FINDING SOLACE IN AN EIGHTY-YEAR-OLD BOOK
mentioned on several occasions that I spend the nights of our presidential
elections watching The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 film about the
challenges World War II servicemen faced when their services were no longer
required and they reentered civilian life.
Harbor my father rushed to enlist and was, to his great disappointment,
classified as 4-F. (The same thing happened to me during Vietnam except for the
rush to enlist and the disappointment.) He went to work for the Army Corps of
Engineers in St. Louis and from there he was recruited to work for the
Manhattan Project. He married my mother, and the Project hired her as well.
After the bombs were dropped, their services were no longer required. They were
transferred to St. Louis and, once there, laid off.
When my father died in 2005, he left
behind a great deal of paperwork, including a memo dated January 11, 1946,
“The attached Staff Bulletin is again
brought to the attention of all personnel.
“The following is also brought to the
attention of all personnel, some of whom have been previously cautioned:
“(1) Too many personal telephone
“(2) Too much visiting within the
office-it disturbs others that are working
“(3) A few are absent from their
desks too often—and for periods of time that sometimes run into 10 to 20
The Staff Bulletin is about empty
bottles and reads:
“It has become necessary to call
attention to the fact that employees are not adhering to the rule that empty
bottles from vending machines are to be returned to the Canteen. On recent
occasions a number of empty bottles have been collected in the wash rooms. It
is directed that empty bottles be returned to the Canteen in every case.”
The bulletin is signed by E. H.
Shutt, Lt. Col., Corps of Engineers, Executive Officer.
My father must have kept this memo to
remind him how quickly one could go from being an important cog in a major
program to someone being monitored and criticized for being away from his desk
for (gasp!) twenty minutes at a time while waiting to be laid off.
Twelve million service people were in the same situation. One of the main characters in The Best Years of Our Lives was a an Army Air Force bombardier captain and is only able to find a job as a soda jerk in the drug store where he worked before the war. Another character predicts a postwar depression. To me the most significant thing about this film is it was made when it was impossible to know how everything would work out, which is the reason I watch it as election returns are coming in. Most of the time I find comfort in the knowledge that if my parents’ generation could get through the challenges of their times, we can get through the challenges of ours.
The same is true of John Roy Carlson’s
Under Cover: My Four Years in the Nazi Underworld of America. This book
was published in 1943, a time when it was impossible to know the outcome of
World War II. John Roy Carlson was the nom de plume of Arthur Derounian,
a Christian Armenian-American who infiltrated many Nazi, fascist, and
antisemitic organizations between 1938 and 1943. I came across the book at an
estate sale and found it helpful for a paper I was writing on, among other things, the
postwar decline in American antisemitism. Rachel Maddow gives it a brief
mention in her 2023 Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, which covers
much of the same territory and which I’ll address briefly at the end of this
As I was
reading Under Cover, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how similar our
times are to Carlson’s. In his time there were a good number of congressmen who
were not just openly fascist, they provided fascist organizations with millions
of franked envelopes (postage paid by taxpayers) to mail their propaganda coast
to coast and border to border. Many of them knowingly accepted money from
Germany. Some in Congress even wrote fascist bile. These people hated
democracy. One is quoted as saying, “Democracy, Democracy, Democracy! They
throw it in our faces. You hear it on all sides till you get sick of it. What
is this Democracy? It is a rotten form of weakness and pacifist attitude that
can only mean defeat. I say to hell with Democracy and up with the banner of
American nationalism! America for the white, Christian Americans! And it’s
about time we stopped this absurd propaganda against Germany.” I would imagine
we wouldn’t have to look too far nowadays to find someone who would make the
same speech, only substituting Russia for Germany.
describes how the fascist movement segmented itself into several groups to
appeal to various demographics from the mob and rabble rousers to those living
on Park Avenue. A surprising number of the people Carlson encounters are
old-line Americans, and many are members of the Daughters of the American
Revolution. I guess in a way we shouldn’t find this surprising. There are
always those who believe their family’s longevity in America somehow confers
upon them an innate ability to know what’s best for everyone when in fact they’re
angling for what’s best for them and their crowd.
We meet Joe
McWilliams, who forms the American Destiny Party and admits to Carlson that the
people he’s talking to aren’t his “class of people,” but “you can’t talk
politics to these people unless you make it simple by bringing in the Jew every
time. It’s the only language they understand—the language of hate. Hitler made
it work, and that’s what I’m trying to do here. I want to give the man in the
street a Christian New Deal.”
tells Carlson that if he’s elected, he doesn’t want to be called president. “I’d
run this country like a factory. I would appoint all the key men and have absolute control.” He
continues, “Our next step would be to break the people of the voting habit. I
want streamlined, modern government. Efficient as a factory, methodical as a
machine. Republicans, Socialists and Democrats represent nineteenth century
ideas. A new leadership is needed for a new America.” We wouldn’t have to look
too far to find folks who would agree with that today including those who
support a businessman who’s gone bankrupt six times. So far. And as for making
it simple by bringing in the scapegoat du jour to speak the “only language they
understand,” the aforementioned bankrupt-prone businessman is now channeling
Adolf Hitler by referring to those who disagree with him as “vermin” and
Madison Grant when he accuses immigrants of “polluting American blood,” which,
given that two of his three wives as well as his mother and both of his father’s
parents were immigrants, is a bit rich.
the book we come across various groups under a Mothers Movement umbrella, which
could easily have been a model for today’s Moms for Liberty. The former was not
very effective; the latter is increasingly, thankfully, proving to be
vulnerable inasmuch of one of the founders of the largely anti-gay group turned
out to be, shall we say, open to experimenting? And many of the Moms for
Liberty overestimated the interest in potential recruits for banning books,
preventing parents from being involved in their children’s sexual health and
becoming outraged over drag shows.
One of the
things I learned from the book is these groups did not disband after Pearl
Harbor. I’d always imagined Pearl Harbor united the country. I was wrong. Synagogues
in the Bronx and Brooklyn were vandalized. Cops were indifferent and some may
have even been involved in the vandalism. Posters reading “The Jews started
this war. Make them pay for it” were distributed.
A big factor in the pro-fascist movement Carlson writes about was Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front. Coughlin was Catholic, but he affiliated with any right-wing group, and the more antisemitic the better. The Christian Front had millions of followers, many of them violent thugs. It survived the war, although Coughlin was no longer in charge. By then its influence had dwindled. Most returning veterans were not interested in joining pro-fascist groups, having just won a war against fascism. We have our own right-wing fundamentalist groups today. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported many fundamentalists want their ministers to talk less about religion and more about border security, gun rights, and, well, you get the idea.
article describes a sermon by eastern Tennessee pastor Shahram Hadian, who denounced
vaccine mandates, voiced doubts about the results of the 2020 presidential race, and said that Trump’s poll numbers were rising, despite multiple indictments,
because a remnant of people still loyal to God were finally waking up. He
concluded, “Here we are ramping up for 2024 and another crucial election, if
they don’t steal it or try to indict their way out of it, our response must be,
we will not comply. Amen!”
can see, this country has been here before. I’m not a Marxist, but Marx did say
history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. I’m hoping the current trends
turn out to be harmless farce, and I have good reason to believe they will. We
live in a great country. We have one of the highest living standards in the
world. I doubt that many of us are willing to leave our warm comfortable homes,
miss whatever we’re watching on Netflix, and go to war with our neighbors over
drag shows, parents’ seeking or not seeking treatment for their possibly
transgender children, what books are in schools or public libraries, and so on.
Sure, as we saw on January 6, 2021, there are a few people who’ll believe
anything and follow the direction of the Orange Jesus du jour, but they’re very
few. So far attacks by the radical right have generated outrage rather than
revolt. Timothy McVeigh’s attack in Oklahoma City resulted in his execution.
The January 6 incursion has so far resulted in more than 1,000 people charged, several
of whom have been jailed.
And the Instigator-in Chief is facing several indictments. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. Many of the fascists outed by Carlson and others were tried for treason. As we find out in Rachel Maddow’s Prequel, which I promised to address, the trial went on after the war. It was extremely complex. The judge died, and basically the country was in no mood to rehash wartime misdeeds. In short, the traitors got off. Let’s hope the judges in Donald Trump’s cases take good care of themselves!
Rachel Maddow is writing when we know the outcome of World War II. She’s writing a history while Carlson covered the same events while they were happening and as someone who saw first-hand what these groups were like. Prequel is generally excellent, and I highly recommend it. As you might expect, I have a couple of nits to pick. First, when she describes George Detherage, who was truly loathsome, she says he was 6’5” and 205 pounds, “an impressive girth for an American man before high-fructose corn syrup.” In fact, Detherage had a BMI of 24.3, which would be in the normal range. The guy was a fascist traitor, but he was not overweight. Second, when she discusses George Van Horn Moseley, a retired general who was virulently anti-immigrant and antisemitic and who would willingly have joined any (and probably all) fascist anti-government groups had the Army not advised him he would lose his pension if he did so, she says Moseley played a key role in launching the Army’s violent 1932 attacks against American World War I veterans who were protesting in Washington for “bonus payments they had been promised but never paid.” In fact the bonus payments were not scheduled to be paid until 1945. Finally, somehow one of the most repulsive members of Congress of the era, John Rankin, who delivered a virulent antisemitic rant (one of many) that inspired Laura Z. Hobson to write Gentleman’s Agreement, is not mentioned anywhere in Maddow’s book. Rankin, ever the Jew-hater, was still defending the "honor" of Nazi war criminals during the Nuremburg trials.