Fascism, American

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FASCISM, AMERICAN. The Great Depression produced numerous political groups that, in some respects, resembled contemporary European fascist movements, including those that had triumphed in Germany and Italy. The degree of resemblance between American and European fascists and the prospects of such groups achieving power in the United States was a significant part of the ideological debate of the era. These questions remain central to any historical consideration of American fascism. Liberals and radicals in the 1930s rarely doubted the significance of the transatlantic affinities and connections. The left also feared that the prospects for American fascist victory were good.

Typically, groups that were designated as American fascists—either by their contemporary opponents or by later historians—differed dramatically in leadership, worldview, and size. Until his assassination in 1935, Senator Huey Long was regarded by the left as the most promising candidate for fascist dictator. Long attracted millions of followers with a mixture of mild nationalism and a promise to "share our wealth." Father Charles Coughlin, a flamboyant "radio priest," had an equally large following, a greater fondness for ungrounded conspiracy theories, a less distributive economic program, and a propensity to anti-Semitism. In 1936, Coughlin and Long's former aide Gerald L. K. Smith sponsored the Union Party presidential candidacy of Representative William Lemke, who received less than 2 percent of the vote. Reverend Gerald B. Winrod, leader of the fundamentalist Defenders of the Christian Faith, recruited a large following in Kansas while denouncing an alleged Jewish conspiracy that stretched from the crucifixion of Jesus to the New Deal. The anti-Semitic pamphleteer Elizabeth Dilling traced a "red network" undermining every aspect of American life. Emulating Adolf Hitler, William Dudley Pelley of the Silver Shirts wanted to strip Jews of their rights. Countless lesser agitators and publicists also enjoyed brief notoriety. Adherents to this domestic far right were more deeply influenced by orthodox Christianity, usually evangelical Protestantism or conservative Catholicism, and were less prone to paramilitary organization than their European counterparts. In addition, there were German Americans and Italian Americans who formed groups celebrating the regimes of Hitler and Benito Mussolini. At its peak, the foremost of these groups, the German-American Bund, attracted roughly 25,000 members, most of them foreign born.

During 1939–1941, the specter of subversion by American fascists influenced the debate over U.S. entry into World War II. Most of the so-called fascists accused President Franklin D. Roosevelt of secretly maneuvering the country toward war and warned that intervention abroad would destroy democracy at home. To these standard noninterventionist arguments they typically added the charge that Roosevelt was acting on behalf of an international Jewish conspiracy. Several, including Coughlin and Pelley, printed German propaganda in their magazines. Roosevelt responded not only by publicly denouncing a native fascist menace and increasing Federal Bureau of Investigation surveillance, but also by stigmatizing respectable noninterventionists as willing collaborators or dupes of European fascists. During World War II, Roosevelt personally ordered the prosecution of native fascists for sedition. The resulting case, United States v. Mc-Williams, ended in a mistrial after seven raucous months in 1944 when the trial judge died suddenly. Coughlin avoided joining Pelley, Winrod, and Dilling as a defendant in the McWilliams case only because the Vatican had silenced him in 1942. Thus, Gerald L. K. Smith, the shrewdest politician among far right leaders, emerged during the war as the premier personification of native fascism. Smith attracted a large radio audience and ran a strong race for U.S. senator from Michigan in 1942, before his embrace of sweeping, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories led to his ostracism from mainstream politics shortly after the war. By 1946, the exaggerated fear of a native fascist menace—a "brown scare" broadly analogous to the red scare of 1919–1920—had run its course. Brown scare legacies include prosecutions and FBI surveillance that set precedents for undermining civil liberties generally, countless lurid exposes of far right groups, and two good novels about native fascism: Nathanael West's A Cool Million (1934) and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935).

The resurgence of American fascism that many liberals and radicals feared in the late 1940s never occurred, and the label itself sounded increasingly anachronistic. During the next half-century, however, numerous small groups either emulated German Nazism or drew inspiration from the so-called native fascists of the 1930s and 1940s. George Lincoln Rockwell, who claimed to have been influenced by Gerald L. K. Smith, founded the minuscule American Nazi Party in 1958. Much more significant were the virulently anti-Semitic organizations, including the Aryan Nations, the Order, and the Posse Comitatus (founded by a former Silver Shirt), which found a predominantly western following during the recession of the early 1980s. Some members of these organizations robbed banks, engaged in shootouts with law enforcement officers, and beat or killed African Americans, Jews, and Asian Americans. The Turner Diaries (1978), a novel written by the avowed neo-Nazi William Pierce, was popular reading among such groups. Pierce envisioned an "Aryan" war against racial minorities, gays, and the "Zionist Occupation Government." Influenced by The Turner Diaries, Timothy McVeigh in 1994 blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.


Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. Reprint, New York: Knopf, 1983.

Ribuffo, Leo P. The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right, from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.

Smith, Geoffrey S. To Save a Nation: American Extremism, the New Deal, and the Coming of World War II. Rev. ed. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1992.

Leo P.Ribuffo

See alsoAnti-Semitism ; Oklahoma City Bombing .