Meyer Lansky had every reason to despise fascism. His family had survived pogroms in Tsarist Russia before emigrating to America; Lansky, as a youth in Manhattan, earned his reputation battling bigoted Irish toughs with his pal, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. As an adult, Lansky took personal offense to Fritz Kuhn’s German-American Bund, an organization of Nazi sympathizers directly funded by Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy. And as one of America’s leading gangsters, commanding political connections, legal power and an army of professional killers, Lansky stood in a unique position to strike back.
It was bad enough when Kuhn, a German immigrant and former employee of Henry Ford, hosted rallies in California and the Midwest, conspired with German spies for sabotage operations and even operated summer camps indoctrinating children into fascism. Kuhn’s movement found a heavy following in Los Angeles, where they regularly held public rallies and events under the guise of German culture. Behind the scenes, they allied themselves with William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts and German counsel Georg Gyssling to intimidate Jews and leftists while establishing their presence in L.A. and Hollywood.
With local officials unwilling to act, the onus for resistance fell to Leon Lewis, a well-connected Jewish lawyer who helped found the Anti-Defamation League. Drawing on his service in Army intelligence, Lewis organized a network of fellow Jews, patriotic veterans and anti-Nazi Germans to undermine the Bund. Lewis’s operatives uncovered schemes to murder Hollywood figures like Louis B. Mayer, Al Jolson and William Wyler, to “fumigate” Jewish neighborhoods with poison gas and to seize Los Angeles’ military arsenals. Thanks to Lewis’s agents, fascist efforts in California fizzled out long before the United States entered World War II.
Then the Bund decided to muscle in on Meyer Lansky’s territory. In New York City, Bundists trashed synagogues and Jewish businesses and terrorized Jews in public, with police unwilling or uninterested in stopping them. The apex of their popularity came in February 1939, when Kuhn hosted a rally of 22,000 followers in Madison Square Garden. Their podium incorporated a towering portrait of George Washington flanked by American flags and swastikas; Kuhn’s antisemitic rants were enlivened when a protester, a Jewish member of the American Legion, rushed the stage, only to be beaten senseless by howling Nazis.
Thus, when Lansky received an invitation from Nathan Perlman to discuss Kuhn’s Brownshirts, he needed little persuasion. The circumstances couldn’t be more awkward: Perlman, a New York State Judge, had spent years fighting Lansky and Lucky Luciano’s criminal empire. But on this matter, Lansky and Perlman saw eye to eye; both men were Jewish and understood the existential threat posed by fascism. Perlman told Lansky “We Jews should be more militant…Can you organize the militant part for us?” Lansky agreed without hesitation, refusing the Judge’s offer of money and legal protection for his activities. For the Mob’s Accountant, punching Nazis offered its own reward.
Hoping to “teach them that Jews cannot be kicked around,” Lansky led a cohort of Jewish gangsters to disrupt Bund meetings throughout New York. Lansky later recalled one encounter with Bundists at Yorkville, a German neighborhood on the Upper East Side. “The stage was decorated with pictures of Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only about fifteen of us, but we went into action. We attacked them in the hall and threw some out the windows. There were fistfights all over the place…We chased them and beat them up, and some of them were out of action for months.” A Lansky associate recalled the evening as “one of the most happy moments of my life.”
Lansky’s allies weren’t shy about combating Nazis, either. Lucky Luciano, angry about Mussolini’s suppression of the Sicilian Mafia, offered his friend his best button men for his crusade, only for Lansky to decline Gentile assistance. Mickey Cohen found himself jailed in Arizona alongside two Nazi sympathizers; Cohen grew so incensed with their rantings that he bribed a guard for a chance to “bounce their heads together.” David Berman, a Lansky associate from Minneapolis, volunteered for the Canadian Army and was wounded in action. Lansky, Luciano and other mafiosi even played a semi-official role during the war, working with Naval intelligence to prevent sabotage along the New York waterfront.
One of Lansky’s closest associates could have made an even bigger impact. Bugsy Siegel, visiting Rome with his mistress in 1938, learned that Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels were staying at the same hotel as him. When Siegel found out that his mistress, an Italian countess, had talked to “that fat bastard Goering” (a prior of acquaintance of hers), he confided that he planned to assassinate both him and Goebbels. Siegel spent several days stalking the Nazi bigwigs, awaiting the best opportunity to rub them out, until his mistress panicked and talked Siegel out of his scheme.
The German-American Bund was ultimately undone more by scandalous press coverage of Kuhn’s lurid love life (exposed by radio gadfly Walter Winchell) and financial misdeeds than the violence it inspired. Kuhn’s behavior became so embarrassing that Hitler’s government severed all contact by 1939. Then Mayor Fiorello La Guardia orchestrated Kuhn’s prosecution for embezzlement and tax evasion; Kuhn received a four year prison sentence, spent World War II interned as an enemy alien and was deported at war’s end, dying in Germany in 1951. The Bund crumbled in his absence, leaving various similar groups to wreak havoc instead.
One successor was Joe McWilliams, an Oklahoma businessman who mobilized a militia dubbed the Christian Organizers. By 1939 McWilliams relocated to New York City, making common cause with the German-American Bund and holding rallies with Kuhn and other anti-Semites. McWilliams attracted media attention for his photogenic handsomeness (he traveled with a cordon of beautiful women, inevitably dubbed his “harem”), contrasting sharply with the slovenliness of other American fuhrers. McWilliams ran for Congress in 1940, suffering a humiliating loss to a moderate Republican. The New Yorker dubbed him “the handsomest and meanest-talking man ever to run for a public office”; Walter Winchell more pithily labeled him “Joe McNazi.”
McWilliams’ followers proved predictably violent, mugging Jews on the street and fighting with leftists, protesters and police. During one particularly raucous speech in August 1939, McWilliams vowed that “we’ll fix the Jews the way Hitler fixed them.” When two police officers tried to disperse the meeting, McWilliams’ followers mobbed them, knocking the policemen unconscious with lead pipes. When other officers dragged off several perpetrators they were swarmed by McWilliams’ followers, who chased them back to their precinct and besieged it for several hours until a massive cordon of policemen cleared the streets.
Like the Bund, McWilliams’ organization folded after their leader landed in jail (he spent the war years in a mental institution). There were, however, far more durable demagogues in the United States, namely Father Charles Coughlin. The “Priest of the Little Flower” hadn’t been humbled by the debacle of the National Union Party; indeed, he grew more hysterical in his Jew-baiting, now more overtly pro-Nazi. Not only did he reprint Nazi speeches verbatim in his periodical Social Justice, he even communicated with Joseph Goebbels through sympathetic Vatican officials. To affect America’s conversion to fascism, Coughlin contemplated means more brutal than propaganda.
Just before the 1936 election, Smedley Butler, the unwitting locus of the Business Plot, received a phone call from someone claiming to be Father Coughlin. The caller treated Butler to a harangue against recently ousted Mexican President Plutarco Calles, who had instituted a harsh crackdown against the Catholic Church. Coughlin then asked if Butler would lead a filibustering army of American Legionnaires to conquer Mexico! When Butler, understandably flabbergasted, noted that this would violate American neutrality laws, Coughlin responded that Butler “should not worry about President Roosevelt because they would take care of him on the way down.”
Butler, disgusted that fascists still considered him a potential cat’s paw, reported the conversation to the FBI, who investigated it and found no credible evidence of conspiracy. As with the Business Plot, it’s difficult to tell whether this was a serious proposal or crankish hot air, as there’s no paper trail connecting Coughlin to any such conspiracy; Butler’s biographer, Hans Schmidt, regards the incident as a bold practical joke. Maybe so, but such a harebrained idea was fully in keeping with Coughlin’s increasingly menacing actions.
In May 1938, Coughlin issued a public call to arms no less unnerving than his alleged backroom plots. After vowing to Roosevelt that “we will fight you in Franco’s way, if necessary,” the Father then called for the organization of a Christian Front. He provided followers an explicit blueprint for mobilization: “Let your organization be composed of no more than 25 members. After a few contacts with these 25 persons you will observe that two of them may be capable of organizing 25 more. Invite these capable people to do that very thing.”
Thousands of Americans, mostly Irish and German Catholics, followed Coughlin’s advice and created the Christian Front. More loosely structured than the German-American Bund, the Front formed dozens of cells nationwide, stockpiling arms and explosives for their counterrevolution. One particularly violent branch, the so-called “Sporting Club,” was organized by Brooklyn troublemaker Jack Cassidy. Members included not only urban toughs but Irish businessmen, members of the New York Police Department (Mayor La Guardia discovered that over 400 policemen had joined the Front by 1940) and even the National Guard. At meetings of the Sporting Club, recruits fired Tommy guns at life-sized caricatures of President Roosevelt adorned with a plastic Jew’s nose. Evidently, they planned to enact these fantasies at the earliest convenience.
J. Edgar Hoover, taking a break from hunting Communists, worked with La Guardia to unmask the Front’s doings. In late 1939 he sent an agent, Dennis Healy, to infiltrate the Sporting Club. A gregarious Irishman, Healy quickly befriended Cassidy, who disclosed an incredible plot backed, he said, by National Guard officials, conservative congressmen and even the German government. Cassidy outlined plans to bomb Jewish neighborhoods in New York, provoking riots which the National Guard would violently suppress. This would coincide with assassinations of progressive politicians, attacks on police, public utilities and gold reserves, culminating in the Front marching on Washington to install ex-general George Van Horn Moseley as dictator.
Hoover took Healy’s disclosures seriously enough to descend on the Sporting Club. His agents arrested Cassidy and sixteen followers in January 1, uncovering a huge stockpile of rifles, machine guns and explosives. Many ridiculed the plot (“The notion that the sixteen defendants could overthrow the government with thirteen rifles is insane!” hooted Congressman Jacob Thorkelson, a grievous understatement of the Club’s arsenal and intentions), while Hoover’s methods earned the wrath of the ACLU for his supposed heavy-handedness. The trial proved a farce, with the prosecutor, unable to make specific charges stick, reduced to asking whether the jury “should…wait until you have to deal with [fascism] under martial law?”
The jury acquitted all seventeen defendants, with Father Coughlin crowing that “the Christian Front movement will emerge victorious and more potent than ever.” Despite the trial and criticism from Catholic leaders (“If Father Coughlin is a thorn in the side of the Jews,” warned Reverend Francis X. Talbot, “he is also a thorn in the side of the Catholics”) the government seemed reluctant to prosecute Coughlin’s followers. Even Hoover backed off from his attacks, claiming that “Coughlin…had no connection with the Christian Front.” Where the German-American Bund suffered from gangsters, activists and prosecution, the Front’s downfall came about through the efforts of intrepid journalists.
In New York, that task fell to Arthur Derounian. An Armenian immigrant who wrote for the New York Post under the name John Roy Carlson, Derounian harbored an instinctive hatred for fascism, whose racist violence reminded him of Turkey’s genocide against his homeland. Enraged by the German-American Bund’s rally in Madison Square Garden, Derounian decided to expose and undermine American fascists from the inside. For his endeavor he received a stipend from Fortune magazine, who took a slice of the projected book sales.
Posing as a businessman named George Pagianelli, Derounian circulated among the fascist underworld. To keep up his pretense, he even printed a self-published magazine, the Christian Defender, which carried familiar denunciations of Jews, bankers and Communists. “I realized how easy it was to become a merchant of hate,” he mused ruefully. “A typewriter, a mimeograph machine, paper and lies!” Derounian’s ruse worked too well, as he drew attention not only from his new comrades but the FBI, who persuaded him to shut down his publication (later tapping him as an informant and witness). He did, however, continue printing hate articles for other publications, mostly plagiarized pieces which nonetheless found an appreciative audience.
During this time, Derounian met many of the movement’s most prominent leaders, from Elizabeth Dilling to Lawrence Dennis (a black Georgian passing for white, who downplayed race hatred for an “intellectual” fascism), Joe McWilliams, James True and George Deatherage, while attending meetings of New York’s Christian Front. At one, he listened to an intricately detailed plot between the Front and a Bund affiliate, the Iron Guard, to capture New York by force (Derounian indicates this occurred after the FBI arrested Cassidy’s Sporting Club). Those he profiled openly despised democracy; Olov Tieslow, a Swedish immigrant who organized The American Guard, dismissed the Founding Fathers as “Masonic monkeys” and indicated only military dictatorship could save America.
Derounian struggled to mask his incredulity throughout these alarming encounters. During an interview with John C. Schafer, an arch-reactionary congressman, he asked what sort of “revolution” Schafer thought could rescue the country from Communism. “The bloody kind!” Schafer enthusiastically responded before socking Derounian in the face. “There will be purges and Roosevelt will be cleaned right off the Earth along with the Jews.” Taken aback by this “playful” violence, Derounian next inquired what the Congressman thought of the Constitution. “Oh, that?” Schafer asked dismissively. “That’ll be set aside temporarily until they get some law and order in this country.”
On another occasion, Derounian traveled to Pittsburgh to investigate a local branch of the Front called the North Side Sporting Club. Edwin Flaig, a Millvale businessman who counted James True as a friend, told the journalist that National Socialism “is the only way out. This damned system of Democracy has got to end.” He hinted that the Sporting Club was stockpiling rifles and machine guns for a planned uprising, though he grew fuzzy when pressed for details. One of Flaig’s friends tried to allay Derounian’s fears about his patriotism by noting that “practically everyone around here is a member of the National Rifle Association.”
Derounian published his research in 1943 as Under Cover, which became an explosive best-seller in wartime America. While critics then, and many historians now, feel that Derounian overstated his case by presenting disparate rightist groups as a tight-knit conspiracy (a misconception which later bred unfortunate consequences), his research was sound, his portraiture damning and his conclusions alarming. He warned that his subjects’ “missionary efforts and the misguided zeal of a thousand others like them still at large, have permeated deep into the American mind” and influenced even well-intentioned critics of the war. Fortunately, by the time Derounian’s book reached publication, the Christian Front, German-American Bund and other fascist groups were too cowed by wartime strictures to continue their public agitation in New York.
But Boston was the Christian Front’s true epicenter, with roving gangs of Irish hoodlums regularly descending on the city’s Jewish neighborhoods for mini-pogroms. Boston’s Front transcended the expected beatings and window breaking; its members vandalized synagogues, desecrated Torahs and other holy relics, stabbed Jewish men and attacked Jewish women, stripping them of their clothes and chasing them through the streets. Bolder youths even assaulted air raid wardens, asking them “are you a Christian or a warden?” Several Jews from Roxbury sent Mayor Maurice Tobin a petition complaining “we cannot walk on the streets, whether at night or in the daytime, without fear of being beaten by a group of non-Jewish boys.”
Yet authorities did little to stop the Front’s outrages. The city’s huge Catholic population largely embraced the Radio Priest, with former Mayor James Michael Curley boasting that Boston was “the strongest Coughlinite city in America.” Coughlin made a point of visiting Boston several times, though it was his local lieutenant, Francis Moran, who led the hoodlums. Even after Pearl Harbor, Moran denounced “the blood suckers plotting to send our boys to die in England,” screened Nazi propaganda films and led his followers in fascist salutes while reciting Latin prayers. Authorities seemed to encourage the violence: more than one Jewish youth, attacked by Coughlinite bullies, asked a policeman for help, only to receive a second beating at their hands.
It took a more principled Irish Catholic to face them down. Frances Sweeney, the young editor of the Boston City Reporter, was unique in an era when journalism, particularly investigative journalism, remained very much a boy’s club. Her penchant for progressive causes, whether tackling political corruption or advocating racial equality, earned her enemies and admirers in equal measure. Nat Hentoff, future editor of the Village Voice, worked for Sweeney as a teen and described her as “the only daughter of a saloon keeper…[with] long pale blonde hair and deep blue eyes that could be unbearably cold or joyfully defiant.” She carried on the most sustained campaign against the Front’s activities in Boston, not without risk to her life, career and even her immortal soul.
Sweeney recruited several Jewish reporters for undercover investigations of Boston’s antisemitic groups, the Christian Front foremost among them. “What I want from you is facts,” she lectured her employees. “You understand…how important you are, and how much damage you can do if you’re careless…That’s all our enemies will need to discredit the whole of us.” Her journalists infiltrated Front meetings and reported on the constant torrent of Jew-baiting, fascist sympathies and incitements to violence. She also worked with the city’s Negro press, who recognized that attacks on Jews would likely expand to include blacks as well.
Sweeney not only wrote about the Front, she personally took the fight to them. She organized the Boston chapter of the American-Irish Defense Association, which exposed that Moran received payments and propaganda materials from George Sylvester Viereck, a Nazi intelligence agent. In March 1942 she led a protest against Father Edward Lodge Curran, one of Coughlin’s most hateful lieutenants, and was forcibly ejected from the auditorium for heckling the priest. “Don’t you remember?” she would shout, reminding her fellow Irishmen of the persecutions they’d suffered a century before. Her campaign humiliated Moran into publicly disbanding the Christian Front, though it remained intact in all but name for several years.
Nor did Sweeney refrain from challenging the city’s power brokers. “The attacks on Jew[s],” she insisted, “are the complete responsibility of Governor [Leverett] Saltonstall, Mayor Tobin, the Church, and the clergy – all of whom…ignored this tragedy.” Her attacks increasingly centered on Boston’s chief primate, Archbishop William Henry O’Connell, demanding that he publicly denounce Coughlin and the Front. O’Connell, a Cardinal since 1911, refused to offer more than tepid condemnation of the Radio Priest (and even then, more for dabbling in secular politics than the content of his speeches). Personal criticism, however, invoked his wrath, and O’Connell asked Sweeney to his office for a dressing down.
O’Connell told Sweeney that she had “gone beyond all permissible, indeed rational grounds” and ordered her to cease her criticisms. Sweeney refused, telling the Cardinal “the facts are the facts. Silence is a fact, especially when it comes from on high.” Unused to this defiance from any of his congregants, especially a woman, O’Connell told Sweeney that he would personally excommunicate her from the Church if she continued her articles. Sweeney nonetheless pressed onward, publishing dozens of additional articles without O’Connell making good on his threat. (One of her employees mused that “I don’t know that he wants her entirely outside his command.”)
Sweeney died in June 1943, suffering a heart attack while walking through a rainstorm, but others continued her campaign against the Front. Boston papers covered its activities with increasing vehemence. The progressive magazine PM published a series of exposes in fall of 1943 which brought Boston’s antisemitic epidemic to national attention, destroying the Front’s lingering influence. By this time, the government had blocked Coughlin’s Social Justice and muffled his radio show, belatedly crippling the era’s most dangerous demagogue. Coughlin returned to Detroit and lived in obscurity, retiring in 1966 and dying in 1979.
However welcome the Christian Front’s demise, there remained a large, potentially dangerous body of fascists sewing chaos and hate within the country. As World War II dragged on, President Roosevelt decided to prosecute them under the Smith Act, initially used against Communists, racial activists and labor radicals. It resulted in a bungled, overreaching prosecution that failed to land a death blow against the far right, with dire, lasting consequences.