Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra
Episode 1: Trip 19
It started with a plane crash. The tragic, mysterious crash of a commercial airliner in the summer of 1940 left a scene of devastation in rural Virginia -- and a series of unanswered questions. The cause of the crash was unclear. Among the dozens of people killed was a sitting U.S. senator. His presence on the flight and the strange circumstances surrounding the crash would end up revealing threats to American democracy itself.
(NBC NEWS RADIO CHIMES)
Radio Reporter: Good morning all. This is the NBC newsroom in New York.
Rachel Maddow: His name is Ernest Lundeen.
He's a United States Senator from Minnesota. And Senator Lundeen is at work, even though it's Labor Day Weekend.
Radio Reporter: Today, Saturday August the 31st…
Maddow: It's Saturday, August 31st, 1940. Senator Lundeen gets to work early that day. Even before his secretary arrives. When she gets in, she finds him already there, already at his desk. But something is definitely wrong.
He's not sitting at his desk like usual. He's slumped there. He's got his head down on his desk, his head is buried in his arms. He doesn’t appear to be sick, though. What he appears to be is emotionally distraught. He's crying.
His secretary asks him what's wrong, he won't explain. He's got tears streaming down his face, but all he'll say to her is, “I can't talk about it,” and, “I've gone too far to turn back.” She doesn't know what this means. She doesn't know what has made him so upset.
Now, the reason his secretary had come into work that Saturday of the holiday weekend is because the senator had asked her to drive him to the airport. He's due to fly that day to Pittsburgh. Then he's due to change planes in Pittsburgh for connecting flights all the way back home to Minnesota. Senator Lundeen is planning to see his wife and get some home time. Then on Monday, on Labor Day, he's got a big speech that he's planning to deliver.
On that Saturday morning of the Labor Day weekend, despite the fact that he is so visibly upset, that he is inconsolably crying in his office, the trip is still on. He's still planning to travel.
He and his secretary leave the Capitol building. They drive to the airfield for him to catch his flight. Senator Lundeen's secretary will later tell the FBI that they didn't talk at all for the whole ride. The Senator just cried. He wept the whole way. No explanation.
They arrive at the airfield. There's a storm rolling in, but the flight is cleared for takeoff after a slight delay. The Senator's secretary stays to make sure that he’s safely boarded the plane and then she leaves to drive back to D.C. Then as she makes it back to the Capitol, the news comes through.
(NBC RADIO CHIMES)
Radio Announcer: This is the National Broadcasting Company.
Radio Reporter: In this country now, in the nation’s capital at Washington. Senator Ernest Lundeen reported killed today in the crash of a Pennsylvania Central Airlines plane, was the second member of the United States Senate to die in an airplane crash. Senator Lundeen was 62 years old.
Maddow: The plane Senator Ernest Lundeen was on crashed in rural Virginia, less than forty miles from where it took off in Washington. When she hears the news, Senator Lundeen's secretary decides she’s gonna go there, to try to find him. She races to the scene of the crash. But what she finds there leaves no room for hope.
Pennsylvania Central Airlines Flight 19, a brand new Douglas DC-3, had come down with such velocity that its engines were driven six feet down into the earth. There had been 25 people on board that plane, including the crew. Everyone was killed instantly.
Renace Painter: It was terrible. It was one of the worst things I ever looked at.
Maddow: Even decades after the fact, eyewitnesses to the crash were just haunted by what they saw that day.
Painter: We walked through this cornfield and parts of bodies was strung along the cornstalks, and everything like that. And I ran across this one, walking around, and it was just from the middle of her stomach, her head and everything, that was it. I said I gotta get out of here, I can’t take anymore of this.
Maddow: The evidence of human loss across the hundreds of yards of the debris field from the crash, it was just devastating.
John Flannery: Shoes neatly tied sat in the field with the feet still in them, separated from the bodies of the people on the plane. The dive into the ground was so dramatic that there were pieces of people— pardon the description— all over the area.
Maddow: That’s John Flannery. He lives about 10 minutes from where the plane went down. A few years ago, he decided he would interview some of the last living eye-witnesses, people who were actually there that day in 1940 when the disaster happened.
Flannery: When I spoke to them, it was clear as a bell. It was riveted in their mind. Some people went into the field, younger people, and then were discovering things they could never forget.
Maddow: One local farmer told a wire service that the human remains, quote: "were so badly mangled, I don't see how they could ever be recognized."
But there was a passenger manifest from the airline. And that passenger manifest confirmed what Senator Lundeen's secretary already knew. Ernest Lundeen, 62 years old, had been on board that flight and he was among the dead.
A sitting U.S. Senator, gone in an instant. In a plane crash that, from the very start, was a real mystery.
Flannery: Why did this plane go down with these experienced pilots in a seemingly good airplane, in a storm that planes go through?
Maddow: The plane that crashed was a new DC-3. It was in perfect repair, it had passed all its checks. Pennsylvania Central Airlines had never had a crash in its entire history as an airline. The pilot was very experienced. He had a spotless record.
There was a federal investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board. That investigation found that while there was bad weather— there was thunder and lightning and some heavy rainfall in the area— there was nothing so unusual about the storm that the plane shouldn't have been cleared to fly.
The investigation found that there was no evidence of a fire on board the plane, no evidence of an explosion. There was no evidence that the plane had been struck by lightning.
Its engines certainly weren’t knocked out. Witnesses say, in fact, they heard the engines roaring full tilt right up until the moment of impact.
Painter: And all of a sudden, all we heard was, vroooooooom! That’s when it nosedived.
Maddow: The aeronautics board report concluded that the multiple witnesses who described abnormally loud roaring engines right at the time of the crash, those witnesses were onto something. The two engines of the DC-3 actually had been at wide-open full throttle when the plane slammed into the ground.
The board also concluded that neither the pilot nor the co-pilot were actively controlling the plane when it crashed. The report said, "It is possible that for some reason the pilot and copilot were prevented from effectively operating the controls."
That’s what the report said: “Prevented from effectively operating the controls.” Prevented by what?
When Lundeen’s secretary raced to the scene of the crash that afternoon to learn the fate of her boss, one report from the time says she met a policeman at the scene of the crash who told her something strange. He told her there was a fight on board the plane.
Now, of course, there were no survivors of the crash to tell anyone anything about what had happened on board the plane. But that supposed report from the policeman, it was not a totally incongruous detail. In fact, the senator's secretary herself had reportedly witnessed something along those same lines.
When she dropped her boss at the airfield for the flight, the Senator's secretary— according to some accounts— had noticed through the open doorway of the plane that something was happening between the passengers. “Some of the passengers were locked in a struggle” of some kind. And it looked to her like her boss, Senator Lundeen, might have even been among the people involved in that struggle, but she couldn't be entirely sure.
The reports of a possible physical altercation among the passengers on the plane, those reports would never be fully verified. And the mystery of what caused that crash, that mystery has endured. We still don't know what caused it. We certainly don't know if something weird happening between the passengers somehow brought the plane down.
But there was even more that was strange about "Trip 19," as it came to be known. Including: who else was on-board— along with Senator Lundeen— when the plane crashed. And what exactly the Senator was carrying with him when he stepped on board that flight…
Why was he so upset before he got on board? That one, we think we know. And it only makes the mystery of the plane's crash all the more confounding.
This is “Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra.”
Nancy Beck Young: He was on the run for not only his political life, but his actual life
Bradley Hart: Allegations already circulating that he might be pro-German, if not pro-Nazi. They're both trying to figure out how much reporters have found out about what's going on.
Young: There has been speculation that perhaps the flight was tampered with...
Lundeen: We are being urged on by insane hysteria.
Young: …as a way to end Lundeen's life unnaturally.
Flannery: I think that the coincidence defies the probabilities
Lundeen: Reason? We seem to be bereft of reason
Maddow: Episode 1: “Trip 19.”
Flannery: Well, we're standing at a, at the top of a ridge, if you will, and we're at a location, which if you were to take some of the witnesses, 750 feet above us, a plane is roaring over our head. And it's headed toward this field and it doesn't appear to be able to avoid it.
Maddow: John Flannery is giving us a tour of the exact location where Pennsylvania Central Airlines Flight 19 met its end. It’s a big, empty field that’s been taken over by weeds and lots and lots of bugs. There is no plaque, there is no marker designating it as the site of a deadly plane crash. But John Flannery has lived in the area for almost 20 years. He knows which windy country roads to take in order to find it.
Here he is with producer Kelsey Desiderio:
Kelsey Desiderio: So, obviously we don't know exactly where the plane came down, but do we have any rough idea, in terms of where we're standing, where did it happen?
Flannery: Well, from where we're standing, it's, it’s between us and the Short Hill mountain. Some people talk about it as the sacred land, you know, baptized in blood and destruction and, and hurt.
Maddow: In the hours and days that followed the crash of “Trip 19,” which killed Minnesota Senator Ernest Lundeen and 24 other people, there were a range of reactions across the country. Most immediately, in Washington, there was shock and grief from Senator Lundeen’s colleagues in the capital.
NBC Radio Anchor: In Washington, the flags are at half staff today. Washington hears Senator Pat McCarren of Nevada, mourning the death of his senatorial colleague Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota, who died in that crash.
Maddow: Sitting Senators just don’t drop dead on a regular basis. The sudden, tragic nature of Lundeen’s death was just shocking to the whole Congress, to all of Washington.
There was also a more general horror among the public over what— up to that point— was the single deadliest civilian air crash in U.S history.
But soon there was also something else. Something close to confusion over the emerging reports about all these odd circumstances surrounding the crash. There was that official government report on the crash, which, frankly, left many more questions than it answered.
Flannery: The report is just full of unsupported exploration of possibilities that are, that they have no basis in fact, they have no basis in science, and they just say these things.
Maddow: John Flannery, who gave us the tour of the crash site, he also happens to be a former federal prosecutor— he was an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York for years. John Flannery didn't only talk to the surviving witnesses to the plane crash, he's also made a real study of the aeronautics board report into the crash. And to him, something about it doesn’t add up.
Flannery: The more I looked at it, the more it seemed that at least the government agency didn't ask the right questions or find out very much. So it's not, it's not very useful. As a, as a recovering federal prosecutor you would throw somebody out of your office if they came in and they said, “This is our finding.” Really?
Maddow: Separate from that report, there was Senator Lundeen’s strange behavior in his office right before he and his secretary left for the airport. The tears streaming down his face, his comment to her that he’d gone “too far” and he couldn’t turn back. There were also those reports of an altercation that took place among the passengers on-board the plane, what the secretary reportedly saw before takeoff, what the policeman reportedly told her.
Flannery: There was reportedly a scuffle, whatever that means. Is that a fight? Is that an argument? Did people lose their seat?
Maddow: Among all the strange circumstances surrounding this crash, there was also… a note.
A reporter for the Winchester Evening Star in Virginia filed a story from the crash scene that day for the Associated Press. He reported that he came across a charred partially-burned piece of paper lying on the ground about three miles from the scene of the crash. He said it was signed by the lone flight attendant on board. Her name was Margaret Carson. And her note, right above her signature, it said, “going down.”
Whatever had happened on-board the plane, the flight attendant apparently had both the presence of mind— and the time— to dash off that note before the end. What could have been happening on board the plane that made her know the plane was "going down?”
Perhaps most intriguing, though, was something that was found in the passenger manifest from the flight. Because it turns out that in addition to U.S. Senator Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota, that manifest showed— and the press soon reported— that the other passengers on-board “Trip 19” included a Special Agent of the FBI, a second FBI employee, and a prosecutor from the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Now, there were only 25 people total on the plane— three people from the Justice Department and the senator among them.
The presence of those three individuals from the FBI and the Justice Department on the flight that day, along with the Senator, that could have been happenstance, could have been just a coincidence, that they were all on that same flight. Could have been. Might not have been.
Flannery: I think that the coincidence defies the probabilities.
Maddow: What were those FBI and Justice Department personnel doing on board that flight? Were they there because Senator Lundeen was on board?
Just who was Senator Ernest Lundeen?
Bradley Hart: Lundeen sort of creates a gadfly reputation for himself.
Maddow: That’s historian Bradley Hart, who’s studied and written about Lundeen’s tenure in Congress.
Hart: Ernest Lundeen is, I think, one of the more fascinating figures in this period.
Maddow: Lundeen's political career had a bit of a bumpy start. He was sworn-in to his first term in the House of Representatives in 1917, just a month before Congress took a very fateful vote on whether the U.S. would enter World War I.
Lundeen, again, just a month into his first term in congress, he voted no. He voted no to the U.S. joining the Great War. And although he certainly wasn't alone in that vote, it was a controversial vote. And he managed to stand out even from his other peers who voted no like he did.
That vote, that stance, it stuck to him.
Hart: When American troops are actually in combat, virtually every member of Congress, every politician sort of makes a show of supporting the troops and even goes over to visit the trenches of the Western front and things like that. Lundeen doesn't do any of these things. He, he sort of refuses to support the war effort. At one point does try to visit the troops and is turned away by the military because he's seen as a, an almost unpatriotic figure.
Maddow: Lundeen's constituents back home in Minnesota were also pretty peeved with him at the time. He was in his first term in Congress when he took that vote against the war. When he ran for re-election after his first term, they voted him out. And they didn't just run him out of Congress, they ran him out of town on a rail. Literally on the local railroad.
Nancy Beck Young: He was on the run for not only his political life, but his actual life.
Maddow: Historian Nancy Beck Young has done extensive research on this fight in Congress, and in the streets.
Young: Angry crowds came out to protest him and his safety was in question on more than one occasion. He had to escape one such angry crowd hidden away in a refrigerated train car.
Maddow: Hidden away in a refrigerated train car. Yeah. Just a few months after he lost his seat in Congress. Ernest Lundeen went to Ortonville, Minnesota to give a speech on foreign policy, but this angry crowd turned up and force-marched him out of the venue after he'd only spit out about two sentences of his speech. They force-marched him to the local railyard, threw him in the refrigerator car of a train that was just pulling out of the station, and then locked the door. Locked him in. The train crew heard him yelling about 20 miles down the tracks. They let him out of the cold car. They let him ride in the caboose to the next station.
So, Ernest Lundeen knew the cost of taking an unpopular stance in elected office. That one term he served in Congress back in 1917, it was a political disaster. But he still wanted more. He still had the itch for elected office.
After more than a decade biding his time, building up the support and the war chest he would need to try again, Lundeen made another run for office. And the good people of Minnesota forgave him, apparently. They did return him to the Congress, and then to the United States Senate.
Radio Announcer: Instead of the program originally scheduled for this time, we bring you a talk by Senator Ernest Lundeen.
Maddow: In his first stint in Washington, Lundeen had opposed the U.S. getting involved in World War I. Now as he was sworn in to the Senate in the late 1930s, the U.S. was weighing getting involved in the Second World War. And Ernest Lundeen threw himself headlong into the effort to try to stop that, too.
Senator Ernest Lundeen: Fellow Americans, America prepares to take the last step before entering another World War. I call upon the youth of America to put a stop to these un-American, pro-European doctrines. The people should make known their protest. Write your congressmen and senators, telephone them, wire them, come to Washington to see them. You must do this now. Immediate protest will block the way to militarizing our nation.
Maddow: With the world steaming toward World War as Hitler stormed Europe, picking off country after country, U.S. Senator Ernest Lundeen quickly became one of the loudest and most confident voices inveighing against the U.S. joining the fight.
Lundeen: We are being urged on by insane hysteria. Reason? We seem to be bereft of reason.
Maddow: Senator Lundeen knew from experience that his stance against the U.S. joining the war in Europe might be politically unpopular. It might even get him run out of town on a rail again. But he was determined. He pressed his case on the radio, and on the senate floor, and at home with his constituents.
When Senator Lundeen boarded that doomed Pennsylvania Central Airlines plane in August 1940, remember that his final destination was back home in Minnesota, where he was slated to deliver a speech on Labor Day weekend. That speech was also a speech against America getting into the war. But it turns out it wasn't your average Ernest Lundeen stump speech.
Hart: This is a speech that's sort of unlike most that Lundeen gives. He pours months of effort into this speech. I mean, the, the sort of background notes for this go more than a hundred pages.
Maddow: It wasn’t just the length of time it took to prepare the speech that set it apart. This really was a different kind of speech. It was a speech that was full of praise for Germany under Hitler. It's one thing to be not-excited about the U.S. fighting Nazi Germany, this really was something else.
Hart: The archival records suggests that possibly some, if not pro-Hitler, sort of pro-peacemaking with Nazi Germany type content.
Maddow: Lundeen’s speech that he planned to give on Labor Day 1940, it extolled the great contributions of German culture to American life. It stressed, essentially, that we Americans had more in common with them, with Germans, than we had with our allies who Germany at that moment was busy invading and conquering. That's the speech Lundeen was heading home to give on Labor Day weekend, when his flight crashed on its first leg out of Washington.
Now, somehow, miraculously, the physical draft— the hardcopy draft of that speech— survived the plane crash. You can see it in Ernest Lundeen’s archives at Stanford University. There’s a note pinned to the front describing how the pages of the speech were found 100 yards away from the epicenter of the plane crash site.
Hart: When the FBI agents who are sent to the scene recover his body, they find a draft of the speech that he was going to give just a few days later. It's kind of creepy to hold, right, because you realize what that document, you know, went through. It's absolutely an incredible artifact.
Maddow: Beyond the apparent indestructability in that speech surviving a plane crash, beyond its pretty remarkable content, there was something else notable about that speech. The really important thing to know about that speech is who wrote it.
That speech had been ghost-written for Senator Lundeen. Ghost-written by a senior, paid agent of Hitler's government operating in America, a man to whom Senator Lundeen had grown very close.
And Senator Lundeen, of course, he never delivered that speech. The plane crash made sure of that. But the Senator did have reason to be concerned while he was on the plane that day. And, for that matter, while he sat in his office with his head in his hands just before leaving for that flight. The reason for him to be concerned was that there was a good chance the feds were onto him, onto his relationship with that Nazi agent. And Senator Lundeen knew it.
Maddow: Senator Ernest Lundeen's last two weeks on earth were stressful. As weird and mysterious as his death in an inexplicable plane crash would prove to be, his last two weeks before the crash were fraught with anxiety, even panic. Because two weeks before he got on that plane, he suddenly found himself the apparent subject of a blockbuster newspaper exposé.
Hart: There's a publication called PM, which is a left-wing tabloid, a muckraking left-wing paper in New York city, which happens to do incredible reporting.
Maddow: A newspaper called PM had published an exposé describing a scheme in which sitting members of Congress were helping an agent of Hitler's government distribute German propaganda in quantity all over the United States.
Now the exposé did not mention Senator Lundeen by name, but the newspaper's description of the scheme, it was spot-on when it came to describing the nature of that relationship, the nature of the activities that Lundeen was up to with that German agent.
Between when the article came out and the plane crash, Lundeen's papers show he received a letter from the German agent telling him to not worry about the press being onto them. Telling him the whole thing was, quote, "a witch hunt".
That letter from the German agent he was working with, it apparently did not ease the concerns of Senator Lundeen.
Hart: They're both trying to figure out how much reporters have found out about what's going on. Lundeen very clearly starts sweating about this, this sort of relationship.
Maddow: So, the Senator seems to have been in a near-panic about being exposed in the days leading up to him stepping on board that flight— a flight in which he, quite literally, was carrying a speech that was written for him by a Nazi agent who had just been exposed in the press.
He was in tears leading up to that flight, according to his secretary. He told her he’d gone too far and could not turn back. And the flight that he was about to board also happened to include multiple Justice Department personnel who would be flying alongside him. A flight that none of them would survive.
Radio Reporter: In this country now, in the nation’s capitol at Washington. Senator Ernest Lundeen reported killed today in the crash of a Pennsylvania Central Airlines plane.
Hart: You can imagine how this strikes the country, that this man who had been seen already as an outspoken anti-war figure, allegations already circulating that he might be pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, has suddenly died dramatically.
Maddow: After the crash of “Trip 19,” Senator Ernest Lundeen was given a state funeral in Minnesota. He lay in state at the state capitol. He was buried in a military cemetery. But ten days after his burial, all hell broke loose over the legacy and death of Senator Lundeen because of another newspaper report: September 13th, 1940. And this one most certainly named him.
Dateline Washington. Headline: "G-MEN WERE SHADOWING LATE SENATOR." Here’s the lede:
"If Federal authorities probe deep-enough into the crash of the Pennsylvania Central Airlines plane which carried Senator Lundeen to his death in Virginia, they may find some highly interesting facts regarding Nazi activities in the United States. What most people do not know is that Senator Lundeen was under investigation at the time of his death.”
“A G-Man [meaning an FBI agent], a Department of Justice attorney, and an FBI secretary were on the plane with him, and all were killed.”
“The Department of Justice probably will deny that they were shadowing the Minnesota Senator, but the fact is that at least one of them definitely was."
This was crusading, controversial columnist Drew Pearson.
Hart: Drew Pearson is arguably the most powerful journalist in the country in this era. Drew Pearson plays this incredibly important role in blowing the lid off of this.
Maddow: This was just days after Senator Lundeen was buried and Drew Pearson just drops this bombshell. He says, quote, "Justice Department agents were attempting to find out the extent to which Berlin was definitely hooked up with any members of [Congress] when Lundeen's plane crashed."
"Whether certain foreign agents figured that they were about to be exposed, whether G-men on the plane tangled with Lundeen in flight, or whether it was an act of God-and-the-weather… may never be known."
Young: The question has never been put to rest. Maybe it was just bad weather. But there has been speculation that perhaps the flight was tampered with. Speculation, but no proof. Speculation, but no proof, one way or another.
Maddow: Just as the journalist Drew Pearson predicted, the cause of the crash of “Trip 19” has remained a mystery, indefinitely. We still don't know. There have been relatively recent reports that the FBI's investigation of the crash technically remains an open case. We tried to confirm those reports one way or the other. We couldn’t.
But another thing that Drew Pearson was definitely right about in his reporting was his prediction that the Justice Department was going to deny that Senator Lundeen was under investigation. In fact, they did deny it. In the weeks after the crash, the Attorney General emphatically rejected the suggestion that Lundeen was under active investigation when he died. In a letter sent to the Senator's widow, the Attorney General wrote that law enforcement officials were on that plane with the Senator “by pure coincidence.”
That denial from the Justice Department, as emphatic as it was, it didn’t hold up. Because the Justice Department's own prosecutors would soon reveal, in court, voluminous evidence they had in fact collected about Senator Lundeen. Evidence that Senator Lundeen was involved in a criminal conspiracy, a conspiracy to subvert American democracy on behalf of a hostile foreign power.
Desiderio: When we talk about the DOJ’s response after the crash, in addition to saying those agents were on the plane by coincidence, they also deny that Lundeen was under investigation at all. What do you make of that?
Flannery: Well, they call that consciousness of guilt, when you deny something that's true. So when the Department of Justice says he wasn't under investigation and we know he was, then they're concealing that he was under investigation and it's being asked in the context of a plane crash. And so you have to scratch your head. It means they know something they don't want us to know.
Maddow: In the wake of the “Trip 19” plane crash, the Justice Department said there was “nothing to see here.” No one was under investigation, it was all just a coincidence. But soon, the story of Ernest Lundeen colluding with a hostile foreign power, the involvement of a sitting member of Congress in what would soon be charged in court as a wide-ranging, seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government, that story would play out in ways that nobody would expect. And that was in part, because it would not end up being just Senator Ernest Lundeen who was caught up in it.
This is a story about politics at the edge. A violent, ultra-right authoritarian movement, weirdly infatuated with foreign dictatorships. Support for that movement among serving members of Congress who prove willing and able to use their share of American political power to defend the extremists, to protect themselves, to throw off the investigation. Violence against government targets. Plots to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. And a criminal justice system trying, trying, but ill-suited to thwart this kind of danger.
Hart: We have a number of the biggest figures in American politics in this period, they all fall under the spell of this sort of Nazi propaganda operation.
Young: This group of people, if they were anything first, it was their own political success and careers first. If they could advance their career by playing footsy with Nazis, so be it.
Radio Reporter: 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.
Radio Announcer: You’re about to hear an address delivered before a meeting of the America First Committee in Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Radio Reporter: 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.
Father Charles E. Coughlin: Rest assured, we’ll fight you and we’ll win!
Hart: I do think that some of the members of Congress who were involved probably didn’t know how deep they were in it. This is a moment of great political danger, I think, for these men.
O. John Rogge: I was told 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 prepared. Now, do you think that’s sufficient basis to keep these facts from the American public?
Maddow: This is a story of treachery, deceit and almost unfathomable actions on the part of people who are elected to defend the constitution, but who instead got themselves implicated in a plot to undermine it. A plot to end it.
Hart: He wants to build an American version of fascism. His followers are, are armed. They are violently committed to this mission.
Steven J. Ross: They don’t call themselves right-wing fanatics. They’re patriots who are saving America.
Maddow: Perhaps most importantly, this is also the story of the Americans— mostly now lost to history— who picked up the slack in this fight, who worked themselves to expose what was going on, to investigate it, to report on it, ultimately to stop it.
And there's a reason to know this history now. Because calculated efforts to undermine democracy, to foment a coup, to spread disinformation across the country, overt actions involving not just a radical band of insurrectionists, but actual serving members of congress working alongside them, that sort of thing is... that's a lot of things. It's terrible. But it is not unprecedented.
We are not the first generation of Americans to have to contend with such a fundamental threat. Lucky for us, the largely forgotten Americans who fought these fights before us, they have stories to tell.
“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, 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 our beloved Library of Congress, with additional sound from CBS News.
A special thanks to John Flannery for providing us with his incredible interviews with the eye-witnesses of the “Trip 19” plane crash.
You can find much more about this series— you can even see the copy of Senator Lundeen's Nazi speech that survived the plane crash— at our website: MSNBC.com/ultra
Flannery: Mr. Painter's older brother walked into the field and he saw teeth and there was a gold tooth in there and he threw it at the ground and broke out the gold tooth and he kept it. And he didn't just keep it for a day, he kept it the whole rest of his life. He was about 15 at the time. And I asked his surviving younger brother, Mr. Painter, why do you think he did that? And he didn't know. That piece of gold, that became like a talisman, I think for him. He didn't sell it. He didn't ever try to get money for it. He kept it for himself. He hung onto that tooth until his death as a contemplation of the duality between the notion of immortality and the death that was everywhere contradicting it. It’s powerful stuff.