The Great Sedition Trial of 1944

There was a period of American history that isn’t often talked about called the “Brown Scare”. Coverage of the two “Red Scares” often leaves the “Brown Scare” forgotten. The “Brown Scare” of 1940-1944 was the idea that like with the “Red Scare”, that there were Nazi agents in numerous facets of American life. If a politician or public figure was a non-interventionist, there would be accusations that they were a Nazi, in league with the Nazis, or an active agent of the Nazis. There were certainly some figures for which this was true, such as George S. Viereck and Prescott F. Dennett of the “Make Europe Pay Its War Debt Committee” and the “Islands for War Debt Committee”, who were paid agents of the Nazis trying to influence American politics away from war in Europe. However, such efforts were unsuccessful and were rather limited. Additionally, in the case I mentioned, it happened before American involvement in World War II.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a4/Pelley_wanted.jpg
One of the defendants in the Great Sedition Trial, founder of the paramilitary Silver Shirts group.

It is often forgotten that the Dies Committee (House Committee on Un-American Activities) also directed attention to elements of what is regarded as the “far right” and if it is remembered, it is remembered that it focused a lot more on communism. In retrospect, this is justified as Soviet intelligence operations have since the declassification of the Venona Papers been revealed to have been far better at infiltration than Nazi intelligence operations…in the Roosevelt Administration there were no “secret Nazis” among the president’s advisors, but there was Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White as a Soviet agent and Roosevelt’s economic advisor Lauchlin Currie, who was a paid agent of the NKVD as well as numerous agents in the State, Treasury, and Agriculture departments. The pinnacle of the “Brown Scare” came in the form of U.S. v. McWilliams, et al., or as it became more commonly known, “The Great Sedition Trial of 1944”. FDR had for some time pushed Attorney General Francis Biddle for a trial of American fascists and this was the product.

There were thirty-three defendants in this indictment, which included non-interventionists and actual fascists. Many of them were anti-Semites of some stripe. Prosecutor O. John Rogge, a committed New Dealer, sought to prove that these defendants were trying to undermine the morale of American troops or to cause them to revolt, which if proven would warrant convictions under the Smith Act of 1940. Some of the most prominent were:

Joe McWilliams – The principal defendant in the case. As a young man, McWilliams was a communist, but he became a professional fascist and anti-Semite after having a bout of ill health in 1935, despite being aided in this time by Jewish friends. He became a nationally infamous hateful crank and was called “Joe McNazi” by radio commentator Walter Winchell. In 1940, he held a rally for non-interventionism in which the crowd turned violent after he denounced businessmen, Jews, and communists for the world’s problems. McWilliams advocated the use of violence against communists and Jews and in 1940, he ran for the nomination of the Republican Party for New York’s 18th congressional district (which he lost badly). He seemed to be the nut that the Roosevelt Administration, particularly Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, loved to pick to portray as representing opponents of American involvement in European wars. McWilliams also worked briefly for Democratic Senator Robert R. Reynolds of North Carolina, a man with a terrible habit of associating himself with disreputable organizations and characters that he viewed as patriotic.

George E. Deatherage (what a name to inspire dread!) – An enthusiastic fascist who founded a second incarnation of the Knights of the White Camellia as a fascist group, the first which had been a terrorist organization in the Reconstruction Era in the South. Deatherage wrote speeches for retired General George Van Horn Moseley (a notorious anti-Semite) and collaborated with Nazi propagandist Ulrich Fleischhauer with the Welt-Dienst/World-Service agency prior to American involvement in World War II.

Elmer J. Garner – A journalist from Kansas who was a traditional populist in thought, with his Farmers’ Advance possibly being the first Populist newspaper in Kansas. Consistent with the Populist Party platform, he called for “free silver” and public ownership of utilities at the turn of the century and had embraced much of the New Deal in the 1930s. Garner consistently stood for Prohibition, non-interventionism, and nativism but got the negative attention of the Roosevelt Administration for negative writings on Roosevelt’s foreign policy and for often employing anti-Semitism in his writings, including calling for the impeachment of “Roosevelt and his Jewish Camarilla” (Encyclopedia of the Great Plains). Although he softened his opposition to Roosevelt with the start of the war, Garner was nonetheless a target. He was eighty years old by the time of the trial and died only two weeks after its start. 

George Sylvester Viereck – George Viereck was a poet, German nationalist, and a paid propagandist of the Nazis who became socially acquainted with numerous non-interventionist activists and politicians. He tried to push a narrative to Americans (which he apparently believed as he offered mild criticism of anti-Semitism) that Hitler was comparable to FDR and that anti-Semitism was only peripheral to Nazism, an approach condemned by his Jewish friends. Viereck had also written pro-German material during World War I. In 1940 he set up a publishing firm in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, called Flanders Hall, which existed to distribute pro-Nazi material and was busted for a scheme to mail out material free of postage through the Congressional frank. Although by mid-1941 he had ended his arrangement with the Nazis, it was too late for him and he was indicted weeks before Pearl Harbor for failing to disclose activities that should have been present when he registered as a German agent in 1938. He was convicted in 1942 and served five years in prison.

Prescott F. Dennett – Worked for Viereck as treasurer of “Make Europe Pay Its War Debt Committee” and the “Islands for War Debt Committee”, was also in the pay of the Nazis before World War II. He was convicted along with Viereck for the Congressional mailing scheme.

Lawrence Dennis – Lawrence Dennis was the nation’s leading intellectual advocate of fascism, who had come to believe that capitalism was done for and that communism must be repelled. He collaborated with Harold Lord Varney, Joseph P. Kamp, and former Populist Alabama Congressman Milford W. Howard on The Awakener, a publication which opposed the New Deal. Dennis, however, departed the publication in 1935 due to the magazine’s rejection of fascism. He had attempted to join the US Army during World War II, but was rejected based on his politics. In 1946, Dennis would write A Trial on Trial: The Great Sedition Trial of 1944, a biting critique of the trial. Dennis was also secretly black. Dennis had been a child preacher at the turn of the century and was identified as “black” or “mulatto” during that time, but as an adult he was able to pass due to his lighter complexion and always cutting his hair short.

Elizabeth Dilling – Wrote The Red Network – A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots, which contained the names of over 1300 suspected communists and sympathizers. She included on this list Jane Addams, Albert Einstein (who she falsely claimed had his property confiscated by the Nazis for being a communist), Sigmund Freud, and Mahatma Gandhi. Dilling had visited the USSR in 1931 and was repulsed by the dreadful conditions there as well as its rejection of Christianity. She initially seemed to reject anti-Semitism but later embraced it, strongly believing that Judaism and communism were connected. Dilling contributed to anti-Semitic publications after World War II.

Robert E. Edmondson – Edmondson was an anti-Semitic pamphleteer who organized the Pan-Aryan Conference and ran the Edmondson Economic Service, through which he charged the economy was being manipulated by Jews. He accused FDR of being secretly Jewish and of being under the sway of Bernard Baruch, Felix Frankfurter, and Louis Brandeis (all Jews) in 1936. Like Deatherage, Edmondson also collaborated with Nazi propagandist Ulrich Fleischhauer prior to American involvement in World War II. He would push the fluoridation conspiracy after World War II.

William Dudley Pelley – A former journalist and Hollywood screenwriter who had won two O. Henry Awards and founder of the Silver Shirts, a paramilitary organization fashioned after the Nazi stormtroopers. Pelley advocated for a system in which the state owned all property and distributed it to whites based on “loyalty”, reinstatement of slavery for blacks, and the deportations of all Jews out of the United States. His organization never had more than 15,000 members and he had already disbanded the organization by the time of American involvement in World War II. Pelley had also already been incarcerated by the time of the indictment for publishing a seditious magazine. He was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for sedition and other charges in 1942, being released in 1950. Pelley would subsequently become fascinated by UFOs and would write about them as well as mysticism extensively until his death in 1965.

James True – An obscure crank journalist who ran James True Associates and America First, Inc., through which he peddled grossly anti-Semitic literature. He may have been the originator of the term “America First” for the cause of non-interventionists. True also literally patented and tried to sell a nightstick for the apparent purpose of combatting Jews on the streets to police departments. He was called before the Dies Committee as part of their investigations into fascism, in which he testified his belief that Jews were responsible for communism and that they control the United States through the government and monetary system. By 1944, however, True was, at 64 years old, in poor health and had collapsed on day seven of the trial. On account of his ill health, he was unable to attend most of the trial and died before its conclusion.

Gerald B. Winrod – An evangelical reverend known as the “Jayhawk Nazi” for being from Kansas and spreading anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi material. He believed that Hitler was a Christian who would save Europe from communism and that the New Deal had been perpetrated by communists and Jews. In 1938, he downplayed his anti-Semitism to try to run for the Senate as a Republican, but was defeated in the primary. Winrod’s publication was called The Defender, in which after World War II he railed against Jews, lionized Joseph McCarthy, and promoted curing ailments through faith healing. The latter contributed to his death from pneumonia in 1957 when he refused to see a doctor.

On April 17, 1944, the trial began but the case from the very start was weak, as it attempted to prove that there was a deliberate effort to aid the Nazis from the defendants based on the similarity of their writings to Nazi propaganda. Prosecutor O. John Rogge hoped this trial would strike a blow against racial and religious hatred. While many of these people were anti-Semites and racists, the government’s case was not to convict them of bigotry, it was to convict them of undermining the morale of American troops and/or trying to incite them to revolt. A mistrial was declared on November 29, 1944 due to the death of Judge Edward C. Eicher from a heart attack. By this time, the trial had attracted ridicule and scorn from many corners of American life. Time Magazine wrote disapprovingly of the trial that it was the “biggest and noisiest sedition trial in United States history…no one in Washington doubted that a ludicrously undignified trial had hastened the death of a scrupulously dignified judge” (Time Magazine). The ACLU campaigned against the trial, while predictably the CPUSA offered full-throated support of the trial. By late 1946, even Rogge was doubting that he could win convictions. As Justice Laws wrote in his dismissal of the case,

“If these defendants are guilty, it would seem that any serious doubt as to their guilt would be resolved in more than five years of intensive investigation by able counsel and investigators of the Department of Justice. If they were clearly guilty, the prosecution should have unwaveringly assured the Court to this effect at least upon completion of the investigation in Germany. Usually the Court will permit the prosecutor to decide whether he will bring a case to trial. But where it appears, as here, there is serious doubt as to the success of the case, and that the defendants, because of long delays granted over their objections, cannot obtain a fair trial the Court should exercise its discretion to deny prosecution. It would be both unjust and un-American to do otherwise” (69 F. Supp. 812.).

None had been proven to have had Nazi connections by the time war was declared and it wasn’t proven that they had written their works for the purpose of undermining the war effort. Truth be told, these people didn’t have many supporters but latched on to causes that attracted much greater support, such as anti-communism and non-interventionism, to push their fringe perspectives and made for easy targets by their far more prominent foes.

References

Daley, J. (2018, October 3). The Screenwriting Mystic Who Wanted to Be the American Führer. The Smithsonian.

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https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-screenwriting-mystic-who-wanted-be-american-fuhrer-180970449/

Dennis, Lawrence. American National Biography Online.

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Elizabeth Dilling. Spartacus Educational.

Retrieved from

https://spartacus-educational.com/USAdillingE.htm

Feingold, H.L. (1995). A time for searching. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Garner, Elmer (1864-1944). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

Retrieved from

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.pd.023

Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States: Volumes 6-7: Testimony of James True.

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Johnson, N.M. (1968). George Sylvester Viereck: Poet and Propagandist. University of Iowa.

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Nilsson, J. (2012, March 10). Star-Spangled Fascists. The Saturday Evening Post.

Retrieved from

https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2012/03/star-spangled-fascists/

Radosh, R. (2002, June 30). Even Worse Than We Thought. Los Angeles Times.

Retrieved from

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-jun-30-bk-radosh30-story.html

Ribuffo, L.P. Winrod, Gerald (1900-1957). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

Retrieved from

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.pd.058

Trial’s End. (1944, December 11). Time Magazine.

Sedition Trial of 1944. CSUN Digital Library.

Retrieved from

https://digital-library.csun.edu/in-our-own-backyard/sedition-trial-of-1944

Troy, G. (2016, September 4). When America Rejected its Homegrown “Joe McNazi”. The Daily Beast.

Retrieved from

https://www.thedailybeast.com/when-america-rejected-its-homegrown-joe-mcnazi

United States v. McWilliams, 69 F. Supp. 812.

Retrieved from

https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/69/812/2265902/

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