Hart understands that democracy's American friends can prevail against them. They have done so before.
Kip Wedel is an associate professor of History and Politics at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.