Early in the twentieth century, the philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But the obverse may also be true. Keen observers of the present are all too eager to ransack the past for prologues and parallels to the traumas of our own time. Hardly a day goes by without someone analogizing the polarizations of the twenty-first century to the divisions, political and moral, that engendered the Civil War; and it was not so long ago that in virtually any diplomatic conflict, memories of “Munich” were hastened to the fore. These are not so much remembrances of the past as they are artful and selective distortions designed to make a contemporary point.
Rachel Maddow plays this game in her recent podcast, Ultra, a production of MSNBC. Its impact will soon be greatly multiplied by Steven Spielberg’s feature film treatment, for which the legendary Tony Kushner is reportedly co-writing the screenplay. Maddow’s eight-part series has excellent production values and vivid language, and it makes skillful use of eighty-year-old newsreel and broadcast recordings. When it appeared in the fall of 2022, Ultra quickly topped the podcast popularity charts.
Maddow, with cowriters and producers Mike Yarvitz and Kelsey Desiderio, tells the story of a fascist plot designed to keep the United States out of the Second World War and in the process subvert American democracy by exploiting what the Germans called “kernels of disturbance”—racial, cultural, and political differences that lead to “national demoralization.” As Maddow tells her listeners,
This is a story about politics at the edge. A violent, ultra-right authoritarian movement, weirdly infatuated with foreign dictatorships. Support for that movement among serving members of Congress who prove willing and able to use their share of American political power to defend the extremists, to protect themselves, to throw off the investigation. Violence against government targets. Plots to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. And a criminal justice system trying, trying, but ill-suited to thwart this kind of danger.
If this resembles our own time, that is the point. Maddow analogizes Trump and his contemporary circle of supporters, inside and outside of Congress, to the Nazi agents of 1940 and their American collaborators, some of whom were indeed sitting congressmen and senators. But this is an entirely wrongheaded historical lesson for those fearful about the state of U.S. democracy today. In the 1940s, the real danger came not from Nazi-friendly Americans but from the spectacular growth of a national security state that threatened civil liberties and turned a blind eye to the power of white supremacy, which flourished for decades in the American South and beyond.
In the first episode, Maddow sucks listeners in with the dramatic story of a mysterious airplane crash that took the life of Minnesota Senator Ernest Lundeen in 1940. Twenty-four others, including a brace of federal agents possibly tailing Lundeen, also died in the crash, whose cause is still unknown. Over the course of the podcast, Maddow explores Lundeen’s extensive collaboration with a Nazi agent, George Sylvester Viereck.
Funded and controlled by the German embassy in Washington and by Nazi higher-ups back in the Reich, Viereck wrote speeches for Lundeen and other legislators, used congressional franking privileges to get them widely distributed, and may even have encouraged actual military sabotage, including an explosion that destroyed the Hercules Powder plant in New Jersey in September 1940, killing more than fifty. On Capitol Hill, Viereck’s collaborators, aside from Lundeen, included Democratic Senator Rush Holt of West Virginia; Republican Senators Gerald Nye of North Dakota and Burton Wheeler of Montana; and important Congressmen like Clare Hoffman of Michigan and Hamilton Fish of New York. By 1940, all were “isolationists,” and some associated with the anti-interventionist America First Committee, whose leading personality was aviator Charles Lindbergh. America First saw President Roosevelt as a perfidious politician leading the nation into war.
In setting the scene, Maddow casts her net far beyond Capitol Hill. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, social movements we might properly label fascist were all around. The German-American Bund, which once filled Madison Square Garden, had several thousand adherents throughout the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and Southern California. Broadcasting from his parish in Royal Oak, Michigan, Father Charles Coughlin reached an even larger audience, more than 30 million listeners nationwide. Although Coughlin had once been a staunch New Dealer, he turned against Roosevelt after 1934. In Coughlin’s view, Wall Street bankers, especially the Jewish ones, and international communism constituted the Janus face of a secular Satan. Roosevelt’s tolerance of both seemed to provide the impulse for Coughlin to move sharply rightward, toward virulent anti-Semitism, admiration for the new Germany, and hostility to an industrial union movement that backed the president. Coughlin thought democracy was “doomed” and told his listeners, “We are at the crossroads. I take the road to fascism.”
After Kristallnacht in November 1938, Coughlin explained to his audience that the destruction of so much Jewish property in Germany came largely in response to Jewish arrogance and power. By this time the radio priest was advocating the creation of the Christian Front, a paramilitary formation whose adherents were particularly active in the Irish neighborhoods of Boston and New York. They posed with rifles stolen from Army arsenals, stockpiled explosives, and may have had something to do with the destruction of the giant powder plant in New Jersey. On the podcast, historian Charles Gallagher tells listeners that the Christian Front had plans to “overthrow the government of the United States.” Maddow concurs: “Taking power by violence. Holding power by force.”
Listeners will find all this sensational (and perhaps familiar), but such violence, actual or imagined, was of little consequence compared to what turned out to be the most significant impact of Nazi influence in the United States: maintaining a restrictive immigration policy for Jews and downplaying news of the Holocaust. Maddow is uninterested in the actual speeches Viereck ghostwrote for all those legislators; it is enough for her to say that they amplified Nazi propaganda. But in 1939 and 1940, the Nazi argument that the Second World War was a “Jewish war,” a product of guile and manipulation, struck a chord that resonated widely even in the United States, where anti-Semitism was by no means confined to right-wing isolationists. Public opinion surveys taken between 1939 and 1941 found that about a third of the American population agreed that “the Jews in this country would like to get the United States into the European war.” Such sentiments did nothing to prevent American rearmament or eventual belligerency—those steps were taken on traditional national security grounds—but they forestalled any coordinated U.S. effort to rescue European Jewry during the war itself. Roosevelt and other liberals were fearful that if the war became one to “save the Jews,” they might spur on a divisive domestic anti-Semitism while giving the Nazi claims some purchase.
Meanwhile, Maddow vastly exaggerates the homegrown Nazi threat in the years just before Pearl Harbor. Everything she says about Coughlin, the Christian Front, America First, Lundeen, and Viereck is true, but without a larger historical context. Compared with the influence of the MAGA Republicans in contemporary U.S. politics, the “brown scare” of the late 1930s and early 1940s—the phrase comes from the late historian Leo Ribuffo—had much less clout or staying power. In the immediate aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, 147 Republicans—eight senators and 139 representatives—voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And in subsequent months, virtually every major figure in the GOP, some likely running for the party’s presidential nomination, questioned the validity of the vote or the appropriateness of the Department of Justice prosecutions that have put hundreds of insurrectionists in jail.
In 1940, the number of German-linked isolationists was far smaller—perhaps four senators and twenty congressmen. After Pearl Harbor they all supported the war, and several lost office a few years later. More important, the Republican Party was, on the whole, far more interventionist and supportive of aid to Great Britain. In the summer of 1940, Roosevelt appointed two prominent GOP figures, Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, to his war cabinet, and that fall FDR’s Republican presidential opponent was not Lindbergh, the Germany-friendly isolationist and sometime anti-Semite, but Wendell Willkie. The Indiana Republican was of “pure German descent,” as the German embassy cabled Berlin, but “Willkie’s nomination is unfortunate for us. He is not an isolationist . . . he belongs to those Republicans who see America’s best defense in supporting England by all means ‘short of war.’”
Indeed, despite all the America First bluster, bipartisan interventionism, not fascism, soon dominated American politics. After June 1940, when France fell to the Nazis, the United States rapidly became what Roosevelt called an “arsenal of democracy” whose enormous resources shifted the tide of battle. A newly empowered labor movement was increasingly anti-fascist, and American liberals were growing far more interventionist. When we consider that Congress passed Lend-Lease, a peacetime draft, and a gigantic increase in the war budget—all before Pearl Harbor—the various machinations of Viereck and his collaborators come to seem petty indeed.
In describing those hostile to American intervention in the war, Maddow and her podcast collaborators like to tell stories of corruption and misadventure. But the Bund failed to mobilize more than a sliver of support among German Americans, one reason the Nazi regime repudiated the organization in the late 1930s. And Father Coughlin’s heavily Irish audience was far more anti-British than pro-German.
Meanwhile, almost all of the congressional figures for whom Viereck wrote speeches, or with whom he otherwise collaborated, were from places like Minnesota, Montana, Michigan, the Dakotas, and upstate New York. These areas were populated by many Germans and Scandinavians, but even more important, they had been a fount of antiwar sentiment from the First World War onward, sometimes linked to a radical politics standing to the left of both President Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ernest Lundeen’s vote against U.S. participation in the Great War as a newly minted congressman in 1917 cast him into the political wilderness for more than a decade. He returned to Washington in the 1930s still an isolationist, but now of a decidedly left-wing sort: his most notable legislative effort was sponsorship of a Communist-backed bill designed to radically expand unemployment insurance and other social insurance programs. Burton Wheeler’s career was not unlike that of Lundeen: during the First World War he was a U.S. Attorney for Montana but refused to prosecute alleged sedition cases, including those against the radical Industrial Workers of the World. In the 1920s and early 1930s he proved a staunch anti-imperialist and pro-labor progressive, but he turned sharply isolationist and hostile to the New Deal during Roosevelt’s second term.
A left-wing pedigree hardly constitutes an excuse for the apologia so many of these ex-progressives offered for Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. But many of the interventionists did not come to the fight with clean hands either. Wall Street and most of the Republican establishment was certainly on board for the war, but so too was the white supremacist South, which was then and would remain for decades an authoritarian cancer within the American body politic. Despite their sometime affinity for Nazi racial ideology and policy—the Nuremberg Laws were modeled in part on Dixie segregationist statutes—Southern politicians were interventionist in the years just before Pearl Harbor. The South had long been dependent on commodity exports that Nazi domination of Europe threatened to halt, and white Southern identification with English and Scottish ancestors counted as much in the states below the Mason-Dixon line as did the German heritage of so many in the upper Midwest.
The Southern reactionaries understood that the growth of a powerful national security state would help sustain the region’s Jim Crow order. Unlike so many European fascists, and a few American ones, who imagined a “march” on the capital or a coup taking over the federal government, the white South was already powerfully ensconced within the halls of Congress and in many government agencies, whose decentralized operation gave plenty of leeway to the elites who staffed them at the local level. Southern reactionaries didn’t need a strategy of subversion; in league with conservative Republicans, they ran the place.
It was hardly an accident, therefore, that the new law the federal government used to prosecute homegrown fascists was the 1940 Smith Act, named after Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia, a decades-long leader of the anti-labor, anti–civil rights bloc in Congress. A broadly written statute, the Smith Act forbade any attempt to “advocate, abet, advise, or teach” the violent destruction of the U.S. government.
By the fall of 1941, the Department of Justice was preparing indictments against dozens of pro-Nazi activists, fascist ideologues, and isolationists with foreign ties. These included Viereck, as well as William Dudley Pelley, leader of the fascist “Silver Shirts”; Gerald Winrod, an anti-Semitic evangelist; Lawrence Dennis, a fascist writer; and Elizabeth Dilling, a strident anti-communist and pro-German isolationist. Significantly, none of the prominent politicians who had cooperated with Viereck and some of the other defendants were included among the twenty-nine individuals who finally went on trial in April 1944. Indeed, one reason for the long delay arose from meddling by influential figures like Wheeler, who had a hand in sidelining both prosecutors the Department of Justice assigned to the case.
The trial turned into a circus, with more disruptions and delays—and much contention over which activities constituted subversion and which were mere expressions of free speech. The months-long turmoil discredited the legal proceedings and may have contributed to the presiding judge’s fatal heart attack. A mistrial was declared in December 1944, and two years later, amid growing Cold War tensions, the Justice Department dismissed the charges.
But the Smith Act lived on for more than a decade, and it was largely deployed against the left. During the war it was used to indict the Trotskyist leadership of a powerful Minneapolis Teamsters local, and in the McCarthy era it was used to imprison scores of American communists. Most leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union condemned the law, whether it was directed against communists or fascists. Even prosecutor O. John Rogge, a figure celebrated by Maddow, thought any judgement against the fascist agitators would probably be reversed on appeal. Indeed, by the late 1950s, the Supreme Court declared the Smith Act unconstitutional because it failed to distinguish between incitement or subversion and protected speech advocating unpopular concepts and programs.
The demise of the Smith Act hardly mattered when it came to the construction of the national security state, which posed a far greater danger to American liberties. Today, Trump attacks the “deep state” and excoriates the FBI and the Justice Department, so the former FBI agents and CIA officials who appear on Maddow’s MSNBC show seem like liberal-democratic allies, far removed from the intrusive and secretive military-security apparatus that was once an object of progressive scorn and fear. But it is important to understand the degree to which the brown scare supplied much of the initial ideological legitimacy for that repressive apparatus. As historian Beverly Gage recounts in her new biography of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, it was in these years that the FBI achieved the stature that it would carry over into the era of McCarthy, the Cold War, and the bureau’s own war against the civil rights movement and the New Left. During the Second World War, the agency quadrupled in size and established a “custodial detention index” listing the names of hundreds of thousands of leftists, liberals, unionists, and, yes, some fascists, who were to be rounded up in an emergency. Hoover’s FBI also achieved de facto autonomy from any oversight by Congress, the courts, or the White House. The same sort of divorce from effective democratic control was characteristic of the military, the diplomatic corps, the intelligence agencies, and much government research.
Maddow says nothing about the repressive implications of the Smith Act or the simultaneous expansion of a secretive and intrusive national security state. Instead, she concludes her podcast by casting doubt on the capacity of any investigative or judicial activity, no matter how well resourced, to stanch an authoritarian movement, homegrown or aided from abroad. To do that, she says, the nation requires “not just one thing that works. It has to be everything.” In the 1940s, this included an actual war against the Nazis, but also anti-fascists running and winning elections at home, with an army of journalists, activists, and “citizens of all stripes who came to democracy’s aid when it needed them the most.” Agreed. But when Maddow devotes nearly three full podcast episodes to the 1944 trial and its aftermath, it is not hard to feel a gravitational force field similar to the one created by the cable-news fixation on Trump’s recent encounters with various courts and investigative bodies. That is not where the MAGA Republicans are going to be defeated.
The problem is that MSNBC’s obsession with Trump and his most prominent right-wing supporters has created a dichotomy between political “extremism” on the one hand and “normal” politics on the other. But there is no such thing as normality when it comes to political culture or discourse, in the 1940s or today, and it is fruitless to think that defeating the Trumpists is going to return us to some kind of equilibrium that rescues us from corruption, subversion, inequality, and racism. Only the most robust sort of democratic movement, one that directly mobilizes heretofore marginalized elements of the body politic, has the capacity to defeat reaction and inaugurate a new set of battles for a new society.
Nelson Lichtenstein is Research Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism.