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The Quality of Mercy:
A History of American Antiwar Movements

By Kevin Filan

World War II

U.S. Revolution   |  The Civil War   |  World War I   |  World War II   |  Vietnam

Until Pearl Harbor, most Americans were adamantly against involvement in the European crisis. The scars of World War I still remained, and a new generation was more concerned with the Depression and lingering unemployment than with foreign affairs. This was in keeping with a long-standing American commitment to "isolationism." With a few exceptions (intervention in the Caribbean, attacks on the Barbary Pirates, World War I), America had generally preferred to avoid getting embroiled in world affairs and outside conflicts. Secure behind what we saw as our great ocean barriers, American policy makers saw nothing to gain by taking sides in what looked like someone else's conflict. In 1937 and 1939 Congress passed Neutrality Acts which prohibited trade with any belligerents, in an effort to keep us out of war; by and large the American public supported these efforts and resisted any attempt to drag us into the growing conflict.

Today Adolf Hitler and the Nazis are seen by most as the embodiment of evil. In the 1930s many considered them the best hope for rebuilding a devastated Germany. Hitler's wild popularity at home was matched by considerable support among Germans living outside the country - not just in Austria and Czechoslovakia, but also in the United States. Aviator Charles Lindbergh praised "the unceasing activity of the [German] people, and the convinced dictatorial direction to create the new factories, airfields, and research laboratories." William Dudley Pelley's Silver Legion ("Silver Shirts"), openly modeled on Hitler's SS, claimed 100,000 members in 1940.

One of the most influential of these organizations was the German-American Bund. Founded in Chicago in 1933 as "Friends of New Germany" by members of the Teutonia Society and National Socialist Party, in 1936 it became the "German-American Bund." This organization tried to present itself as a German-American "friendship society," one which was "100% American" and which supported "constitution, flag and a white gentile ruled, truly free America." The Bund held large and popular rallies throughout the United States, and ran summer camps for youths which were modeled upon the Nazi Party's "Hitlerjugend." Walt Disney, the son of a German-American immigrant, attended meetings of the German-American Bund and was well-known for his support of Hitler's anti-Communism and for his anti-Semitism.

Many religious leaders rued their earlier unqualified support of World War I and were hesitant to sanction another conflict. Mindful of how many had been duped by "evil Hun" propaganda during that "Great War," they were skeptical of the growing reports of Nazi atrocities against Jews and other "asocial" types. While they condemned Hitler's policies, they also held out hope for peaceful, diplomatic solutions, and stated that Hitler was not America's problem. Many feared that fascism abroad would lead to fascism at home, with the Roosevelt administration seeking ever-increasing power.

Other religious leaders had less noble motives. Fr. Charles Coughlin, the "radio priest" whose program reached an estimated 30 million listeners, blamed "international [Jewish] bankers" for leading us into conflict and asked "must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany?" while Southern Baptist leader Dr. M.E. Dodd blamed Hitler's anti-Semitism on Jewish support for Communism and referred to Jews in Germany as "outside agitators." Some claimed that FDR was a "secret Jew" while others claimed he was a pawn of the Jewish conspiracy. In Michigan industrialist Henry Ford distributed copies of The International Jew and brought the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the states. Others sought the aid of American fascist/racist organizations like the "Christian Patriots" and the Ku Klux Klan.

Those who railed against "Jewish communism" were joined by unlikely allies: American Communists and sympathizers. Claiming the conflict was an "imperialist war" and mindful of the peace treaty which Hitler had signed with Stalin they sought to keep America neutral. Defense plants in California and Wisconsin were shut down by strikes called by pro-Communist union officials, and only re-opened when Roosevelt sent out troops. Only in 1940, when Hitler violated his pact and invaded Russia, would the Communists begin calling for American intervention.

These kooks and cranks wound up besmirching the reputations of many honest and well-meaning pacifists and anti-interventionists. The America First Committee sought to enforce the Neutrality Acts and castigated President Roosevelt for his continuing slide toward combat. Founded at Yale Law School in 1939 by a number of students (including future President Gerald R. Ford), it would go on to become a leading voice for anti-interventionism. The America First Committee sought to distance itself from some of the more strident anti-Semitism: it expelled Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, and took pains to exclude Nazis and fascists from its membership. Despite this, it was unable to avoid guilt by association, and to this day many consider the AFC a "crypto-fascist" or "anti-Semitic" organization. On December 7, 1941 its efforts to avoid war proved futile; on December 11, the group disbanded, with a statement that "the time for military action is here."

 

 


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