I recently watched a new documentary on PBS by Ken Burns. It’s titled “The U.S. and the Holocaust.”
I have always loved Ken Burns documentaries because of the thoroughness in which he pursues the subjects. I hesitated to watch the series because I thought to myself, “do I really want to watch another documentary about World War II?”
However, I am glad I watched. I would encourage you to watch as well. The series was eye opening for me for many reasons, but one part of the story caught my attention — just how many antisemitic groups were active in the United States in 1930s, and early 1940s. These groups were defiantly promoting antisemitism and Nazism (fascism and dictatorship) as a form of government they supported.
There is a black and white photo of five members of an antisemitic group led by Father Coughlin (1938-1940). In the photo, these five people are holding standard issue U.S. military M1903 bolt action 30-06 rifles. These rifles may have been seized from a National Guard Armory in New York. The photo was seized by the FBI when they arrested the group for planning to overthrow the United States government. The people in the photo were dubbed “the Brooklyn Boys” by the media.
Coughlin had a massive following for his radio show in the 1930s. Approximately 30 million Americans tuned in to listen. This was at a time when the U.S. population was approximately 125 million. Coughlin was a radio superstar, holding rallies and speaking publicly all around the U.S. He was no doubt one of the most authoritative persons in the U.S. at the time. His influence and antisemitic message were so popular that a post office in Royal Oak, Michigan, was constructed to handle all the letters he received. According to one source I read, he received approximately 80,000 pieces of mail each week. Radio was the Twitter and Facebook of the time.
The fuel that prompted all the fascist and dictatorship speech in the U.S. was the Great Depression. People were looking for a way out of the crippling financial hardships brought on by the stock market crash of 1929. With the financial crisis as a backdrop, and the erroneous blaming of the Jewish people for everything from the banking crisis, inflation and other crises, it hit a fever pitch at the time. Americans such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindberg joined in the antisemitic speak of the era. Violence and hate speech toward Jewish communities broke out across our nation.
Another pro-Nazi Germany group called the “American Bund” held a Nazi rally in Madison Square Gardens dubbed the “True Americanism.” At the rally, a large photo of George Washington was hung in the middle of the stage bordered on either side by the Nazi flag. An astounding 20,000 people attended the rally. These groups seemed to be everywhere. Although, thankfully, these organizations were short lived, they left a lasting impression upon the American psyche.
As for the Brooklyn Boys, they were arrested in January 1940 (17 in all) by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The group was arrested on seditious conspiracy charges. They were eventually acquitted of all charges.
As I read about these hate groups, I wondered why more of these antisemitic, racists movements were not talked about in history classes. Scholars and writers I referenced said because of America’s involvement in War II these types of hate groups were largely forgotten, which makes perfect sense.
However, unfortunate as it may seem, racism and hate are not new to America. We all would acknowledge, it’s been with us. Sometimes it goes unseen for a while.
As two of our greatest presidents of the era said, “Whether discrimination is based on race, or creed, or color, or land of origin,it is utterly contrary to American ideals of democracy,” Harry S. Truman said.
“I believe that the United States as a government, if it is going to be true to its own founding documents, does have a job of working toward that time when there is no discrimination made on such inconsequential reason as race, color, or religion,” Dwight D. Eisenhower said.
Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.