The Nazis in Germany inspired certain organizations to form in the Americas inspired by them during Hitler’s rule. These included Adrien Arcand’s Christian National Socialist Party in Canada which wanted all Jews deported to the Hudson Bay region, former brigadier general under Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa Nicolás Rodriguez Carrasco’s Revolutionary Mexicanist Action (known as the “Gold Shirts”), which wanted to deport Jews and Chinese. The American version was the Silver Legion (known as the “Sliver Shirts”) headed up by William Dudley Pelley (1890-1965).
Pelley from an early age had a talent for writing and at the age of 19 he started his first publication, called The Philosopher, which focused on Christianity. He eventually found work with the Saturday Evening Post and covered the Russian Civil War. His experiences caused him to develop a strong sense of anti-Communism and anti-Semitism.
Off to Hollywood
After his experiences in Russia, Pelley went to work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, writing two dozen scripts, which included two Lon Chaney films, The Light in the Dark (1922) and The Shock (1923). Two of his short stories, The Face in the Window (1920) and The Continental Angle (1930), won O. Henry Awards. In 1927, Pelley left Hollywood, disillusioned with what he saw as Jews making changes to his writing and cited the casting couch as another reason for leaving, writing, “Do you think me unduly incensed about them? I’ve seen too many Gentile Women ravished and been unable to do anything about it. They have a concupiscent slogan in screendom. Don’t hire till you see the whites of their thighs!” (Zillis) The following year, Pelley wrote “Seven Minutes in Eternity”, in which he detailed a near-death out-of-body experience.
Establishing the Silver Legion
The day after Hitler was named Germany’s chancellor, January 21, 1933, Pelley established the Silver Legion of America. As he recounted on learning that Hitler had been elected chancellor in the newspapers, “I looked at the lines. I read them again. I sought to comprehend them. Something clicked in my brain!” (Elliston) Its members wore silver outfits with blue ties, blue corduroy pants, and a red “L” embroidered on the top left of their shirts, the L standing for love, loyalty, and liberation (Beekman, 82). They used the Battle Hymn of the Republic as their anthem. Pelley proposed a system, that he called the Christian Commonwealth in his book No More Hunger! (1933). As Scott Beekman (2006) writes, “Pelley claimed that the Commonwealth was “a social system that is neither Capitalism, Socialism, Fascism, or Communism.” In fact, the Commonwealth blended elements of all these ideas into a composite not unlike the ideas expressed by his adolescent hero Edward Bellamy and the iconoclastic Populist-Social Gospeler Richard T. Ely. The system meshed a theocratic, corporate state; centralized production control of government-owned industry; civil service-style employment protection with private ownership of personal property; and an all-encompassing social welfare program” (83). He was, in other words, a sort of utopian whose philosophy could probably best fit with the Populists of the 1890s, who themselves were inspired by Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward, 2000-1887. Pelley wished for a society with “no competition, no taxes, no rents, no interest, no currency, no foreclosures, no crime, no banks and no Jews” (Rasmussen). Pelley’s utopia was far from for all. He held that the property government held should be given to white citizens, the portions being based on loyalty, with Jews allowed only to live in one city in every state and blacks put back into slavery (Daley). Pelley was also rather contradictory, as although he did not claim his system was fascist, he personally embraced the labels of “fascist” and “Nazi”. For a time his publication Weekly Liberation’s masthead read, “Washington was a Fascist because he led an insurrection against tyranny, and Lincoln was a Nazi because his issue of greenbacks smashed the control of Jewish financiers” (Beekman, 95). Actual connections between him, his group, and Nazi Germany were minor, as the Nazis were not keen on having that group any closer than arm’s length.
Pelley was also a mystic who claimed to have been visited by Jesus, and of course he gave Pelley his blessing. The organization’s pledge was to “respect and sustain the sanctity of the Christian Ideal, to nurture the moral tradition in Civic, Domestic and Spiritual life and the culture of the wholesome, natural and inspirational in Art, Literature, Music and Drama; to adulate and revere an aristocracy of Intellect, Talent and Characterful Purpose in the Body Politic; to sponsor and acclaim aggressive ideals and pride of Craftsmanship rather than the golden serpent of profit, that the lowliest individual may aspire to a life of fullest flower; to exalt Patriotism and Pride of Race, and in the interest of progress and evolution, to recognize the integrity of every nation and seek to perceive his place in the Fellowship of Peoples” (Beekman, 82). The most prominent member he got into his organization for a short time was Gerald L.K. Smith, an anti-Semitic rabblerousing minister who ran Huey Long’s Share The Wealth Organization.
Although the organization was centered in Asheville, North Carolina as he got funding from a wealthy backer in the city, the bulk of its members lived on the west coast, he was an outcast in Asheville, and membership hit its peak in 1935, with the organization only being 15,000 strong (Beekman). This was a far cry from Pelley’s claim of having 100,000 followers.
He described his views on Jews as akin to the Nazis and regarded Christianity and anti-Semitism as 100% compatible. His ultimate goals were to have all Jews live in only one city in each state and force Roosevelt out of power, as he thought that he was a tool of Jews. The San Diego branch wanted to go a bit further than Pelley was planning at the time, actually planning a putsch on City Hall without Pelley’s knowledge (Hall, 3). He ran for president on a third-party ticket known as The Christian Party, but it was a flop as he only appeared on the ballot in Washington State, where got 1,598 votes. Pelley attributed this poor performance and his exclusion from all but one state ballot to Jewish influence. He and his Silver Shirts were by and large not taken seriously in the 1930s, with an Asheville Times editorial holding, “We have seen the Silver Shirt movement for what it is. In laughing at it, we laugh at others who find it a menace to the Republic” (Elliston). Pelley proved unable to get along with other extremists of his stripe due to personality conflicts as well as those people just tiring of his bizarre mysticism. The group’s membership fell to 5,000 in 1938. As James Zillis (2020) writes, “The most the Silver Shirts amounted to was the ability to secure a cache of weapons and ammunition and be mildly intimidating”.
Pelley’s activities attracted a lot of negative attention, including from Congress through the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the law. In 1934, Pelley was indicted with two others for advertising the sale of stock not registered with the state of North Carolina among other legal breaches. Although he was acquitted of the main charge the following year, he was sentenced on two lesser charges to 1-2 years of hard labor suspended if good behavior was maintained for five years (Beekman, 109). The former heard testimony from witnesses that the Silver Legion of America intended to overthrow the United States government and in 1940 Pelley himself appeared before the committee, now under the chairmanship of Martin Dies (D-Tex.), after previously refusing to testify and said that he wished to be “America’s Hitler” (Schultz). As might be expected, he opposed U.S. intervention in World War II on the side of the Allies.
The End of Pelley in Public Life
In 1941, Pelley disbanded the Silver Legion, claiming that he was doing so because the Dies Committee was doing such a good job in its anti-communist efforts (Daley). The following year, he was indicted and convicted for sedition and treason for promoting insubordination among American troops through his writings and imprisoned until 1950, serving half of his original sentence. Another legal effort against him in the form of the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, fell flat as the prosecution was unable to prove coordination between Nazi Germany and the defendants after the declaration of war. After his release, Pelley became a major believer in UFOs and formed a new religious ideology he called “Soulcraft” but steered clear of politics until his death.
Influence Extended and Conclusion
Pelley’s influence extended to certain other radical groups later on, including the Posse Comitatus, a survivalist anti-Semitic militia movement that was founded in Portland, Oregon in 1969 by Henry Lamont Beach, a former Silver Shirt. Their heterodox legal theories morphed into the broader sovereign citizen movement, an annoying and hazardous bane of law enforcement across the United States. Pelley was ultimately a flashy but minor figure even among extremist elements. Father Charles Coughlin with his radio program was a much greater influence in pushing public thought in a pro-Nazi direction than Pelley, but the latter created a movement that in America most resembled the Nazi storm troopers in style and organization.
Beekman, S. (2006, October 31). Pelley, William Dudley. American national biography. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Daley, J. (2018, October 3). The Screenwriting Mystic Who Wanted to Be the American Führer. Smithsonian Magazine.
Elliston, J. (2018, January/February). Asheville’s Fascist: William Dudley Pelley’s Obscure But Infamous Silver Shirt Movement Lives on in his Paper Trail. WNC Magazine.
Hall, A.C. (2019). Swastikas and Silver Shirts: The Dawn of American Nazism. Miami University.
Rasmussen, C. (1999, July 4). Self-Styled Prophet Hoped to Be Another Hitler. Los Angeles Times.
Schultz, W. William Dudley Pelley. North Carolina History Project.
Zillis, J. (2020, November 25). Fascism in 1930s America: The Silver Shirts. History is Now Magazine.