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Transcript: The Day

The full episode transcript for Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra | Episode 3: The Day


Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra

Episode 3: The Day

A devastating explosion rips through a munitions plant in a small New Jersey town. And the American public is left with the chilling fact that the federal government had been warned about such an attack almost a year prior. The tip had come from a private spy ring operating in Los Angeles that was intent on doing what law enforcement had largely failed to do. Infiltrate far-right groups plotting violence across the country, and foil their plots before it was too late.

Rachel Maddow: About an hour west of New York City is a town in New Jersey called Kenvil. Small town. Small population. But in 1940, Kenvil was home to one major employer: one huge industrial plant. It was sited on a parcel of land that was bigger than 900 football fields.

Given its huge size, that industrial plant had a fitting name. It was called Hercules. The Hercules Powder Plant. That plant started off making dynamite for the mining industry, but by 1940, it was making gunpowder for the U.S. Army.

Now in 1940, the U.S. of course had not yet joined World War II. The Pearl Harbor attack that would bring us into the war, that wouldn't happen until the end of the following year, 1941. But in the summer of 1940, the U.S. was bracing – and the government was preparing – for what might be coming. By that summer in 1940, Germany was conquering all of Europe. Just that summer, France had fallen to Germany. Britain was facing very long odds of survival as the German Air Force just pounded them in the Battle of Britain.

The U.S. government ordered American munitions factories into overdrive to start churning out the kind of material the U.S. would need if and when we joined the fight. And that mobilization included the oldest continuously operating dynamite plant in the whole country, that huge Hercules Powder Plant in Kenvil, New Jersey, now repurposed to supply the U.S. military, and running full tilt to do it.

Until one cool Thursday afternoon in September 1940, when it all blew up.

Radio Announcer: One of the worst munitions disasters in American history tore the heart out of the great Hercules Powder Company’s plant. Fires and explosions raked the area all afternoon and night, leaving an estimated 50 dead, 200 injured, and more than two million dollars in property damage.

Maddow: At 1:30 PM on September 12th, 1940, two separate explosions, one after the other, ripped through the Hercules powder plant. 25 tons of smokeless gun powder – tons – erupted in a fireball. The blast punched a hole in the earth 13-feet deep. The ground shook 90 miles away. Every single pane of glass was broken in several nearby towns. Cars passing by were thrown off the road. A woman on her afternoon commute said the bus that she was riding in got tossed a full foot off the ground.

Radio Announcer: The rapid series of explosions started fires which are still burning. Firemen have been ordered back because of the danger of more explosions. The flames are not far from vaults containing stores of nitroglycerin.

Maddow: Roughly 400 people were working at the Hercules Powder Plant the day it exploded.

The blast went off right at a shift change, which maximized the number of potential casualties. After the explosion, the factory's onsite physician said the majority of the plant had been leveled. He told the New York Times, "When I say leveled, I mean literally, not figuratively."

Radio Announcer: At least nine powder houses blew up this afternoon. The President has ordered the United States Army and Red Cross to provide relief for the victims, but no one yet knows how many victims there are.

Maddow: It was 52 people who were killed, ultimately, in the Hercules Powder Plant explosion. 52 dead. Hundreds more people were injured. More than half of the plant’s entire workforce was either injured or killed. So many people were hurt they had to be laid out on the lawn in front of the local hospital.

It was one of the worst disasters of its kind in the history of the United States.

Radio Announcer: The Federal Bureau of Investigation has sent investigators to the scene of today’s explosions in the Kenvil, New Jersey plant of the Hercules Powder Company.

Maddow: An investigation started immediately into what had set off the explosions at the Hercules plant. Nothing anywhere near this bad had ever happened before at Hercules. There were no unusual conditions that day, there was no extreme heat, there were no known problems. The day after the explosion, the New York Times reported on a murmur among the investigators at the site; a murmur of the possibility of sabotage.

Radio Announcer: The cause is under investigation. Sabotage is suspected.

Maddow: “Sabotage is suspected.” But in the absence of clear, physical proof that the blast definitely had been deliberately caused, the FBI downplayed the possibility of foul play. They said as far as they could tell, it was probably just an accident. And that did remain a credible working theory, until two months later – to the day – when it happened again.

Radio Announcer: It was one of three factory explosions in widely-separated places, all happening in the space of an hour. Too much of a coincidence not to be sabotage, they think. So do I.

Maddow: Two months exactly after the explosion of the Hercules Powder Plant in Kenvil, New Jersey, three other plants – plants that made torpedoes and signal flares and other munitions – they all exploded, too; three of them within 20 minutes of each other. One of those plants, like the Hercules plant, was in New Jersey. The two others were in Pennsylvania. Altogether, 16 Americans were killed in that next round of explosions; dozens more people were wounded.

After the Hercules disaster two months earlier, these three further explosions in three separate factories all at the exact same time, it just seemed impossible that these could all be accidents.

But the FBI agents dispatched to investigate these three newly exploded plants, they didn't need to interview eyewitnesses or sift through the rubble as their only means of trying to find out what happened. Because it turns out, the U.S. government already knew about a plot to turn American munitions plants into ash and rubble. They'd been warned who was gonna do it before any of those plants blew up. And we know now who tipped them off in an effort to save the country from those who sought to destroy it.

This is “Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra.”


Steven Ross: They talk about Der Tag all the time, “The Day,” meaning the day that they’re going to blow up and take over America.

Bradley Hart: He wants to build an American version of fascism. His followers are armed. They are violently committed to this mission.

Ross: We’re gonna hang them and while they are dangling on the rope, we’re going to shoot them full of lead.

Hart: He actually says outright: I intend to overthrow the U.S. government

Ross: They don’t call themselves right-wing fanatics. They’re patriots who are saving America.


Maddow: Episode 3: The Day.

Leon Lewis is a 40-something Jewish lawyer living in Los Angeles in the 1930s. He's a veteran of World War I. He's an activist with the Anti-Defamation League. And Leon Lewis is unnerved by what he sees happening around him in LA. Here's historian Steven Ross.

Ross: The Nazis in Los Angeles hold their first open meeting just outside of downtown LA. And they get a large crowd coming out there and the crowd listens to their minister of propaganda lecturing on the new Germany and the wonderful things that Hitler is doing. How Germany would rise again because Hitle would save it. And that, they announced the Friends of New Germany would save America by defeating the country's two greatest enemies: Jews and communists. And at the end of the meeting, they asked for people to join. And the next day, the front page of the LA papers had five Brownshirts in Nazi uniforms giving the Hitler salute. A man named Leon Lewis reads this article and he says, “Oh my God, I know what they're doing.”

Maddow: It was Steven Ross who got access to Leon Lewis's files and who unearthed Leon Lewis's heroic, strange, personal role in this part of the story.

Ross: Leon Lewis thought, “The hell with it.” He was watching all this on the sidelines, but once Nazis held their first open meeting, he realized somebody had to do something and it would be him, because nobody in power cares.

Maddow: During the lead up to America's involvement in World War II, Southern California offered more opportunities than you might think to celebrate days like Hitler's birthday, if you were so inclined.

A German-American group operated a private park in La Crescenta, California. They called it Hindenburg Park. They had Hitler Youth summer camp there. And in fact, they had two thousand people show up for a Hitler's birthday party with pro-Nazi speakers and swastika banners and marching paramilitary groups.

German-American groups also operated a property, a German House, in downtown LA, complete with an onsite gift shop, which was called the Aryan Bookstore. The Aryan Bookstore sold Nazi books and pamphlets. They screened German propaganda movies. They were organizing right out in the open.

And when Leon Lewis realized that local law enforcement didn't seem to much care, he decided he would take it upon himself to figure out what exactly these groups were up to, what they intended, and what they were capable of.

Ross: He was a member of both the disabled American veterans and a member of the American Legion. He recruited four men who are all members of the Disabled American Veterans and, in two instances their wives, and he asked them all to go undercover to join every Nazi and fascist group in LA, to rise to positions of leadership, to send him daily reports so they could trace their activities.

Maddow: Leon Lewis's network of undercover agents managed to embed themselves inside German-American groups with ties to the Hitler government and also native-born, American fascist groups that they were working with.

It was one of Lewis's agents who told the government – who told Congress in public testimony – that the Hercules Powder Company was going to be a target for sabotage. A controversial House committee was investigating mostly communist, but also fascist organizing inside the United States. And in October 1939, that committee heard testimony from one of Leon Lewis's agents, a man named Neil Ness. Ness told the committee that he had firsthand knowledge these groups that he had joined, that he had been part of, were planning a series of attacks here at home.

Ross: Ness testifies in 1939 saying, Look, these Nazis are dangerous, and they are violent, and they are going to start– they talk about Der Tag all the time, “The Day,” meaning the day that they’re going to blow up and takeover America. And he uncovers a series of plots. Amongst them are Nazis are planning to blow up military and defense installations. He says, “You know, we talked about blowing up the Hercules Powder Plant.”

Maddow: “We talked about blowing up the Hercules Powder Plant.” This was eye-popping testimony, but almost too much so. The committee – and the press – they just didn't know what to make of it. It was shocking, obviously, and really specific. But it also just seemed really far-fetched. Until 11 months after that testimony, when it happened.

Radio Announcer: One of the worst munitions disasters in American history…

Maddow: After the Hercules Powder Company explosion in 1940, the chair of the congressional committee that had received the warning about it, he told reporters, “Everyone laughed when a man named Ness testified before our committee a year ago about plans to blow up the Hercules Company. When the plant blew up, it happened the way he said it would.”

That chairman also told reporters that a full record of Ness’s testimony had been turned over to the FBI at the time Ness gave his warning. Which means the FBI got a copy of his testimony, they got his warning, almost a year before the explosion. And yet…

Radio Announcer: The rapid series of explosions started fires, which are still burning…

Maddow: The Hercules Powder Plant was blown up anyway. Neil Ness had not given his testimony in secret, behind closed doors. It was public testimony. It was sensational enough that it got covered in the press when it happened. It was sensational enough, and also worrying and specific enough, that the congressional committee that heard the testimony handed it over to the FBI for them to investigate right away. But law enforcement apparently didn't act on that warning, not until it was way too late.

If you step back a second, it's worth noting that this is all taking place over a period of less than three months in 1940. Between late June and mid-September 1940, we've got a hugely high-profile federal sedition prosecution against a heavily armed, ultra-right group with machine guns and bombs plotting a violent attack against the U.S. government. That prosecution of the Christian Front fails, they all get off. They literally get their guns back and pronounce themselves vindicated.

Then, another federal criminal investigation into a sprawling plot to spread Nazi propaganda in the U.S. using members of Congress and U.S. senators, some of whom are being paid off to do it. A U.S. senator at the center of the investigation and three members of the FBI and the Justice Department, all dead in a mysterious plane crash before the case can come to trial.

And then the munitions plants start blowing up. A private spy operation on the west coast had warned in advance that it would happen. A private spy operation, convened only because the authorities – law enforcement – didn't seem to care.

All of this in the space of less than three months. Something had to change. If something was gonna change, Leon Lewis's private spies were turning up plenty of places for that change to start.

Agents working for Lewis had infiltrated one group that was planning to snowstorm a Jewish community event in San Diego. A snowstorm was where these groups would drop threatening leaflets from tall buildings, so the papers would flutter down onto the street.

You'd find these antisemitic, “blame the Jews, kill the Jews,” flyers fluttering in the air and then littering the ground, and it would seem like they came from nowhere. By the time these things hit the ground, the people who'd thrown them off tall buildings would make sure they were out of sight.

Lewis's agents tipped off the police so this time the perpetrators could be caught. And in arresting them, the police found that one of the guys – a convicted felon – had a big studded club on him, a foot and a half long bludgeon that he bragged was specially designed for killing Jews.

As a felon in possession of a dangerous weapon, police were able to hold that guy overnight. They also were able to search his car.

Leon Lewis's agents had told the police they needed to search that guy's car. Because in the car police would find a briefcase, and in the briefcase they would find some very important information.

Ross: In the briefcase, they find this plan for an elaborate overthrow of the American government.

Maddow: The briefcase contained detailed information about German agents operating inside the United States, contacts in the German government for those U.S. agents, and yes, detailed plans for a coup against the US government. It was supposed to take place just after the 1940 presidential election.

This group expected that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would win re-election comfortably in 1940, but they knew that critics of Roosevelt on the right would be angry and dissatisfied with that result. So right after the election, they planned to channel that dissatisfaction into violent action. It would be led by armed cells of 13 men each that they had set up all over the country.

Ross: They’re going to divide the country into a whole series of cells, and each cell will have 13 members. In those days, you could buy either a pistol or a rifle from the National Rifle Association through the mail. You could order weapons through the mail, get them delivered to you, and so they were urging their members to get fully armed through the NRA and wait for the signal for Der Tag.

Maddow: One of the guys who was set to give the signal, one of the coordinators of the plan, was a well-connected, white nationalist leader from West Virginia, whose name was George Deatherage.

Ross: I love the name Deatherage. What better name for a killer than Deatherage?

Maddow: George Deatherage was a longtime Klansman. He was a trained engineer. He had lived all over the world. He spoke multiple languages. And he had the stated goal of uniting all the various fascist groups across the United States.

In 1938, the Nazi government had invited Deatherage from the United States to Germany to attend something they called the World Conference of Anti-Semites. At that conference, in front of an audience of Nazi leaders, Deatherage called America the greatest Jew ridden country on earth. He called for international help to overthrow the U.S. government and impose Hitler-style Nazism in the United States.

Deatherage’s plan to kick it off in 1940 was for these 13-man armed cells to quietly procure the necessary weapons. And then after the election, the cells would then be instructed to strike all over the country, all at once. It would be a burst of armed, targeted violence, widespread and simultaneous, shocking the country. It would throw the U.S. into internal chaos, and then these guys would take advantage of the chaos to seize power, to overturn the presidential election results by force and install their own leader.

The details of these cells, names of leaders and subleaders, their geographic distribution, their specific plans, here it all was in black and white, in that briefcase, in that car, which Leon Lewis's agents had all but hand-delivered to the police.

Ross: This was not just a fantasy. These cells are actively meeting.

Maddow: And like the plot to blow up the Hercules Powder Company, this was not information the government had turned up on its own. This was stuff that had been turned up because of Leon Lewis and his little band of undercover activists operating in Southern California.

Leon Lewis and his network of agents, they kept infiltrating these groups. They kept uncovering these hair-raising plans for violence from German-American pro-Nazi groups planning sabotage to Nazi acolytes like George Deatherage, and ultimately to one guy who just flat out said he wanted to be known as America's Adolf Hitler.

Hart: He actually says outright, “I intend to overthrow the U.S. government.” He's open about these objectives, and his supporters are armed and ready.

Ross: He’s got an elaborate blueprint of where all the ammunition is kept, where all the heavy weaponry are kept, where the officers quarters are.

Hart: This is a group that, that I think is a very serious national security threat.

Maddow: That's next.


William Dudley Pelley: We are talking about both a cultural and economic state where the high ethical principles and precepts of the Christ are established politically.

Maddow: That man speaking there is named William Dudley Pelley.

Hart: William Dudley Pelley is really a fascinating figure.

Maddow: This is historian Bradley Hart.

Hart: Pelley really deserves the distinction of being called the first native fascist. He wants to build an American version of fascism.

Maddow: William Dudley Pelley founded a fascist group in the United States called the Silver Shirts. They were modeled after Hitler's Brownshirts in Germany. Here again is historian Steven Ross.

Ross: The day after Hitler came to office, William Dudley Pelley – who had been a Hollywood screenwriter and a very successful one, had won an O. Henry Award for short stories, was writing major films, making a good deal of money, but left because he hated the Jews he had to work with. And the day after Hitler came to power he said, “If a painter can become Reich Chancellor of Germany, I can start the Silver Shirts in America.” Hitler has the Brownshirts, Mussolini has the Blackshirts, and now America will have the Silver Shirts.

Maddow: The Silver Shirts ultimately had thousands of members across the country all declaring their allegiance to William Pelley, all united in his stated aim of installing Nazi-style fascism in the United States.

Hart: Pelley’s people were ready to rise up and fight on behalf of the Nazis domestically.

Maddow: William Pelley believed Hitler's path in Germany – Hitler's rise to power there – could absolutely be replicated here in America. He told his followers he was proud to be called America's Adolf Hitler, and said publicly that when the Silver Shirts succeeded in their aims and the U.S. government was toppled, he would be the new leader, and he said he would treat Jews here the way Hitler treated Jews in Germany.

Hart: Pelley goes around bragging to people about the fact that these are his plans. He plans to take over the United States on a pretty quick timeline. He actually says outright, “I intend to overthrow the U.S. government.” He's open about these objectives and his supporters are armed and ready.

Maddow: The membership of the Silver Shirts by all accounts was fairly middle class. It was made up of businessmen, teachers, lawyers. All with guns.

Hart: Pelley tells his recruits to literally prepare for racial warfare and they are required under Pelley's statutes to stockpile ammunition and have weapons at home in preparation for this. He tells his followers, you know, the racial war is coming soon. We've gotta be ready for it. They are violently committed to this mission.

Maddow: William Pelley outfitted his Silver Shirts in matching uniforms: blue pants, standard issue matching ties, and indeed a silverish shirt with a giant red “L” across the chest, which supposedly stood for Legion, as in Silver Legion. When you look at it now, it sort of has more of a Laverne from Laverne and Shirley vibe with the big “L.” That is definitely not how they meant it.

Hart: What makes the Legion so dangerous is simply the amount of weaponry that they acquire in some ways. You know, there are accounts of, of Silver Legion members having tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition stashed in their homes. They're a numerically small group, but they're incredibly heavily armed. And so from the government's perspective, I mean, a, a small group of people who have experience and the weaponry, launching a strategic strike could do a great deal of damage to the government.

Pelley himself always wore a gun. He traveled with a platoon of 40 conspicuously armed Silver Shirt bodyguards.

Hart: Pelley sort of puts on this traveling road show throughout the late 1930s, where he and, and a bunch of armed supporters show up into small towns and hold a rally. And, in fact, they're so heavily armed on various occasions, they sort of invite the local sheriff or invite the police to try to do something about it and no one is willing to risk the shootout with these guys.

Maddow: The headquarters for Pelley's organization was in North Carolina, but the group maintained a heavy presence in California.

That's where Leon Lewis's group of private undercover agents was doing the painstaking, dangerous work of infiltrating groups like this and uncovering their activities, the plot to blow up munitions factories like the Hercules Powder Plant, the plans for violence by Klan-adjacent fascist leaders like George Deatherage.

What historian Steven Ross discovered as he went through Leon Lewis's notes and files is that Lewis' agents had also uncovered a series of violent plots that the Silver Shirts were involved in, including one plot to target and kidnap and kill a group of 20 prominent Jews across Los Angeles.

Ross: On the appointed day, we are going to kidnap 20 of Los Angeles’s leading Jews and we are going to bring them out to an isolated park, and we’re going to hang them. And while they are dangling on the rope, we’re going to shoot them full of lead. And the hope is they shoot them full of enough bullets that they sever the trunk. And that once this is done, they will call the local newspapers and tip them off and say, come to such-and-such a park, you’re going to find something, and bring photographers. To have the picture of the Jews hanging in – 20 of the most powerful Jews in America – he was convinced this would set off the war against the Jews.

Maddow: Silver Shirts plots like this, as insane as they sound, these guys weren't just daydreaming. They were working toward this.

Leon Lewis' undercover agents were inside the group. They were also in contact with one operative who’d penetrated a National Guard unit in San Francisco, and he had started detailed preparations for the Silver Shirts mounting an armed takeover of three different U.S. military armories on the west coast.

Ross: He’s got an elaborate blueprint of where all the ammunition is kept, where all the heavy weaponry are kept, where the officers quarters are, and where the enlisted men’s quarters are. And he then goes down to San Diego and does the same thing working with Nazis and Silver Shirts in San Diego who are out in the desert training.

And on the appointed day, they were going to burst into the armories in all three cities at the same day at the same hour with guns drawn, and they will round up all the officers and the enlisted men and offer them the following choice: Do you want to save America by helping us defeat the Jewish-Communist threat to our nation? Everyone who said yes would be welcomed into their new army. And everyone who said no would be murdered on the spot.

These people all saw themselves as patriots. They don’t call themselves right-wing fanatics. They’re patriots who are saving America from the Communist-Jewish threat.

Maddow: The “Communist-Jewish threat” that controlled Washington, the communist-Jewish threat that controlled the highest levels of the government, where surely President Roosevelt was a secret Jew.

This was the same nonsense, this was the same message that Father Coughlin was using to radicalize his Christian Front units in places like New York and Boston. It was the same message that the radical German-American groups were preaching while they were planning sabotage attacks against U.S. defense targets. And here was William Pelley and his Silver Shirts, same message, same justification for mass violence.

Leon Lewis's agents were not just gathering this intelligence for their own benefit. They gathered it so Lewis could pass it along to law enforcement, to federal government agencies, to anybody who had the power and the authority to intervene.

Ross: When Leon Lewis did this, he did it as an attorney, not as a spymaster And his plan was he would gather enough information – admissible information – that he could then go to the police or sheriff, turn it over, and let them run the operation. Because after all, that is what they do. They’re in law enforcement.

Maddow: But when Leon Lewis did take these threats that he had discovered to law enforcement, when he brought them the evidence, when he went personally to the Chief of Police in Los Angeles, it was quickly made clear to him that he was alone on this.

Ross: In a memo that I read – and when I opened the box, it was almost like I could feel the heat of the memo coming out 80 years later – Leon Lewis says, I’m writing this memo just after leaving the Chief’s office. I introduced myself, I told them my background in the service, that I had also done some intelligence work and that here’s what my spies uncovered. And before I could proceed, two minutes into it, he stops me and he says, “You don’t get it. Hitler’s only trying to save Germany from the Jewish problem. And that the real threat in LA is not from the Nazis and fascists, but it’s from all those Communists in Boyle Heights”, which was the Jewish neighborhood. And basically says to him, “I know every Jew’s is a Commie, and every Commie’s a Jew.” And he throws him out of his office, says, “There’s nothing I can do for you.”

So he goes to the sheriff and he presents the same evidence to the sheriff, but it turns out the sheriff happens to be very good friends with the Nazi consul in LA. And the sheriff throws him out. Says you know, again, sheriff, same thing. It's, it's those Jewish Commies who are the threat, not the good German fascists.

Maddow: Leon Lewis and his agents had reason to believe that not only was local law enforcement uninterested in pursuing groups like the Silver Shirts, they were getting information that some LAPD officers were active members of the Silver Shirts, to the point where officers had been seen around town, in uniform, handing out Silver Shirts literature while they were on duty as cops.

Given that, Leon Lewis figured he needed to cast a wider net, beyond just local law enforcement.

Ross: No one really believes Leon Lewis, but he is sending information constantly to the FBI, to Army military intelligence, and to Naval intelligence. Well, the only group that is listening to him is naval intelligence.

Maddow: After getting a tip from Leon Lewis, U.S. Naval intelligence agents did go out and arrest two Marine corporals who were stationed in San Diego. Those Marines had been illegally trafficking government firearms – military guns – to Silver Shirts in San Diego. It was Naval intelligence of all places that finally took some action. But at least it was action.

Leon Lewis hadn't been able to get any traction with local law enforcement. He couldn't get interest or significant action from federal agencies like the FBI, who really were seemingly more concerned about communist threats than any threats from the ultra-right. When his agents like Neil Ness took evidence of actual detailed plots to the government, even to the Congress, like his warning in advance of the plot to target the Hercules Powder Company, they were laughed off. They were ignored.

So, Leon Lewis just did what he could. He infiltrated these groups and tried to foil the plots from the inside. He sowed discord and distrust among members of these groups. He made them paranoid about spies in their midst. He even orchestrated lawsuits against individuals and organizations involved in these plots in an effort to bankrupt them, or at least to bog them down and distract them from their planning. It was a catch-as-catch-can strategy to beat back these threats however he could with whatever resources he could cobble together. And that was basically the measure of the fight.

Until finally. That unseasonably cool Thursday in September 1940, when things actually started blowing up.

Radio Announcer: The rapid series of explosions started fires, which are still burning. Firemen have been ordered back because of the danger of more explosions.

Maddow: That explosion at the Hercules Powder Plant in September 1940 was an alarm bell for the federal government to catch up, wake up to the threat of violence, sabotage, sedition from the ultra-right. An undercover agent who had infiltrated pro-Nazi groups told them in advance that that would happen. Why hadn't they believed it? Why hadn't they investigated? Why hadn't they acted?

There was the paramilitary Christian front, armed to the teeth with stolen U.S. military weapons and explosives, planning a government coup with backing from the Hitler government. The government's botched prosecution of the Christian Front in 1940 meant that those guys had gotten away.

Then, the mysterious 1940 plane crash that killed a U.S. Senator and three members of the FBI and the Justice Department, followed soon by the first public newspaper reports that that sitting senator who died in the crash had been working to spread Nazi propaganda all over the country.

By the end of 1940, the government decided finally, maybe it was time to put somebody in charge of working on this, somebody to do kind of a top down assessment, somebody to marshal the weight of the Justice Department and the FBI to try to confront the threat from the ultra-right.

Over the course of that man's investigation, not only would he find that these extremists had planted deep roots in this country, but he'd find that they had support from people in surprisingly high places, from people with a surprising amount of political power. By the end of it, more than a few sitting members of Congress would find themselves exposed for their support, for their involvement, not only with a foreign government that was an enemy of the United States, but also with violent insurrectionists at home, who really were bent on bringing down the whole U.S. government by force.

Young: Republicans are just feeling very defeated as if there’s nothing that they can do. And I think that for some, playing footsie with fascists was a good idea, they thought.

Hart: I do think that some of the members of Congress who were involved probably didn't know how deep they were in it.

O. John Rogge: I was told by Attorney General Clark that I could make public any evidence of Nazi penetration that I might find. And why did he change his mind? Because 24 Congressmen are mentioned in this report that I’ve prepared. Now, do you think that's a sufficient basis to keep these facts from the American public?

Maddow: All that is still ahead.

“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 News via the oddly crush-worthy Library of Congress with additional sound from CBS News.

A special thanks to historian Steven Ross. You should definitely check out his amazing book, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.”

You can find much more about the series and see a photo of William Dudley Pelley in his definitely-not-Laverne-from-Laverne-and-Shirley shirt at our website,


Ross: When I first started this and I went into the Cal State Northridge archives, there are over 300 boxes. It is very hard to figure out who the agents are at first. You've gotta go through a lot of boxes because Leon Lewis knew that the Nazis and fascists knew who he was, and he was constantly afraid they would break into his office and try to steal his files. And so he made sure there were no central lists of who the agents were. Everyone had a number and it took me a while. I was in there for several weeks and I couldn't figure out, how is this working, what's going on here? Cause everything is so fractured, which was purposeful. And then I'd been told that in fact, Joe Roos had a unpublished autobiography that was at USC in their special collections. So I went over there and I remember reading the first 30 pages and jumping up, running out of the special collections room, and calling my wife and saying, I know what the story is now. I got a book. This guy's just laid it out in the first 30 pages. Now everything I've read makes sense.