Friday, December 29, 2023






               I’ve 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.

            After Pearl 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, which reads:

“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 conversations

“(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 minutes.”

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 essay.

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.

Carlson 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.”

He then 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.  

Later in 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. 


The 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!”

As we 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. 

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