Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra
Episode 6: Bedlam
The most high-profile sedition trial in American history kicks off inside a Washington, D.C. federal courtroom. The members of Congress who attempted to quash the investigation are now faced with a super-charged indictment and a brand new Justice Department prosecutor who is battle tested and up for the challenge. What he finds as the curtain rises on the trial, though, is something that he is wholly unprepared for: pre-planned, unmitigated chaos.
Rachel Maddow: The note was written in black pencil, on cheap white paper. It said: “You will die before Wednesday if you don’t get out of this city. We just paid 18-thousand dollars for your death. You must die.” And then the note was signed. It was signed, “The Bullet Gang.” And tucked inside the envelope with the note were two 38-caliber bullets. That death threat was addressed to a lawyer, a man named O. John Rogge.
John Rogge was a young man, but he was a big deal in the Justice Department already. He had risen fast at D.O.J. He’d become the head of the criminal division at Main Justice before he was even out of his 30s.
But the night those two bullets rolled out of that envelope with his name on it, and into the palm of his hand, John Rogge was on assignment for the Justice Department far away from his impressive office in Washington, D.C. He’d been sent down to Louisiana to work on a big and dangerous case.
Radio Announcer: The National Broadcasting Company brings you an address by the honorable Huey P. Long, United States Senator from Louisiana.
Maddow: United States Senator Huey Long – the former Governor of Louisiana – he was a god-like figure in Louisiana politics.
Governor Huey Long: Get out! Organize your friends! Let’s make the fight! Let’s make the politicians keep the promises, or vote somebody into office that will keep the promises! That in this land of abundance, none shall have too much! None shall have too little!
Maddow: Huey Long was the very definition of populism. A man of the people. Somebody who would fight for the little guy.
Long: How many men ever been to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what's intended for nine tenths of the people to eat. The only way you'll ever be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some that grub he ain't got no business with. (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
Maddow: Huey Long as Governor of Louisiana, he was just a huge political presence. He was such a good speaker. He sold his brand of populism so effectively, he became not just important in his home state or in the south. He became a national force. And then he came to Washington. He was elected to the U.S. Senate on his trademark promise to share the wealth to “make every man a king.”
Long: So I give you that plan of our Share Our Wealth society for the sponsoring of which I am labeled America’s menace and madman and pied piper and demagogue!
Maddow: America's menace and mad man and pied piper and demagogue. Huey Long was a lot of things. He was called a lot of things. He was also – to put it mildly – wildly corrupt.
Radio Announcer: The voice of the demagogue is heard in the land. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana. He makes his bid to become dictator of America.
Maddow: Huey Long brought the whole state of Louisiana under the control of his political machine. He ran it like a mob boss. Everybody kicked up to him. He had a piece of everyone's action. He took total control of all elections in the state. Also all appointed offices. He stacked every level of state government and even local government with people who answered only to him. He used bribes and threats to just take anything he wanted, including from the state legislature.
He was also vicious to his enemies. He was accused of kidnapping. He was accused of trying to arrange the murder of a political opponent. It's cliché to say that powerful elected officials see themselves as above the law. Huey Long took that to another level. He would say, “I am the Constitution.”
But then, at the peak of his power and his influence, as a rising national figure, as a potential contender for the presidency, Huey Long was killed in 1935. He was the first-ever U.S. Senator to be assassinated while in office. He was home in Louisiana. He was at the state capitol at Baton Rouge, and he was ambushed and shot.
Radio Announcer: A target of an assassin’s bullet was Huey Long, Louisiana’s bombastic strongman of the Bayou.
Maddow: Even after the death of Huey Long though, the political machine that he had built in Louisiana, it kept going. The election rigging, the violence, the gangster tactics, the extortion, just the profound corruption that he had overseen, it kept going after his death.
And so, in 1939, the Justice Department sent down to Louisiana a high-powered, high-profile lawyer to investigate. A hot shot prosecutor. They sent John Rogge to investigate how the Huey Long machine was working and whether it could be broken up. That's why those two bullets rolled out of that envelope and into John Rogge’s hand.
Rogge was in Louisiana to try to dismantle the Huey Long political machine to clean up all of that corruption. The bullet gang that sent Rogge that death threat, whoever they were, they were trying to scare him off. They were going to make sure he would not succeed in that mission in Louisiana.
The night he received that death threat, with the bullets in the envelope, Rogge gave a statement to reporters. He told them, “I can only say, any threat like [t]his will only make me strive harder to uncover any scandal in this state, or any other place. The United States Department of Justice cannot be threatened.”
And then Rogge made good on that promise. He pursued his investigation. He brought federal charges. He got federal convictions against every level of Huey Long's Louisiana machine, including one of the men who succeeded Long as Governor. Rogge got him a decade-long prison sentence. It was big, national news. Those indictments, those convictions, they were called sensational in papers like The New York Times. Taking down the invincible Huey Long machine – that was a career-making triumph for a man who frankly was already on the fast track to the top of the Justice Department.
After his success in Louisiana, John Rogge returned to Washington with that feather in his cap. Now more than ever, he was a man to watch. John Rogge was therefore the obvious choice for what would be the next higher-than-high-profile case that the Justice Department was about to take to court.
Radio Announcer: In New York, the alleged ringleaders of a fantastic Christian Front plot to overthrow the United States government by force are now behind federal bars.
Maddow: The Christian Front case. When the FBI and the Justice Department arrested and brought charges against 17 members of Father Coughlin’s Christian Front militia in 1940 – the guys who were stockpiling bombs, and ammunition, and U.S. military heavy machine guns, training for a violent takeover of the federal government – the man the Justice Department tapped to try that case in federal court was that rockstar lawyer, John Rogge, who had just come back from his triumph in Louisiana.
It was Rogge’s job to prove to that Brooklyn jury that these 17 members of Father Coughlin’s Christian Front were guilty of sedition. But that is not how it worked out. He didn't get any of them. When that case fell apart in the summer of 1940, when it fell apart in spectacular fashion, and the Christian Fronters were all set free and even given their guns back, that was on John Rogge’s watch. He had been brought in specially from Main Justice to be the very high-profile prosecutor in that case.
So in very quick succession, he went from triumph against all the odds in Louisiana, to failure despite all the evidence in New York. That failed prosecution of the Christian Front was not just a high-profile embarrassment for the U.S. Justice Department. For John Rogge, it was a high-profile personal failure, as well. He really fell from a great height there in terms of his reputation.
But you get back up again. Sometimes you get a chance at redemption. And it turned out that the Christian Front trial would not be John Rogge’s last shot at locking up a band of violent seditionists set on ending American democracy and overthrowing the U.S. government.
Through a very unusual series of events, John Rogge was about to take over the single biggest sedition case in United States history. The case charged dozens of Americans with trying to violently overthrow the government. That implicated dozens of sitting members of Congress, as well. Elected officials from both parties, who, amazingly, had just managed to pressure the Justice Department, pressure the Attorney General, into firing the prosecutor who had led the investigation and who had been in charge of the case.
But when they got prosecutor William Power Maloney fired from the sedition case in Washington, the Senators and Congressmen linked to the plot, who pressured the Attorney General to get rid of Maloney, those members of Congress actually only got half of what they wanted. Yes, they did get William Maloney fired. But they didn't get the investigation canned altogether.
Maloney was out, but this new prosecutor came in and took over his work: John Rogge. A man who had faced down actual bullets meant to scare him off a case. A man who had made his name exposing wrongdoing at the highest levels of government. A man who was not built to be intimidated either by insurrectionists or by their protectors in Congress, even if his bosses were.
This is Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra.
Radio Announcer: The federal grand jury has indicted again 28 men and women on charges that they have conspired to establish a Nazi government in the United States.
Nancy Beck Young: You have the leading American fascists and Nazi sympathizers on trial here in the United States.
Radio Announcer: 22 defense lawyers – count ‘em, 22 – raised legal pandemonium yesterday.
Radio Announcer: If what we’ve seen so far is any forecast of things to come, this is going to be a legal three ring circus.
Maddow: Episode 6: Bedlam.
John Rogge was German-American. He grew up speaking German at home with his immigrant parents. He graduated college at the age of 19. He then ripped through Harvard Law School in two years. He was the youngest person who had ever been awarded a Harvard Law Degree.
But as quickly as he ascended and as high as he flew, Rogge was now facing the daunting, even humbling, task of inheriting the highest-profile case in the whole country. Inheriting it midstream from another prosecutor whose career had just been ended by the same case.
Radio Announcer: There is no doubt the government will bear down strong following the statement of special prosecutor William Power Maloney.
Maddow: Special prosecutor William Power Maloney did not get to finish the case that he started. After he was specially assigned by the Attorney General to investigate Nazi penetration in the United States, William Maloney had swung for the fences. He had indicted more than two dozen Americans for sedition – for conspiring to violently overthrow the government of the United States, to replace democracy with a form of American fascism.
Radio Announcer: The Department of Justice has indicted 28 men and one woman…
Maddow: Maloney’s sedition indictment wrapped up ultra-right groups and fascists planning violence against government targets. It also included individuals linked to a Nazi plot in Congress, a scheme in which members of Congress helped a German agent send Nazi propaganda to millions of Americans homes.
This was stuff written by or approved by the Hitler government in Berlin to try to exacerbate internal conflicts and resentments here among Americans. To make us distrust and dislike and lose faith in our allies who were fighting Germany in Europe. Also to just soften up any hard feelings Americans might have toward Hitler and the Nazis, and fascism in general. One congressman, Jacob Thorkelson of Montana, worked with George Viereck, the Nazi agent, to mail out five thousand copies of a friendly, sympathetic interview with Adolf Hitler.
Radio Announcer: From our Washington studios, we now bring you an address by Representative J. Thorkelson of Montana.
Maddow: Congressman Thorkelson was given this friendly Hitler interview by the Nazi agent George Viereck. The Congressman added his own supportive comments, and then he mailed out thousands of copies of it from his congressional office, with the printing and postage costs covered by the U.S. taxpayer.
Franked envelopes from Congressman Hamilton Fish's office were used to send out literature from the armed fascist group the Silver Shirts, as well as a mail-order form for people to receive copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Jewish forgery promoted by the Nazi party and by anti-semites all over the world.
William Power Maloney's indictment hit the armed fascist groups and also the Nazi propaganda operation in Congress. Maloney had even tiptoed into the very controversial territory of issuing federal grand jury subpoenas to members of Congress, starting with Hamilton Fish. But right in the middle of his investigation, Maloney was suddenly out, removed from the case, when members of Congress implicated in the propaganda scheme pressured the Justice Department into firing him. When Maloney was fired from the sedition case, it was John Rogge who was handed the reins to take over.
Bradley Hart: O. John Rogge in this period is approaching a household name if he is not already. Rogge is seen as a rising star in the Department of Justice.
Maddow: That’s historian Bradley Hart. John Rogge was a big deal – he was this wunderkind attorney who had taken down Huey Long’s political machine in Louisiana. But he's also the guy who had then face-planted in the trial of the Christian Front in New York.
Hart: Rogge has a mixed record as a prosecutor. But he is not mixed at all in his commitment to try to shut down these extremist groups whenever possible. When Rogge sort of takes on the sedition trial, I think there's this perception that this is the right man for the job, that he is a crusading Department of Justice leader, that he has the most experience perhaps of anyone in prosecuting pro-Nazi organizations, and that he will be dogged in his pursuit of these people. He sees this as his wartime duty in some ways, that this is his way of contributing to the war effort and ensuring that Nazi efforts to subvert the U.S. are not successful.
Maddow: John Rogge knew how important the case was to the country, but he also knew what had happened to his predecessor who developed the case in the first place.
So he started by stripping the case down to the studs. Taking it apart. Rogge set aside the indictments that had already been handed down by Maloney’s grand jury. He started a top-to-bottom review of the whole investigation up to that point. He pored over volumes of grand jury testimony that had been gathered. He hauled back in some of the witnesses who had already testified to Maloney’s grand jury. He brought them in front of his own grand jury. And he called some new witnesses, too.
Rogge conducted this intensive review behind closed doors for nearly a full year, presumably to the delight of the members of Congress who had forced the firing of his predecessor. They bought themselves a year of breathing room. It looked like maybe they bought themselves the Justice Department being off of their back entirely.
Until a few days after New Years in 1944, when John Rogge burst back into public view to show the country and the world what he had been up to. He basically said, O.K., my review is over. Now, it’s showtime.
Radio Announcer: The federal grand jury has indicted again 28 men and women on charges that they have conspired to establish a Nazi government in the United States.
Maddow: Indicted again. And the members of Congress involved with Nazi agent George Sylvester Viereck, they were not off the hook after all.
Radio Announcer: George Sylvester Viereck, you remember the man who has been prominent for several years as a Nazi propagandist, heads the list of those who've been indicted.
Maddow: John Rogge's indictment landed like a bomb in Washington. Those members of Congress who had forced out his predecessor William Maloney, they did that for a reason. They wanted this whole sedition case to go away. They wanted the investigation to stop.
Well, Rogge had not only not stopped it, he had sharpened it. He focused the sedition allegations on the troops. On the armed forces. Targeted efforts to recruit guard, reserves, and active-duty U.S. troops to get them to join these ultra-right groups and arm and train them for the overthrow of the U.S. government. The effort to demoralize U.S. troops, and even their families, to turn them against the allied side in the war and toward the Nazis.
Here’s historians Nancy Beck Young and Steven Ross.
Young: They've been charged with trying to undermine the U.S. military both in terms of military morale and military effectiveness. So, they're charged with essentially trying to create a revolt among the ranks of the troops.
Steven Ross: These people are all, at one point, either calling for the overthrow of the American government, or something that is also illegal is, you cannot tell men to avoid a draft and not serve in the armed forces. That is a crime.
Maddow: So when John Rogge inherited this case, he focused the sedition allegations on the undermining of the U.S. armed forces specifically. He also tightened the focus on Germany.
According to Rogge’s new indictment, the defendants “unlawfully, willfully, feloniously and knowingly conspired with officials of the Government of the German Reich and leaders of the Nazi Party.”
Radio Announcer: 28 men and two women are indicted on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government, and demoralize the armed forces. Such names as Hitler, Goring and Goebbels appear in the indictment –
Radio Announcer: – for allegedly conspiring with the Nazis to stir up trouble in our armed services.
Maddow: Conspiring with the Nazis. In other words, Rogge was charging them with collusion. He named German Nazi leaders in the indictment. And he prepared evidence that the defendants in the case weren’t just Americans who happened to share goals and a world-view with the Nazis. He prepred evidence that they were working with the Nazis toward a common aim.
Hart: Certainly people have the First Amendment right to speak out against the government and to criticize what elected officials are saying and the policies the administration is pursuing. On the other hand, these people have gone a little bit further than that. I mean, these are people who have gone to Nazi Germany. They actually have relationships with people in a hostile government effectively. And there's certainly evidence that suggests that the things that they were doing in the United States, if not done at the direct behest of Nazi Germany, were deeply influenced by Nazi Germany's interest.
Maddow: You might remember that one of the sedition defendants – a man named George Deatherage – had been caught planning a nationwide burst of violence to overthrow the 1940 presidential election results by force. One of the unnerving things about that plot was that when Deatherage was making those plans, he had just returned from Germany, where he had been a guest of the Nazi government.
Rogge collected evidence for his sedition indictment that it wasn't just Deatherage, it was defendant, after defendant, after defendant who had actually been brought over to Germany by the Hitler government and then sent back into the United States to resume their work. Rogge had copies of the defendants’ correspondence, writing to the German government in Berlin, asking for instructions and assistance, asking for funding. He had correspondence from the German government commending them for their work and offering further help.
Young: They are a list of the who's who of the extreme right in the United States, all with Nazi ties in some way, shape, or form. You have the leading American fascists and Nazi sympathizers on trial here in the United States.
Maddow: So, imagine how this all landed with the members of Congress who were tied up in this thing. By this time in 1944, America was beyond fully engaged in the war against the Nazis. And this was a trial in Washington D.C. of accused Nazi sympathizers and Nazi agents. Fascists who were allegedly trying to overthrow the U.S. government and set up a Hitler-style regime here. Defendants who in some cases were traveling back and forth to Germany as guests of the Nazis, corresponding with them, taking funding from them, and trying to sabotage the U.S. military.
You want to be the member of Congress who's exposed as working with these folks? Taking money from some of the same sources? Using your America First mailing lists to help out this cause, and help out these people? This was a trial that promised to expose all of that.
Members of Congress thought they’d successfully eliminated the threat of this investigation when they got John Rogge's predecessor fired. But now they saw this case revived, even bigger this time, and coming right at them. When John Rogge got this case into the courtroom, though, he would come up against his toughest challenge yet. A new enemy that he hadn't foreseen: chaos.
Radio Announcer: If what we’ve seen so far is any forecast of things to come, this is going to be a legal three-ring circus.
Hart: The courtroom accounts from this trial are absolutely astonishing.
Radio Announcer: Probably nothing so daffy has ever been put on in the history of American courts.
Hart: It really just becomes a fiasco very quickly.
Maddow: That’s next.
Radio Announcer: (NEWSREEL MUSIC) Sedition trial opens in Washington. The FBI dragnet brings in a strange assortment of people, 30 in all, charged with scheming to establish a Nazi government in the United States.
Maddow: On April 17th, 1944, the curtain was officially raised on the biggest sedition trial in U.S. history. The trial was held at the federal courthouse in downtown Washington, D.C. And it was in every newscast in the country. It was on the front page of all the papers.
Radio Announcer: Chief Justice Edward C. Eicher presides at the trial of 30 alleged seditionists. The government’s case is presented by special assistants to the Attorney General, prosecutor O. John Rogge.
Maddow: Usually even big, splashy front-page-news court cases start out on the boring side. At least they all start off predictably, with the boilerplate procedural stuff that has to start every trial. But when the biggest sedition trial in U.S. history gaveled into session in April 1944, it didn't start slow. There was a big surprise right from the beginning. One of the defendants was missing.
Radio Announcer: Among the defendants rounded up by the FBI, Edward James Smythe, delaying the trial’s opening by his failure to appear.
Maddow: When the clerk called the roll on day one of the trial, one of the alleged seditionists, Edward James Smythe – who had headlined joint rallies between the Klu Klux Klan and the German American Bund, who had corresponded with the German Government asking their help in propagandizing the American people and targeting Jews – Mr. Smythe, when it came time for him to face trial, he was gone. Even his lawyer said he had no idea where he was.
It took a few days, but they eventually did find him. When Mr. Smythe was hauled back into court, he told the judge that the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding. He just got his dates mixed up. That seemed slightly implausible given the fact that they had caught him about 40 miles south of the Canadian border, and still heading north.
Radio Announcer: Smythe was picked up near the Canadian border.
Maddow: The FBI said he appeared to be on his way out of the country masquerading as a vacationing fisherman.
That delay while the FBI had to go hunt down one of the defendants, that unexpected disruption on day one, that might have been a bit of a sign.
Radio Announcer: If what we’ve seen so far is any forecast of things to come, this is going to be a legal three-ring circus.
Maddow: 30 alleged seditionists, 22 defense attorneys, the prosecutors, the judge, the jury pool, reporters – lots of reporters reporters – members of the public, everybody in the same 38-by-40 foot room. The inside of that courtroom in downtown Washington D.C., it was absolutely packed. It was also tense. And soon it was cacophonous.
Radio Announcer: They may get around to picking a jury for Washington’s super-colossal sedition trial. 22 defense lawyers – count ‘em, 22! – raised legal pandemonium yesterday.
Maddow: If you’re hired as a defense attorney, your job is to seed doubt in the minds of the jury, to rebut the allegations of the indictment, to puncture the prosecution's case for your client's guilt. In the case of the mass sedition trial, the sheer size of the indictment, the sheer number of defendants – that gave defense lawyers an opening to at least sow confusion, to make it as difficult as possible for the prosecution to present their case, or for the jury to be able to follow along with what was happening.
Young: Let's stretch this out as much as we possibly can by introducing complex motion after complex motion, most of them also ridiculous. But the judge is gonna have to read these motions and then rule on them.
Maddow: The Washington Post reported that defense attorneys “resorted to every legal trick at their command to forestall the proceedings and suppress the painstakingly gathered evidence.” The 22 defense lawyers argued that the whole investigation was illegal, and that of course all the charges should be thrown out.
They made multiple accusations that the judge was biased, insisting that he had to recuse himself from the case. When those demands were denied by the court, they filed appeals in higher courts, and then lost those appeals, too.
They moved to subpoena prosecutor John Rogge himself, to put the prosecutor on the stand. They accused Rogge of bribing witnesses, of paying witnesses. They also said the court reporter should be removed from the case because she worked for a company that employed a Jewish executive. That actually ended up being kind of a theme for the defense lawyers and for their clients.
Radio Announcer: The pick of the bunch of pro-Hitlerites is Mrs. Lois de Lafayette Washburn, a flamboyant notoriety-seeker who rips off a Nazi salute to her hero, Mr. Schickelgruber.
Maddow: On the steps outside the courthouse, one of the defendants repeatedly giving Nazi salutes, trying to upset onlookers and the press. Another defendant decided one afternoon to not show up. He didn't go on the run, exactly, like Mr. Smythe did, he just decided he wanted to keep an appointment with his dentist. The defendants, the defense lawyers, the jury, the prosecutors, the judge, everyone in court was left twiddling their thumbs for close to an hour while they waited for the guy's dental appointment to finish up. Another of the defendants claimed that he just felt like he didn't belong. That the whole vibe of the trial was just a little crimey for his taste.
Radio Announcer: Lawrence Dennis’s counsel doesn’t like the court’s atmosphere. He says lining up defendants under heavy guard gives the whole proceeding an air of criminality.
Maddow: An air of criminality. At a criminal trial. The defendants not only took aim at the judge and the prosecution. They also went at it with each other.
Radio Announcer: Not only don’t the defendants agree with the government, they can’t agree with each other. Viereck’s lawyer dually disclaims any connection with any defendant who will leave this court and give a Nazi salute in the streets. Viereck’s lawyer also has disparaging remarks on his post-war planning colleagues, who want the trial held up until they can call Adolf Hitler, Joseph Paul Goebbels, Rudolph Hess, and Winston Churchill to witness the innocence of their clients.
Maddow: Oh, they planned to call Winston Churchill, too, as a witness for the defense.
If it sounds like a circus, that’s because it was a circus. At one point The New York Times led a front page story on the trial with news that the judge himself had been driven out – he had left the courtroom because of what the Times described as a "violent uproarious argument" among the defense lawyers and defendants. The judge just couldn't stand the screaming anymore, so he got up and left.
Hart: The courtroom accounts from this trial are absolutely astonishing. There are people who are willing under oath to repeat vile antisemitic lies. Many of the people on trial here have no qualms about showing themselves to be Nazi sympathizers. We have people who are giving the Nazi salute to reporters and in the courtroom. We have people who are willing to testify on the stand about supposed Jewish world plots and things of that sort.
Maddow: The judge allowed defense counsel to ask prospective jurors if they were Jewish, if they had Jewish relatives, or if they read Jewish publications. And it got even weirder than that. Prospective jurors were asked by defense counsel: "What does Jew mean?" "What does international bankers mean?" "What is meant by Mongolian Jew?" "What is zionism?" "Do you think the Jews are an international people?" "Do you think Jesus was a Jew."
The judge allowed defense lawyers to ask those questions, and then to reject prospective jurors based on their answers to these questions. The resulting 12-person jury had zero Jewish people, zero African-Americans, and at least three German-Americans.
One defense lawyer told the jury that the government’s case was a “Jewish conspiracy.” He also railed in court about "Jewish international bankers" and tried repeatedly to introduce the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as evidence.
The judge allowed the trial to get so out of hand that the chaos in the courtroom ended up becoming a bigger story than the sedition charges themselves. The headlines from the time make it clear:
“Uproar Halts Sedition Trial.”
“Tumult is raised in Sedition Trial.”
“Sedition Defendants’ Tactics Irritate Judge, [and] Entertain Spectators”
Radio Announcer: This morning in the 5th week of Washington’s 29-ring sedition trial, we finally got a jury after the judge has beaten down a lot of post-war planning lawyers.
Maddow: Because of all the antics and the outbursts and the violent uproars and unscheduled breaks for dental care, and all the rest, it took so long to seat the jury that one of the defendants up and died during the process. Of the original 30 defendants, only 29 of them actually ended up making it to opening statements.
But finally, in mid-May 1944, more than a month after the trial was supposed to start, John Rogge would finally get to make his opening statement. He would finally get to state his case. At least in theory he would.
In the end, in that particular courtroom before that particular judge, he couldn’t do it. Or at least he couldn't do it in a way that anyone could hear. It was just bedlam, right from the moment John Rogge attempted to start his opening argument.
Radio Announcer: Well, they should have held the sedition trial in Madison Square Garden or in Bedlam. Probably nothing so daffy has ever been put on in the history of American courts. The case finally got started today, and the prosecution tried to make opening statements. John Rogge tried to talk through cat calls and comments from the defense tables. Defense attorneys were popping up all over the place with motion after motion, and the 29 defendants themselves indulged in asides, shouts, stage whispers, and at one point broke into a kind of derisory chant.
Maddow: Cat calls and comments. Shouts and chants – they were chanting. At one point, the defendants banded together and repeatedly shouted at John Rogge to sit down and shut up.
Hart: You have dozens of defendants, all potentially with their own legal teams, you have this, this extensive Department of Justice, you know, prosecutorial contingent, and you have dozens of, of defendants who have the right to be in the courtroom here for these, this trial that drags on day after day, month after month.
Maddow: At a crucial point in his opening statement, the defendants and their attorneys hurled objections at John Rogge for more than thirty minutes straight. The Washington Post described it as “bedlam [breaking] loose in the courtroom. [Defense] lawyers in every corner of the court room shouting their objections, the din becoming so intense, they could not hear [even] their own voices.”
Radio Announcer: Sometimes the prosecutor’s voice was drowned out by a chorus of objections from defense attorneys. And now and then, such strident screams from defendants as “that’s a damn lie” or “I’m a republican, not a Nazi.”
Maddow: The New York Times described it as an “uproar with the judge rapping for order and marshals stepping in to attempt to restore order.” Prosecutor John Rogge wasn't able to choke out more than a few words at a time. Nobody could hear him.
Radio Announcer: It took a half a dozen marshals today to keep them quiet enough to let the government merely state its case. They don’t seem to have any more sense of self discipline in court than so many jackrabbits.
Maddow: John Rogge’s opening statement was scheduled to take two hours. Because of the environment in the courtroom, though, it took all day. And nobody really knows how much of it the jury could hear over all the noise and the chaos.
But when you go back and read those parts of the court transcript from Rogge’s prepared opening statement, you strip out all the yelling and the screaming and the chanting and the booing, you can see that what Rogge is trying to do is explain to the jury what was at stake for us as a country. What it means for there to be a concerted ongoing effort by some Americans to end our democracy, especially when they have the help of powerful allies inside our government. Rogge was trying to explain, over the pandemonium, what we as a nation stand to lose if we don’t do something about it.
Here is O. John Rogge, from his prepared remarks to the jury. He said:
“[The defendants] intended to impose on us a one-party system, just as the Nazis had done before them in Germany. The evidence will show that they intended to abolish the Republican and the Democratic parties. The evidence will show that they intended to abolish freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom from arrest without cause, and all the other civil liberties guaranteed to us by the constitution.
Thereafter, the evidence will show they intended to run this country not according to our constitution, but according to the so-called ‘fuhrer’ principle and the Nazi concept of Aryanism
The evidence will show that the defendants themselves talked in terms of bloodbaths, or blood flowing in the streets, [or] hanging people from lamp posts, of pogroms. One of the defendants stated that our pogroms in this country would make Hitler’s look like a Sunday school picnic.
The evidence will show that the defendants regarded themselves as enemies of democracy. According to them, democracy was decadent. It was weak, false, rotten, corrupt. It was senseless and dangerous. It was a monstrosity of filth. There was no principle, according to the defendants, that was as wrong as that of democracy.
The Nazis, and the defendants, were going to destroy it throughout the world.”
When the sedition trial would finally come to its shocking end later that year in 1944, no one would remember the substance of the prosecution's case, John Rogge’s warning about the type of threat this was and about the powerful Americans involved in it.
And that’s not just because of the bedlam in the courtroom. It was because the powerful Americans involved in this stuff, members of congress and senators, they were about to turn up the volume to add to the cacophony themselves.
And the judge who had completely lost control of that courtroom, who had already allowed it to spin into such chaos. The judge’s role was about to take a shocking turn. That no one had planned for. And no one knew how to handle.
It would drive the prosecutor in the sedition case to go rogue.
Radio Announcer: The prosecution had not even come close to presenting its side of the case.
Radio Announcer: The Justice Department official said the current trial will have to be terminated and hearings started all over again.
Hart: The government is left with this position of what do we do about this?
Maddow: And that is next time.
“Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra” is a production of MSNBC and NBC News.
This episode was written by myself, Mike Yarvitz, and Kelsey Desiderio. The series is Executive Produced by myself and Mike Yarvitz, and it's produced by Kelsey Desiderio. Our Associate Producer is Janmaris Perez. Archival support from Holly Klopchin. Sound design by Tarek Fouda. Our Technical Director is Bryson Barnes. Our Senior Executive Producers are Cory Gnazzo and Laura Conaway. Our Web Producer is Will Femia. Madeleine Haeringer is our head of editorial. Archival radio material is from NBC Newsvia the tall, dark, and handsome Library of Congress. With additional sound from CBS News.
You can find much more about this series – you can see the indictment that John Rogge brought against the sedition defendants, you can see one of the defendants throwing her Nazi salutes in front of the courthouse, you can see more about the creepy questions that defense lawyers asked potential jurors – all at our website: MSNBC.com/ultra
Long: The Lord has answered the prayer. He has called the barbecue. "Come to my feast," he said to 125 million American people. But Morgan and Rockefeller and Mellon and Baruch have walked up and took 85 percent of the vittles off the table. (LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE) Now, how you going to feed the balance of the people? What's Morgan and Baruch and Rockefeller and Mellon going to do with all of that grub. They can't eat it. They can't wear the clothes. They can't live in the houses. Give 'em a yacht! Give 'em a palace! Send them to Reno and get them a new wife when they want it, if that's what they want. (LAUGHTER) But when they've got everything on the God's living earth that they can eat and they can wear and they can live in, and all that their children can live in and wear and eat, and all their children's children can use, then we got to call Mr. Morgan and Mr. Mellon and Mr. Rockefeller back and say, "Come back here. Put that stuff back on this table here that you took away from here – that you don't need. Leave something else for the American people to consume."