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Transcript: Shut It Down

The full episode transcript for Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra | Episode 5: Shut It Down


Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra

Episode 5: Shut It Down

The walls begin to close in on members of Congress, and members of the America First movement, who are actively involved in a Nazi plot to spread misinformation and propaganda across the country. With a crusading newspaper reporter and a Justice Department prosecutor each peeling back the layers of the scheme, the members of Congress involved in the plot launch a desperate effort to shut down both the reporting and the federal investigation into their activities.

Rachel Maddow: It’s a Friday in September 1941. And there’s a reporter from the Washington Post in a taxi. He has told the cab driver to follow a truck through the streets of Washington D.C.

That reporter in the cab, his name is Dillard Stokes. Stokes has gotten a tip from a trusted source involving a secret federal investigation. The source told Dillard Stokes that a man who lived in an apartment a few blocks away from the White House had just been served a federal grand jury subpoena. An urgent one.

The guy had been served the subpoena on a Thursday night, but it said he had to appear before the grand jury the very next day, on Friday. Reporter Dillard Stokes didn't have much to go on besides that tip and the man's address. But on Friday morning bright and early, he hailed a cab and went over to that address to see what he could see.

When he got there, Stokes saw two men dragging heavy bags out onto the street. The bags had been inside an apartment that was the address on the subpoena. Two men were dragging all these bags out of that apartment onto the street, and then putting them into a truck that was parked out front of the apartment building. Dillard Stokes couldn’t tell exactly what was in the bags. But he could tell they were full and heavy. He could also tell that the guys moving them appeared to be in a real hurry. Also grumpy. Stokes saw one neighbor yell at the guys, complaining that they were making too much noise so early in the morning. The truck driver yelled back at the neighbor, “I shouldn't be doing this.”

From his seat in the taxi cab, reporter Dillard Stokes watched as this all unfolded. He watched the two guys drag the bags out of the apartment building, load the bags up into the big truck, he saw them slam the door shut, and then the truck sped away. And then it's one of those cliche moments from the movies: “Cab driver, follow that vehicle!”

With Dillard Stokes following behind in that taxi, the truck sprinted into downtown D.C., and it made two stops. Both of which were intriguing enough that Dillard Stokes knew his tipster had put him on to something here. Something that looked like it might be a pretty good story.

He didn't necessarily know what this federal grand jury subpoena was all about, or why it was so urgent. He hadn't seen any cops or federal agents around all morning. But when that truck carrying the bags out of that apartment had started to make its stops in downtown D.C – when it made its first stop at the U.S. Capitol – Dillard Stokes was pretty sure something newsworthy was going on here. He watched as the guys in the truck unloaded about half of those big bags into part of the capitol complex that houses offices for members of the House.

Then he watched as the truck left there, and it moved on to a second location just down the street from the capitol. And there it unloaded the rest of the bags. That was at the Washington D.C. headquarters of the America First Committee. Why did that truck take all of those bags in a hurry from a residential apartment where some guy just got a subpoena? And then why did it unload that stuff at some congressional office, and then at the America First Committee? What was going on here?

Dillard Stokes was determined to find out. He knew there was a story here. And he started digging. He started looking into which office exactly had received the first drop-off of all those heavy bags at the U.S. capitol. He also went back to the second location where the truck had dropped stuff off at the America First Committee. And at the America First Committee headquarters, Dillard Stokes decided that he might just lurk around. See if anything happened. That paid off.

Because in the middle of the night, Washington Post reporter Dillard Stokes was there. He was watching as someone from the America First Committee started to haul those big, overstuffed, heavy bags out into the alley behind the building. They started emptying out the bags, taking whatever it was that was inside them and putting that stuff into big metal trash cans in the alley. And then they set it all on fire.

O.K. So at this point, Dillard Stokes knows for sure that he has a story. Boy does he. But it is a story that will leave marks. It will get him denounced by name and threatened by powerful politicians on the floor of the U.S. Congress. It will get his bosses at the Washington Post threatened with federal investigation or even arrest, as if they're criminals just for employing him. It will see Dillard Stokes hauled before the grand jury himself to give crucial evidence for a blockbuster federal criminal trial about a plot by a hostile foreign power to use members of Congress to subvert American democracy. And it will see that prosecution itself blown up into a huge scandal.

But what are you gonna do? They really were trucking off the evidence into a dark alley and setting it on fire. Dillard Stokes really did catch them doing it. He had them. He had the story. But this wasn't gonna end well. For anyone.

This is Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra.


Representative Hamilton Fish: I have no patience with those Americans who tremble every time Hitler sneezes or get jittery every time he opens his mouth.

Nancy Beck Young: When I say that Fish was friends with Nazis, I mean that Fish was friends with Nazis.

Bradley Hart: The members of Congress who are involved in this don’t really know what to say when this news first comes out.

Reporter: A federal grand jury here returned an indictment today against George Hill, who is secretary to Representative Hamilton Fish of New York.

Hart: This is a moment of great political danger, I think for these men.


Maddow: Episode 5: Shut it Down.

In September 1941, on orders from the Justice Department, prosecutor William Power Maloney had convened a federal grand jury in Washington D.C. to investigate Nazi penetration of the United States. He had peeled back the layers of Senator Ernest Lundeen’s involvement with this Nazi agent George Sylvester Viereck, involvement that lasted right up to Lundeen's death in a plane crash, with three members of the justice department dying alongside him.

In following the Lundeen-Viereck line of inquiry, Maloney had sent a subpoena to a man who was an employee of Viereck, a D.C.-based publicist. When the publicist didn't respond to the subpoena, the court gave Maloney and his men the go-ahead to bust in and raid the publicist's apartment. That's where, to his surprise, Maloney found troves of documents linking Viereck not just with Senator Lundeen, but with other members of Congress as well.

But what Maloney and his agents turned up in that raid – that was only what was left in the apartment by the time Maloney got there. The place had actually been mostly cleaned out before Maloney and his agents arrived. What Washington Post reporter Dillard Stokes saw from his taxi cab that Friday morning in D.C at that apartment that he had gotten the tip about was someone taking a ton of material out of that apartment before prosecutors could show up and find it.

So now there are federal prosecutors who are clearly investigating what's going on here. But there's also the Washington Post – their reporter Dillard Stokes – who knows that federal prosecutors are onto something interesting. But he also knows that there's a cover-up underway. Someone is trying to hide evidence from these investigators. Someone maybe in Congress?

Dillard Stokes is a veteran investigative reporter. He knows what he’s doing. And he just goes after this story. He is soon able to report where exactly those bags were dropped off by that truck that drove from the apartment building straight to the U.S. Capitol. The bags had been left at a storage room inside the Capitol that was controlled by a specific congressman. Dillard Stokes figured out which congressman. And Dillard Stokes figured out that it had been a staffer from that same congressman's office who arranged for that truck to go out that morning to that apartment to pick up all those heavy bags.

The congressman in question, the congressman whose office was apparently running this coverup, he is a congressman with a name you will not soon forget. His name was Hamilton Fish. Hamilton Fish III, actually. He came from a long line of Hamilton Fishes.

Radio Reporter: Tonight, Representative Hamilton Fish, Republican of New York, and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House speaks to you from Washington.

Maddow: Hamilton Fish, Ham to his friends – yes, Ham Fish, I’m not kidding – he was from a very distinguished family. His ancestors had held jobs like U.S. Secretary of State, and governor of New York, and U.S. Senator. Our Hamilton Fish was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives when FDR was president. And our Hamilton Fish had a deep and abiding hatred – a lifelong hatred – for President Roosevelt. Here’s historian Nancy Beck Young.

Young: Fish later said when he was interviewed on his 100th birthday that he didn't hate people, I just detested Roosevelt. What's the difference between hating and detesting? I don't know.

Maddow: By all accounts, the depth of feeling – the animosity Congressman Fish had against FDR – it was all consuming for him. And it was apparently mutual. FDR hated Ham Fish as much as Ham Fish hated him. And that may have had something to do with the fact that Congressman Fish was technically FDR's own member of Congress.

Young: Hamilton Fish's congressional district contained Hyde Park, New York, home of none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it drove FDR nuts that Ham Fish was his congressman. He liked the microphone. He liked to talk. And he really loved jabbing at the President who lived in his district.

Fish: President Roosevelt is a number one warmonger in America. If a young schoolboy had made such a remark, he would have been spanked and put to bed. President Roosevelt, ashamed or afraid to make such a false and vicious statement, uses the camouflage of a White House spokesman to incite the passions and hatreds of our people and spread his war propaganda.

Maddow: In addition to his fire-and-brimstone hatred for FDR, Hamilton Fish was part of the America First movement.

Young: He was a dedicated America Firster. He exaggerated his points in opposition to the New Deal, in opposition to U.S. foreign policy positions.

Fish: I accuse the administration of instigating war propaganda and hysteria to cover up the failure and collapse of the New Deal policies. I accuse the administration of leading the American people to a rendezvous with war, death, and bankruptcy.

Maddow: The combination of Hamilton Fish's high profile and his vehemence on the subject made him effectively the standard bearer – kind of the team captain – for the America First movement in the House.

Fish: The American people have no intention of sending any of their youth to be slaughtered overseas to cover-up the failures of the New Deal. I hope the American people heard those remarks of Hitler. Let us hope that this will put an end to the hysterical propaganda emanating from spokesmen of the White House.

Maddow: Ham Fish wasn't the only America First member of Congress. Far from it, there were tons of them. But there was something more sort of concentrated, maybe even more extreme, about his particular take on the issue of World War II.

Fish: I have no patience with those Americans who tremble every time Hitler sneezes, or get jittery every time he opens his mouth.

Young: When I say that Fish was friends with Nazis, I mean that Fish was friends with Nazis. You know, palling around with them.

Maddow: In 1933, just after Hitler became chancellor in Germany, Congressman Hamilton Fish had contributed to a book about how Hitler and the Nazis had had saved Germany from Communism. How Hitler and the Nazis had done the world a big favor.

Congressman Fish rented one of his apartments in New York City to a Nazi government official, a nice place on East 77th Street.

In 1938, Congressman Fish headlined a big pro-Germany rally at Madison Square Garden in New York. They played the Nazi anthem, there were swastika flags, the crowd did the Hitler salute, and Republican Congressman Ham Fish was the honored guest and main speaker.

The year after that, in 1939, Congressman Fish flew to Germany. He met with senior officials from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Nazi foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, loaned Congressman Fish his official government plane, in which the congressman then flew around to different countries in Europe, basically urging them to accommodate Hitler and Germany, and not fight them. When Congressman Fish was on that trip in 1939, he spoke with reporters from Berlin. He told them, quote, "Germany's cause is just."

Nazi leaders on trial for war crimes after the war would later explain that Congressman Fish had given them great advice on that trip he took to Germany. Great advice for what sort of strategy the Nazis should take toward the United States. They said he was a lot of help – to them.

So, if you were a highly-ranked German agent operating in the United States at the time, if you were already doing your work for the Hitler government through one particularly compliant U.S. Senator, if you were looking to expand your operation to include more members of Congress, well, who else might be on your short list of members willing and maybe even eager to help?

If you were George Sylvester Viereck, the top propaganda agent of the Hitler government operating in the United States, who in Congress would you approach?

Fish: Why all this propaganda and war psychology about Germany, Italy and Japan? Not one of these totalitarian states has the slightest idea or capacity of attacking or invading America.

Maddow: On the Senate side of the U.S. capitol, the Nazi agent Viereck had set up shop in the offices of Senator Ernest Lundeen. On the House side of the Capitol, he set up shop with Congressman Hamilton Fish.

Here are historians Bradley Hart and Nancy Beck Young.

Hart: Hamilton Fish's office becomes the center around which Viereck builds actually the more insidious part of his operation, where he asks Hamilton Fish's staff to help him mail out millions of speeches of this sort of laundered Nazi propaganda material.

Young: Fish's office was command central for the franking scheme whereby these congressional speeches were disseminated around the country.

Maddow: The German government was providing material and financial support to violent, ultra-right groups in the United States. That included their top propaganda agent, George Sylvester Viereck, using homegrown fascist groups like the Christian Front to pump his propaganda into America's streets.

But with these serving members of Congress, like Ernest Lundeen and Hamilton Fish, Viereck had figured out a way to effectively super-charge that effort. Because members of Congress had this one great perk: They had the right to mail out anything they wanted, in any quantity, at government expense.

Viereck used that. He used these members of Congress and their franking privilege to target millions of Americans with messages that the Hitler government in Berlin wanted them to hear.

Young: We have Fish aiding and abetting the Nazi propaganda initiative in the United States out of his House office. Fish worked to sabotage American democracy from the center of American democracy, the U.S. Capitol.

Maddow: And with Congressman Fish, Viereck also got access to a very skilled congressional staffer. One who was more than happy to help.

Hart: George Hill is one of the key figures in the Viereck scheme and really becomes the man around which Viereck begins building the infrastructure for his propaganda operation.

Maddow: George Hill, a congressional staffer in Hamilton Fish's office, was kind of an obvious target for Viereck to recruit.

Hart: George Hill is quite the man about D.C. in this period. He has multiple girlfriends. He's a, a big spender and, and routinely spends beyond what his congressional salary can provide for him. One way that Viereck sort of gets to him, apparently, is by offering him some sort of kickback or financial incentive to grab, for instance, hundreds of thousands of franked envelopes, or to facilitate these copies of speeches from the Congressional Record. So, George Hill is profiting personally from this.

Maddow: It was this staffer, George Hill, in Congressman Fish’s office who facilitated Viereck’s efforts to go big, to launder fascist propaganda through Congress, into the hands of millions of Americans. George Hill was thrilled to be paid so well to do this job. He was also really good at it.

Young: Hill was the person who was most regularly in contact with Viereck. Hill would talk to Viereck on the phone from his desk in Fish's congressional office and would say, “Okay, so we've got another mailing list for you. You need to order a hundred thousand copies of this speech.” He's also procuring franking envelopes from other members of Congress.

Maddow: With help from this congressional staffer, George Hill, the Nazi agent Viereck spreads his wings and starts using a whole cadre of sympathetic, sitting members of congress to supply him with millions of pre-paid franked envelopes which he uses to spread Nazi-approved propaganda here in the United States. And Hill’s boss, Congressman Hamilton Fish, he wasn’t blind to any of it.

Young: It might be worth for a moment just pausing and talking about the size of a congressional staff then versus now. Members of Congress, their staff might be no more than two or three people at the most. And so it's a much smaller operation, which means that there's much more proximity between the member and anyone on the staff. So Hill and Fish are close. There's not much that Fish is doing that Hill doesn't know about. And there's not much that Hill is doing that Fish doesn't know about.

Maddow: And now the whole country was about to know about it, too. Because Reporter Dillard Stokes followed up on that tip, he had followed that truck, he had found the bags of evidence stashed in Hamilton Fish's storage space in the capitol, and he had nailed George Hill in Fish's office as the man who’d arranged for all that evidence, those 20 bags of evidence, to be spirited away ahead of federal investigators. Dillard Stokes had the story.

And he put it all on the front page of the Washington Post. "Fish's Office Helped Remove Data Wanted in Nazi-Agent Inquiry." Shocking headline. Big print. Page one of the paper.

When Hamilton Fish’s name started turning up in headlines like that – his congressional office facilitating the removal of evidence being sought by a federal grand jury investigating an alleged Nazi plot in Congress – when that went public, Congressman Fish went ballistic.

He told the Associated Press the reporting was “fake,” and a “complete frame-up.” He said he might sue both the reporters and the newspapers that were printing these allegations against him. He said on the House floor about Dillard Stokes, “These smear charges from beginning to end are based on a series of lies.”

But he had more than just the press to worry about. Because it was prosecutor William Power Maloney, too, who now also had the story.

Maloney hauled in for questioning Congressman Fish's staffer, George Hill. Whereupon George Hill proceeded to lie to the grand jury, under oath. He claimed that he had nothing to do with transporting anything out of that publicist’s apartment. He denied knowing anything about this Nazi agent, Viereck, who had been orchestrating the propaganda plan in Congress. He denied ever having met the guy at all.

George Hill lied under oath about all of that. And Maloney and his agents could prove that he was lying. And so George Hill, top aide to America First Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish, was criminally indicted.

Radio Reporter: A federal grand jury here returned an indictment today against George Hill, who is secretary to Representative Hamilton Fish of New York. The indictment was the result of the grand jury’s investigation into the activities of foreign propaganda agents in the United States. The prosecutor said the congressional secretary was the key man in a campaign to distribute Nazi propaganda in this country, masterminded by German agents. The indictment was on two counts of what was termed corrupt perjury.

Maddow: Corrupt perjury. The top aide to one of the most high-profile Republicans in Congress indicted on multiple felony counts for lying to investigators about what amounted to a Nazi plot operating inside the U.S. Congress.

Hart: The public reaction to the Viereck scandal is absolutely massive. And we can imagine a scandal like this happening in our own time, where members of Congress cooperating with a hostile foreign power, or sort of repeating propaganda being written by a foreign, hostile embassy on the floor of Congress, and then cooperating to use taxpayer dollars to do a direct mail campaign of this propaganda directly to Americans. It would be unfathomably bad. What's terrifying in some ways about the Viereck scandal is that the members of Congress who were involved in it don't really know what to say when this news first comes out. I mean, certainly if you're Hamilton Fish III, the fact that one of your senior staffers has been arrested for perjury for denying that he knows a Nazi spy is certainly not good.

Maddow: It really wasn’t a good moment for Congressman Hamilton Fish. There is a national uproar. The implications of what George Hill was involved in; what Congressman Fish's office was up to; what George Hill was lying to investigators about; who he might be lying to protect; it was just a shocking thing.

Ham Fish decided to push back against it all with a hundred percent defiance. He continued to denounce the prosecution of George Hill. He said the indictment of Hill was not not just a smear, it was a travesty. It was a political put-up job. It was an illegitimate use of the Justice Department's power to go after him and the whole America First movement, all for political reasons. He even led a group of members of Congress to move to put up the bail money for George Hill.

But George Hill was ultimately put on trial for corrupt perjury. Prosecutor William Maloney made his case to the jury. And George Hill was quickly convicted on all counts.

Radio Reporter: George Hill, who was a secretary to Representative Fish, was convicted this afternoon of perjury. He was charged with making false statements before a grand jury in connection with its investigation of Axis propaganda.

Maddow: Prosecutor William Power Maloney in court described George Hill as “an important cog” in a propaganda machine so effective, “it was able to reach in and use the halls of our own Congress to spread its lies and half truths to try to conquer and divide us.”

George Hill was sentenced to more than two years in federal prison. But after his conviction, things suddenly and unexpectedly got worse for the members of Congress who had been wrapped up in this conspiracy. Because after he was convicted, George Hill had an attack of conscience. He told prosecutors he was ready to tell the truth.

He told them that when he was questioned by a Justice Department prosecutor, quote, "The main thing I recall was that he reminded me I was an American citizen. That worked on my mind. And a couple of days later, I decided I would tell the truth."

Young: Upon further questioning, Hill pretty much gives up the game as to what happened.

Maddow: George Hill testified in open court that not only had he been personally involved in the propaganda operation with Viereck, the Nazi agent, he testified that he had been instructed to take part in it by his boss, by Congressman Hamilton Fish. He explained that Congressman Fish had introduced him to Viereck. Congressman Fish told him to do what Viereck wanted. Congressman Fish knew Viereck was paying George Hill for what he was doing.

Members of Congress who had been involved in this mess, they had maybe thought they could save themselves by somehow rallying behind George Hill, by saying the case against him was a big put-up job, a big hoax. That was no longer going to work. Not with George Hill now telling the truth. All of them who had been in on this thing, they knew they were now in the crosshairs of this investigation, this investigation which now had a star cooperating witness who knew everything. What were they going to do?

Hart: This is a moment of great political danger, I think for these men

Maddow: That’s next.


Radio Reporter: George Hill, who was a secretary to Representative Fish, was convicted this afternoon of perjury.

Maddow: Justice Department prosecutor William Power Maloney was on a roll. Maloney had indicted and convicted George Hill, top aide to sitting Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish. And then he’d flipped him into a cooperating witness.

Maloney also indicted George Sylvester Viereck himself, the top Nazi propaganda agent in the United States, the mastermind behind this audacious plan to run a industrial-scale Nazi propaganda scheme through the U.S. Congress.

Radio Announcer: George Sylvester Viereck, well-known publicist, has been indicted by a grand jury which pictures him as using congressional franks to send-out his material. Special Prosecutor William Power Maloney spoke of Viereck as one of the most serious menaces to this country.

Maddow: When prosecutor William Maloney put Viereck the Nazi agent on trial, Viereck's defense called a surprise witness on his behalf. They called Norma Lundeen, the widow of Senator Ernest Lundeen, who had died in that mysterious plane crash.

Norma Lundeen: I am the widow of Ernest Lundeen, United States Senator from Minnesota, who was killed in an airplane crash on August 31, 1940.

Maddow: Norma Lundeen told the jury that Viereck, this Nazi agent, had never seemed all that un-American to her. She was asked by prosecutors to produce the file of correspondence between Viereck and her late husband, the one she had flown across the country to take out of her husband's senate office less than 48 hours after he died. She replied calmly from the witness stand that while yes, she had taken that file, it was gone now. She said there had been a break-in at her home, and that particular file must have been taken by the burglar. Yes, it must have been a burglar. Hundreds of pages of correspondence from that file would later turn up – not burgled at all – in the Lundeen family archives.

But prosecutor William Power Maloney had figured out the whole Viereck-Lundeen scheme. Viereck was convicted on all counts, just like George Hill was. Maloney wasn’t nearly done yet, though. He was just getting started.

You might recall the bags of evidence that started all of this, the bags of evidence being trucked out of the D.C. apartment that day that were not just headed to Congress for the use of Hamilton Fish and George Hill. Some of those bags went to the headquarters of the America First Committee in D.C. That’s where reporter Dillard Stokes saw an America First staffer setting them on fire.

Well prosecutor William Maloney followed that trail, too. He brought in reporter Dillard Stokes to testify to the grand jury. He even brought in the disgruntled truck driver from the steal-the-evidence early morning rush job at that D.C. apartment. Maloney and his agents also got permission from the court to raid the offices of the America First Committee. They managed to recover some of the evidence that was being stashed there. What was left of it, at least. The stuff that hadn’t gone up in smoke in the alley.

The America First Committee would end up surfacing again and again in Maloney’s investigation of Nazi penetration of the United States. It wasn’t just that the headquarters of the America First Committee were being used to hide and even burn evidence of the Viereck plot in Congress. Maloney and his investigators kept bumping up against the America First Committee and its members, its speakers, its leading lights.

Maloney turned up evidence that the head of an Ohio chapter of the America First Committee was being paid by the Hitler government to promote and distribute fascist propaganda. Maloney got him, too. He was indicted by Maloney’s grand jury and pled guilty to accepting thousands of dollars from the Nazis, and operating as a secret foreign agent.

Not long after that, Maloney also secured the conviction of a famous celebrity pilot linked to America First. Her name was Laura Ingalls.

Radio Reporter: Miss Ingalls is shown here preparing to challenge the women's transcontinental record then held by Amelia Earhart Putnam.

Maddow: Aviators – pilots – were big celebrities at the time in the United States, and they didn’t get much bigger than Laura Ingalls. Amelia Earhart and Laura Ingalls, they were the two most famous female pilots in the world. And in the late 1930s, Laura Ingalls also happened to be one of the most popular nationwide speakers for the America First Committee.

Hart: She actually travels the country giving speeches on behalf of America First, becomes something of a leader in the organization.

Maddow: That was right up until she was called in for questioning by William Maloney's grand jury. She was then arrested and indicted for being a paid Nazi agent. William Maloney got her, too.

Among the uncomfortable public revelations from the Laura Ingalls trial was that her handler, who was the head of the Gestapo in this country, he told Laura Ingalls specifically that her being a speaker for the America First Committee would be, quote, “the best thing you can do for our cause.”

William Maloney's investigation kept turning up worrying evidence like that about the America First Committee and about America First-linked members of Congress. But it’s also important to note that the America First movement was big. It was probably the biggest political pressure organization in the country at the time. It was mainstream, powerful, it was full of well-connected politicians and business leaders. And here was William Power Maloney turning over that very impressive, influential rock and showing all the creepy crawlies underneath.

Maloney was going after powerful people who were used to getting their way, who were not used to being messed with. People who were getting more and more upset and even panicked about what he was finding out. It was a fragile, fraught moment for the investigation. And then Maloney went even bigger. He decided to take a big swing at the whole Nazi operation that had been operating in this country.

All at once, William Power Maloney indicted nearly 30 people and charged them all with sedition, with scheming to subvert democracy and overthrow the government of the United States.

Radio Reporter: The Department of Justice has indicted 28 men and one woman, accused of sending seditious papers and pamphlets to members of the armed forces, the Silver Shirts, the Black Legion, the Crusader White Shirts, the Protestant Gentile League and so-on.

Maddow: Maloney’s federal grand jury indicted:

William Dudley Pelley, the head of the Silver Shirts, whose organization had been plotting a takeover of US military armories, and an armed overthrow of the whole U.S. government.

Also Hermann Schwinn, the pro-Nazi organizer who had been involved in the sabotagte plots against U.S. munitions plants, including the targeting of the Hercules Power Company.

Also George Deatherage, the white supremacist former Klansman who’d been plotting that violent coup to take place right after the 1940 election.

All of these individuals, all of these groups who Leon Lewis and his team of private undercover agents had been tracking for years while law enforcement authorities couldn’t be bothered – well, they were all now being wrapped up.

Steven Ross: You know there’s an old expression, if you live long enough you’ll win all the awards. Well, he may not won all the awards, but he earned the admiration, or at least the respect, of the American government.

Maddow: That’s historian Steven Ross.

William Maloney’s prosecutors visited Leon Lewis and his agents out in Los Angeles, and they just hoovered-up the information that Lewis had been collecting all those years.

Ross: People from the FBI, Army intelligence, Military intelligence, immigration, Treasury Department, every major government department coming into their offices in L.A. because very few of them had ever accumulated any information. And so, they were providing not just witnesses, but they were providing all of the paperwork and spy reports dating back to August 1933, when Lewis first began the spy operation.

Maddow: It took them a while to get there, but now the federal government was making up for lost time. That indictment stands today as the largest mass sedition indictment in U.S. history. But it didn't just include guys with guns and bombs, these armed militant cells secreted around the country.

What Maloney had identified in the course of his investigation was essentially a dual threat. It was ultra-right organizations plotting violence, arming themselves, planning, and in some instances, carrying out violent attacks. Basically, American fascists who in many cases were being actively supported by the Hitler government.

But it was also members of Congress, members of the America First movement, also helping the Hitler government. In their case, helping them to launder Nazi propaganda and send it, in bulk, to the American people. And to that end, because of what the Justice Department believed was that two-pronged threat, Maloney also included in his sedition indictment:

Prescott Dennett. He was the D.C. publicist who was Viereck’s employee in Washington. It was Presscott Dennett’s apartment that was the subject of that all-important raid that implicated all those members of congress and that set reporter Dillard Stokes off on his red-hot reporting trail.

Maloney also put in the sedition indictment George Sylvester Viereck, again. Maloney had of course already got Viereck convicted as a Nazi agent. But now Viereck would be part of the sedition case as well. In other words, the operation that Viereck was running with all those members of Congress, that was now being charged by the U.S. Justice Department as an act of sedition against the United States.

Members of congress who had been part of that plot with Viereck, if the alarm bells weren't ringing for them before, they definitely were now.

And it wouldn’t be just Hamilton Fish going ballistic this time. This time they all did.

Republican Congressman Clare Hoffman of Michigan took to the floor of the House and said the sedition indictment was an act of religious bigotry. He said the defendants were poor, persecuted Christians. Congressman Hoffman also demanded that Dillard Stokes and his boss, the editor of the Washington Post, should both be hauled before Congress and compelled to testify.

Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota yelled in the Senate, “These people are no more guilty than I am!” Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, one of the most prominent and influential Republicans in the whole country, he wrote to one of the people just indicted for sedition, this violently anti-Semitic preacher in Kansas. Senator Taft told the man that William Power Maloney and others at the Justice Department ought to be disbarred for what they were doing. They ought to be disbarred as lawyers for this investigation.

Eventually, the unified strategy of these members of these members of Congress emerged. They focused-in on one determined effort to not just get themselves out of the Justice Department's crosshairs, but to get rid of the investigation altogether. To get rid of William Power Maloney.

The effort would be spearheaded by a U.S. Senator named Burton Wheeler.

Event speaker: I have the honor to present the Honorable Burton K. Wheeler, United States Senator from – [crowd applause].

Maddow: Wheeler had been involved in the propaganda scheme on Capitol Hill. He was also a leading light, one of the most prominent figures in the America First movement.

Senator Burton Wheeler: I only wish there were more Americans in the United States of America who loved America First.

Maddow: There is a famous photo of Senator Burton Wheeler at an America First event in May 1941. He’s standing next to Charles Lindbergh and other America First worthies who are all giving these enthusiastic Hitler salutes. And Senator Wheeler is there with them. He’s wearing a white suit, he’s got a cigar in hand. And he is giving his own version of the salute. It looks a little flaccid compared to his colleagues up there on the stage, but it's pretty unmistakable what he’s doing.

Senator Wheeler’s congressional frank had been used by George Viereck to distribute Nazi propaganda across the country. Evidence of Senator Wheeler’s involvement was found in the raid of that D.C. publicist’s apartment. And it was really Senator Wheeler who led the charge against the investigation into what he and other America First members of Congress had been up to. And who with.

Radio Reporter: Here in Washington, Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, a leader of the America First Committee, has threatened to demand a Congressional investigation of the way the Justice Department has been handling the prosecution of Nazi sympathizers. Mr. Wheeler says he thinks it’s a disgrace the way 28 persons were indicted here in Washington on charges of sedition.

Maddow: Senator Wheeler took aim not just at the Justice Department. He also took aim at the press, at Washington Post reporter Dillard Stokes.

Radio Reporter: Mr. Wheeler attacked the Washington Post as a stooge of the Department of Justice, and called its reporter a spy. He added that he thinks reporters and newspapers who have helped to indict the defendants are engaged in a dirty business, and predicted that the day will soon come when they will all regret it.

Maddow: “They will all regret it.” That was the threat from Senator Burton Wheeler. He also began directly taunting the Attorney General in public. Senator Wheeler accused him of overseeing what he called “one of the most disgraceful proceedings ever carried on in this country.” Senator Wheeler said the sedition case had been brought solely for the purpose of smearing the America First movement.

Young: Wheeler made the argument that this is a politically-motivated prosecution, that Roosevelt was trying to go after his political enemies. He made that argument forcefully with people that he knew in the Justice Department.

Maddow: People he knew in the Justice Department up-to-and-including the Attorney General himself.

Young: Wheeler used his position as a sitting member of the United States Senate to lobby the Justice Department to fire Maloney.

Maddow: Senator Burton Wheeler decided to pay a private visit to Attorney General Francis Biddle at his office inside the Justice Department. In what was described as a stormy and violent session, Senator Wheeler reportedly threatened the Attorney General that he as a Senator would launch an investigation not just of Maloney and the sedition case. He would launch an investigation of the entire Department of Justice, from the Attorney General personally on down, unless the Attorney General fired Maloney and took him off the case.

Attorney General Francis Biddle in the face of that threat, he caved. He gave in to that pressure from Senator Wheeler and the other members of Congress. He fired William Maloney from the investigation. Maloney himself got the news while he was sitting at his desk, working. First he’d heard of it was when a newspaper reporter called him up to ask his reaction to getting fired. He'd had no idea. They hadn’t bothered to tell him.

In the middle of his investigation, William Maloney was removed as prosecutor because of pressure from members of Congress who themselves were implicated in his investigation. After Attorney General Francis Biddle made that stunning decision to remove Maloney from the case, The Washington Post published a blistering editorial criticizing the decision.

The Post said, “In this case, the public could have been sure that Mr. Maloney would have pulled no punches, whether the evidence incriminated a conspirator or embarrassed one of his friends in Congress. Maybe that was why Congressional friends of the defendants hated and feared this prosecutor and publicly harassed the Attorney General with windy threats of investigation, with boasts of what they would do to the Department of Justice unless they got Mr. Maloney’s scalp. Well now they have it.”

If this investigation was going to continue, if the trial of these indicted seditionists was gonna take place, somebody new would have to come in and take over and face down the same sorts of threats and harassment from those members of Congress who saw themselves in danger, who saw themselves implicated and who had just used their power and influence to vanquish the threat. Or so they thought.

Radio Reporter: 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.

Radio Reporter: If what we’ve seen so far is any forecast of things to come, this is going to be a legal three-ring circus.

O. John Rogge: My conscience wouldn't let me do anything else than make those facts public at one time or another.

Hart: The courtroom accounts from this trial are absolutely astonishing.

Maddow: That is still to come.

“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. Fact checking support from Nina Bisbano. Sound design by Tarek Fouda. Our Technical Director is Bryson Barnes. Senior Executive Producers are Cory Gnazzo and Laura Conaway. Our Web Producer is Will Femia. Out Head of Editorial is Madeleine Haeringer. Archival radio material is from NBC Newsvia the eighth wonder of the world, the Library of Congress. With additional sound from CBS News.

Special thanks to historian Nancy Beck Young. You should definitely check out her excellent book. It’s called “Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II.”

You can find much more about this series – you can see Montana U.S. Senator Burton Wheeler giving his squishy, little Hitler salute; you can see a photo of William Power Maloney's raid on the America First committee; you can see Hamilton Fish make an awkward cameo in a Warren Beatty movie from the 80s – you can see it all at our website:


Young: If a particular family did not have a family member fighting in the war, they were still touched by the war through rationing and price controls. So women could not buy stockings because silk was being rationed to make parachutes. People could not buy new tires for their car because rubber was being rationed. Tin was being rationed, so fewer canned goods to be purchased. And Americans were taught to save and recycle, including recycling cooking grease for the war effort. To the day she died, my mother saved her cooking grease for that, that reason. She had been trained so well in the 1940s. Everyone was shaped in some way, shape, or form by the war.