America First,

Fallen Hero

"Will It Run"

excerpted from the book

The American Axis

Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich

by Max Wallace

St. Martin's Griffin, 2003, paper

 

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On the afternoon of May 21 1940, President Roosevelt retreated to hi private 'White House study to catch up on his correspondence. In recent weeks, he had become increasingly worried about domestic Fifth Column activities. Only three days earlier, Charles Lindbergh had broadcast his "Air Defense of America" speech and the address had injected new life into the isolationist movement.

"When I read Lindbergh's speech, I felt that it could not have been better put if it had been written by Goebbels himself," the President wrote to Henry Stimson, a Republican politician whom Roosevelt had recently asked to serve as his new secretary of war. "What a pity that this youngster has completely abandoned his belief in our form of government and has accepted Nazi methods because apparently they are efficient."

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The same year [1938], Father Coughlin used his popular radio show to rally his listeners against another threat, urging the creation of a Christian Front to "combat Communism." Within weeks, Christian Front groups, characterized by fierce anti-Semitism, had formed in cities all over the country. In January 1940, the FBI arrested eighteen members of a Christian Front splinter group and charged them with attempting to overthrow the United States government. Their alleged aim was to rally thousands of Irish Catholic members in the police and National Guard to seize the White House and place Major General George Van Horn Moseley in the Oval Office as a military dictator. The group had been planning the coup d'etat for years and had secured the support of several high-ranking members of the army and National Guard. At their meetings, they addressed their leader as "Führer" and gave the Nazi salute. Most alarmingly, the plotters had already been given thousands of rounds of ammunition, arms and explosives by an officer of the New York National Guard.

General Moseley was a former commander of the U.S. Third Army who had emerged as a powerful spokesman for the right wing of the isolationist movement. On September 30, 1938, the day he retired from the armed forces, Moseley issued a public attack on the New Deal, which he believed was leading America on a disastrous path toward dictatorship. The Roosevelt administration, he charged, was manipulated by the "alien element in our midst." He warned that Americans must awaken to the sinister motives of "the wrong sorts of immigrants" who wished to replace "our system with their own un-American theories of government." His antiSemitism became even more explicit when he joined the ranks of the isolationists seeking to prevent American entry in the European war. At a 1939 National Defense meeting in Philadelphia, Moseley declared: "The war now proposed is for the purpose of establishing Jewish hegemony throughout the world." While "your sons and mine" would be conscripted to fight side by side with the Christian-killing Communists, only Jews would profit, he told the audience. The Jews controlled the media and they were about to dominate the federal government, he warned. They were leading America into war to reinstate their power in countries that had banished them. Privately, he described Jews as "crude and unclean, animal-like things. It's like writing about something loathsome such as syphilis."

The ragtag mob that championed his presidency never formally drafted him as their leader. In fact, there is no evidence that Moseley was aware of the Christian Fronts coup preparations or their plan to install him in the White House. It is possible that they seized on the general as the ideal leader after he publicly suggested that military resistance to the President may be justified under some circumstances. The army, he stated in a 1939 speech, "is your salvation today. If the administration went too far to the left and asked our military establishment to execute orders which violated all American tradition, that army would demur."

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On the morning of Monday, September 16, 1940, four men with a mission gathered in Henry Ford's Dearborn office. Ford was joined by his now frequent adviser Charles Lindbergh, along with Douglas Stuart and General Robert E. Wood, to discuss a newly formed national organization known as the America First Committee.

Stuart, the son of a Quaker Oats vice president, was a twenty-four-year-old Yale law student who, with five classmates, had formed a campus-based organization called the Emergency Committee to Defend America First, dedicated to keeping America out of the war. Interviewed in 2003, Stuart, then 86, recalled, "We were very idealistic. We weren't particularly political. We simply believed that this was not America's quarrel." Among the five original members were Sargent Shriver, John F. Kennedy's future brother-in-law, and Kingman Brewster, who would later become president of Yale University. A few months after the campus group was formed, Stuart received a letter from General Robert E. Wood, chairman of the Sears Roebuck Corporation, offering to help the cause by any means at his disposal. Soon after, Wood proposed launching a nationwide movement designed to counter the increasingly effective interventionist propaganda he believed was pushing America toward war. Stuart would be national director of the organization, while Wood would serve as chairman.

The first order of business was to recruit a group of prominent Americans to lend credibility to the fledgling movement. By the time of its official inauguration in Chicago on September 4, its name had been shortened to the America First Committee. Four goals were set:

1. The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.

2. No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.

3. American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.

4. Aid "short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.

Twelve days later, Stuart and Wood traveled to Detroit at Lindbergh's invitation to enlist Henry Ford for the National Committee. Stuart had met Lindbergh a month earlier at a Chicago isolationist rally where Lindbergh was the principal speaker. They hit it off immediately, Stuart later describing Lindbergh as a "very sincere and courageous American who has the habit of sticking his neck out." Lindbergh offered to put the new organization in touch with Ford, whom he thought might be willing to lend his name and money to the cause. Lindbergh was by then well aware of his friend's opinions on the subject of the European war. As Ford production chief Charles Sorensen later described his boss's views: "His pet peeve was Franklin Roosevelt, but any mention of the war in Europe or this country's involvement upset him almost to incoherence.

In June, Lindbergh had persuaded Ford to provide financial backing for the American Legion in its campaign against U.S. military intervention. But until now the isolationists lacked an effective national organization dedicated solely to their cause. Although polls consistently found more than 80 percent of Americans opposed to intervention, the movement lacked an organizing force. Ford was at first reluctant to get involved, citing his role in the disastrous Peace Ship expedition a quarter century earlier. But Lindbergh was persuasive, and Ford finally agreed to take an active role on the National Committee and give the AFC his full support.

On September 27, Lindbergh wrote a letter to Ford thanking him for joining the cause: "Your stand against entry into the war has already had great influence, and if we are able to keep out of it, I believe it will be largely due to the courage and support you have given us." Only two weeks earlier, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Robert Sherwood had delivered a national radio address on the BBC denouncing both Lindbergh and Ford for what he called their "traitorous point of view. " Sherwood called the two men Hitler's "bootlickers" and Lindbergh's flirtation with Nazism "a tragic example of a mental aberration."

In the face of all the criticism, the AFC founders forged on. They were determined to make the AFC representative of as wide a cross-section of American society as possible. They vowed to recruit Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives-even socialists. The most important criterion for membership was a belief that America should keep out of the European war.

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However; it was Lindbergh's association with yet another prominent I fascist that caused the greatest hand-wringing amongst his friends. On September 16, 1940, a few hours after he left the meeting with Stuart and Wood at Ford's office, Lindbergh boarded an overnight train for Washington, D.C. Arriving at the station the next morning, he immediately took a taxi to the home of Truman Smith, who had disregarded General Marshall's warning to avoid public contact with his controversial friend. Smith was very anxious for Lindbergh to meet a man whose ideas he believed were very much in keeping with their own, a former American diplomat named Lawrence Dennis.

A product of the eastern liberal intellectual establishment, the Harvard-educated Dennis worked for the U.S. Foreign Service from 1920 to 1927 until he resigned to protest American intervention in Nicaragua. But after Franklin Roosevelt won the White House and introduced his New Deal, Dennis's political ideals, once liberal, shifted rapidly to the right. He set about proposing his own radical solution he Great Depression: a set of "central controls" based on a corporate state. As early as April 1933, he was making references in correspondence to "Good Old Hitler" and writing, "I should like nothing better than to be a leader or a follower of a Hitler who would crush and destroy many now in power." In 1936, he finally named his evolving ideology when he published a book titled The Coming American Fascism outlining his vision of a fascist America as a sensible alternative to Communism.

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lacked, since the Independent's demise, was a credible mouthpiece.

When Lindbergh took the podium at an America First rally on September 11 in Des Moines, Iowa, a week after the meeting with Ford, his speech began on a familiar note: "It is now two years since this latest European war began. From that day in September 1939, until the present moment, there has been an ever-increasing effort to force the United States into the conflict."

Since the start of his public involvement with the interventionist cause twenty-four months earlier, Lindbergh had regularly hinted that there were invisible forces pushing the country toward war, but he had never identified those forces by name. Now, he indicated that was about to change:

The subterfuge and propaganda that exists in our country is obvious on every side. Tonight, I shall try to pierce through a portion of it, to the naked facts which lie beneath. National polls showed that when England and France declared war on Germany, in 1939, less than 10 percent of our population favored a similar course for America. But there were various groups of people, here and abroad, whose interests and beliefs necessitated the involvement of the United States in the war. I shall point out some of these groups tonight, and outline their methods of procedure. In doing this, I must speak with the utmost frankness, for in order to counteract their efforts, we must know exactly who they are.

As the crowd of 8,000 midwesterners waited in hushed expectation, he proceeded to carry through on this promise: The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.

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Needless to say, the American far right was overjoyed with the Des Moines speech, particularly its warning of the consequences for Jews if they continued to support intervention. In Germany, the press upheld Goebbels' strict orders to refrain from praising Lindbergh for fear of "jeopardizing" his efforts in America. But in New York, the official newspaper of the pro-Nazi Bund, the Free American, called the Des Moines speech "truthful," and echoed its implication that the Jews' "elimination in this country" might be "less gentle.""' Father Coughlin's Social Justice and Scribner's Commentator also had high praise for the speech. In light of the Des Moines address, America most prominent fascist leader, Joe Mcwilliams believed he was having a positive influence on Lindbergh thinking. According to the undercover FBI informant Arthur Derounian McWilliams claimed his disciples were responsible for indoctrinating the America First spokesman: "I'll tell you how Lindbergh is getting his education. He is getting it from the men I have been talking to for months... Lawrence Dennis is one. I can't tell you who the others are. For months, I've been talking to intellectuals on the Jewish question, coaching them and giving them our literature. Lindbergh talked to these men after I educated them. Indirectly, Lindbergh got his education from me." Asked whether he believed America would ever be governed by National Socialism, Mcwilliams replied, "Hell yes. Can't you see the way the AFC is gradually > coming our way? Just wait six months."

Meanwhile, a Gallup poll revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans disagreed with Lindbergh assertion that Jews were responsible for inciting war. The poll, released October 24, asked Americans what groups are most active "in trying to get us into a war." The "Roosevelt Administration" was the overwhelming response, followed by "Big Business." Only one in sixteen respondents-less than 7 percent-listed the Jews.

How typical was anti-Semitism in late-Depression America? Many historians and biographers have cited a January 1939 Gallup poll reporting that 83 percent of Americans opposed the admission of a larger number of Jewish refugees. However, they usually fail to point out that most Americans were opposed to increased immigration of any kind during this period, as much because of economic conditions and high unemployment as anything else. As early as 1937, a majority of Americans told pollsters they would be willing to elect a Jewish president. 106 In a 1940 poll, Americans by an overwhelming 3 to 1 margin said they would be less likely to elect a member of Congress if he was "against the Jews."' °7 The same year, only 12 percent of those polled responded favorably to the idea of a "campaign against the Jews." Clearly, however, a large portion of the population was anti-Semitic, egged on by the propaganda of Father Coughlin and other extremists who consistently blamed the Jews for the country's economic problems. Another poll found that one-third of the American people believed Jews were more radical than other Americans and possessed a number of unpleasant qualities, including greed, dishonesty and selfishness. A disproportionate percentage of anti-Semitic attitudes could be found in the midwest rural constituencies where support for Coughlin, Lindbergh and the America First Committee was highest and where the Dearborn Independent had enjoyed its strongest popularity fifteen years earlier.

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With the AFC in disarray, the Executive Committee convened on September 18 to decide whether to repudiate Lindbergh's comments. The isolationist movement as a whole was clearly hurting. A number of prominent anti-interventionists, including Republican congressman Everett Dirksen of Illinois, publicly switched sides and supported the Roosevelt administration's stand for the first time. On October 5, one of organized labor's most prominent isolationists, Carpenter Union chief William Hutcheson, abandoned his anti-intervention position and resigned from America First."' John Flynn pleaded that, unless the AFC acted quickly, the movement was in danger of collapse.

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So high was Nazi esteem for Lindbergh that its agents failed to comprehend that he was no longer an asset to their cause in America, but had instead become a liability. In the words of Anne's sister Constance, reflecting on America's new attitude toward Lindbergh, "In just fifteen years, he had gone from Jesus to Judas. " Nevertheless, thousands of letters from everyday Americans continued to pour in supporting his stand, and he could still fill an arena. On October 30, 1941, 20,000 New Yorkers packed Madison Square Garden to hear Lindbergh call for "the right to demand integrity in the leadership of this nation."

Throughout most of the Great Debate, the focus on both sides had been the war in Europe. Little attention was paid to developments in Asia, despite faint rumblings over Japanese aggression in China and the announcement that Japan had signed a tripartite pact with Germany and Italy. But when the Roosevelt administration blocked all Japanese assets in America in July 1941 and moved to cut off its oil supplies in Asia, isolationists paid attention to Asian developments for the first time.

In the late fall of 1941, the America First Bulletin carried a blaring front-page headline: BLAME FOR RIFT WITH JAPAN RESTS ON ADMINISTRATION, charging that the Japanese had only peaceful intentions and were being unfairly vilified by Roosevelt." The same day, the New York chapter of the AFC fired off an angry letter to the President: "What's all this sabre-rattling in connection with Japan?

Less than twenty-four hours later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

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... a few weeks short of V-E Day, the President died suddenly at his Georgia retreat. Lindbergh had temporarily suspended his journal so there is no record how he felt about the death of his greatest nemesis. However her own unpublished memoirs, Truman Smith's wife Kay provides a revealing insight into the mindset of the circle of Roosevelt's longtime enemies who surrounded Lindbergh. She recalled that on the day they heard of the President's death:

In blew Connie Brown (Constantine Brown of the Washington Star). His eyes popping out of his head, sparkling, his face one large beaming smile. He said not a word but hugged me violently. Rushed to Truman, embraced him. Threw his arms high in the air in exultation. Whirled around and flew out the door leaving me speechless. Truman and I burst into roars of laughter. We had not yet heard the news but we knew only one thing could have given him such fierce delight The evil man was dead Writing this in the year of 1974,1 know how right we were to hate him so bitterly. Our decline, our degeneracy stems from that man and his socialist, blinded greedy wife.


The American Axis

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