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Ideology in The Great Depression

Radicalism From The Right: The Radio Priest and American Nazis

Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest at the Shrine of the Little Flower Church in suburban Detroit, became one of America's best-known political figures in the 1930s by harnessing the new technology of radio. Coughlin's resonant voice and impassioned populist message drew millions of listeners; for a time, according to the US Post Office, Coughlin received more mail than anyone else in America—including the President.

Coughlin began as a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously declaring that the New Deal was, in fact, "Christ's Deal." However, like Huey Long and Upton Sinclair, Coughlin soon became frustrated with the New Deal's lack of success and broke with FDR. Unlike Long and Sinclair, however, Coughlin moved not further to the left but to the right—ultimately, far to the right. Coughlin increasingly preached bigoted sermons of anti-Semitic class resentment, blaming the Depression on an improbable consortium of Jewish Communists and Jewish bankers. Coughlin began to express sympathy with the policies of Mussolini and Hitler, even going so far as to plagiarize sections of sermons from translations of speeches from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Still, even as late as 1938, a public opinion poll found that one in four Americans supported "all or most of Coughlin's ideas."31 Coughlin didn't fully fall from grace until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when his continuing sympathy for America's new fascist enemies moved his views far beyond the pale of acceptable opinion.

Knowing what we now know about the evils of fascism and Nazism, it is difficult to imagine that many Americans found these right-wing populist ideologies to be very appealing in the 1930s. But in the 1930s, we hadn't yet gone to war with Hitler and the monstrous evils of the Holocaust had not yet been committed. Americans were more likely to fear Communism than fascism, and Hitler and Mussolini had been very successful in routing Communists in their countries. Some Americans admired the fascists' self-proclaimed defense of traditional culture and Christian morality. Most importantly, fascism seemed to be working as an economic model at a time when the American economy remained mired in crisis. Father Coughlin was not alone in admiring the führer's accomplishments.

Groups like Father Coughlin's Christian Front and the German-American Bund attempted to promote the fascist agenda within the United States. While the ranks of organized fascist sympathizers within the United States always remained small—the Bund had about 25,000 members at its peak, even fewer than the Communists—they were able, on occasion, to organize impressive rallies. In 1938 the Bund drew more than 20,000 to a rally at New York's Madison Square Garden to promote its fascistic version of "true Americanism." At the rally, Bund leader Fritz Kuhn's ugly anti-Semitic rhetoric—he hatefully and nonsensically called Franklin Roosevelt, "Frank Rosenfeld," and the New Deal, "The Jew Deal"—likely alienated more Americans than it attracted. Still, the specter of fascism loomed on the right flank of American politics through the long, lean years of the Depression.

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