On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany commenced their invasion of Poland. The justification was the fabricated Gleiwitz incident the previous day, in which the SS conducted an attack on a German radio station on the German-Polish border disguised as Polish nationalists. Hitler himself stated on such an operation to his generals a week earlier, “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth” (Wirtz, 100). Most people in the United States had no interest in getting into another European war, as they had by and large been disillusioned by World War I. The British sought to change that. British Security Coordination (BSC) was started in 1940 at the behest of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, being employed to influence American opinion towards intervention in World War II. From the very start of his time as Prime Minister, he said in response to his son Randolph how he intended to defeat Nazi Germany, “I shall drag the United States in” (Simkin, BSC). The British wanted a repeat of American intervention in World War I, while the Germans wanted to prevent a repeat. Both nations would use methods legal and illegal in efforts to achieve their aims.
The British Efforts
The BSC was headed by Canadian Sir William Stephenson, who was officially posted to the United States with the title of Principal Passport Control Officer. His main contact was boxer Gene Tunney, a personal friend of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and also had Ernest Cuneo, the lead brain truster in the Roosevelt Administration, as a contact. Cuneo was even given the codename “Crusader” and passed along intelligence to BSC (Simkin, Cuneo). They aimed to influence the public, the media, and the government. Stephenson provided information to journalist Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who proceeded to write a series of articles why Nazi Germany was a threat to the United States. They also used some people who are now notable literary names, such as Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, in their operations.
Stories were planted in the press, and they made great efforts to influence journalists including Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson. According to author Donald Ritchie (2021), “Winchell swallowed BSC bait whole, printing some of their news stories exactly as the British wrote them. Not so Pearson, who dismayed the propagandists by putting his own interpretation on whatever they gave him. The BSC did not consider Pearson anti-British, but attributed his hostility to his anti-colonialism” (78). The British, it should be understood, were at a significant economic and military disadvantage to the Germans. Germany had twice the workforce of Britain, higher average income, and had spent five times the amount on armaments the British had (Simkin). It was thus vital for the British to get the United States into the war.
The BSC was actively aided by the Roosevelt Administration and aided numerous organizations calling for intervention. These included The League of Human Rights, Freedom and Democracy, and The American Labor Committee to Aid British Labor. The BSC was involved in bringing about the Bases for Destroyers Deal, an impeachable offense for violation of the Neutrality Acts. However, the deal was so favorable to the United States that the political push for Roosevelt’s impeachment never materialized.
In 1940, the BSC’s efforts helped ensure that the Republican ticket that year would be headlined by Wendell Willkie, and this was done through manufactured polling. On June 25th, the New York Herald reported that a poll by Market Analysts, Inc. revealed that 3/5’s of Republicans supported helping allied powers with “everything short of war” (Usdin). The problem here, however, was that Market Analysts was not a neutral firm. It was headed by Sanford Griffith, an intelligence agent for Britain, and it produced time and time again polls that supported intervention in Europe (Usdin). Willkie won the nomination under the belief of the convention delegates that he best represented the feelings of the Republican voters. He was also persuaded not to come out against FDR’s Bases for Destroyers deal by BSC agents. Thus, Britain had removed non-interventionists entirely from a realistic shot at the presidency in 1940.
By April 1941, with public opinion still strongly against intervening in World War II, the BSC figured they needed a more aggressive organization for advocacy and thus Fight for Freedom, Inc. was established by future CIA chief Allen W. Dulles and BSC agent Sydney Morrell. They succeeded in recruiting numerous prominent people into this organization including TIME Magazine’s owner Henry Luce, journalist Joseph Alsop, Senator Carter Glass (D-Va.), future Secretary of State Dean Acheson, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and FDR’s former budget director Lewis W. Douglas. This organization was particularly big on working to discredit non-interventionist politicians and conducted illegal undercover operations and bogus news stories against them. It was a BSC operation, for instance, to deliver a card by a representative of Fight for Freedom, Inc. to Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) at the end of his non-interventionist speech reading “Der Fuhrer thanks you for your loyalty”, with pictures taken of the embarrassment (Simkin, BSC). The BSC worked overtime to defeat Fish, even creating the “Non-Partisan Committee to Defeat Hamilton Fish”. He would be defeated for reelection in 1944. Senator Gerald Nye (R-N.D.) was another prominent target. After he delivered a non-interventionist speech in September 1941 in Boston, representatives of the BSC handed out handbills claiming he was a Nazi lover and appeaser (Simkin, BSC). Nye would also lose reelection in 1944. The aim was to paint non-interventionists as well as the America First Committee as “Nazi lovers”. Arguably the greatest feat was the BSC’s fabrication of intelligence that historian Thomas Mahl argued led to the effective repeal of the Neutrality Acts.
The BSC commissioned the manufacture of a map purporting to be the German plan to conquer parts of Central and South America, and it was a convincing one. This was the evidence that was delivered to President Roosevelt and on October 27th, 1941, he announced to the public, “I have in my possession a secret map, made in Germany by Hitler’s government, by planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and part of Central America as Hitler proposes to organize it” (Simkin, BSC). Helping events was the sinking of the U.S. destroyer Reuben James, which was escorting convoys to Britain, on October 31st. . This was reminiscent of the genuine Zimmermann Telegram in January 1917 that was instrumental in pushing the US into entering the war on the Allied side, in which the German Foreign Office promised Mexico recovery of the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas if it allied with them and they won. The final dismantling of the Neutrality Acts occurred thereafter, as the legislation to permit U.S. ships to enter belligerent ports would become law on November 17th .
The effectiveness of British propaganda was so good that the idea of people and groups that didn’t want America in World War II being pro-Nazi sticks in the minds of some to this day. This is not to say, however, that no politicians or activists had pro-Nazi attitudes. Indeed, as I will illustrate there were a few who even collaborated in German propaganda efforts.
The German Efforts
The key figure in the effort to spread Nazi Germany’s propaganda to the United States, their counterpart to Sir William Stephenson, was German-American propagandist and poet George Sylvester Viereck, a registered German agent. Viereck had long fancied himself as a cultural ambassador for Germany in the United States and had written propaganda for Germany in World War I. He was particularly useful for marketing for Germany as he was in truth mildly critical of anti-Semitism but deluded himself into regarding it as an incidental rather than a central feature of Nazism. The Nazis knew that Kristallnacht had not been popular in America, thus Viereck’s focus would be to spread anti-British propaganda: criticism of Britain’s foreign policies as well as of their propaganda.
Flanders Hall: From Berlin to the US
Viereck founded, with the Hauck brothers being the official heads of the firm, Flanders Hall in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. This was a publishing firm that concealed from public view its Nazi funding and mostly selected works from the German Library of Information and distributed them in America. Most of the authors were either German or German-American and often used pseudonyms. These works included the highly popular Lord Lothian vs. Lord Lothian, officially authored by Senator Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota but ghostwritten by Viereck, which pointed out contradictions in the pro and anti-Nazi speeches from Britain’s ambassador to the United States, who had been pro-Nazi before he read Mein Kampf (Mahl, 157). They also provided critiques of British policies in Ireland, India, and on their strategy of blockading Germany during World War I. Another book, The 100 Families That Rule the Empire (1941) by Giselher Wirsing, was reported by Flanders Hall to be boosted by several non-interventionist senators and representatives (Allen & Pearson, 1941). The title was based on America’s 60 Families (1937) by Ferdinand Lundberg, which had charged that the U.S. was a plutocracy of these families and called for scrapping the U.S. Constitution in favor of a parliamentary system. Wirsing, it turns out, was not only a member of the Nazi Party but also held rank in the SS. A book that attracted some scandal was We Must Save the Republic, as its author, Congressman Stephen A. Day (R-Ill.), son of Supreme Court Justice William R. Day, had used Flanders Hall, apparently with his eyes open as to its connections, to publish it. Former non-interventionist Senator Rush Holt (D-W.V.) also had been in negotiations with Flanders Hall to publish his book critical of British propaganda titled appropriately, The British Propaganda Network before it was shut down.
The Franking Scheme
Viereck sought to use Congress as a machine with which to distribute propaganda against intervention. He had made his way in Washington’s social circles and through knowing Congressman Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.), he met one of his secretaries, George Hill. The two concocted a scheme to distribute anti-British propaganda through the Congressional frank. For those not in the know, the franking privilege is that members of Congress get to use the mail free of charge. They would get members of Congress to speak against involvement in World War II and distribute these speeches through the frank. Hill would use the justification that it was for the Order of the Purple Heart (a veterans group of which he headed a chapter in New York) for the mailers to members of Congress (Hoke, 28-30). Given that non-interventionist members of Congress saw themselves as patriots, how could they refuse if it was a veterans organization behind it? This was an illegal scheme, and although Viereck had registered as a German agent, the scope of his activities was not disclosed, such as the establishing of Flanders Hall. They also managed to get a several members of Congress as patsies for them. Reps. Jacob Thorkelson (R-Mont.) and Lewis Thill (R-Wis.), for instance, inserted Nazi propaganda into the Congressional Record. However, the most in-depth case was that of Senator Ernest Lundeen.
The Case of Senator Lundeen
In 1917, Minnesota’s Ernest Lundeen had as a Republican representative voted against American participation in World War I, which had cost him renomination in 1918. The times had changed by the 1930s and criticism of World War I was more normalized, with him being elected to the Senate from the Farmer-Labor Party in 1936. He was determined to prevent the US from going down the same path a second time, and went the greatest length of any senator to do so.
Lundeen didn’t shy away from associations with George Sylvester Viereck, the leading propaganda agent the Nazis had in the US who specialized in promoting anti-British sentiment. In fact, Viereck even wrote some of his Senate speeches, and he may have paid Lundeen to allow him to do so. He also was made the chair of the Make Europe Pay War Debts Committee to promote anti-British sentiment in the US. Lundeen’s role was pretty much honorary on this committee, as it was Viereck pulling the strings as he did with Flanders Hall. On August 31, 1940, he boarded a plane with two FBI agents on board, supposedly there to tail Lundeen. However, this plane crashed with all on board killed in what was at that time the worst air disaster in American history. There has been speculation that the plane was sabotaged, but the FBI investigation produced no conclusion.
Overall, the British efforts proved much more successful of course than Germany’s, but Germany had a capable propagandist in Viereck and the American public was not wanting to go to war again. What ultimately won out though was the superiority of Britain’s propaganda and intelligence efforts.
Allen, R. & Pearson, D. (1941, August 30). The Daily Washington Merry-Go-Round. Suffolk News-Herald.
Eisele, A. (2009, September 3). Death of senator from Minnesota still shrouded in mystery. MinnPost.
Hoke, H. (1944). Black mail. New York, NY: Reader’s Book Service, Inc.
Johnson, N.M. (1968). George Sylvester Viereck: Poet and Propagandist. University of Iowa.
Mahl, T.E. (1998). Desperate deception: British cover operations in the United States: 1939-44. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books.
Ritchie, D.A. (2021). The columnist: leaks, lies, and libel in Drew Pearson’s Washington. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Simkin, J. (2020, January). British Security Coordination. Spartacus Educational.
Simkin, J. (2020, January). Ernest Cuneo. Spartacus Educational.
U.S. At War: Sloppy Citizenship. (1942, November 16). TIME Magazine.
Usdin, S. (2017, January 16). When a Foreign Government Interfered in a U.S. Election – to Reelect FDR. Politico.
Wirtz, J.J., & Godson, R. (2002). Strategic denial and deception: the twenty-first century challenge. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
2 thoughts on “The War for the American Mind – Foreign Propaganda in the US From 1939-41”
Hello from the UK
Absolutely fascinating and very useful, thank you very much. The Nazis are still at this work in the world even now as they never went away at the end of WW2. I still see propaganda being directed against the UK, both within my country and outside including the USA.
Germany has not wanted the UK to leave the EU but has used others to try and sabotage the Brexit process.
Thank you! I appreciate the feedback. It occurs to me that the price for long-run sovereignty is some economic difficulty short-run with Brexit. I didn’t know what to think of it at first, but I came to realize that the EU legislature as an unelected body has way too much power over individual nations and extends beyond original purposes. Good on Britain for leaving!