Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra
Episode 8: Ultra Vires
In the wake of the sedition trial's collapse, Justice Department prosecutor John Rogge travels overseas and uncovers a bombshell. He finds evidence of a coordinated effort to subvert American democracy… as well as the names of high-profile Americans involved. Rogge then returns to America... and goes rogue. Risking his career as a prosecutor, he makes public what he's discovered about the fascist threat and the Americans who supported it. And he offers a prescient warning about an American criminal justice system that is ill-equipped to defend democracy from those who seek to destroy it.
Carl Bates: Mutual invites you to "Meet the Press." This is Carl Bates speaking to you from Washington, D.C., where four of the country's ace reporters are gathered around the microphones ready to fire questions at Mr. O. John Rogge, former Special Assistant to the Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division --
Rachel Maddow: Justice Department prosecutor John Rogge was sitting at a bank of radio microphones on the set of “Meet the Press”. He was waiting to face questions from a phalanx of the country's top reporters.
Albert Warner: Mr. Rogge, and the things he has been saying, have been front page news all over the country.
Maddow: The reason John Rogge was front-page news all over the country was because of a cascading series of events that had just culminated in him being fired.
Doris Fleeson: Mr. Rogge, in plain American, you were fired. And I believe you believe that you got a raw deal.
Maddow: John Rogge had been head of the Criminal Division and Main Justice. He was a high-profile DOJ leader, almost a household name.
He had dismantled the Huey Long political machine in Louisiana. He'd taken the lead on some of the Justice Department’s highest-profile criminal cases.
But here he was getting ready for his grilling on "Meet the Press" because he'd been fired, and because of why he'd been fired, and because of what he'd been doing in the whirlwind that led up to it.
John Rogge had just spent the better part of a year prosecuting more than two dozen alleged seditionists in what Rogge had charged in court as a plot to subvert American democracy, to overthrow the American system of government, to institute fascism here.
In the courtroom, the sedition trial had descended into chaos, which was very much to the benefit of the defendants.
And then the whole thing had been upended -- suddenly -- with the surprise death of the judge in the case.
Radio Announcer: Associate Justice Proctor declared a mistrial because of the death last Friday of Chief Justice Edward C. Eicher.
Maddow: The sudden death of the judge overseeing the trial, which caused a mistrial in the case. The aggressively disorderly behavior of the dozens of sedition defendants and their lawyers. The intense criticism of the trial by members of Congress who had been involved with some of the defendants -- their intervention in the courtroom during the trial. The fact that it seemed like the trial would never come to any kind of end at all.
The Justice Department had had enough of all of it. They did not want to retry the case. And that may have been an unavoidable conclusion.
Rogge himself ultimately told the Justice Department that new Supreme Court decisions that had been handed down after the sedition trial started raised doubts about whether any convictions for sedition could survive an appeal.
He told the Justice Department, "I have come to the unpleasant conclusion that the Supreme Court will reverse any verdict which the government obtains in the sedition case."
After the judge died, and the mistrial was declared, it was clear that the case itself would come to an end. But Rogge believed the evidence collected for the trial exposed a massive and ongoing national security threat. And he had an additional problem, which is that the evidence just kept coming.
Late in the game, while the sedition trial was still technically in court, Rogge had received an extraordinary tip that he believed was too important not to chase down.
It was a tip from an American servicemember -- an Army captain -- who told Rogge that a whole trove of evidence had been found, in Germany, about the Nazi effort to undermine American democracy and about high-profile American citizens the Nazis had been working with to do it.
Rogge got permission from the court and from DOJ to go to Germany, to follow up on the tip. His team that went to Germany -- his whole operation -- consisted of himself, one other lawyer, two stenographers with two portable typewriters, and a single FBI agent who wasn't even allowed to stay for the whole trip.
At least Rogge himself was fluent in German. That ended up being crucially important.
In the 11 weeks that he and his team spent in Europe, Rogge interviewed dozens of Nazis who had been captured by the U.S. military, including high-ranking officials like Ribbentrop, the foreign minister, just before he was hanged; and former Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, who would soon kill himself with a cyanide capsule while he was on his way to being hanged.
Rogge conducted all those interviews. He reviewed thousands of secret Nazi government files. There were files about America. It was about the Hitler government’s work inside the United States, up to and during the war. It was also about who they worked with here. Rogge brought all of that home to tell the country about it.
Whether or not this sedition case was ever going to be settled in court in a criminal trial, Rogge wanted this information to be known.
And that is why John Rogge was now sitting in the studios of "Meet the Press" in Washington, newly fired from the Justice Department, and as fired up as you can possibly imagine, to talk about it.
Fleeson: Do you think the President fired you or ordered you fired?
Maddow: Yes, actually. The President of the United States had personally ordered him fired. Because John Rogge went rogue, because John Rogge decided that what he had was too important to keep quiet. It was definitely beyond his authority to do it, but he did it anyway. And he paid the price -- to warn us, to warn the country.
This is the final episode of "Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra."
Steven Ross: Whenever somebody says it's time to move on, let's heal and move on, that's always a mistake.
John Rogge: My conscience wouldn't let me do anything else than make those facts public at one time or another.
Bradley Hart: What I would argue is perhaps the most explosive political report of the 20th century.
Bates: He insisted that the facts of his report be made public.
Rogge: If democracy is going to work, if our assumption is correct, that people can make wise choices on issues, it can only be if they know the inside story.
Hart: There's no way this can come out. This is just far too explosive for the American people to handle.
Maddow: Episode 8: Ultra Vires.
Rogge: I've studied fascism both here and abroad for almost four years. And I think I know something about the fascist pattern. So long as people want to hear what I have to say, I'm of course going to tell them what I know.
Maddow: John Rogge was bursting to tell what he knew.
He had just returned to the United States after a hair-raising trip to Nazi Germany, which saw him sitting face-to-face with captured Nazi leaders. He was more than a little alarmed by what he had learned there, by what he had uncovered about the ultra-right in America, about individuals here who had been working to advance the Nazi cause.
Hart: Rogge comes back with I think probably the deepest understanding of anyone in the United States, if not the world, as to what the Germans had been up to in trying to subvert the United States.
Maddow: That’s historian Bradley Hart.
When Rogge got back from Germany, he got to work compiling a report on his findings for the Justice Department.
Hart: The report is absolutely explosive.
Rogge documents the business ties between Nazi Germany and major American corporations. He has documented Nazi payoff efforts against various Americans who become Nazi agents. And there's big names that appear in this report.
Maddow: Big names up-to-and-including serving members of Congress.
Hart: People like Wheeler or Nye, these sort of leading lights of isolationism, they all appear in the report in great depth.
Maddow: John Rogge and the Justice Department, of course, had already known about the involvement of some members of Congress in a plot to spread Nazi propaganda around the United States. They knew that because they had uncovered it in their own investigations here.
They had also known about ultra-right violent groups spreading the same kind of propaganda, and planning violence, up to and including the overthrow of the U.S. government.
But Rogge was now looking at evidence -- in black and white -- from the Nazi side of things, from their own secret files, and from out of their own mouths. Goering and Ribbentrop had even told Rogge about a multi-million-dollar plan by the German government to interfere in the 1940 presidential election, in favor of the republican candidate.
Hart: He sees this stuff as critically important to Americans' understanding of what's happened. And I think, as well, critical to averting this from happening again.
Maddow: John Rogge assembled his explosive report on what the Nazis had done. and which Americans had been actively aligned with them.
American groups that were getting support and instruction and even funding from the Nazis. American businessmen who were not just personally sympathetic to the Nazi cause -- they were finding ways around the law to continue doing business with the Nazis even during the war.
And these American political figures. It turns out, the Nazis had kept meticulous records about which members of Congress were the most help to them, which might be the most help to them in the future after a fascist takeover of the United States, and which were on the payroll or otherwise involved with their senior propaganda agent in America, George Sylvester Viereck.
Hart: Rogge details in great depth, the extent of involvement between members of Congress and George Sylvester Viereck.
Maddow: Rogge’s report identified 24 members of Congress who had been tied up in some form with the Nazis. Rogge submitted that report to his boss, the Attorney General Tom Clark.
Rogge said he had been told before he left for Germany, that upon his return, the Justice Department would make his report public as an official document.
But that is not at all what happened.
When Rogge turned in his report, the Attorney General then brought it to the White House and shared it directly with President Harry Truman.
Hart: Truman essentially decrees that this report should never see the light of day. It is simply too explosive. He orders this report to be classified as secret and essentially forbids Rogge from ever publishing or ever even discussing the contents of what I would argue is perhaps the most explosive political report of the 20th century.
Maddow: The Attorney General -- future Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark -- and President Harry Truman had the report sealed. They buried it.
For John Rogge, who had just seen his sedition case fall apart, who had just watched as implicated members of Congress did everything they could to obstruct that investigation and the subsequent trial. This report, which he had been told was for the public -- it was now being intentionally suppressed. For Rogge, it was too much to take.
Hart: Rogge realizes that this report's not going to be made public, even in a highly redacted form, I think he's understandably outraged. And I think this is where we again see his sort of crusader mentality, if you will.
Maddow: There is a Latin term that’s used in the law, "ultra vires." It roughly translates to "beyond the powers."
When it comes to the law and criminal justice, ultra vires is not good. It essentially means acting in a way that is beyond your legal authority.
When John Rogge learned that his report from Germany was going to be stuffed in a drawer somewhere to never see the light of day he rejected that decision, that decision by the Attorney General, that decision by the President.
He said he believed the fascist threat in America was real and ongoing, and for a democracy to defend itself, the people needed to know what they were up against.
Details from Rogge’s secret report began leaking out in the press. Some of the report’s key findings turned up in the columns of Washington journalist Drew Pearson.
Hart: Rogge, of course, strongly denies that he has leaked any classified information to the press. And it's not necessarily true that Rogge himself would have leaked anything. But I think it's fair to say that Rogge would've been aware that this was leaking before it took place.
Maddow: Over the course of ten days, Drew Pearson's columns spelled out what Rogge had found: the Nazis' plan to interfere in the 1940 presidential election, their funding of influential right-wing media in the United States, Father Charles Coughlin writing to the Hitler government and sending an emissary to Berlin to ask the Nazis to help him here in his war at home against Roosevelt and against the Jews.
Once those pieces of Rogge's report started landing in the paper, John Rogge didn’t exactly go out of his way to avoid commenting on it.
He decided that, actually, it might be a pretty good moment for him to launch a nationwide speaking tour.
Hart: He actually goes on a lecture tour, even as a current official in DOJ, talking about the findings of the report and essentially only talking about the aspects that have been publicly reported.
Maddow: Rogge applied for some vacation time from the Justice Department. And then he started to give speeches, discussing details in his report that had already leaked out in the press.
And he wasn't giving these speeches in particularly high-profile venues -- it's not like he was booking Madison Square Garden. His first speech was literally at a poli sci class at Swarthmore College. But given who he was, and given the absolutely explosive content of his remarks, even that trip to a college classroom ended up in the front section of "The New York Times."
Later that week, Rogge was flying to another speaking engagement in Seattle, but his plane was forced to make an emergency stop because of bad weather.
While he was waiting in the airport terminal, getting ready to continue on that trip, an FBI agent came into the airport looking for him. The agent introduced himself, and then handed John Rogge a one-page letter from the Attorney General informing him that he was being terminated, effective immediately -- like, there in the airport.
The agent asked Rogge to hand over any Justice Department material currently in his possession.
Rogge told him all he had was his DOJ parking pass. The agent took it and said goodnight. And that was it.
And John Rogge, honestly, had earned that termination. The Justice Department speaks only through its court filings, and its official statements and its official reports for a reason.
John Rogge was subverting that on nothing but his own say-so, his own belief in the rightness of his cause. That meant that he was using the power of the Justice Department's investigative functions for an unauthorized purpose. Him going ultra vires on this, it's an important, substantive breach of DOJ protocol. It’s definitely a firing offense, and maybe even then some.
But that's the call he made. These threats to democracy that he had uncovered, ongoing threats to democracy from within this country and among powerful people. To him, it was a five-alarm fire. To him, it was worth going rogue.
Hart: I think Rogge goes public with this information because he just sees it as so important. What Rogge is saying is that the United States needs to be honest with itself about what has happened. It's partially about exposing wrongdoing from the past, but I think implicitly it's about trying to ensure that this never happens again.
Maddow: It's also a scandal at about 10 different levels. And it’s an extraordinary news story at the time.
Bates: Mr. O. John Rogge, former Special Assistant to the Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division, who recently stirred up a hornet's nest by releasing a report to the public over the insistence of Attorney General Clark, that it be kept secret.
Maddow: What Rogge was saying, and that he had been fired for saying it, all of that is what led to Rogge’s must-hear appearance on "Meet the Press."
Bates: Rogge, until recently, was Special Assistant to the Attorney General, in charge of prosecuting a group of alleged seditionists, men and women accused of working against the interests of our country, spreading Nazi propaganda.
In April of this year, Mr. Rogge was sent to Germany to gather additional evidence. He questioned dozens of Nazis and screened some 30,000 documents from the German foreign office files. When he returned, he wrote a report which contained, among other things, the names of 24 Congressman. He insisted that the facts of his report be made public.
Attorney General Clark wanted the report kept secret. But in spite of that, Mr. Rogge made public some of the information in a speech at Swarthmore. Three days later, Mr. Clark fired him.
And since that day, Mr. Rogge, and the things he has been saying, have been front-page news all over the country.
Maddow: In that radio appearance, as passionate as Rogge felt about what he needed to tell the American people, what he wanted them to know, he was also, frankly, a little ticked off that he had been fired in the way that he had.
Fleeson: Mr. Rogge, in plain American, you were fired. And I believe you believe that you got a raw deal. Who do you think gave it to you, the President? And why?
Rogge: I've never called it a raw deal, Miss Fleeson. It's true the Department and I disagreed as to whether the people should have the facts. I think the reason for the disagreement lies in the fact that 24 Congressmen, including the name of Senator Burton K. Wheeler, were mentioned in the report which I prepared.
Maddow: You caught the name that he mentioned there? Senator Burton K. Wheeler.
Senator Wheeler was the America First Senator from Montana who had gotten Rogge’s predecessor William Maloney fired off the sedition case. Senator Wheeler had been involved in the Viereck propaganda scheme on Capitol Hill. Senator Wheeler had threatened reporters and papers that dared to print the details of the scheme. Wheeler had inveighed in the senate about the sedition trial being a disgrace. In Rogge's new report from Germany, Senator Wheeler was said to be involved in the German government's plot to interfere in the 1940 election.
According to John Rogge, it was Senator Wheeler who had just gotten him fired, just as he'd had William Maloney fired before him. And in Rogge's case, Wheeler didn't just threaten and pressure the Justice Department into firing him. In Rogge's case, Wheeler went straight to the top.
Rogge: I do know he saw the President the day before I received, may I say, the notice of dismissal.
Fleeson: Do you think the President fired you or ordered you fired?
Rogge: Again, my feeling is that I received my notice of dismissal as a result of Burton K. Wheeler. Yes.
Maddow: It’s worth unpacking this just a second.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had of course died during the war. He died in the spring of 1945. Harry Truman was FDR’s Vice President and so when FDR died in office, Truman ascended to the presidency.
But before that, Truman had been in the Senate. And he was still very friendly with some of his old Senate colleagues, like Gerald Nye and like his old Senate mentor Burton K. Wheeler. Both Nye and Wheeler had of course been involved in the Viereck scheme, and both of them were all over John Rogge’s new report from Germany.
Hart: Truman is a former Senator. And not a former Senator years and years before, but a former Senator months before he becomes President, actually. And so many of the men, Burton K. Wheeler, Gerald P. Nye, even people like Hamilton Fish in the House, these are people that Harry Truman has known for years and in fact worked closely with.
And so, John Rogge uncovers this incredible story of corruption, of people like Lundeen taking payoffs from Viereck and being involved in this Nazi operation. Of people like Burton Wheeler, Gerald P. Nye, venerated figures on Capitol Hill who have become, wittingly or unwittingly, Nazi propagandists. And Rogge's put all this in his report. And Harry Truman seemingly looked at this and says, there's no way this can come out. This is just far too explosive for the American people to handle.
Maddow: This incident does not get remembered as a capital-S scandal when people think of President Harry Truman. The implication here is that President Truman kept secret the findings of a Justice Department investigation because it showed that his friends in Congress had been facilitating a fascist attempt to subvert democracy.
The President orders the report kept secret to protect people like Senator Wheeler, and then when the investigator doesn’t keep it secret, Wheeler tells the President to fire the guy. And President Truman does so.
Rogge gave his first speech about his findings in Germany in that classroom at Swarthmore on a Tuesday.
The next day, Wednesday, was when it was in the papers.
The day after that, Thursday, is when Senator Wheeler went to the White House and took a two-hour meeting one-on-one with his old friend President Truman.
Thursday night after that meeting, President Truman called his Attorney General, Tom Clark. Attorney General Clark went up to the White House that night and apparently got an earful from the President.
Then later that same night, the Attorney General called a very unusual press conference -- unusual in the sense that it was called after midnight. And at that press conference, he announced the firing of John Rogge.
And that's what led to that FBI agent tracking down Rogge in a little airport in Spokane, Washington, to take Rogge's parking pass and tell him his career was over.
Given that very clear course of events, given what John Rogge understood to be the cause of his firing, you can understand why he might have been peeved that day when he went on "Meet the Press."
Rogge: I was told before --
Fleeson: By whom?
Rogge: -- by Attorney General Clark, before I went to Germany, 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 have prepared. Now, do you think that's a sufficient basis to keep these facts from the American public?
I operated on this basis that if democracy is going to work, if our assumption is correct that people can make wise choices on issues, it can only be if they know the inside story. My conscience wouldn't let me do anything else than make those facts public at one time or another.
Maddow: Aside from the particulars of why he was fired, why he handled himself the way that he did, John Rogge wanted to make something else clear to the American public, too.
He wanted to say that was there an ongoing fascist threat in the United States, one that involved very powerful people, one that would get worse if it was not openly recognized and dealt with. But also -- and this is something he knew a lot about -- he wanted the public to know, to really understand that the American legal system really had no good way of dealing with this threat.
Rogge: We had reached the point where our legal remedies were inadequate. As a matter of fact, I'd prepared a report in which I'd said legal remedies are inadequate.
Now, if you're going to say to me that I can't use the facts in an educational way, then you are in effect, saying there's no way of meeting the fascist threat. You can't do it legally. And you say to me, ah, but you mustn't talk about these things because the case was nolle pros. And if you put me in that position, there are no remedies against it.
The law is powerless in this situation, the law says these people may say what they please, I say, Okay, we will accept the law as it is. These people may say what they please --
Fleeson: In other words --
Rogge: Give me the same right of freedom of speech --
Fleeson: -- you will break the law in a good cause? It doesn't seem to me that's quite good enough --
Rogge: No, I'm not breaking any law. I'm not breaking any law. Democracy says that the people in the fascist side are entitled to a full measure of freedom of speech. I say that democracy should give the same measure of freedom of speech to those who are supporting democracy.
Maddow: “We had reached the point where our legal remedies were inadequate.”
What John Rogge saw, what he had been up-close to in his prosecutions, was an entrenched ultra-right movement in this country, opposed to democracy, which saw violence as a legitimate means of achieving political aims. One that had support not only among some parts of the far-right media, but also among elected political leaders on the right.
He saw alongside that a criminal justice system that was simply unable to deal with that threat.
What do you do as a country when you are faced with that?
When you are up against those kinds of forces, trying to tear apart the very thing that makes you the country you are? How do you push back against it?
And what are the consequences for the country if you don’t push back enough?
That’s ahead, in the conclusion of "Ultra."
There is something that nags at Nancy Beck Young. She’s a historian. She's chair of the history department at the University of Houston.
But Professor Young has a suspicion that an unsettling chapter of history, that she happens to be an expert on, has somehow managed to slip down the national memory hole entirely.
Nancy Beck Young: I suspect you could go up and down the halls of the fifth floor where we're sitting now and ask my colleagues who are all very well-trained and very well-regarded historians, I suspect that there are only one or two others who might know of this episode in history. If people with Ph.D.s in history don't necessarily know of this moment, certainly average voters don't know of this moment.
Maddow: This moment that she’s talking about is this moment in the '40s when American democracy faced this threat.
A fascist movement on the march around the world that crept well into our own politics.
Disparate far-right groups all around the country, arming themselves, threatening violence to achieve their political aims. Some of the most influential voices in right-wing media demonizing minority groups, singing the praises of authoritarians and fascists. Americans plotting to overturn election results. And elected leaders in this country aiding and furthering those efforts, either through their own sincerely-held beliefs or just through political opportunism.
Young: We don't have a full understanding of what we're living through now, if we don't understand the parallel moments from the past. It's dangerous for the public, it's dangerous for the experiment of democracy that always has been fragile, and that is ever more fragile today.
Maddow: At the very start of the Justice Department’s sedition inquiry, when they first appointed William Power Maloney to be the special prosecutor in charge of that investigation, Maloney talked to some of his friends about this thing he was embarking on, and his fears about where it might lead.
He told them, God help America and everything it stands for if the Justice Department ever backs down on this case. We've got to go fast. The time to try the case is now, not five years from now. We are going to bump into some of the most powerful forces in the country. The Department of Justice will be attacked from all sides. Pressure will be brought to bear to stop the investigation. But the prosecution must never stop until the whole story has been told to the American people and the guilty ones are punished. If we don't, these people will be made into martyrs. It will be worse than it was before.
That was Maloney's fear: God help us if the Justice Department ever backs down on this case.
And of course, the Justice Department did back down on this case.
But William Maloney, while he was in charge, he used every tool in his prosecutorial toolbox to expose these activities to the light. And then he was forced out.
And it was the same with John Rogge. He did everything he possibly could.
After Rogge too was fired from the case, he fought for years to get some version of his report from Germany released to the American public.
And he was ultimately able to publish it in a book which came out more than a decade later, in 1961, by which point the country had very much moved on. Nobody cared. Nobody bought it.
Rogge by then had faded as a public figure -- he had been smeared and attacked as a red, as a communist.
He'd also been smeared and attacked by the communists, for what that’s worth.
John Rogge died in relative obscurity, in 1981. His obituary was headlined: O. John Rogge, Age 77, Anti-Nazi Activist.
Hart: I think we have to see Rogge as this figure who is very well-intentioned. And I think we also have to see him as really the reason why we know much of this today.
Maddow: That hard to find, largely unread book that John Rogge left us in 1961, Rogge's German report for which he gave up his career, it is the history. It is the record. It is the whole ugly truth from that period.
Hart: He really is the key documentarian, I think, of the extent of this sort of Nazi activity. And so it would've been a great tragedy, I think for historians, had this report simply been classified and stashed away in a government archive somewhere, because it really, even today, sheds astonishing light on what was going on in this period.
Maddow: When John Rogge decided that he was going to break the rules and commit a fireable offense to get the information he had discovered out to the public, he told the Justice Department that he was going to do that. And he told them why.
He said, "Laws will go but a small part of the way toward meeting the fascist threat to American institutions. The case against American fascism will not be decided by courts, by judges and juries. The case against American fascism will have to be decided by the American people. That is where I now propose to take it."
As frustrated as he was as a prosecutor about the limitations of the criminal law in meeting this kind of threat, John Rogge wasn't the only one who did bring news of that threat to the public.
This threat of American fascism in the World War II era, it’s something that couldn't have been left to the Justice Department alone. And so, yes, this is the story of William Power Maloney and John Rogge, and what they tried to do, and what they sacrificed and what they lost.
But it is also the story of individual American citizens who didn’t work for the government, who didn’t work for the Justice Department, but who worked to expose this threat. To confront it however they could. To alert the country to the danger. Even sometimes at great personal risk to themselves.
It's the story of journalists, reporters like Dillard Stokes of "The Washington Post," who dug and dug and faced down threats, and harassment, and lawsuits in order to chase down the details of this story and tell the public what was going on.
Hart: Most of the derogatory information about these people is exposed by journalists and activists because they're the appropriate people to expose it. And I think that's really the importance of journalists especially, is bringing those stories and exposing the views of these people and opening the discussion about what they mean.
Maddow: Reporter Dillard Stokes was called a spy. He was threatened by powerful members of Congress. They threatened him, they threatened his bosses. But Dillard Stokes did his job. He reported what he knew. He would ultimately be honored for his work on this story with one of the most prestigious awards in newspaper journalism.
There were other journalists, too. Like Henry Hoke, he was the guy who first noticed the weird envelope stuffing assembly line that the sedition defendants had formed in the courtroom during the trial.
Henry Hoke was an expert in direct-mail advertising. He saw, before most people recognized it, that something strange and potentially dangerous was going on with members of Congress using the mail to spread Nazi propaganda. Hoke was called himself to testify before the grand jury.
And then during the sedition trial, he published a blistering and very popular exposé, laying out the whole Viereck scandal for the American people in plain English, connecting all the dots.
Hart: He writes an incredibly powerful, I would call it sort of a pamphlet called Black Mail in which he really blows the lid in some ways off the extent of the Viereck congressional scandal -- actually names many of the members of Congress. The Black Mail pamphlet, when it comes out, becomes this sort of explosive source material.
Maddow: Henry Hoke had the expertise to tell that story well and in understandable terms. And when he did, it had a major impact.
HART: Various citizens committees would take out advertising saying, you know, while your son was dying in the war, so and so was still operating with a Nazi agent.
So you can just imagine how powerful this is when people are actually now in the war, they have lost husbands and sons. Now they're being reminded that, gosh, I remember that scandal. I remember that my Congressman was involved with this guy. It's incredibly powerful stuff.
Maddow: And then there was the bestseller. After journalist Arthur Derounian was handed an antisemitic flyer at a subway station one day, he decided he would go undercover to infiltrate American fascist groups.
He spent four years inside these violent ultra-right groups, involved in everything from street violence against American Jews to planning and training for the overthrow of the U.S. government. And then, under an alias, Derounian wrote a tell-all book about what he had seen.
The book was really well-written, it was legitimately shocking, it was full of photographs and original source documents. His book was a smash success. Derounian's book was called “Under Cover , and it was the top-selling book in the United States in 1943.
What he did, what Henry Hoke did, what reporters like Dillard Stokes did was open the eyes of the American people to how extreme the ultra-right had become and what they were planning.
It was also citizen activists.
People like Leon Lewis and his undercover agents in L.A., who infiltrated far right groups, filed detailed reports on them, tipped off the police over and over again -- even when the police didn't care -- until finally they did care.
Lewis and his team also tipped off journalists, they tipped off military intelligence for plots that involved the military, they even used civil lawsuits to try to expose the workings of these groups, to trace their funding, to stop their ability to plan in the shadows.
Ross: Leon Lewis and his men never pick up a weapon, never pick up any kind of gun. They defeat their enemy through brains, through undercover operations that will eventually lead to the dismantling of many of these groups.
Maddow: That’s historian Steven Ross.
While Leon Lewis and his group were at work in Los Angeles foiling the efforts of fascist groups like the Silver Shirts, on the other side of the country, in Boston, it was a woman named Frances Sweeney.
Sweeney was a devout Catholic and an organizer who made it her personal mission to stand up to Father Coughlin’s radical Christian Front militia in her city, which was led by the unprosecuted Nazi agent Francis Moran.
Charles Gallagher: She is adamantly opposed to the Christian Front. She becomes, kind of, the street-level nemesis to Francis P. Moran.
Maddow: That’s historian Charles Gallagher.
While Moran was convening huge antisemitic rallies, and sparking street violence against Jewish Bostonians, and spreading Nazi propaganda, Frances Sweeney dogged him every step of the way, to counteract what he and the Christian Front were trying to do.
Gallagher: Her main motivation is to take down Moran, or at least make his existence miserable in Boston and diminish the influence of the Christian Front. She does this through picketing Christian Front meetings, letters to the editor, kind of coalescing various Boston journalists against the Christian Front. She is very forceful and very successful in moving Moran off the public scene.
Maddow: When you look at what happened to the characters in this crazy part of American history, this confrontation between American fascists and the Americans who were trying to stop them, what emerges is that, yes, the courts have a role, the law has a role, but they're no magic bullet.
To face this kind of a threat, there has to be a John Rogge and a William Power Maloney, but also a Frances Sweeney, a Leon Lewis, Dillard Stokes, Henry Hoke, Drew Pearson, Arthur Derounian. There has to be the Secretary to Ernest Lundeen going to the FBI with her fears about what was going on with her boss. It's the staffer for Hamilton Fish, who had his attack of conscience and turned state's evidence.
It's also the voters, who learned what was going on through the efforts of all those people, who then threw the culprits out of office in Washington.
North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye, who hosted regular strategy sessions in his office for the lawyers for the sedition defendants -- he, at one point, had been seen as presidential material.
Gerald Nye: Saying to them no, no, no and again, no.
Radio Announcer: You have been listening to Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota.
Maddow: But when Nye ran for re-election during the sedition trial in 1944, he lost his seat -- he very nearly lost in the primary, and then in the general election he just got trounced.
Hamilton Fish III -- good old Ham Fish-- he was also soundly beaten in the 1944 election.
Radio Announcer: And over on the House side, Ham Fish of New York winds up a 22-year record.
Maddow: Thanks to a campaign that focused almost exclusively on his Nazi ties, Ham Fish was run out of Congress in 1944 after he’d held that safe seat for over twenty-two years.
And then there was Burton K. Wheeler.
Rogge: Again, my feeling is that I received my notice of dismissal as a result of Burton K. Wheeler.
Maddow: Wheeler was such a powerhouse in the Senate that he was able to throw his weight around to get both Maloney and Rogge fired off the sedition case. He was a towering figure in the Senate. But when Wheeler was up for re-election in 1946, Democrats in Montana threw him out in the primary. They didn't even let him compete to hold his seat in the general election.
Hart: Most shocking of all, Burton K. Wheeler, an absolutely legendary figure in, sort of, Western Democratic politics, loses his seat in the Democratic primary in 1946.
Maddow: Democratic Senator Rush Holt of West Virginia, Illinois Republican Congressman Stephen Day -- both of them had been in lucrative arrangements with Viereck -- both of them were singled out in Rogge's German report as willing collaborators with that Nazi agent. They were both abandoned by their respective political parties, both shoved out of office by voters.
Even Jacob Thorkelson, the Montana Congressman who had worked with Viereck to mail out thousands of copies of a sympathetic interview with Hitler. Thorkelson was such a Germanophile, he had also adopted what was then the German cultural craze of nudism and nudist camps -- in Montana. Thorkelson, too, was voted out of office in favor of a Democrat who challenged voters to choose the New Deal from Roosevelt, over the Nude Deal from Thorkelson.
And yes, the courtroom might have maybe been a more satisfying place for these members of Congress to face consequences for what they had done. But the voters did it instead once they had the information they needed about what those members of Congress had been up to. It’s not jail-time accountability, but it is political accountability.
Radio Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, once more it is my privilege to present to you Father Charles E. Coughlin from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak Michigan.
Maddow: In the aftermath of the sedition trial, Father Charles Coughlin --
Radio Announcer: Immediately following, Father Coughlin will come to the microphone.
Maddow: -- who had by then been taken off the radio by the Catholic Church, he was revealed to have a secret overseas bank account stuffed with what would be about $14 million dollars in today's money. Coughlin became a kind of real estate speculator.
When he died in 1979, he was no longer a man of influence. He was no longer even really a public figure. But he did die rich. Coughlin's man in Boston, Francis Moran -- he ended up a completely forgotten figure.
Gallagher: Moran is leading the charge here. His stage presence is extraordinary. His public speaking ability was off the charts.
Maddow: Historian Charles Gallagher found that after Moran's heyday as a rabble-rousing, antisemitic leader who could spellbind massive rallies, Francis Moran's final mention in the local press before he died was as a crime victim. He’d been working as a cab driver and he'd been held up for all his money -- 14 bucks.
Radio Announcer: George Sylvester Viereck, you remember the man who has been prominent for several years as a Nazi propagandist --
Maddow: George Sylvester Viereck -- the Nazi agent -- he got out of jail after the war in 1947, by which time his wife had not only left him, she had sold all his earthly possessions and donated the proceeds to groups helping Jewish refugees. Viereck’s eldest son -- his namesake, George Sylvester Viereck, Jr. -- had by then been killed in battle, fighting heroically against the Nazis as a U.S. Army corporal. His father was still in jail as a Nazi agent when he received the news.
After he was released, Viereck, Sr. went on to advise the National Renaissance Party, which was the first neo-Nazi party in the United States.
News Announcer: American justice returns a verdict of guilty in the trial of William Dudley Pelley, the Silver Shirts Leader.
Maddow: William Dudley Pelley -- the Silver Shirts Leader -- he eventually faced additional charges of securities fraud because, amid everything else he was up to, he was running a fake stock scheme involving his weird Silver Legion empire. Pelley’s virulently antisemitic writings are still in vogue; they’re still circulating on the far-right today.
Norma Lundeen: I am the widow of Ernest Lundeen, United States Senator from Minnesota, who was killed in an airplane crash --
Maddow: Norma Lundeen, widow of Senator Ernest Lundeen, went on to marry a Senator who had served alongside her husband, an Oregon Republican Senator who had been a senior member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Norma would also go on to give speeches at racist rallies organized by Gerald L.K. Smith. After John Rogge broke up the Huey Long machine in Louisiana, Smith was the protege of Huey Long, who was considered to be his most successful political descendant.
In the 1950s, Gerald L.K. Smith became a pioneer of American Holocaust denial. He preached something called Christian Nationalism
Gerald L.K. Smith: Fight mongrelization and all the attempts being made to force the intermixture of the Black and White races. Preserve America as a Christian nation, being conscious of the fact that there is a highly organized campaign to substitute Jewish tradition for Christian tradition.
Maddow: Gerald L.K. Smith had raised money for the sedition defendants during their trial. He's the guy for whom that one sedition defendant was given leave from the trial, so she could lead antisemitic songs at his rallies while he ran for President on the ticket of the America First Party.
Radio Anchor: Those indicted include such people as Elizabeth Dilling, author of The Red Network --
Maddow: After the trial, Elizabeth Dilling resumed her antisemitic organizing. She became a Holocaust denier. She claimed that President Eisenhower was a secret Jew. She said just as FDR has pushed the "Jew Deal," President Kennedy was pushing the "Jew Frontier." She opposed Barry Goldwater's run for president because his running mate had been a prosecutor at Nuremberg.
Bizarrely, in 2010, then-Fox News Host Glenn Beck tried to revive interest in Elizabeth Dilling, enthusiastically promoting one of her books to his audience.
Senator "Wild Bill" Langer, he was not personally implicated in the Viereck plot in Congress, but he had thrown himself into the work of defending the sedition defendants.
William Langer: As long as I’m in the Senate, I will be in there battling for North Dakota.
Maddow: Langer actually did have a long career in the U.S. Senate. His proposed legislation to deport Black Americans to Africa was later taken up as a rallying cry by the National States' Rights Party -- another early neo-Nazi group, whose members were put on trial for allegedly bombing an Atlanta synagogue in the '50s. Senator Langer went on to advocate -- successfully -- for the U.S. to grant clemency for at least one convicted Nazi war criminal.
As for the America First Committee…
Radio Announcer: In Chicago, the America First Committee was dissolved until the war is over. Officers said it had about a million members, who now are urged to give full support to the government’s war effort.
Maddow: The committee itself folded in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. And the committee’s rich and well-connected founders experienced not much of a hiccup in their establishment credentials.
The name American First, though, has lived on in various iterations since -- from Gerald L.K. Smith's America First Party, which called for the sterilization and deportation of all American Jews, to something called America First Inc. which was set up by sedition trial defendant James True.
You may remember back in Episode 3, the San Diego Police confiscating a bludgeon that was supposedly specially designed for killing Jewish people. James True of America First Inc. had actually filed a patent application for that. He called it -- forgive me – he called it the “kike killer."
That phrase "America First" has since been recently revived. But you know that.
When the sedition trial collapsed at the end of 1944, when the United States won the war and defeated fascism in Europe, in certain ways we just declared victory and moved on.
By necessity, the world needed to be rebuilt. Our whole economy needed to be retooled. There were millions of veterans who were coming home from the war who needed jobs, and education, and housing and care.
And there really was no reckoning at that point about the fascist forces that had been at work in this country, in the lead-up to and during the war -- forces that really did seek to topple democracy and institute authoritarianism here.
Ross: Whenever somebody says it's time to move on, let's heal and move on, that's always a mistake. The idea was that these right-wingers ultimately aren't really a danger to America. After the mistrial in 1945-1946, it would've done this country, I think, real good by saying, you know what, we have known about a left-wing danger in America.
But we have never really openly as a country discussed right-wing danger. We need to hold people responsible. People who call on fellow Americans to pick up arms need to be held accountable. And we have never done that in our history, really for the right-wing.
Maddow: One of the uncomfortable truths that you find in the dark corners of our history is that fascism happens, recurrently. Movements, and demagogues, and media figures and elected officials promote elements of fascism, antisemitism, hatred of minority groups and immigrants, worship of strongman leaders, wishing for the end to elections, the end to rule by law -- it comes up, repeatedly. It has a certain appeal to a certain percentage of the country, in a fairly dependable way.
And seeing that history of recurrence -- in some ways, of course, it's horrifying -- but it can also be instructive and practical.
Because previous generations of Americans have confronted this same type of threat before us. And learning what they did gives us some lessons learned about what works and what might not work.
In a world that is always going to have some William Dudley Pelleys, we know that you can be a Leon Lewis. In a world that's going to have some Francis Morans, you can be a Frances Sweeney.
In a world where the widow of the Nazi-connected Senator is calling up news organizations and berating them, telling them to spike their reporting, don't be the executive who agrees to do it.
In a world where there will always be a Burton Wheeler, who throws his weight around, who leans on the Justice Department and tells them to fire the prosecutor who has him in their sights, don't be the Justice Department official who agrees, who caves, who fires the guy.
It's not just one thing that works. It has to be everything.
If they’re making war on the battlefield, you have to fight them in war and beat them.
If they’re running for office, you have to fight them in elections and beat them.
If they're discrediting electoral politics and trying to make fascism seem like the cooler alternative, you have to defend electoral politics and make fascism seem as stupid and boring as it is.
If they're secretly organizing stuff to terrorize Americans, you need to infiltrate and investigate what they're doing and make that secret stuff public -- preferably in the most embarrassing possible way.
And if they are doing crimes -- they are usually doing crimes -- prosecutors have to charge them. The criminal justice system can’t do it all, but it does have to do its part.
It all has to happen, all at once. There are no silver bullets.
What was required then, in the 1940s, was all of it. It was the plucky, creative, heroic efforts of clever, brave Americans, journalists, activists, lawyers, people of faith, citizens of all stripes who came to democracy’s aid when it needed them the most.
That is what got us through back then.
And now, almost a full century later, we get to learn from what they left us. We inherit their work.
"Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra" has been a production of MSNBC and NBC News. This episode was written by myself, Mike Yarvitz, and Kelsey Desiderio. The series was executive produced by myself and Mike Yarvitz. It was produced by Kelsey Desiderio. Our associate producer is Janmaris Perez.
Fact checking support from Eva Ruth Moravec. 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 a little operation called the Library of Congress which you should maybe look into sometime; you will not be disappointed. With additional sound from CBS News, and also from the great Woody Guthrie.
You can find much more about this series, including the full grilling of O. John Rogge on "Meet the Press" at our website, MSNBC.com/ultra.
Woody Guthrie: Mister Charlie Lindbergh, he flew to old Berlin. Got 'im a big Iron Cross, and he flew right back again, to Washington, Washington.
Mrs. Charlie Lindbergh, she come dressed in red, said: "I'd like to sleep in that pretty White House bed, in Washington, Washington."
Lindy said to Annie: "We'll get there by and by, but we'll have to split the bed up with Wheeler, Clark, and Nye, in Washington, Washington."
Hitler wrote to Lindy, said "Do your very worst." Lindy started an outfit that he called America First, in Washington, Washington.
All around the country, Lindbergh, he did fly. Gasoline was paid for by Hoover, Clark, and Nye, in Washington, Washington.
Lindy said to Hoover: "We'll do the same as France. Make a deal with Hitler, and then we'll get our chance, in Washington, Washington."
Then they had a meetin', and all the Firsters come, come on a-walkin', they come on a-runnin', in Washington, Washington.
Hitler said to Lindy: "Stall 'em all you can. Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan," in Washington, Washington.
Then on a December mornin', the bombs come from Japan. Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men, in Washington, Washington.
So I'm a gonna tell you people: If Hitler's gonna be beat, the common workin' people has got to take the seat, in Washington, Washington.
And I'm gonna tell you workers, 'fore you cash in your checks, they say "America First, " but they mean "America Next!" in Washington, Washington.