Home-grown Terror

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This Christian Front was to be paramilitary, made up of platoons that would constitute a national militia some five million strong. The first Christian Front units assembled clandestinely in New York City in the summer of 1938; over the next year they spread to Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other major cities in the East and Midwest.

They engaged in street violence from the start, their members attacking Jewish-owned businesses and Jews in the streets. And Coughlin warned that that was only the beginning. Whenever the Front organized in a new place, New York activists like William Bishop showed up to tell recruits to train and arm under the guise of sporting or rifle clubs. At a Philadelphia meeting in 1939, Bishop urged members to procure machine guns.

The talk of weapons was more than just bluster. The Front claimed hundreds of supporters in the New York City and New York State police departments alone. Informants reported that the Front was obtaining ammunition from Fort Dix and other Army bases, where it was said to have the sympathy of senior military officers. It maintained a clandestine Revolutionary Council to coordinate military training and plan possible attacks.

The flavor of that underworld is captured in a brilliant exposé, Under Cover , published in 1943 by “John Roy Carlson,” the pseudonym of an Armenian-American journalist named Arthur Derounian. In 1939 Derounian, posing as an anti-Semitic reporter and organizer, undertook to infiltrate ultraright groups. He spent four years under cover testing the scale and seriousness of the militias, and he met many zealots who openly espoused armed conflict. Some boasted about gun-running activities. One said, “Jew hunting is going to be pretty good soon, and we are practicing.” Another predicted “the boys” would “dynamite Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago—paralyze transportation and isolate whole sections of the country…. A bloodbath is the only way out.”

 

Much of their talk was clearly fantastical, but Derounian also watched them in action. He visited the Midtown Sporting Club, in New York City, a cover for members of the Iron Guard, a parallel to the Christian Front. Iron Guard members, who used the Hitler salute, mapped “every arsenal, subway station, power house, police and gasoline station, public building …” to prepare for an armed rising. The club’s leader told Derounian: “I’d like to be able to pick up the paper someday and read ‘Grand Central Station Bombed,’ ‘The White House Blown to Bits,’ or ‘ Queen Mary Sunk at Her Dock.’”

That such threats were taken seriously is suggested by the security provisions made when the King and Queen of England visited America in 1939, a massive mobilization of police and military personnel that seems unremarkable by today’s standards but was astonishing at the time. Every bridge and culvert the royal train passed on its way from Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C., was under constant guard by officers who had been instructed to watch for rail sabotage and “for the throwing of a bomb or hand grenade by someone standing in a crowd or someone passing in an automobile … for someone sniping from a hillside with a rifle or someone in a crowd firing at the trains.” The fear of ultra-right terrorism climaxed in January 1940, when the leaders of the Christian Front were arrested in Brooklyn. Seven men, including Bishop, were charged with running a secret organized militia disguised as a sporting club. Newspapers showed photographs of their cache of weapons and ammunition. The Front was said to be in contact with both the German government and IRA terrorists planning attacks on British targets in North America. In the jittery atmosphere the arrests created, newspapers gave headline coverage to thefts of explosives in several states, suggesting that these might be connected with the radical right, and allegations followed that various accidents at industrial or defense plants had been the work of saboteurs from pro-Nazi groups.

Violent 1930s organizations like the Christian Front grew in a political soil that at first glance seems quite different from that of contemporary America. They could recruit easily from a population impoverished and demoralized by years of Depression, and anti-Semitism was far more widespread and accepted in an age that had yet to experience the Holocaust. But there are close analogies across time. The past two decades, like the thirties, have produced an extremist political culture that sees the American government and social order as so corrupt and dangerous it is the primary threat to the well-being of its citizens. The Coughlinites played particularly on anti-Jewish and pro-Axis sentiment, while the modern extreme right sees a wide range of threats to traditional values and social structure: affirmative action and desegregation; the transformation of the family and the relationship between the sexes; and the decline of old industrial and agricultural areas. In both cases, an especial peril has been that of uncontrolled immigration destroying forever the idealized white America of bygone days; just as the specter of mass Jewish immigration (“refujews”) stirred American anti-Semitism to new heights in 1938 and 1939, so has large-scale Asian and Hispanic immigration inflamed today’s far right. And extremists of both eras have been united in their anxiety over a loss of national sovereignty to international institutions and “one world” movements.